The Dragon Lords: Fool's Gold


By Jon Hollins

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Guardians of the Galaxy meets TheHobbit in this rollicking fantasy adventure.

It’s not easy to live in a world ruled by dragons. The taxes are high and their control is complete. But for one group of bold misfits, it’s time to band together and steal back some of that wealth.

No one said they were smart.


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Table of Contents

A Preview of False Idols

A Preview of The City Stained Red

Orbit Newsletter

Copyright Page

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It was a confrontation as old as time. A tale begun back when the Pantheon of old first breathed life into the clay mold of man and set him down upon the earth. It was the tale of the untamable pitted against the master. Of the wild tearing at the walls of the civilized. It was man versus the beast.

Will placed each foot carefully, held his balance low. He circled slowly. Cold mud pulled at his feet. Sweat trickled down the crease between his eyebrows. Inch by inch he closed the distance.

The pig Bessie grunted at him.

"Five shek says she tips him on his arse," said Albor, one of Will's two farmhands. A strip of hairy gut was visible where he rested it upon the sty's rickety old fence. It was, Will had noted, significantly hairier in fact than his chin, which he scratched at constantly. Albor's wife had just departed the nearby village for a monthlong trip to help look after her sister's new baby, and Albor was three days into growing the beard she hated.

"I say it's face first, he lands," said Dunstan, Will's other farmhand. The two men were a study in contrasts. Where Albor's stomach swayed heavily over his gut, Dunstan's broad leather belt was wrapped twice around his waist and still flapped loose beyond the buckle. His narrow face was barely visible behind a thick cloud of facial hair, which his wife loved to excess. She had a tendency to braid sections of it and line it with bows.

"You're on," said Albor, spitting in his muddy palm and holding it out to Dunstan.

Will gave a damn about neither beards nor wives. All he cared about was his father's thrice-cursed prize sow, Bessie. She had been his dancing partner in this sty for almost half an hour now. He was so coated in mud that if he lay upon the sty's floor, he would have been virtually invisible. He briefly considered this as a possible angle of attack, but the pig was as likely to shit on him and call it a good day's work as anything else. There was an uncanny intelligence in her eyes. Still, she was old and he was young. Brute force would win the day.

He closed the distance down by another inch.

Bessie narrowed her eyes.

Another inch.

Bessie squealed and charged. Will lunged, met the charge head-on. His hands slammed down hard against her sides.

Bessie flew through his mud-slick palms and crashed all of her considerable weight into his legs. The world performed a sprawling flip around Will's head, then hit him in the face.

He came up spluttering mud, and was just in time to hear Dunstan say, "That's five shek you owe me then."

Bessie was standing nonchalantly behind him, with an air of almost studied calm.

Will found his resolve hardening. Bessie had to die. With a roar, he launched himself at the pig. She bucked wildly. And yet still one of his hands snagged a bony trotter. He heaved upon it with all his might.

Bessie, however, had lived upon the farm longer than Will. She had survived lean winters, breeched piglets, and several virulent diseases, and was determined to survive him. She did not allow her limb to collapse under Will's weight, advanced years or no. Instead she simply pulled him skidding through the mud. After several laps, he appeared to be done. With her free hoof, she kicked him in the forehead to emphasize the lesson, then walked away.

"I think you almost got her that time," Albor called in what might be generously described as an encouraging tone.

Will did not respond. Personal honor was at stake at this point in the proceedings. Still, there was only so much mud a man could swallow. He clambered to his feet and retreated to consider his options.

Dunstan patted him on the shoulder as he collapsed against the fence. Bessie regarded him balefully.

"She's too strong for me," Will said when he'd gotten his breath back.

"To be fair, you say that about most girls," Albor told him.

"I have to outsmart her."

"That too," Dunstan chipped in.

"Don't usually work, though." Albor chewed a strand of straw sagely.

"This," said Will, his temper fraying, "is not so much helpful advice as much as it is shit swilling in a blocked ditch. That pig has to become crispy rashers and if you have nothing helpful to add you can go back to picking apples in the orchard."

