Gram lives in the long shadow cast by his father, the late-hero, Dorian Thornbear. Struggling to find his place in a world where politics and wizardry appear to have replaced the need for men of might and main, he must make his own mark. Trapped within the seemingly safe confines of Castle Cameron, Gram faces both love and tragedy. His choices will define not only himself, but serve to remind others of his family's legacy, and the reason only a fool threatens those a Thornbear protects.
I've worked with Michael Manning in a previous epic fantasy bundle, a compilation of amazing novels called FIERCE: Sixteen Authors Of Fantasy. In FIERCE Michael contributed a different work from his bibliography, this one was a book entitled The Blacksmith's Son. Just as epic as Thornbear with a different protagonist and whole new tale to tell.
Then as now, Michael was one of my star quarterbacks. He kicked off FIERCE as a lead author (second in a bundle of sixteen) and right behind the venerable Mercedes Lackey. The quarterbacks of the bundle hold an enviable yet heavy load. They are the first books that new readers feast their eyes upon and as such – set the tone for how the bundle will be received.
Michael not only held his own but took us down the field to win the game of best-received bundle ever. Readers read his work and came back with stars in their eyes. I have no doubt that Michael's contribution to DRAGONS & DARKNESS, Thornbear, will have that same affect and more. – Terah Edun
"If you're looking for a well-woven story with interesting magic, you can't go wrong with the Mageborn series. Michael G. Manning's sense of pacing is impeccable, and it's easy (sometimes too easy) to lose yourself in the world he's created. He's a natural storyteller particularly talented at creating fun, relatable characters."– K.C. May, Author of the Kinshield Saga
"He seems to understand what makes good fantasy - a delicate balance between world-building, complete with history and cultures, without losing sight of the characters that inhabit it. Manning sweeps the reader from one scene to the next with tight chapters, efficient descriptions, flowing action, and likable characters."– Brian Braden, Underground Book Reviews
I stumbled over Michael Manning's work unexpectedly when I was searching for a new audiobook. I was hooked from the first few pages when Mordecai rescued a drowning horse. That was only the beginning. Manning is an artist, crafting his words carefully to paint amazing pictures and grand adventures that capture the imagination and fire the soul. His books are the best type—those you can't wait to finish, and don't want to end. He now numbers among my favorite authors, alongside the likes of R.A. Salvatore, Peter David, and Marion Zimmer Bradley.– Renee Wiseman, Historian and Writer
Michael G. Manning is one of those guys that is able to make you really connect to his characters and his world. You will cheer, cry, get frustrated, and maybe even shout a few obscenities as you follow his characters through their harrowing journeys. Be warned ye who enter here, there are things much more dangerous than Dragons within.– Brent Lee Markee, Author of the Heritage of the Blood Series
It was a warm day, almost too warm, but for the breeze whistling through the trees as Gram rode through the woods that encircled Castle Cameron. The sunshine was too cheerful for his mood, though, so he sought the darker shade of the forest rather than following more traveled trails or the open glens.
He had brought his bow with him, though he had no real expectation of using it. He had come on a whim, seeking solitude. Without hounds or huntsmen, his chances of spotting game were slim. He merely wanted the quiet that only the forest could provide.
The limbs were low and riding beneath them had become difficult so he dismounted and led his horse, a calm mare named 'Pebble'. Her name was based more on her placid nature than upon her relative size. She was one of the many horses in the Count di' Cameron's stable, but Gram frequently chose her when he decided to ride. She wasn't the fastest of horses, but she was rock steady. Somehow he felt a kinship to her because of that.
Gram stopped. The trees were close and the air still. Despite the bright mid-morning sun, it was almost dark in the dense cover. He gave Pebble's lead a quick loop over a small branch to keep her from wandering. The limb wasn't big enough to give her any trouble if she made a serious attempt to escape, but that wasn't the point. She knew as well as he did how such things worked. With hardly a glance at him she began to crop the sparse grass within reach of the tree.
Reaching across her back Gram pulled his quarterstaff from where it was tied next to his bow. The six-foot rod of solid oak felt comforting in his hands. He had brought it, not from any particular need for protection, but rather as an outlet. Moving a good distance from Pebble, he made note of the trees and limbs around him and took a deep breath.
He shut his eyes and straightened his back, smelling the air as he filled his lungs. Wood and bark, decomposing leaves and musty earth, those were the scents that predominated. They helped him to clear his mind as he held the staff in front of him, one end planted in the dirt while the other pointed toward the sky. In his mind he could see the trees around him, remembering what he had seen before he closed his eyes.
Motionless, he remained that way for an unmeasured time until at last his body felt the moment had come. Without warning he shifted, and the stillness was replaced with a rush of explosive speed. The staff in front of him vanished, disappearing into a blur of grey and brown as his arms acted to guide it around him in a complex play of movement. It passed the low hanging branches without striking them; and while it was a lengthy piece of wood, it never quite struck the saplings that encroached on his space.
