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John D. Payne writes fantasy, sci-fi, and literary fiction. The Crown and the Dragon is his debut novel, but he has also published short fiction. He lives near Houston, Texas, with his wife and son and shelves full of books.

The Crown and the Dragon by John D. Payne

In a country ruled by an occupying foreign empire, Elenn, an arrogant young noblewoman, accompanies her aunt on a mission to bring an ancient relic to the secret coronation of the rightful king of their people. When her aunt is murdered on the road by passing soldiers, Elenn hires a smuggler and criminal, Aedin, to escort her across the dangerous country so she can take her aunt's place at the coronation. But when Corvus, a rogue magister of the empire, employs a dark magic to retrieve the ancient relic for his own evil designs, Elenn must find the humility and strength within herself to fulfill her aunt's calling to unite her people before the power of the relic falls into the hands of the empire.

CURATOR'S NOTE

John Payne is one of our writing students from the Superstars Writing Seminar, and he had an unusual opportunity to write the novel for a forthcoming fantasy movie, The Crown and the Dragon, but the studio had not allowed anywhere close to enough time to produce and release a book before the movie came out. At least from a traditional publisher…and we're a lot faster. John is ambitious and talented, and WordFire was tickled to be the publisher of a movie novelization, with our imprint listed on the movie posters and the credits and everything! Well, it turned out that the "major motion picture" was more of a direct to DVD release, and ooops they forgot to mention us on the poster. But John was really proud of his book, and eventually got the rights back, so this is his own book now. You can find the movie online and streaming services…but read the book instead! – Kevin J. Anderson

 

REVIEWS

  • "[F]ast-paced epic fantasy . . . If you're looking for the action and adventure of the Game of Thrones and don't want the blood and the nihilism, The Crown and the Dragon may be just the book for you."

    – David J. Butler
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

Elenn of Adair sat in a high-backed wooden chair in a cavernous room filled with books. Sister Remembrance said the Order had the largest collection in Deira, which they protected behind the immense stone walls of the Fortress of the Leode. Even the dragon hadn't attacked it, although it ravaged the countryside from Tantillion to Lough Aislinn.

"It was spoken by our Elders," said Sister Remembrance, pacing in the center of the room, "that a darkness would come." She wore the plain, dark robes of her Institute—a sharp contrast to Elenn's own coral-pink silk nightgown.

Elenn was here because of Sister Remembrance, who had pulled her out of bed for a discourse on dreams, prophecies, and history. Elenn had not yet discerned the purpose of this lecture, but she knew better than to ask. Or to yawn.

"A shadow that would turn brother against brother," continued Sister Remembrance, her hands clasped behind her back. "A scourge of fire and steel."

The Leodrine Sister was an imposing figure, tall and strong, just entering her middle years. The hair escaping from underneath her tight cap was still strawberry-blond, very nearly the same color as Elenn's own mane. She might be considered beautiful if she wasn't always so stern.

Sister Remembrance was also the reason that Elenn was in the Leode itself. The Sister had been visiting Elenn's family for as long as she could remember, spending a few weeks each winter to tutor Elenn. Elenn's mother had told her on her deathbed to travel to the Fortress and place herself under Remembrance's guardianship until she reached the age of inheritance.

She had also given Elenn a ring, the cool weight of which Elenn could feel hanging from a fine chain around her neck. It had been her sister's—a gift from her betrothed before he died in battle. Maiwenn had died of grief not long after, and their mother had worn this ring to remember her. "Our sorrows are part of who we are," mother had said. "We are stronger when we embrace them, not weaker." Touching that ring, Elenn couldn't help but think that sorrows were all of who they were in this family. Chiding herself immediately for the maudlin self-pity, she pushed down her welling tears and sat on her hands.

Thankfully, Remembrance was searching the shelves and had noticed nothing. Turning the yellowing pages of a worn leather book, she stopped with a nod and handed it to Elenn. An elaborate illumination at the top of the page showed flaming red eyes and nostrils in a swirl of smoke.

"A plague of fear," Remembrance said, "in the form of a dragon."