For a short while the only sound was Bessie farting noisily in her corner of the sty.

Above the men, thin clouds swept across a pale blue sky. The distant mountains were a misty purple, almost translucent.

Will softened. None of this was Albor's or Dunstan's fault, even if they did not want to see old Bessie taken to the butcher's block. Deep down—deeper perhaps now than at the start of his ordeal—neither did he. Bessie had been part of this farm as long as he could remember. His father had sat him upon her back and had him ride around the sty, whooping and hollering, while his mother stood clucking her tongue. Dunstan and Albor had been there, cheering him on. Even old Firkin had been there.

But now Will's parents were gone to an early grave, and Firkin had lost his mind. Bessie was old and would not sow anymore. And Will was the unwilling owner of a farm on the brink of ruin.

"Look," he said, voice calmer, "I want Bessie dead no more than you do, but I am out of options. The Consortium increased taxes again, and paying them has left my coffers bare. If I am to have a hope of surviving another year, I need to put her to the knife and sell her pieces for as much as I can get. Next winter she'll be blind and hobbled and it will be a kindness."

Another silence.

"You can't wait a little, Will?" said Albor, straw drooping in the corner of his mouth. "Give her one last good year?"

Will sighed. "If I do, then there won't be anyone to slaughter her. This whole place will be gone to the Consortium and I'll be in a debtors' jail, and you two will be in old Cornwall's tavern without any sheks to pay for his ale."

At that threat, the two farmhands looked at each other. Finally Dunstan shrugged. "I never liked that fucking pig anyway."

Albor echoed his sad smile.

"That's more like it," said Will. "Now let's see if together three grown men can't outwit one decrepit pig."

Slowly, painfully, Will, Albor, and Dunstan hobbled back toward the farmhouse. Albor rubbed at a badly bruised hip. Dunstan was wringing muddy water out of his sodden, matted beard.

"It's all right," said Will, "we'll get her tomorrow."

Later, the farm's other animals locked away for the night, straw fresh on the barn's floor, Will stood in the farmhouse, heating a heavy iron pot full of stew over the hearth. A few strips of chicken roiled fretfully among vegetable chunks.

He never bothered naming the chickens. It was easier that way.

He sighed as he watched the stew slowly simmer. He should be checking the cheese presses, or scooping butter out of the churn and into pots before it spoiled, or possibly even attempting to tally his books so he could work out exactly how much money he owed folk. Instead he stood and stared.

The nights were long out on the farm. It was five miles through the fields and woods down to The Village. The distance had never seemed far when he was a child. But that was when his parents were alive, and when Dunstan and Albor, and even Firkin, would all have stayed to share the supper, with laughter, and jokes, and fiddle music lilting late into the night. That was when performing the chores around the house had never seemed exactly like work, and when stoking the fire so it warmed the whole room had never felt like an extravagance.

The firelight cast the heavy wooden cabinets and thick oak table and chairs in guttering light. Will tried to focus on that, not the shadows of the day. Maybe Bessie did have one more litter in her. Maybe he could give her one more year. A good litter would bring in enough coin. Or near enough, if the taxes didn't go up again. And he could scrimp and save in a few places. Maybe sell a few of the chairs. It wasn't like he needed more than one.

Yes. Yes, of course that would work. And Lawl or some other member of the Pantheon would manifest in the run-down old temple in the village below and shower them all with gold. That was what would happen…

His slow-bubbling thoughts were interrupted abruptly by a sharp rap at his door. He snapped his head to look at the thick oak slats. Outside, rain had begun to fall, tapping a complex undulating rhythm against the thatch roof above his head. It was over an hour's walk from The Village. Who would bother dragging themselves out here at this hour?

He had half-dismissed the sound as a loose branch blowing across the yard when it came again. A hard, precise rap that rattled the door latch. If it was a branch, it was a persistent one.

