Chapter OneAlmost There
“Are ye sure ye won’t ride all the way into the city?”
Kale hardly heard the farmer’s question as she stood beside his wagonload of barley grain. Her eyes looked over the crude cart she’d traveled in and then turned to the dazzling metropolis across the wide valley. The sun sparkled on Vendela, a city of sheer white walls, shining blue roofs, and golden domes. Many spires and steeples and turrets towered above the city, but in a vast variety of shapes and colors. More than a dozen castles clustered outside the capital, and more palaces were scattered over the landscape
across a wide river.
Seeing Vendela reminded Kale her life had changed forever. Her hand
rose to her chest and rested on the small pouch hidden under her clothes.
I have a destiny.
The thought scared her and pleased her too. After
being a village slave all fourteen years of her life, she’d been freed.
Well, sort of free.
One week ago she’d left River Away, her village of two dozen homes,
a shop, a tavern, and a meetinghouse. In maybe another week, she’d go
through the tall gates of the most beautiful walled city in all of Amara,
quite possibly in the entire civilized world. It would take a week to get used
to the clamor. She could feel it from here.
I’d go mad in my head if I stepped into Vendela tonight.
The city pulsated with thoughts and feelings of more people than she
could count. On market day in River Away, she endured thirty or forty
people close enough for her to feel their lives bumping against the walls of
her inner person. But Vendela…
I might smother. I’ll go slowly into that city. Nobody knows I’m coming. I
don’t have to hurry. A mile or so a day. Slow, till it feels comfortable.
A lot of things worried her. It was easy to say you were glad not to be
a slave any longer. It was hard to walk alone into a place you’d never been
before. Nobody knew or cared about her in Vendela. In River Away, most
everybody cared, even if the caring revolved around whether or not she
“Girl!” The old man’s bark jerked Kale from her thoughts. He scowled
at her. “I’m going right into the city. Ye might as well ride with me.”
“Thank you, Farmer Brigg, but I’d just as soon walk the rest of the
way. I can look at how pretty Vendela is.”
She smiled up at him, feeling some affection for the gruff old man.
She’d ridden the last leg of her journey beside him on the wide wooden
seat. He’d been kind to her, sharing his bread and cheese and stories of all
the wonders in the great city. Nevertheless, Kale would not be rushed into
entering Vendela. She’d do it in her own time.
“Ye’re headed for The Hall, aren’t ye?” His pale blue eyes twinkled
under bushy gray eyebrows.
Kale didn’t answer. To say yes would give away more about herself
than she intended. Not such a good idea, trusting someone outside your
own village, even a grandfatherly, talkative old farmer.
“Well, I see ye’re not going to tell me.” He winked at her and then
looked off at the city, his expression growing grim. “Should ye get in
trouble, go to The Goose and The Gander Tavern, North City. Ask for
Maye. Tell her ye’re a friend of mine, and she’ll help ye if she can.”
“I will,” said Kale, and waved good-bye to the old man before trudging
up the hill, away from the road. She listened to the squeak of the axle
and creak of the wheels but didn’t turn to watch the farmer’s wagon lumber
down the sloping road. Among an hour’s worth of advice, Mistress
Meiger had said to keep her focus on what’s ahead.
Kale sighed. Mistress Meiger knows best.
Lush gorse bushes covered the grassy slope. The hill nestled right
against one of the mountains. Farmer Brigg had known the names of all
the peaks in the Morchain Range. His stories of how these names came to
be fascinated Kale, but it was tales of Vendela that caught her attention.
After all, Vendela would be her home.
Just over the rise, she found a place to settle. She sat with her back to
a gum tree, her bare feet propped up on a stone outcropping. She rested
her arms on knees pulled up to her chin and her chin on her folded arms.
Then Kale took a long peaceful breath of the hot summer air and allowed
herself the luxury of gazing at beautiful Vendela. The twisting spires and
floating spheres were beyond anything she had imagined. The whole scene
looked like a magical picture, clean and bright and full of promise.
Pulling the thong at her neck, Kale drew out a soft scarlet pouch.
She placed it between her hands, gently rubbing the material, enjoying
the satin finish, elated by the secret of the stonelike egg within. The egg
warmed, responding to her excitement. It thrummed. The gentle vibration
communicated joy and anticipation through Kale’s sensitive fingers.
With her eyes back on the city, Kale talked aloud. “In a week we’ll be
going to The Hall. I’ll be a servant of the people then, not a slave. That’s
higher class than I ever dreamed of being. Fancy food, fancy clothes, fancy
She smoothed the silky cloth at her throat with one rough hand. Mistress
Meiger had given her the long blue scarf the night her husband, Chief
Councilman Meiger, told Kale to go to Vendela. The rest of Kale’s homespun
attire reflected her social status. Her trousers had two patches, one at
the knee and one at her seat. She wore a shirt, a tunic, and the blue scarf.