On the next page was a large picture of a clawed serpent burning a castle full of little men dressed in antique armor. Some were painted fleeing, some fighting, some aflame and writhing in pain. The dragon dwarfed them all.

"The real dragon has wings," Elenn observed.

Sister Remembrance frowned slightly, her eyebrows coming together. It made Elenn feel like a child about to be switched.

"Sorry, Sister," said Elenn hurriedly.

"There is no need to apologize," Remembrance said. "You are correct. It has wings–which my own observations indicate grow nearly six inches each year."

Elenn's parents had told her that Sister Remembrance was very learned, and that to have her as a tutor was a great privilege. Elenn didn't know if the Sister had really been everywhere or seen everything that she claimed, but she certainly seemed to know something about everything.

"So," said Elenn, "why is the dragon not painted with wings?"

"Because," Remembrance said, "this book is a hundred and forty years old, and the dragon has been with us less than twenty."

"But the Elders see what is to come," said Elenn. "How could they get the picture wrong?"

"The world of spirit, the Glyderinge, is difficult to enter from the world of flesh," said the Sister. "Our patron Gods permit only the wisest Elders to journey there, and only in dreams. When they awake, the vision slips away from them and they remember little."

Elenn knew the feeling. She sometimes had dreams so vivid she could almost believe she had entered another world. Yet a few moments after waking they were gone, with nothing more than vague memories of light and heat and a sensation like flying.

Remembrance frowned. "Have you been recording your dreams, as I instructed you?"

"Yes," said Elenn quickly.

The Sister raised one eyebrow.

"Whenever I remember," Elenn amended.

"Sisters in this very fortress sit, even now, with our Elders," Remembrance said, staring down at Elenn, "with pen and ink, waiting for them to speak. Every word they utter while in the Glyderinge is recorded."

Elenn wanted to roll her eyes. But her mother had said to heed Sister Remembrance.

"When I get back to my chambers," said Elenn, "I will set out writing materials."

Remembrance nodded, satisfied. "When I was an acolyte, I once sat vigil with Enid herself. Many of her prophecies are recorded… here." Her fingers danced gracefully along the bookshelves before selecting another book and handing it to Elenn. "Study it."

"Thank you, Sister," said Elenn, politely. Despite, or perhaps because of, her own nocturnal visions, she doubted Enid's mutterings had any supernatural provenance. But she was curious. "What sorts of things do the Elders say?" asked Elenn.

"Truth," said Remembrance, emphatically. "Every word their bodies speak while their spirits wander the Glyderinge is true."

Elenn nodded, silently wondering why the Elders had not revealed how the dragon might be vanquished. Or the Vitalion.

"Their words are not always easy to understand, though," said the Sister, perceiving her unspoken doubts. "Like pieces of a puzzle, we must fit them together properly."

"How?" asked Elenn.

Sister Remembrance gave a weary sigh. "Sometimes," she said, "we can only put them together after living through what the Elders have seen." She opened another book. "Consider these utterances, spoken at different times by different Elders." Her finger pointed to a single verse on the brightly illustrated page.

"'Endless snake, the legion breaks the people,'" Elenn read aloud. "Almost sounds like the Vitalion."

"Yes," Remembrance said. "The meaning is apparent to us now because the prophecy has come to pass. Those of us who were there, who saw with our own eyes the black days of the invasion—we understand. We remember." She got a faraway look in her eyes. "Clothed in scale armor they came, the legions of the Vitalion Empire. An endless parade of soldiers, like one vast, steel serpent."

"Endless snake," Elenn said.

"Precisely," said Sister Remembrance. She turned the page and pointed out another verse.

"'Waves beat the shore like goatskin drums,'" Elenn read again. "Drumney beach, where they came ashore?"

The Sister nodded. "Correct." She continued to turn the book's pages, her fingers indicating other verses for Elenn to read.

"'With the bloom of fire comes steel, and with steel comes the bloom of fire,'" Elenn read. "'His outstretched hand calls for a weapon, but pestilence answers.' 'The beast devours the land's mighty children.' 'Immortality must be unborn; it cannot be quenched.'" She stopped when Remembrance stopped pointing out new verses.