Removing the stew pot from the fire, he crossed the room quickly, unlatched the door, and opened it onto a cold and blustery night.

Four soldiers stood upon his doorstep. Their narrowed eyes stared out from beneath the shadows of their helms, which dripped rainwater down onto their long noses. Swords hung heavily on their large belts, each pommel embossed with an image of two batlike wings—the mark of the Dragon Consortium. Sodden leather jerkins with the same insignia were pulled over their heavy chain-mail shirts.

They were not small men. Their expressions were not kind. Will could not tell for sure, but they bore a striking resemblance to the four soldiers who had carried off most of the coin he'd been relying on to get through the winter.

"Can I help you?" asked Will, as politely as he was able. If there was anything at which he could fail to help them, he wanted to know about it.

"You can get the piss out of my way so me and my men can come out of this Hallows-cursed rain," said the lead soldier. He was taller than the others, with a large blunt nose that appeared to have been used to stop a frying pan, repeatedly, for most of his childhood. Air whistled in and out of it as he spoke.

"Of course." Will stepped aside. While he bore the guards of the Dragon Consortium no love, he bore even less for the idea of receiving a sound thrashing at their hands.

The four soldiers tramped laboriously in, sagging under the weight of their wet armor. "Obliged," said the last of the men, nodding. He had a kinder face than the others. Will saw the lead soldier roll his eyes.

They stood around Will's small fire and surveyed his house with expressions that looked a lot like disdain. Large brown footprints tracked their path from the door. The fourth guard looked at them, then shrugged at Will apologetically.

For a moment they all stood still. Will refused to leave the door, clinging to the solidity of it. Grounding himself in the wood his father had cut and hewn before he was born. As he watched the soldiers by the fire, his stomach tied more knots than an obsessive-compulsive fisherman.

Finally he crossed to them, the table, and his stew. He began to ladle it into a large if poorly made bowl. He wasn't hungry anymore, but it gave him something to do. These soldiers would get to their business with or without his help.

As he ladled, the lead soldier fiddled with a leather pouch at his waist.

"Nice place this," said the fourth, seeming to feel more awkward in the silence than the others.

"Thank you," Will said, as evenly as he was able. "My parents built it."

"Keep saying to the missus we should get a place like this," the guard continued, "but she doesn't like the idea of farm living. Likes to be close to the center of things. By which she really means the alchemist. Gets a lot of things from the alchemist, she does. Very healthy woman. Always adding supplements to my diet." He patted his stomach, metal gauntleted hand clanking against the chain mail. "Doesn't ever seem to do any good." He looked off into the middle distance. "Of course my brother says I'm cuckolded by a drug-addled harpy, but he's always been a bit negative."

The guard seemed to notice that everyone was staring at him.

"Oh," he said. "Sorry. Obviously none of that is related to why we're officially here. Just wanted to, well, you know…" He withered under his commanding officer's stare.

The lead soldier looked away from him, down to a piece of browning parchment paper that he had retrieved from his pouch. Then he turned the gaze he had used to dominate his subordinate upon Will.

"You are Willett Altior Fallows, son of Mickel Betterra Fallows, son of Theorn Pentauk Fallows, owner and title holder of this farmstead?" he asked. He was not a natural public speaker, stumbling over most of the words. But he kept his sneer firmly in place as he read.

Will nodded. "That's what my mother always told me," he said. The fourth soldier let out a snort of laughter, then at the looks from the others, murdered his mirth like a child tossed down a well.

The lead soldier's expression, by contrast, did not flicker for an instant. Will thought he might even have seen a small flame as the joke died against his stony wall of indifference. The soldier had the air of a man who had risen through the ranks on the strength of having no imagination whatsoever. The sort of man who followed orders, blindly and doggedly, and without remorse.

"The dragon Mattrax and by extension the Dragon Consortium as a whole," the officer continued in his same stilted way, reading from the parchment, "find your lack of compliance with this year's taxes a great affront to their nobility, their honor, and their deified status. You are therefore—"

"Wait a minute." Will stood, ladle in his hand, knuckles white about its handle, staring at the man. "My lack of what?"

