The Shadow of Black Wings
A dragon rider on his first overseas adventure. A girl warrior in search of her destiny. A shrine apprentice disturbed by portents of doom. Their fates entwine as an ancient empire stands on the brink of revolution in this steam-powered fantasy set in a mythical Japan.
It is the sixteenth year of Queen Victoria's enlightened rule and the world trembles before the might of her ironclad navy and the dreaded Dragon Corps. The young dragon rider Bran finishes his secondary education and joins his father - a soldier and a spy - on a journey to the mysterious lands of Orient.
|An ancient empire stands on the brink of a civil war.|
His arrival may push it over the edge.
In the empire of Yamato, sealed from the rest of the world for the last two centuries, a wizard's daughter Sato witnesses her father joining an anti-government conspiracy.
Her friend Nagomi, training to be a priestess, is haunted by dark visions that she must keep secret. Neither of them is aware that a change is coming to Yamato... on the wings of a dragon.
A detailed and fast-paced historical fantasy based around the turbulent opening of Japan to the West in the middle of the 19th century, "The Shadow of the Black Wings" is the first volume in "The Year of the Dragon" saga.
The second volume, "The Warrior's Soul", is expected in August.
About the author
James Calbraith is a 34 year old Poland-born writer, foodie and traveller, currently residing in South London.
James Calbraith is a 34 year old Poland-born writer, foodie and traveller, currently residing in South London.
Growing up in communist Poland on a diet of powdered milk, Lord of the Rings and soviet science-fiction, he had his first story published at the ripe age of eight. After years of bouncing around university faculties, he moved to London in 2007, found a decent IT job and started writing in English. His debut historical fantasy novel, "The Shadow of Black Wings", has reached ABNA semi-finals and was published in July 2012. Currently he's working on the second volume in the cycle, "The Warrior's Soul".
His volume of short stories, "Transmission", published on Amazon Kindle in June 2012, has reached the tops of Kindle bestseller lists in USA, UK, France, Germany and Italy.
Contact James Calbraith via the following social media sites:
Unchanging the river flows, and yet the water is never the same.
In the still pools the foam now gathers, now vanishes, never staying for long. So in the world are men and their dwellings. Hōjōki
A single gear whirred and clicked into place. A valve opened, letting out a thin plume of grey steam with a quiet hiss. A gold-plated dial moved by a notch. A tiny mallet sprang from its compartment, striking the brass gong - one, two, three, four, five, six times.
Master Tanaka looked up in surprise - an hour of the Hare already? He turned towards the window and the pink light of dawn illuminated his face. The temple bell only now started to ring out the time. He sighed then yawned, rubbing tired eyes. Another night had passed without him noticing.
The elementals inside the clock awoke with a soft purr and the automatic brush began to move swiftly inside the glass cloche. A slot opened in the mahogany pedestal and spat out a piece of paper upon which was written the day’s divination. Hisashige reached for it absentmindedly, his attention focused on the piece of complex clockwork on which he had been working. He glanced briefly at the calligraphy - Oku, ‘a gift’. He smiled to himself and nodded knowingly.
A higher-pitched chime rang eight times – counting out the hours of the Western reckoning. The door slid open and a small boy entered the workshop. With his long and angular face, puffed lips and wide straight nose, he bore no resemblance to Master Tanaka.
‘It came from Kiyō this morning, Father,’ the boy said, presenting Hisashige with a large, ornately packed wooden box.
‘Excellent!’ the old master exclaimed.
He put the box on the workbench beside the clockwork and began to unwrap it eagerly.
‘Shūhan-sama was supposed to send me some Walcheren glass.’
He stopped abruptly and his shoulders sank when he saw the crest on the box, in golden leaf – three lines in a circle. He lifted the lid without enthusiasm. Inside was what seemed like a small human head, completely bald.
‘Some gift.’ Hisashige looked at the clock with reproach. ‘It’s just another of Zōzan’s broken dolls.’
He took out a small paper envelope containing his fee, and gave it to the boy.
