Chapter One – A Violent and Monstrous End
Joss stared at the tyrannosaur. The tyrannosaur stared back. And then it began to move. It wasn’t fast at first. But steps quickly became strides, and strides soon turned into a gallop. Feet fell like thunder, making pebbles jump and sending salamanders skittering away. Exhaling a shaky breath, Joss tried to remain calm even as his mount bucked nervously.
‘Steady, Azof,’ he whispered to his raptor, running a hand through the dark blue feathers that lined the back of the thunder lizard’s head. ‘Steady.’
The common wisdom was that you didn’t run the Gauntlet with a mount any younger than five, for fear that the untested animal would bolt. Azof was only two years old, but then Joss himself was only fifteen. The ‘common wisdom’ would say that he was too young to be doing this as well. And with the King of the Thunder Lizards bearing down on him, its chin dripping with drool, he had to admit that maybe common wisdom was right.
What had he been thinking in coming here? What had possessed him to put himself in this position? Years spent wrangling stegosaurs and triceratopses paled now in comparison to this beast. The smooth red rock of the canyon only made the tyrannosaur’s green scales look craggier, more monstrous. Its teeth flashed behind its lips, shiny and sharp. Joss wondered what it would feel like to be caught between those thick fangs, and the thought made him want to run.
But there was nowhere to flee in these tight confines. If he were to turn and gallop away, the tyrannosaur would only give chase. There were no caves to hide in, no higher ground to which he could escape. Never before in his life had he considered running, and now that he wanted to he had no choice but to stand his ground.
Reaching to his belt, he unclipped the buckle on the first of his two bolas. He pulled the throwing weapon free and felt the leather cord tighten in his grip, the weights hanging heavy. Never looking away from the tyrannosaur, he started to swing the bola over his head.
The cords whipped like the blades of a fan, growing louder as Joss increased his speed. The three polished weights, shaped like cannon balls, were nothing more than a grey blur humming above him. They were already making his arm ache, while the tyrannosaur was so close now that Joss could smell it. It stank of saliva and raw meat, red dirt and rain.
Holding his breath, Joss sent the bola flying. And as the weapon glided towards its target, Joss did something that he hadn’t done since he was a small child. He prayed. But he didn’t pray to the Sleeping King, as other citizens of Ai would. Instead, he prayed to his father and he prayed to his mother. He prayed that his aim was true, that his bola wouldn’t snap, and that the foolhardiness he’d shown this morning wouldn’t prove to be the end of him.
Chapter Two – A Will of Stone
Sur Wallace was sick again. Not with a pox or a fever or a broken bone. It was a self-inflicted sickness. The kind of sickness found only at the bottom of a bottle, which sat empty beside the old paladero as he lay snoring on the floor of his tent.
Poor Edgar, Joss thought as he nudged Sur Wallace with the tip of his boot. What a waste. The paladero snorted and waved the annoyance away, but didn’t stir beyond that. Not for the first time, Joss thought how lucky he was that he didn’t have to be prentice to this broken-down man. Though Sur Verity had her faults, shirking her duties was not one of them.
As if sensing his thoughts, Sur Verity called to him from outside the tent.
‘Josiah? Are you in there?’ The flap opened and in she peered, her one good eye gleaming like a spear point. When she caught sight of Sur Wallace, the spear point sharpened. ‘What sad tale is unfolding here?’ she asked, stepping into the tent.
She was dressed in the lightweight navy armour that Joss had helped her into earlier, under which she wore a doublet of plateosaur-skin leather, while her belt was laden with two blades. The longer of the two was her song sword, which all true paladeros carried and which doubled as both a weapon and an instrument to herd thunder lizards. But only one paladero carried the Champion’s Blade, the ceremonial sword that was bestowed upon the winner of the Gauntlet. That paladero was known as the Blade Keeper, and Sur Verity had held that position for six years running now.
Joss wondered if she was at all nervous at the prospect of defending her title. If so, she wasn’t showing it in the slightest. In fact, with her armour shining and her hand wrapped tight around the hilt of her song sword, she looked fierce and ready for battle. Unlike Sur Wallace. Edgar hadn’t been able to get him into much besides a pair of pants and the steel collar of his gorget, which now weighed him down like an anchor.
‘Wolfsbane! Good to see ya!’ Wallace beamed through droopy eyelids. ‘Take a … hff! … take a load off, what say?’
The old paladero rolled onto his knees in an attempt to stand, but the effort proved too much. Like a turtle tipping onto its shell, Sur Wallace slid back to the floor and fell into a snoring slumber.
Sur Verity, frowning around her eye patch, turned to Joss. ‘Where’s his prentice?’
‘Edgar’s fetching coffee,’ he replied. ‘I said I’d help the good sur in strapping on the last of his armour … seeing as you had no more need of me and all.’
‘Clear as smokeless sky that armour will be of no use to the “good sur” today,’ Sur Verity huffed, poking Wallace with her steel-toed boot the same way that Joss had. This time, Wallace didn’t even flinch. ‘You’ll have to run and tell the judges that Sur Wallace has taken ill and will have to forfeit his place in the Gauntlet.’