Travel dust covered every inch of her. She’d find a stream and clean up
before entering Vendela.
A new life awaited her in that beautiful city. Not one person in all of
River Away remembered a time when a local had been sent to The Hall.
Master Meiger said to hold the honor tight. Kale held it tight all right, if
only to convince herself she wasn’t scared like a squawking peeper fallen
out of the nest.
Focus on what’s ahead.
“We’ll travel and do Paladin’s bidding.” She grinned at that. “Sounds
pretty high and mighty for the likes of me.”
For a few moments, she stared at the fairy-tale castles surrounding the
walled city. Seven bridges in jewel colors crossed the Pomandando River
on the eastern side. Each bridge led to a towering entrance to the inner city.
“People from each of the seven high races cross those bridges at one
time or another,” she whispered.
The wall in the River Away Tavern had a mural of a brotherhood
marching across a mountain pass. Each of the races was represented.
Crudely drawn, the figures nonetheless looked excited to be adventuring.
Kale imagined a similar procession crossing one of the great bridges.
“Bantam doneels, giant urohms, the elegant emerlindians, fighting mariones,
tumanhofers, swift kimens, and o’rants.” Kale sighed. “O’rants, like
me. Chief Councilman Meiger said he thought I was an o’rant though he’d
never seen one. Another reason for me to go to The Hall, he said.”
She squinted as a large, dark shape swooped over the far mountains
and headed for Vendela. She jumped to her feet and could not keep from
bouncing on her toes as she recognized a Greater Dragon. It circled the
city, a dark silhouette passing in front of the iridescent white towers.
Kale tucked the pouch safely back into her shirt and scrambled up the
steep hillside, hoping for a better view. She stopped and gave a whoop as
she saw two more of the majestic creatures crest the mountains and make
a downward approach to Vendela.
Climbing the sharp incline on her hands and knees now, Kale grabbed
branches and jagged rocks to hoist herself up. She topped the embankment
and rolled over the edge.
Guttural shouts greeted her arrival. Rough, hairy hands grabbed her
arms and legs. A putrid smell filled her nose, and her mouth watered in
revulsion. Her stomach lurched. Grawligs?
Kale had heard tales told in the tavern. Nothing smelled as bad as the
mountain ogres. She saw dark hairy legs, a leather loincloth, tattered cloth
hanging over a barrel chest, fat lips, yellowed teeth, a grossly flabby nose,
and tiny eyes, solidly black. Grawligs!
Two of the mountain ogres flipped her through the air. Her muscles
tightened as she expected to come crashing down among the rocks. Instead,
another grawlig snatched her before she hit the ground, and a screech
ripped from her mouth. A burst of raucous laughter greeted her alarm.
Her captors joyfully sped up their game of toss.
One grawlig claimed her as his prize. He slung her over his shoulder,
his hard muscles smashing into her middle, forcing the air from her lungs.
He gave a hoot of triumph and ran around the crude camp with the others
chasing him. Kale hung upside down with her arms dangling. Her face
bounced into the oily, matted hair on his back.
They’ll kill me! They’ll play with me, then kill me.
The grawlig’s beefy hands tightened on her thighs, and she felt herself
swung in an arc over his head. He jumped and twisted, performing some
kind of ritual dance with the others howling and gyrating around them.
Kale desperately tried to pull in one cleansing breath of air.
“Stupid o’rant. Stupid o’rant.” The ogre’s taunt filled her ears. “We
heard you coming.”
He released Kale and launched her frail body across the clearing toward
the ridge she had climbed. Just before she sailed over the thirty-foot drop,
another grawlig caught her by an arm and the back of her tunic. He swung
her over his head, chanting.
“Stupid o’rant. Stupid o’rant. We heard you coming.”
He changed the angle of the swing. Now her head came within inches
of the ground and then high above the grawlig’s massive skull. Pain roared
within her head with every sweep. On the next swing downward, she
fought darkness closing in around her. She lost.
Into the Mountain
Old leaves, moldy and partially decomposed, softened the ground beneath
Kale. Her nose wrinkled against the musty smell. Her head felt like a
cracked melon, and her eyes refused to open. Her stomach wanted to
heave. The putrid smell of rotting garbage tormented her.
She shifted. A hard lump pressed against her rib cage. The egg! The
rock-hard egg was still intact. Kale tried to sit. Bindings around her wrists
and ankles stopped her. Grawligs!