For a moment, as the soldier had begun to speak, Will had felt his stomach plunge in some suicidal swan dive, abandoning ship entirely. And then, as the next words came, there had been a sort of pure calm. An empty space in his emotions, as if they had all been swept away by some great and terrible wind that had scoured the landscape clean and sent cows flying like siege weaponry.

But by the time the soldier finished, there was a fury in him he could barely fathom. He had always thought of himself as a peaceable man. In twenty-eight years he had been in exactly three fights, had started only one of them, and had thrown no more than one punch in each. But, as if summoned by some great yet abdominally restrained wizard, an inferno of rage had appeared out of nowhere in his gut.

"My taxes?" he managed to splutter. He was fighting against an increasing urge to take his soup ladle and ram it so far down the soldier's throat he could scoop out his balls. "Your great and grand fucking dragon Mattrax took me for almost every penny I had. He has laid waste to the potential for this farm with his greed. And there was not a single complaint from me. Not as I gave you every inherited copper shek, silver drach, and golden bull I had."

He stood, almost frothing with rage, staring down the lean, unimpressed commander.

"Actually," said the fourth soldier, almost forgotten at the periphery of events, "it was probably a clerical error. There's an absolutely vast number of people who fall under Mattrax's purview, and every year there's just a few people whose names don't get ticked. It's an inevitability of bureaucracy, I suppose."

Both Will and the commanding officer turned hate-filled eyes on the soldier.

"So," said Will, voice crackling with fire, "tick my fucking name then."

"Oh." The soldier looked profoundly uncomfortable. "Actually that's not something we can do. Not our department at all. I mean you can appeal, but first you have to pay the tax a second time, and then appeal."

"Pay the tax?" Will said, the room losing focus for him, a strange sense of unreality descending. "I can't pay the fucking tax a second time. Nobody here could afford that. That's insane."

"Yes," said the guard sadly. "It's not a very fair system."

Will felt as if the edges of the room had become untethered from reality, as if the whole scene might fold up around him, wither away to nothingness, leaving him alone in a black void of insanity.

"Willett Altior Fallows," intoned the lead soldier, with a degree of blandness only achievable through years of honing his callousness to the bluntest of edges, "I hereby strip you of your title to this land in recompense for taxes not paid. You shall be taken from here directly to debtors' jail."

"Oh debtors' jail," said the fourth guard, slapping a palm to his forehead. "I totally forgot about debtors' jail. Because," he added, nodding to himself, "it's not as if you can appeal the ruling while you're in the jail. Nobody's going to come down and listen to you down there. But when you get out, you can totally appeal. I think the queue is only four or five years long at that point. Though, honestly, I would have expected it to be shorter given the fairly high mortality rate among inmates in debtors' jail…" he trailed off. "Don't suppose that's very helpful, is it?" he said to the room at large.

Will could barely hear him. This could not be happening. Every careful financial plan he had put together. Every future course he had plotted. Each one of them ruined, ground beneath the twin heels of incompetence and greed, became nothing more than kindling for his fury. Rage roared around him, filled his ears with noise, his vision with red.

He tried to say something, opened his mouth. Only an inarticulate gurgle of rage emerged.

"Chain his hands," said the lead soldier.

Something snapped in Will. Suddenly the bowl of stew was in his hand. He flung it hard and fast at the lead soldier's face. It crashed into his nose with a satisfying crunch, shattered. Pottery shards scored lines across the man's face. He'd made that bowl as a boy, he remembered now. A simple pinch pot; a gift for his mother. He'd meant it as a vase but hadn't been old enough to know what a vase had actually looked like. He'd flown into a temper tantrum when he first saw her eating from it. And now it was gone. Along with everything else.

The soldier reeled back, bellowed. Will was barely paying attention. He was already lunging for the larger pot, iron sides still scalding from the heat of the fire.