"Our brave warriors were pushing the Vitalion back into the sea," the Sister said. "Then the invaders summoned the very beast of prophecy—the dragon. It is a weapon, a plague, a curse. It destroyed everything—man and beast, hearth and home, even the land itself. On that day, our dreams, our heroes, were swallowed in unquenchable flame."

Sister Remembrance stared with frank hatred at the picture of the dragon. "We can not forget," she said. "We must not forget."

"Is that why you named yourself Remembrance?" asked Elenn.

"Yes," said the Sister.

Elenn leaned forward. "Why did you join the Sisters?"

"To… honor the memory of the dead," said Remembrance.

Elenn reached up to touch the ring that hung around her neck and thought of her mother, honoring the memory of her sister. "But if remembering is so important, why did you abandon your name?"

"Anonymity is the rule of the Order," said the Sister.

"But you wouldn't have to follow the rule if you didn't join the Order," protested Elenn. "So why renounce your old life? Why let the world forget you?"

"Because some things are more important than one woman's miserable life!" said Sister Remembrance hotly.

Elenn shrank back into her chair. She had never seen such fury in the eyes of a Sister, even stern Remembrance. "Forgive me, Sister," she said, meekly folding her hands in her lap.

Remembrance took a deep breath. "No, child. It is I who should ask forgiveness. I should not have let my feelings get the better of me."

"And I should not have let my curiosity get the best of me," said Elenn. "It was wrong of me to pry, and I am sorry."

"Nonsense," said the Sister. "Curiosity is a gateway to knowledge. Never forget it. And never apologize for asking questions."

Elenn nodded, unsure what to say next.

"Frankly, I believe our vaunted anonymity is as much an invitation to inquiry as anything else," said Remembrance as if to herself. "After all, is it not strange to hide one's own name?"

"I suppose it is," said Elenn.

For a moment, the Sister was silent. "My name," she said at last, "was Ethelind Barethon."

"Barethon?" said Elenn. "The house of King Elfraed?"

"Yes," said Ethelind. "And of Ethelward. They were my brothers. When the Vitalion came to this land, Syffred Barethon had three sons and two daughters. Now only I remain."

"But what about the next generation?" asked Elenn.

"You know what happened to Elfraed's son, Aedelred," Ethelind said. "After they put down his rebellion, the Vitalion hunted down all of that line. Likewise Erwyn's brood." She sighed, heavily.

"My sister, Lioba, fled Deira to protect her son," Ethelind continued, "but Garrick returned, and he is rash, foolhardy. He wastes the lives of the men who flock to his banner on reckless raids that would not build a kingdom, even if they succeeded. Garrick will tolerate no advisor, unlike King Elfraed, who had the wise counsel of his brother."

Ethelind smiled fondly. "They were great men, Elfraed and Ethelward. I hope Deira sees their like again someday."

"Maybe Garrick will surprise you," said Elenn. "The House of Barethon might rise again, unite the clans, and cast out the Vitalion and their monster."

Ethelind regarded her thoughtfully, tapping her lips with steepled fingers. "Perhaps," she said. "There is good metal there, if it could be tempered by patience and prudence." She stood, and once again paced the floor.

"I fear that Deira can't depend on great men," Ethelind said. She turned and gazed down at Elenn. "So we women of Barethon must do our part."

"You women of Barethon?" asked Elenn. "But you just said that only you survive. And if you reclaimed your old name the Vitalion would kill you."

"They would if they knew who and where I was," Ethelind agreed. "But they do not. Only three living souls know my secret: myself, the Leodrine Mother, and you. Not even my nephew, Garrick—although we have met." She twisted her mouth wryly. "That is how I know that he will not take counsel."

Elenn stood. "Why did you tell me this?" she asked. "You've put your life in my hands. Why?"

"You are a clever enough girl," said Ethelind. "What do you think?"

"You have been my tutor all my life," said Elenn, "so you know you can trust me."

"True," said Ethelind. "But there is more."

"My lord father and lady mother are dead, because they would not bow to the Vitalion," said Elenn. "Another reason to trust that I would not betray you to them."

"Again true," said Ethelind. "But still not the whole answer."

"Mother made you my guardian," said Elenn, "and since I am your ward, I will go where you go and become an acolyte and learn everything about you. You could not keep this secret from me; I would discover it."