Gram danced with the flow of the wood, letting its momentum pull him along. His eyes were no longer closed, but wide instead, taking in all the light around him. He turned and stepped, moving forward and then back, now to one side and then to the other. The quarterstaff never stopped. As he went, it passed over his back and then across his front, coming to rest under one arm here and then rebounding in a reversal of motion.
Gram moved, but the world around him was untouched.
After a time, sweat began to bead on his brow, a result of his focused exertion. A strong wind came up from an unexpected direction, cooling him and bringing new smells; sunshine, clean air, and… leather. It held the acrid tang of leather and sweat, along with a hint of steel.
He stopped, going still. Searching the dim brush around him Gram's eyes found nothing, but he knew someone was there. He saw no one, and heard even less, but the shifting wind had given away the presence of another.
"Who's there?" he called in a clear voice.
"It's just yer adorin' audience," came the answer in sarcastic tones.
The direction the sound came from matched the wind's brief change, but Gram still saw no one. Glancing higher, his sharp eyes finally found a bulky shadow in the limbs above where he had been looking. "I see you now," he announced.
"If ye'd seen me, ye should have left half an hour ago, ye witless prick!" argued the voice. With a sigh of exasperation the shadow unfolded, dropping a leafy bough that had broken up his outline.
As the figure stretched out Gram caught sight of a long limbed bow, sending a momentary surge of adrenaline through him. Was the stranger preparing to shoot? His fear proved unfounded however, as the man's face came into the light, and he recognized him as Chad Grayson, the master huntsman for the Count di' Cameron.
Easing the bow over one shoulder, the hunter climbed easily downward, swinging from the lowest branch to drop lightly to the forest floor. He was in his mid-thirties but moved with the fluidity of a younger man. He gave Gram a sour look. "I been settin' in that damned tree over an hour before you showed up. I'd have had a fat doe by now if ye hadn't come along and started thrashin' about like a wounded goat caught in a briar patch!"
Gram stared at him, replaying the man's colorful language in his head. A wounded goat in… what? He had never spent much time with the older man and wasn't really sure how he should react.
"Begging your pardon, Master Grayson, but you do recognize me don't you?" asked Gram, just to make sure the hunter knew whom he was addressing.
"Of course I do! Ye're Lady Rose's doltish get! My eyes haven't gone, nor yet my memory," spat out the irritated ranger.
Doltish get… Gram rolled the words over in his mind while his blood began to rise. 'Get' was an infrequently used term for offspring and it was typically reserved for livestock in his experience. Being an aristocrat by birth, he wasn't much used to being verbally assaulted, and he had never been exposed to a master of invective such as Chad Grayson. "Did I hear that correctly?" he said, still having trouble believing his ears. "Did you just refer to me as 'Rose's doltish get'?"
The huntsman was already pacing the area, muttering to himself, complaining that the deer would likely change to different trails after Gram's exercise routine. "What? No!" he answered. "I said Lady Rose's doltish get. I hain't forgotten my manners now."
"You'll take that back, scoundrel, else I'll make you eat those words," returned Gram in a low voice.
Chad hadn't even bothered to look at him as he walked. "Scoundrel?" he said, repeating Gram's insult scornfully. "Did ye learn to cuss while suppin' on yer momma's teat? I've heard better from young lads still waitin' to lose their fuzz."
Gram lost it, swinging the staff in a low arc meant to strike the other man's backside. It missed when the older man seemed to stumble and fall forward. Chad recovered and stood back up quickly, turning to look at Gram with innocent eyes. "Did you feel a breeze just now?" he questioned.
"You'll feel more than that if you don't apologize!" snapped Gram, gripping his staff for another swing.
Chad stopped and gave him a chilling stare, glancing down first and letting his gaze travel upward, stopping when he reached Gram's eyes. The hunter was a slender man with a rangy build, but even at just fifteen Gram stood as tall as the hunter and he certainly outweighed him.
"An' you think you're man enough to make me?" asked the hunter.
Gram's blood was boiling, and he answered with his staff, snapping the end forward with blinding speed.
Chad caught it in one palm, the heavy wood landing with a brutal smack against his flesh. Clenching that hand and catching Gram's collar in his other, the lean hunter fell backward and brought one leg up to strike the teenager in his stomach, simultaneously pulling as he kicked upward, he flipped the younger man over to land hard on his back.
Gram never let go of his weapon, even as he twisted, trying to roll over and regain his feet. The huntsman moved around him, holding the other end of the oaken weapon and forcing Gram's arm into an awkward position across his body. Before he could untangle himself, the other man was behind him, pulling the heavy wood upward with both hands until it was close to choking off the young lord's windpipe.
Gram managed to get both hands on the staff, holding the wood away from his throat, but the woodsman had a far better position. Chad had his knee against the younger man's back as he leaned backward, pulling hard on the weapon.