Spitting a gob of saliva on the rug, Sur Verity pushed her way back out through the tent flap. Joss followed her, still clutching Sur Wallace’s chestplate. Outside, her raptor Levina was waiting. She was a magnificent creature with violet scales, purple feathers, green eyes and little yellow fangs. The animal was nearly twice Joss’s height, though she looked even taller as she held her nose up to sniff the air.
‘But if Sur Wallace forfeits, he’ll risk losing all his sponsors,’ Joss said as he hastened after Sur Verity.
‘An unfortunate consequence of his actions today,’ she replied, never breaking stride.
‘But what about his prentice?’ Joss began, hoping he could make her see the unfairness of it all. ‘Edgar –’
Sur Verity snorted. ‘I don’t have time for this now. Sur Wallace’s problems are for Sur Wallace to worry about. Understood?’ she snapped, and Joss fell silent. Sur Verity did not continue conversations once she felt a topic had been dealt with. You’d be better off trying to catch a pterosaur with a butterfly net.
‘Go on now, Josiah,’ she said as she took to her saddle. ‘I’ll see you when the day is won.’
‘Good luck,’ Joss muttered. Even if she wouldn’t listen to him, he was still her prentice. He couldn’t wish her anything less.
‘Luck?’ she sniffed. ‘Luck is muck. I make my own.’
Pulling on the reins she held, she urged the raptor into a gallop, while the crowds that filled the stadium grounds parted before her.
‘May the Sleeping King favour you, Sur Verity!’ one portly bystander exclaimed as she passed.
‘Got money riding on you today, Blade Keeper! Don’t let me down!’ shouted another.
‘Wolfsbane! Show ’em how it’s done!’
Joss watched her go, his stomach coiling tight as he heard feet squelching hurriedly through the mud behind him. He turned to see his fellow prentice Edgar, his hood drawn up to protect his powdery pink skin from the sun, a silver canister in his hand.
‘I got the coffee!’ he panted, his breath whistling through the chip in his front tooth. ‘That wasn’t Sur Verity, was it? Did she see Sur Wallace?’
‘Afraid so,’ Joss replied to Edgar’s visible dismay. ‘He’s finally done it. Wallace has diced with disaster for the last time, and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m sorry, Edgar …’
‘Cussing muck!’ the young prentice cursed, moving to throw the coffee canister away and then thinking better of it. ‘If only I’d woken up earlier, I could have –’
‘Could have what? Saved him from himself?’
‘No. Yes. I don’t know. I could have done something.’ Edgar sagged in defeat.
Though he’d known Edgar for nearly a year, Joss had never seen him look so lost. In that time, Edgar had proven himself to be as competent as he was kind-hearted. Joss couldn’t bear to think of what might happen to him if Sur Wallace didn’t compete today. Joss himself had been at Round Shield Ranch for five years now – long enough to be eligible as a paladero, if only he were old enough – and over that time he’d seen half-a-dozen prentices take the blame for Sur Wallace’s mistakes. Not one of them remained, and the injustice of that was enough to set Joss’s will to stone.
‘You haven’t spoken to the officials about Sur Wallace yet, have you?’ he asked, a daring notion forming in his head.
‘No. Why?’ Edgar said, puzzled.
Spinning on the heel of his boot, Joss trudged through the campground towards the supply tent that he and the other prentices had set up three days ago, on the first morning of the Tournament.
The tent was striped in the red and silver of Round Shield Ranch, and would have been impressive if it wasn’t squeezed between the two massive marquees that belonged to Zadkille Station. Passing by the black and purple Zadkille banners, Joss checked that nobody was watching before slipping inside the Round Shield Ranch tent.
‘What are you doing?’ Edgar hissed, stumbling in behind him. ‘We’re not meant to be in here without a paladero’s permission, you know that.’
‘It’s a paladero’s poor choices that have you in your current predicament. And that ain’t right,’ Joss said, hefting Sur Wallace’s chestplate onto a nearby bureau before reaching into his pocket to remove an ornate key.
‘That’s not –! You didn’t, did you? Joss, how did you get the key to the armoury?’
‘Sur Verity gave it to me when we were setting up. I just never gave it back. But best not ask too many questions, Edgar,’ Joss replied as he crossed the tent to the collection of locked cabinets that held Round Shield Ranch’s armaments. ‘You’ll be getting asked a lot of them yourself, if this doesn’t play right. None of which you’ll want to be able to answer.’
‘Why? What are you planning on doing?’
Joss stood in front of the largest cabinet and ran his fingers over the lock. ‘All that’s needed to avoid calamity is to have Sur Wallace run the Gauntlet. He doesn’t have to win. He just has to show up, ride around and keep his sponsors happy. So that’s exactly what he’s going to do.’
‘That doesn’t mean what I think it does … does it?’ Edgar asked, and when Joss didn’t reply he added, ‘You can’t. If anyone’s going to put their neck on the line, it should be me.’
‘No offence meant, Edgar, but you don’t exactly have the size for it –’
‘I’m only two years younger than you!’
‘And nearly a foot shorter,’ Joss said as gently as he could. ‘Trust me. If this is going to work at all, then it has to be me.’