The Dragon Returns is another somewhat transitional story, like the earlier The Dragon Wars, as Tashere’s Dragon Empire finds its might no longer able to stand against Vaynaheim and turns instead against the mortal nations in its neighborhood, and then the Sunshine Kingdom’s watchfulness begins to fade in the long years of an uneasy peace.
I would begin this précis with a list of principal characters, but for most of it I haven’t gotten around to determining that yet.
The first arc of the story is the “Third War of the Dragon”. Tashere’s army sails to Vaynaheim (I haven’t yet decided how they get past the blockade that was put in place at the end of The Dragon Wars; perhaps the watch was passed to mortal hands, and the subsequent watchers grew forgetful and neglected their duties) and attacks each of the three weakest points in its defenses. But they easily hold. With this failure, they settle down and lay a siege around the whole country.
When the Sunshine Kingdom learns of these events, it raises an army (from its own people and, to a lesser extent, from its other allies) and sails to Vaynaheim to break the siege. On their arrival, the Dragon army flees, but instead of simply returning home, it sails around the continents and besieges the capital of the Sunshine Kingdom. The allies returning easily break that siege too, but King Sir (whom history calls “the Good”) of Sunshine Kingdom—the country’s first king—dies in battle outside the capital’s walls.
Once they break this siege, the allies pursue the Dragon army home. After an inconclusive battle in the Mountains of Night on the Dragon Empire’s border, the two sides agree to a cease-fire.
The second arc of the story is the uneasy peace that follows. The allies post watches—armed sentry outposts—at several places on the Dragon Empire’s borders, including Fly Island (which they captured at the end of the previous war) and the Mountains of Night. But after a few years, the watchmen see a dark cloud—a manifestation of Tashere’s power, showing at once that he is still powerful enough to personally exert influence beyond his borders at a distance and that he is weak enough that a visibly and palpably threatening cloud is the best he can do—fly slowly across the border and across the sea toward Vaynaheim. Human mages, with some assistance from Vaynaheim, dispel it and then craft a metaphysical shield around the Dragon Empire to prevent further attacks of that sort.
But the Sunshine Kingdom contributed to very little of any of that; it had its own problems to worry about. The death of King Sir the Good left the kingdom in some fairly significant political turmoil—as I mentioned, he was its first king, and the procedures for choosing his successor were not fully prepared. After several months of deliberations, Herald (later called “the First”) is elected; he’s something of a compromise candidate, more or less competent but quite old and without any particular vision for the kingdom. And after only a few more years his health begins to fail, and he dies only about a decade after being elected to the throne. His son, Herald the Second, had been acting as his regent for a couple of years and ascends to the throne on his death, with a perfunctory election to confirm him.
Herald the Second is much like his father, more or less competent but uninspired. He begins reductions in the kingdom’s army and militias, especially by reducing its commitments to its allies’ defenses. But after only two years he too becomes gravely ill, and after lingering for two more years he too dies. His son and regent, Herald the Third, succeeds him as king without even a token election. He continues his father’s policies, but begins to gradually centralize power that had belonged to the various local districts in the hands of the kingdom’s central government—though to his credit, not in his hands, nor primarily in the hands of ministers who answer to him. He rules for fifteen years before dying suddenly (perhaps of a heart attack). And after the past two successions, few think anything when his son, Herald the Fourth—whom history will call “the Evil” or “Tyrannis” (more on that in the next book)—ascends to the throne.
Meanwhile, fortunately, the rest of the allies do not fall into the same political turmoil and idleness. After the “dark cloud” incident, they send ambassadors back and forth and renew their by now decades-old alliances, and after much deliberation agreed to build several walls—a major undertaking that is more than likely to increase the tax burdens of their people and take a lot of hard labor, but one they feel is necessary. First, and most easily, they built a Triple Wall—three concentric walls, each higher than the last, separated by a few dozen yards of ground, and designed to make each easy to hold or retake from the inside with the support of the next wall, and still useful in the event of a minor breach, but not usable as a platform for attacks on the next wall in) around Vaynaheim; this is so imposing a defense that the Dragon Empire only even attempts it twice more (but I’m getting ahead of myself …).
And next, they build a Double Wall of Defense (along much the same lines, but only two walls, and “inside out”) along their entire land border with the Dragon Empire. This is a project that, even though it takes much less work, time, and funds than expected, still takes several years to build.
Once these walls are finally (mostly) finished, the allies agree to create an integrated force, drawn from all of their armies, to patrol it. This Allied Force is sufficiently intimidating that the Dragon Empire—which had been “testing the waters” with small border incursions for years—finally settles down and remains peaceful until its next chance … which comes with the political turmoil of the Sunshine Kingdom that was about to erupt … as will be described in Sunshine Civil War.