‘Put it in the treasure box later.’
The old master opened a hatch in the top of the doll’s head and studied the complex web of gears, cranks and pulleys for a moment. With one swift twist of his fingers, he snapped a rubber band back onto the hooked lever.
‘Hardly worth the effort,’ he murmured, closing the head and the box. ‘I really need those divinations to be more precise in the new clock.’
‘Is that the new year-plate?’
The boy craned his neck to see over Hisashige’s shoulder to view the mechanism sprawled all over the workbench.
‘Yes. You have a good eye, Daikichi,’ the old master said with a gentle smile.
‘Still can’t get it to work?’
Hisashige shook his white head.
‘Come, I will show you.’
He put the loose screws and gears back into place and lifted the plate gingerly. He moved across the workshop to a tall sculpted cabinet of Western make, and opened the oaken door.
There was another clock inside, similar to the one standing in the corner of the room, but larger and with even more dials, switches and levers.
Hisashige inserted the clockwork plate precisely into its slot and turned the key. The gentle warm hum of the elemental engine filled the cabinet. Steam hissed from the valves.
‘I don’t understand. Everything seems perfect,’ the old master commented as the dials turned to their desired positions, showing exactly the same time and date as was visible on the old clock. ‘I can’t find any fault within the mechanism. The minute hand is even more precise than before. All the Major Trigrams match. But look at that zodiac dial...’
A round ivory plate turned slowly. Pictures of animals, encrusted in black lacquer, appeared in the glass lens one by one – monkey, rooster, dog, boar, mouse, ox...
‘It should stop now,’ said Hisashige, and the boy nodded.
It had been the Year of the Ox for a few months now – water ox, to be precise. But the plate continued to turn inexplicably past the tiger and hare until, at last, it halted.
The black lacquer silhouette of a coiled sleeping dragon glinted mockingly from the lens.
The distance from Llambed to Dinas Bran is computed at seventy miles, as the crow flies. The prevailing wind is north-westerly, steady at fifteen knots along the entire distance. Given an average velocity of an unladen Purple Swift equal to forty knots, and allowing for the pressure pocket of Berwyn Hills... - oof!
Bran bumped into someone and dropped the exercise book to the ground, his notes scattering all over the freshly cut grass. Bran knew who it was just from looking at their feet clad in thick leather boots. Only the Seaxe wore shoes on the sacred meadow of the Scholars’ Grove.
‘Honestly, Toadboy, it’s as if you wanted to be beaten up,’ a familiar vile voice mocked.
Bran looked up and sighed. Wulfhere of Warwick towered above him in his impeccable blue uniform, his sky-blue eyes staring at Bran with a mixture of aversion and disgust.
‘Sorry, Wulf.’ Bran stooped to pick up his papers. ‘I’m in a hurry for the Octagonometry exam...’
‘Pah!’ snorted the flaxen-haired Seaxe. ‘What’s the point? You and your Toad will never pass the Aerobatics.’
‘Its name is Emrys,’ Bran said coldly, ‘and it can outfly any dragon in this school, including your fat thoroughbred.’
Wulfhere tightened his fists, tiny sparks crackling around his knuckles. He glanced towards the red brick arches of the Southern cloister, where the house prefect stood, watchful.
‘Out of my way, serf, you’re lucky I’m not in the mood today,’ the Seaxe scoffed and pushed Bran aside.
The papers scattered again. Gathering his notes, Bran mumbled a Prydain slur, loud enough only for Wulfhere to hear. The Seaxe stopped and turned around slowly.
‘What did you just say?’
Bran looked around helplessly. Nobody was coming to his aid, of course; this wasn’t a fight worth joining in. Somebody was paying attention though. The red-haired Pictish lass, Eithne, stood under a large oak tree with several giggling friends. Their eyes met. He saw pity and embarrassment in hers, and something inside him sank.