A guard beat him, steel-encased fist slamming into the pot, sending the contents flying.

Will could hear steel scraping against leather. Swords leaving their hilts.

He brought the ladle round in a tight arc, smashed it into the lunging guard's cheek. The man staggered sideways. Will came up, was face-to-face with the fourth soldier. The soldier's eyes were wide, panicked. Will stabbed straight forward, the spoon of the ladle crashing into the guard's throat. The guard dropped to the floor choking, a look of surprise and hurt on his face.

And then the last guard's sword smashed the ladle from Will's hands and sent it skittering across the floor.

Out of daily kitchenware, Will reconsidered his options. The lead guard was recovering, snarling, red blistering skin bleeding openly. The fourth guard was still gasping, but the other two both had their swords up. They advanced.

As most other options seem to lead to rapid and fatal perforation, Will backed up fast.

"Not sure you're going to make it to jail," said one guard. He was smiling.

The other just stalked forward, weight held low, eyes narrowed beneath dark brows.

Will glanced about. But his mother had always been strict about leaving the farm outside of the house and that habit had died hard. There was no handy scythe, no gutting knife, not even a shovel. His foot slipped in one of the muddy footprints the guards had left on the tile floor. The grinning guard closed the gap another yard.

"Stop fucking about and kill the little shit stain already," snarled the soldier with the blistered face.

The words were the catalyst. Will unfroze as the guards leapt forward. He tore out of the kitchen door, heard the swish of steel through the air, waited for pain, and found it hadn't come by the time his feet carried him through the threshold and into the darkness.

He abandoned the spill of yellow light and tore toward the barn as fast as his feet would carry him. There was a way to fight back there. A way to stop this. There had to be.

"After the little fucker!" The rasping rage of the burned guard chased after him.

"He hit me." The bewildered burble of the fourth guard.

"I'll fucking hit you if you don't bring me his spleen."

The other guards were hard on his heels. Rain slashed at him. Will hit the door of the barn, bounced off, felt the sting of it in his shoulder, his palms. He scrabbled at the door, flung it open. A sword blade embedded itself in the frame as he darted through. A guard grunted in frustration.

Everything was shadows and the smell of damp straw. He could hear the cows, Ethel and Beatrinne, stamping and huffing. The soft lumbering snores of the two sheep, Atta and Petra. It felt like home. Except the guards behind him were some awful violation. Some tearing wound in everything he held dear.

He looked around, desperate, panic making the place unfamiliar. A blade. He needed a blade. The scythe—

"Torch it." The words barely penetrated his consciousness. But then he heard the strike of a flint, the whispered roar of flame igniting. Yellow light blazed in the doorway. He watched the torch as it flipped end over end to land in the straw.

He rushed toward it. Flames raced toward him. He stamped desperately at them.

The second torch hit him heavily in the chest. He staggered backward, slapped desperately at the flame that started to lick at the front of his jacket. In the handful of seconds it took to extinguish, two more torches had arced into the barn. One landed in the hay pile. It flared like kindling. By the time Will was halfway to the pile, the smoke already had him hacking and coughing.

The cows were awake now, starting to realize they should panic. The guards shouted to each other outside the door.

This was his home. This couldn't be.

But it clearly was.

He stopped, stood still, fire and smoke swirling about him, the cries of panicking animals filling the air. He was frozen between the future that he had held and the shattered pieces of the present at his feet.

Something splintered. He looked up, fearful of a falling beam. Then the sound of skittering hooves made him realize it was the gate of the pen that he'd been meaning to fix for more than a month now. And then Ethel's shoulder checked him as she scrambled out of the door.

Cursed cow, said some part of his mind. When she comes back tomorrow she'll be full of rage that she hasn't been milked and her udders are heavy.

But there wouldn't be a tomorrow. Not if he didn't get out.

He started to move again, to look for a way out that was not blocked by soldiers and swords.

For the first time ever, he was glad that the farm overwhelmed him. That there were rotten boards up in the hayloft that he hadn't got round to fixing.