She remembered the huge hairy grawligs and their rowdy game. She
felt again the helplessness of being tossed from one rough ogre to another.
Terror sickened her. They hadn’t killed her, but she felt that every muscle
in her body had been stomped on.
She slitted her eyes open and peered at her surroundings. Grawligs lay
sprawled around a campfire. Beyond the light cast by burning logs, night
shadows hid the forest. Two females turned spits, roasting what looked like
large deer. A group lounged almost in a pile under trees across the clearing.
They made loud rhythmic noises Kale assumed must be a song.
No one seemed to be interested in the captive trussed up and lying
under a bush. Two grawligs sat just a few feet away as if they’d been set to
guard her. Even they ignored her. They picked over a knee-high pile of
dirty mushrooms, popping them into their drooling mouths, smacking
their lips as they chomped on the treats.
Kale closed her eyes against the sight, hoping to protect her stomach.
The repulsive smell of the grawligs could not be shut out so easily. To distract
herself, she searched her memory for tales of the mountain ogres.
What’s true and what’s fable?
In the stories, they eat anything they catch. Lucky for me, it looks like they
prefer roasted venison to roasted o’rant.
Dumb and vicious. I think I can testify to that much.
Afraid of tight places? Maybe.
Clumsy with their fingers.
Moving her head just enough to look down, Kale examined the cloth
binding her hands together. She wiggled her wrists, and the loose knot
Well, they don’t tie knots very well.
She glanced up at her guards to see if they’d noticed her movements.
They were still bent on stuffing the forest fungi past their flabby lips.
Carefully, she moved her ankles apart an inch, and then back and
forth until she could slip her bare feet out of the binding.
Can I escape?
She watched the two grawligs push dirt-encrusted mushrooms into
their mouths. Their pile dwindled with every minute. Soon they would
have nothing to distract them. Could she crawl away? Would they turn
and catch her? Should she wait until the females declared the roasting deer
done and passed the meat around?
If I wait too long, I’ll probably be dessert.
Kale made her decision. Rolling onto her stomach, she crawled deeper
into the bushes surrounding the camp. The grawligs’ caterwauling covered
the crunch of leaves and twigs under her as she slithered away from the
light. On the other side of low bushes she found herself against boulders,
part of the mountain looming over the smaller hills.
She rose to her hands and knees and crept another ten yards. Then on
her feet, but still nearly doubled over, she followed the jumble of rocks.
Her muscles protested, but she pushed on.
Distance muffled the noisy voices of her captors. Kale breathed more
deeply, begging her body to relax. Surely tension caused as much of her
pain as the injuries inflicted by the grawligs.
A shout went up from the camp, followed by a clamor of voices and
howls from the angry brutes.
Kale quickened her pace, looking over her shoulder, expecting to see
dark, hairy shapes rising out of the forest to chase her. One misplaced foot
slipped into a hole, and she found herself sliding, not away from the rocks
and down the mountainside, but into a narrow opening under a huge
boulder. She grabbed for roots to try and break her fall. Loose dirt rained
down around her as she continued to scrabble, sliding ten feet farther
before landing on a hard rock floor.
The impact jarred her aching body. She clenched her teeth and
squeezed her eyes shut against the pain. Debris still showered on her head.
Instinctively, she lifted her arms to cover her hair.
The last trickle of dirt slowed and then settled. Kale relaxed her jaw
and opened her eyes. Pitch dark surrounded her. She listened and heard
of dripping water somewhere behind her. She shivered. Goosebumps
rose on her arms.
Cold and frightened, she looked around for a means to escape. Peering
upward, she could make out the opening and the starry sky beyond.
A cave. This may be good. Aren’t grawligs afraid of closed-in places? I sure
A scuffling warned her that the grawligs were tramping around in the
forest above her.
Maybe they’ll just pass on by.
She heard branches snap, grunts and low voices, and an excited exclamation.
She’d been found. The heads of three ugly grawligs blocked out
the dim light from above.
They chanted, “Stupid o’rant. Stupid o’rant. We smelled you.”
Kale slumped in a heap, clutching her knees, and leaned against the
cold rock wall. Too tired to think, too tired to fight despair, she allowed
the tears to come.
“Stupid o’rant. Stupid o’rant. We smelled you.”
The chant grew louder as more tormenters joined the first three
grawligs kneeling by the hole. A hairy arm reached down and groped along
the sides of the rock. More dirt, leaves, and twigs fell on Kale’s head.
The young o’rant girl curled tighter, shrinking from the voices above.