She wore the robes of the Geomancers, although Bran knew her dream was to one day become a Derwydd – Druid at Mon Island. The brown-green, plaid cloak suited her auburn hair and green eyes, which were framed in a blue spiral tattoo. They liked each other but never went any further than a few walks under the oak trees and an occasional awkward teenage kiss. In the end their relationship had fizzled out.
He repeated the slur, suddenly feeling brave. Now everyone heard him. Several people stopped curiously, waiting to see what would happen. Bran didn’t care. There were only a few days left until the final tests. Wulfhere could bully him all he wanted now, as long as he left Bran enough time for study. After the exams it would no longer matter…
‘You’ve done it now, Taffy. You’ll have to take your tests in the infirmary!’
The Seaxe grabbed Bran’s neck. With an electric crackle and sizzle, a cloud of painful sparks appeared around Wulfhere’s hand. Bran made no sound, though his eyes welled up. He could not move – one of Wulf’s associates held him in a Binding spell. He could feel the sparks scorch his nerve endings. It felt as if his neck was on fire, but he knew the electricity would leave no marks on the skin.
Wulfhere’s mount was a Highland Azure, a lightning dragon. Each rider could channel some of his dragon’s power in combat, with proper training. The ability to tap into the power of lightning made Wulfhere’s punishments both immensely painful and perfectly undetectable.
Just as Bran felt he could no longer take the pain and would have to cry out for mercy, the provost finally appeared, heading towards them. Wulfhere let go of Bran, who fell to the ground, gasping.
‘I’ll get you next time, Taffy,’ he hissed and shuffled off into the trees.
‘Are you alright?’ the provost asked, reaching his hand out to Bran, ‘did he hurt you?’
‘I’m fine,’ Bran murmured with embarrassment and raised himself slowly. He glanced towards the large oak tree. The girl was nowhere to be seen. Sighing, he retrieved his papers from the grass for the third time and headed towards the dormitory cloister.
He tugged both sets of reins sharply and leaned back. The dragon pulled up and rolled on its back in a tight half-loop. Ground whizzed past the top of Bran’s head. He jerked the top leeward rein. A leather strap fastened to the base of one of the dragon’s horns tightened, and the mount turned upright. With one beat of its leathery wings it caught a strong waft of the Ninth Wind and its flight stabilised. Bran breathed out.
The series of manoeuvres finished, Bran brushed an unruly fringe of black hair out of his bright green eyes and bade his mount swoop down towards the target range. The dragon needed no guidance here. They had been practising on the range for two years and both knew exactly what to do. The beast turned confidently towards the first objective, a large bale of straw. The dragon’s neck stretched in a straight line, its jaws opened.
It coughed to no effect as the target dashed past. Shaking its head, the beast turned around to try again. Again it merely coughed and spluttered with great effort. A thin plume of smoke puffed from the dragon’s nostrils.
‘What’s wrong, Emrys?’ Bran asked, distraught.
The dragon whimpered. It could not breathe fire. The boy quickly recognised the symptoms and the acrid smell of the dragon’s breath. Somebody had fed it Iceberry water.
Only one person was capable of such a cruel prank on the day of the exam; but there was no time to think of vengeance. Seconds were running out, the teachers below were no doubt already frowning at his lack of performance. Not one of the targets had, as yet, been set on fire.
Fire… He didn’t need Emrys’ breath. He could channel the power of flame himself. It would have far shorter range and energy, but it could still work…
Bran focused on the Farlink. The mental connection enabled him to steer the dragon with much greater precision than reins and spurs. The beast, following his unspoken orders, dived once more towards the bale of straw. He only had a split second as the mount sped past the target, whooshing a few feet above the grass at a dazzling speed. He reached out with his fingers.
‘Rhew!’ he cried in Old Prydain, his chosen spell-tongue.
A blazing bluish spark of dragon fire shot from his fingers. Its tip reached the straw and the bale burst into flames. Elated, he repeated the exercise with the next target, a wooden horse, then with yet another and another, five more times in total. With each objective destroyed his exhaustion grew. Repeatedly channelling the dragon flame drained his energy immensely. At last he managed to land before the teachers’ observation tower, panting, sweating, too tired to even dismount. Struggling to keep his eyes open, he listened to the Master of Aerobatics assessing his trial.