He dashed to the ladder, threw open the door to the sheep pen as he went past it. The rungs were rough, slightly spongy with rot. He climbed upward into clouds of smoke that drove him to his knees, hacking, coughing.

He scrambled forward, elbows and knees supporting his weight. He thumped his head against the barn roof, felt his way along the wall, until the wood bowed beneath the pressure. His lungs burned. Bracing himself, he kicked once, twice. The boards gave way on the third heavy kick. He cleared a wider space with the fourth and fifth, shoved through the gap, grabbed the edge with his fingertips.

He hung in the darkness for a moment, smoke pouring out around him, obscuring his vision. How close had he put the vegetable cart to the back wall? The last thing he needed now was to break his neck on its edge. But there was no time to dredge for the memory.

He kicked off blindly, flailed through space.

He landed on the cart's wooden boards with a crash that jarred him from head to heels. His teeth clacked shut so hard he thought he heard his gums groaning. Spots of light danced in the night sky.

A shout crashed into his swampy thoughts. A guard had circled around the barn, seen him jump. He didn't have time to get his bearings, only to run. So he put his head down and did just that.

A fence lurched at him out of nowhere. The rain was coming down hard now, and the wood was slick as he tumbled over into a field. Wheat slapped at him, tall enough to get lost in.

He tumbled forward, barely thinking, just putting one foot in front of the other, simply getting away, and leaving all his hope behind.

In the end, a tree put paid to his flight. Not one to suffer fools or hysterical men lightly, it hit him forcefully with its trunk. Will took the opportunity to sit down heavily and not think about much at all for a while.

Eventually he came back to himself. Not fully. Not enough to totally take in the events of the evening. But enough to know that he was lost, that it was raining, and that home was not an option.

A moment of confused and painful thinking followed. His home was gone. Irretrievably, irreconcilably. The culmination of the bad luck that had begun with Firkin losing his mind, and moved on with the death of his parents. His future was gone. His dreams too. He would not find a way to make the farm profitable. He would not find a good Village girl to bring back. There would be no one to fill the old farmhouse with light, and love, and song. He had failed his father and his mother both in a single night. The chance to achieve their dreams for him had been stolen from him.

As for the future… That was beyond him. Instead he aimed for something less ambitious. Like where in the Hallows he had ended up. When he solved the problem, he did not arrive at a particularly reassuring answer.

He'd headed into the Breccan Woods—the vast tangle of untamed forest that lay to the north of his farm. It was a hard enough place to navigate in the bright of day, with a known trail beneath his feet. It was a downright foolish place to be at night. The shadows were not safe—every mother told her child so. Goblins, ogres, and worse called this place home. And yet, he had apparently decided that a headlong dash for the hills superseded anything resembling common sense.

He shivered. He needed shelter. He needed rest. He needed time to come to terms with a torched home and a warrant for his death. Because that was what it would be. Gentle and understanding


  • "Ideal for fans of humorous capers and heist stories - such as Ocean's 11, Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard Sequence series, and Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga."—Booklist
  • "Hollins ladles on the humor while hardly skimping on the action, the unexpected plot swerves, or the glorious feels."—B&N
  • "Hollins's seat-of-the-pants fantasy comedy snowballs wildly into a glorious disaster of fire, magic, multiple threats to people's intestines, and fun -- for the reader, if not the characters."
    Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "Jon Hollins is a one of kind storyteller, a master of epic fun and nonstop action. Alas, since we both write humor-infused epic fantasy, this makes us natural enemies. Watch your back, Jon."—Nicholas Eames, author of Kings of the Wyld
  • "A chain mail-clad, sword-swinging heist caper brimming with blood, thunder, humor and heart."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Calibri; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}Dale Lucas on The Dragon Lords: Fool's Gold

On Sale
Jul 19, 2016
Page Count
544 pages

Jon Hollins

About the Author

Jon Hollins is a pseudonym.

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