"Just give up and lie still, ye big dope and maybe I won't have to hurt ye!" muttered the hunter.
Furious, Gram refused to give up even though the staff was now pressing hard against his throat. His face turned red as his hands pulled downward, straining against the pressure. With a loud crack the staff broke and Chad fell backward still holding the two pieces.
Gram leapt up and turned, aiming a kick at the older man who had fallen behind him.
Rolling quickly, Chad avoided the blow and caught hold of Gram's ankle with both hands. Holding tightly to prevent another kick, he used his legs to knock the teen's other leg out from under him. The two of them wrestled on the ground for a long minute until the hunter managed to get behind the young lord and slip him into a headlock.
Gram's chin was down, and he was only getting stronger as his rage grew. Pulling at the hunter's wrist with one hand he could feel the older man's arm beginning to give way. I'll crush his bones!
He grew still when he felt cold steel against the back of his neck.
"I suggest you calm yerself down, boy!" grated the hunter.
"You wouldn't dare," said Gram.
"Don't test me, lad," answered Chad, "or I'll leave you cold on the ground. I ain't takin' a beating from some young buck that's still wet behind the ears."
"If you kill me, they'll hang you," suggested Gram.
"Not if they don't ever find your body, an' if I thought for a minute that they would, I'd be gone long before they did. Now, do ye still want to wager yer life?"
Gram was silent for a long moment before replying, "You're a coward for pulling a knife on me."
"Ye think I give a shit? If I recall ye took not one, but two swings at me with that damn big stick o' yours before I was forced to defend meself," answered Chad. "Now make up yer mind. Do I leave you on the ground, or will ye calm down and act like you've got some sense?"
Taking a deep breath, Gram tried to relax. "Alright, you win."
"Ye're not going to change your mind once I let you up?" asked Chad, maintaining his grip.
"You can't really be sure of anything I say while you have a blade to my neck," noted Gram.
"Are ye suggestin' that your word's no good, boy?" said the hunter. "Yer father wouldn't be pleased."
"I'm under duress," said Gram. "But maybe a woodsman like you wouldn't understand honor."
The edge of the blade dug into the nape of his neck, sending a trickle of blood across his shoulder and down his chest. "Careful lad, now's not the time fer insults. I understand fine, but there'd be no ransom or parole if knights couldn't be expected to honor a surrender."
Gram was momentarily perplexed. He hadn't expected the hunter to be aware of the finer points of chivalry. "You plan on ransoming me?"
"Nah, I just want yer word that the fight's over. It's like parole but I don't keep you prisoner we just go our separate ways, and nobody has to get hurt."
The teen let his muscles go limp. "Very well, I surrender. Let me up, and this fight is done, you have my word."
The blade vanished, and the weight on his back disappeared as the hunter released him and stepped away quickly. Gram stood, wiping at the blood on his neck.
"You should still apologize for your lack of respect," he declared, careful to keep his tone neutral.
"Where I come from boys are taught to respect their elders," returned Chad. "An' I don't apologize fer tellin' the truth."
"You insulted me," insisted Gram.
"I called ye someone's doltish get. That ain't an insult boy, it's colorful language, an' what's more—it's true," Chad informed him with a mocking smile.
Gram gritted his teeth, "And what if I said you were a spotted whoreson?"
"I'd say you need to learn to cuss. Even if'n ye knew how, it wouldn't bother me none. A man's got to learn to control his temper. Yer own dear father knew that. He never let words provoke him to a fight, somethin' you'd do well to learn."
A surge of anger made Gram step forward. He wanted to throttle the arrogant hunter, "Don't you dare bring my father into this!"
Grayson leapt back and rolled, pulling his bow up from the ground. Gram felt a light breeze beside his cheek and found himself staring down the shaft of a nocked and drawn arrow. "I done warned ye boy. Threaten me again an' I'll have ta find a new place to live."
Gram stopped and tried again to calm himself. "I won't forget this, villain. That's twice you've threatened to kill me."
Chad relaxed the bow and un-nocked his arrow, putting it back in his quiver. He bent to gather the rest of his kit from the ground and started to leave. "I don't give a damn, boy."
Turning to leave as well, Gram spotted an arrow imbedded in the trunk of a small sapling that had been behind and slightly to the right of his head, causing his eyes to go wide. He hadn't noticed the shot when the hunter had first reclaimed his bow a moment before.
"Keep it boy. Let it be a lesson to ye," came the woodsman's voice, already hidden by the thick forest. "Learn some sense an' mebbe one o' these days we can talk."
Leading Pebble back the way they had come, Gram returned home. By the time he got there, his anger had disappeared, to be replaced by an uneasy feeling of embarrassment and shame.
I'm not fit to bear the Thornbear name. Maybe mother is right, he thought to himself.