‘That was certainly… unorthodox,’ the teacher said, coughing nervously, ‘but you did hit all your targets in time, so I have no choice but to pass you.’
Bran sighed deeply and closed his eyes. All thought of revenge on Wulf disappeared from his mind. It didn’t matter anymore, he had passed his final exam - he was out of the wretched place at last.
Bran’s fingers played with a fiery-coloured tassel on the grip of his heavy cavalry backsword, a proud, solid pattern tested in the Mad King’s wars. He regarded his weapon. The single-edged blade was broad and slightly curved, three feet long, with rows of runes running along a deep fuller. The quillon was curved in the shape of a rampant dragon, the brass mountings and circular guard ornamented in the form of claws, flames and leathery wings. The wyvern-hide grip culminated in a pommel sculpted into a dragon’s head. Anyone looking at the sword would have little doubt as to its owner’s profession.
He sat among thirty other similarly armed boys and girls, all excited and relieved at the same time, all wearing the uniforms of the dragon cadet corps, steel blue with golden stripes. They hailed from all over the Dracaland Empire. Most of them were Prydain, like Bran, with black hair, Roman noses and olive complexion, or the golden-haired, blue-eyed Seaxe from beyond the Dyke. A few black-eyed Cruthin from Ériu across the sea and tattooed Picts from the northern realm of Alba were keeping to themselves at the back.
The headmaster was nearing the end of his speech. Short and impish, he had to use an ornate mahogany step to reach over the pulpit. His long red beard was forked neatly and tucked under a gem-studded belt. Wind tore on the bushy tufts of his hair – there was no roof above the ruined keep inside which they had all gathered. The headmaster was a Corrie, a member of an ageless race of wrinkly-faced, red-haired dwarves living among the dales and lakes of Rheged in the north. Long pointed ears gave him a mischievous appearance, belying his position and importance.
The headmaster finished the main part of his speech, waited until the din of whispers quietened and then held up a sword in a trembling hand. The straight-edged, broad blade was rusted and notched in a few places, although the hilt was new, gleaming gold and encrusted with gems.
‘It was seven hundred and ten years ago that Owain the Wyrmslayer established this illustrious Academia for the purpose of studying the ways and lore of the mighty Beast, soon after defeating the Norse dragons at Crug Mawr with this very sword,’ the headmaster shook the old blade.
He gestured around and Bran’s eyes inadvertently followed towards the familiar thick walls of the Great Auditorium, rising towards the sky like the crooked teeth of a long dead giant. Tapestries of red and white dragons were brought to adorn the cold stones of this vast ancient ruin during the ceremony. The heavy oaken chairs upon which the teachers were sitting recalled the time of the War of Three Thorns and the realm of Harri Two Crowns. Leaves rustled and sparrows chirped on the branches of ancient oak and elm trees growing in a dense circle around the keep. Far in the distance a booming sound of a siren announced lunch break at the local elemental mine.
‘The graduates of the Sixteenth Year of Victoria Alexandrina, the Queen on Dragon Throne! Today you finish your four years at the Academy. The bards will now take my place on this stage to tell tales of past glory much better than I can. Let me just put a final touch on all of you before I release you into this dangerous ever-changing world.’
This was the moment Bran had waited for the whole day – the entire four years since he had first crossed the threshold of the Academy. The headmaster straightened himself, suddenly full of youthful vigour. He raised Owain’s Sword towards the blue sky and whirled it around in a complex pattern. The air sparkled and buzzed with powerful magic, and the fresh scent of ozone spread throughout the auditorium. A flash of radiant light flared above the heads of the gathered, taking the form of a great white eagle hovering in the blue sky. The raptor shrieked and a shower of stars rained down from under its spread wings, each dazzling star landing upon a shoulder of an astonished student.