Her hand searched for her treasure, pulling it out by the leather cord. She
grasped the smooth cloth of the drawstring pouch. At first the egg inside
lay cold and unresponsive. Gradually, it grew warm. Kale concentrated on
the soft thrum in her hand, blocking out the “stupid o’rant” chant of the
Pain and fatigue, fear and panic drained away. She shifted around to
find a fairly comfortable position on the stony floor. With the pouch
gripped in her hand and pressed against her cheek, she fell asleep.
When she opened her eyes once more, streams of light shone into the
cave at three spots. The first was directly above her. A head covered with
matted brown hair lay partially inside the hole. Kale could see a large hairless
ear and part of the loose lips of the beast. Rough snores rumbled
A beam no more than a hand’s width descended from a second hole
in the ceiling. The third opening on the opposite side of the dismal cave
showed more promise. Not only was the hole big enough for Kale to
wiggle through, but also large boulders like uneven stairsteps made climbing
She stood and stumbled across the uneven cave floor. She looked up
and studied the hole she hoped to use for her escape. Since the ceiling of
the cave sloped upward, it would be a long climb compared to the slide
“I’m thankful that’s not the hole I fell through,” she whispered.
Tucking her treasure inside the neck of her blouse, she started climbing.
She placed each foot carefully and tested each ledge before shifting her
whole weight. She didn’t want to cause a landslide for two reasons: I don’t
want to wake those grawligs, and I don’t want to be buried under a ton of
boulders. I want out of here alive. I want to get to Vendela in one piece.
Warm air touched her hand as she placed it on the next rock. Contrasted
with the chill air surrounding her, it felt like a breath from the
mouth of a huge animal. She pulled her hand back and listened. Faintly
she heard the coarse snores of grawligs and the morning chatter of birds in
the trees outside, an odd combination. Within the cave, only the drip of
water from a far corner reached her ears.
Cautiously, she eased up to peer over the rock. A narrow passage
stretched back into the darkness. Moist air flowed steadily from the opening.
I wonder what’s back there.
Again she tilted her head and listened intently. No sound came
through the tunnel opening, no sound at all. Curiosity niggled at her
What’s in that tunnel? How far back does it go? Why warm air?
She found herself crouched next to the hole and leaning in. She’d have
to crawl on hands and knees. If she had a light of some sort, she could go
in. She put a hand on the floor of the tunnel and placed her head within
What am I doing? I don’t want to go in there. I want to get away from
She drew back as if she’d nearly stepped off a high cliff. Her breathing
came in quick, panicked puffs. Clenching her fists, fighting the urge to
plunge into the tunnel, she remembered Mistress Meiger’s stern face.
Focus on what’s ahead.
Kale stretched a hand up and grabbed a rock ledge. In a minute she’d
be out of the cave.
Still she wanted to turn back and explore the tunnel. The powerful
urge to go through that underground passage scared her. It made no sense.
She climbed the last few feet to the top of the cave with firm determination.
Kale cautiously poked her head and then her shoulders above
the ground. Squinting in the bright morning sun, she considered the
bushes around the rocks where she had fallen into the cave. Her present
outlook was higher and a good twenty feet west of the sprawled grawligs.
Not all of them had fallen asleep around the hole. That meant some were
out of sight.
Awake or asleep? And how many?
As near as she could count, eleven uncouth ogres lay in piles in and
around the bushes. Last night dozens of grawligs had gathered in the
Where are the others?
She surveyed the surrounding area, first the low ground ahead. Then
she turned and peered above her. The best route of escape lay over the
rocks going west.
At least that looks like the best way.
She looked again at the beasts below. The grawligs might sleep for
some time. They had feasted late and probably guzzled brillum, a brewed
ale that none of the seven high races would consume.
Five, maybe ten minutes, and I’ll be in and out of that tunnel.
She slipped back into the cave and into the stone burrow before she
could think twice about what she planned to do.
Thick, moist air settled on her skin as she groped her way in the dark.
A sweet fragrance grew heavier as she moved farther and farther away from
the cave. The dark, the smell, the damp, all screamed danger in her mind.
Her arms and legs kept moving. She argued with herself, trying to force
her body to back up and leave both the tunnel and the cave. None of her
words, muttered softly in the cloying atmosphere, reached her ears.
she realized with a groan. She could not resist whatever
pulled her into depths of darkness.
Trembling, she hoped fear would cause her to collapse.
Then I’d stop. Then I couldn’t go one bit farther.
But I probably couldn’t scoot backward either.
I’d be stuck. Stuck until I die.
Excerpted from DragonSpell by Donita K. Paul. Copyright © 2004 by Donita K. Paul. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.