Ethelind laughed. "Possibly. But think harder. Only three people in all the world know the secret of the Barethons, and you are one of them. Why?"

Elenn frowned, and for a long time said nothing. Her delicate hands balled up into fists. She stared at the book in Ethelind's hands.

"Because… I am a Barethon."

"Yes."

"How can this be?"

"Your father was my brother Ethelward," said Ethelind. "He married your mother in secret. They planned to tell her parents, but then he was killed." Ethelind sighed. "It all happened so fast. He never even knew you existed. When he died, your mother did not yet know that she carried you in her womb. She found out on the road home."

"Ethelward Barethon married my mother?" asked Elenn, with difficulty.

"I fear I am introducing more confusion than I am removing," said Ethelind. "Let me speak plainly. Ethelward did not marry Kaiteryn Adair, because Kaiteryn Adair was not your mother. He married Maiwenn. Maiwenn was your mother."

"Maiwenn?" gasped Elenn, her eyes full of tears. "My sister Maiwenn?" The gold ring was in her hand, clutched to her chest.

"Yes," said Ethelind. "Maiwenn, who called herself your sister, bore you."

"But she died when I was little! I never knew." The ring was cutting into the flesh of her fingers, but she could not relax her grip. "Now I have no one!"

Ethelind gathered Elenn into a fierce embrace and held her while she wept. "You have me," she said. "You will always have me."

Ethelind held Elenn tight and stroked her long, red-blond hair gently. After long minutes, the sobs slowed and then ceased. Elenn pulled away from Ethelind. Her eyes were red and puffy, but determined.

"Why didn't you tell me before?" Elenn asked. "Why didn't anyone tell me?"

"Because your grandparents and your mother wanted to protect you," said Ethelind. "They feared what would happen if it were known that you were Ethelward Barethon's child."

"I would have kept the secret!" said Elenn. "They should have trusted me."

"Perhaps you are right," said Ethelind. "You should know that they always planned to tell you, as soon as they thought you were old enough to understand. To Mathis, this meant your tenth birthday. But—" She hesitated.

"Yes," said Elenn. The Vitalion had killed her father when she was nine.

Ethelind hugged her again. "My poor dear."

"So why didn't Mother tell me?" Elenn asked.

"After Mathis was slain," said Ethelind, "Kaiteryn became fearful. She wanted to wait until you were approaching the age of inheritance."

"That's three years from now!" Elenn cried. "That's ridiculous! I am almost eighteen! I am old enough to know who I am and who my parents are!" She balled up her fists to keep her hands from trembling.

"Do not blame them," said Ethelind, softly. Your grandparents were fine people. Their passing is a loss for all of Deira."

Elenn looked away and said nothing.

"You and I can mourn them together," said Ethelind gently. "And your parents as well. We can also honor them by working to free Deira from the Vitalion enemy."

"How?" asked Elenn. "There are just two of us, and they have whole armies full of men with swords. And the dragon."

"Men with swords have their uses," said Ethelind, "but there are foes they cannot defeat, which you and I must face. Keen wits, and patience, will be better arms for us than swords."

"That's not an answer," said Elenn.

Ethelind said nothing, gazing into Elenn's eyes. Elenn felt like she was a piglet being weighed at the market. She tried not to blink. She kept her chin up and stared right back, as her mother had told her she must do when someone stared at her.

As her grandmother had told her, Elenn corrected herself.

At last, Ethelind grunted, and nodded slightly. Then she picked up the book of prophecy again.

"Our people cling to the edge of the abyss," said Ethelind, as she turned the pages. "But they have one hope: that a hero will rise up and deliver Deira, as our Elders have said." Stopping on a page, she passed the book to Elenn, and pointed with her finger to a particular verse.

Elenn took the book and read, "'Born of light, the Paladin makes war with the abyss; to crown a dragon, to kill a dragon.'"

"Exactly," said Ethelind. She smiled in grim satisfaction and took back the book.

"That's still not an answer," said Elenn.

"It's all the answer you will get tonight," said Ethelind. "Return to your chambers. We will speak more tomorrow."