‘You have all been marked with the Seal of Llambed,’ explained the headmaster after the spell dissipated. ‘Those who know how to look will always see it upon you. Bear it proudly. It is not only a sign of education - it is your talisman, a precious gift. Three times in your life you will be able to call upon its power - and it will deliver you from any danger.’
A murmur spread throughout the keep. For some of the students this was the first time they had heard of the magic mark and its power, but not so for Bran.
‘You will use up your Seal before you know it,’ his father, Dylan, had warned him. ‘Don’t worry, everyone does that. It’s only there to help you through the first years of life as a dragon rider outside the school walls.’
‘When did you use yours for the first time?’ the boy had asked. ‘Was it in a battle?’
He had been only eleven then, just about to enter the Academy.
‘No, nothing as glamorous as that,’ Dylan had replied, chuckling. ‘I was still in the Academy, getting my baccalaureate. I was racing another boy, one of the Warwicks, along the Dyfrdwy Valley and I broke my dragon’s wing under the Great Aqueduct. A hundred feet drop, that is. I had no choice but to call on the White Eagle.’
‘And what happened?’
‘It brought me straight into the Dean’s office!’ Dylan laughed. ‘I got a right telling off for wasting a charge so recklessly. That’s how the Seal works – unexpectedly. You never know where it will take you. Other schools have similar charms, but none are that fidgety – or that powerful. It will save your life, always, one way or another.’
‘Mages of Llambed! Arise!’ the headmaster announced in a strong voice.
The school bard entered the podium to lead the choir, and the crowd erupted into the Academy’s anthem enthusiastically, as startled sparrows took off from the oak trees.
Men of Llambed, on to glory
Victory is hovering o’er ye,
Pride of Prydain stands before ye,
Hear ye not her call?
Rend the skies asunder,
Let the wyrm roar thunder!
Owain’s knights fill world with wonder,
Courage conquers all!
Dean Magnusdottir, head of dracology, a gentle-faced, mousey-haired woman, browsed the piece of parchment unhappily.
‘Bran ap Dylan gan Gwaelod. I can’t say I’m not disappointed,’ she said, tutting and shaking her head, ‘your father was-’
‘The best student this Academy ever had,’ muttered Bran, rolling his eyes. ‘I know, ma’am, but aren’t you being a bit unfair? I did quite well where it matters.’
‘Where it matters, boy? Where it matters? Every single subject in this school matters. You have barely passed the athletics, your history knowledge is non-existent and your alchemy score was the worst in your class.’
Bran looked down, feigning embarrassment, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He had graduated, and nothing else was important right now. He did not wish to spend anymore unnecessary minutes within the college walls.
‘You are a good rider, certainly,’ continued Madam Magnusdottir, calming down. ‘One of our best. Your Farlink quotient is frankly astonishing. That much of Dylan’s blood shows, and you have his magic talent, of course. You could easily take up wizardry as the second faculty. But it takes much more to achieve real success in a dragon rider’s career. In truth, I would rather you stayed in school for four more years. Catch up a bit on the old scientia vulgaris.’
Bran looked up, startled. Stay in school for four more years? That seemed like such a nightmare right now. Besides, usually remaining for a baccalaureate was considered a reward, not punishment for bad grades.
‘Think about it, my boy,’ the dean insisted, ‘you have time until October, hmm? Will you consider?’
‘Er... I will, ma’am.’ Bran hesitated. ‘Will there be anything else, ma’am?’ he asked, reaching for his diploma.
The teacher stalled, still holding the parchment.
‘Son,’ she said, looking earnest, ‘I don’t mean it in a bad way, but - we could get you a better dragon if you remained with us.’
Bran stood up, barely concealing his anger.
‘There is nothing wrong with Emrys!’ he exclaimed. ‘How many more times do I have to prove it to you all?’ He grabbed the diploma from the teacher’s grasp, tearing off a bit in the corner. ‘This is all my father’s doing, isn’t it?’
‘I assure you, your father had nothing – ’
‘I’ve heard quite enough, ma’am.’ Bran raised his hand. ‘I bid you farewell.’
He turned around and stormed outside.