Take off is the scariest part of flying on a dragon. All of it’s pretty terrifying, but the part when you’re leaning back with the world grabbing at you, trying to pull you off, is especially scary.
There aren’t any seats or convenient handholds. If you lose your grip on one of the blades running down the dragon’s back, you are going to fall to your death, kersplat. We could have done with some kind of cabin strapped to Vikchutni, but then that could fall off, too.
Everyone huddled against the blades, arms wrapped around them as Flossie urged the giant beast into the air. All except Biadet. She stood at the base of Vikchutni’s neck with her small hands clasped behind her, and her face showing no emotion. The dragon flapped its wings and we lifted off in multiple jerks. Biadet slightly bent her knees, but there were no other signs of movement from her. As the dragon’s body angled upwards to gain height, she merely leaned forward a little to compensate.
There was a faint glow on the horizon, enough so I could see the side of Biadet’s face. She had her eyes closed and the faintest glimmer of a smile played across her lips.
Once we levelled off, Flossie called out from her seat behind the dragon’s head. “Where are we going?”
“Head for Fengarad,” I shouted back. I didn’t know if that was where Dudley was, but it seemed as good a place as any to start. I turned to Claire sitting next to me, her head on Maurice’s shoulder. She didn’t look like she really cared where we were going or what the plan was, which was probably just as well since there wasn’t one. That’s the problem with being happy, though, makes you a lot less motivated. Contentment is supposed to be a good thing, according to Buddhists. But if you actually have things to do, it’s called complacency and it’s a liability.
“Did you get a chance to pick up anything off Gullen?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “I was afraid to look in his head. Felt like it wasn’t the kind of place you want to peek into.”
I couldn’t really blame her. The idea of rooting around inside Gullen’s head wasn’t very appealing. Despite how polite and well-mannered he was on the outside, there was a definite sense of ‘enter at your own risk’ when it came to what he was really thinking.
“What about her?” I said, nodding towards Biadet.
Claire stared at the back of Biadet’s head, brow furrowed in concentration. Biadet slowly turned her head and looked at us, like she knew she was being probed. Or maybe she just felt us staring.
“Nothing,” said Claire under her breath. “Complete blank.”
“Okay, never mind. Do you think you could recognise someone’s thoughts from a distance?”
“You mean like Dudley?”
I nodded. Her ability had been quite limited so far, needing people to be actively thinking about something specific to be able to pick up on it, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other ways it might be useful. There were lots of things we didn’t know about it, like the range, for a start.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll try.”
I turned back and Biadet was still staring at me, her head at an angle.
“Don’t you owe me an apology?” I asked her.
Her head tilted over to the other side. “Apology? No, I don’t think I have anything to apologise for.”
“What about telling Gullen how to find us? You said you wouldn’t reveal anything you learned inside our room at the tavern, but that’s where you found out we had a dragon waiting for us outside the city, and that’s where Gullen was. Are you saying that was a coincidence?”
“He’s a very resourceful man. He would have found the dragon anyway.”
“Anyway? So you did tell him?”
“I might have mentioned the dragon in passing, but it was probably better for him to find you on the ground than in the air. With all the dragons we’ve been seeing lately he decided on some anti-dragon measures. Surprisingly accurate for such large devices.” She looked straight ahead again as we flew towards the rising sun.
Had she deliberately sold us out to protect us? If we’d been shot out of the air, we would most certainly be dead. But why would she care one way or the other?
“Don’t you ever wish to be free of Uncle Peter?” I asked.
“Free?” she said without looking at me. “I am free.”
In the distance, the spires of Fengarad were just about visible, stark silhouettes against the dawn. I stood up to get a better look, although, I kept one hand on the dragon. My sense of balance wasn’t that great, although my sense of falling to my death was second to none.
“Colin!” hissed Claire. I looked down at her and she mouthed ‘stop her’, nodding her head in Jenny’s direction.
Jenny was leaning over the side of the dragon. She didn’t look like she was planning to jump—we weren’t all that high up but it would still be suicide if she did. Keezy was sitting beside her and could grab her if she did try something stupid, but there was no reason to. She wasn’t in any danger, not from us, anyway. I looked back at Claire, wondering what it was she wanted me to stop, and then I looked past her, down at the world below, and saw a dark stain spread out like a blanket. It was a camp.
“Guard! Guard!” called out Jenny. “To me!” She was surprisingly loud.
We all looked at each other, then there was a strange sound. It came from quite far, kind of a whistling. I looked down again and a swarm of arrows were flying to meet us.
The dragon tilted and staggered in the air. Arrows rose either side of us, hung in the air in surreal fashion, then fell back down. Some pierced the wings. More must have been sticking out of Vikchutni’s underside.
The dragon let out a plaintive scream.
I landed on top of Jenny and pinned her down. “What’s wrong with you? You’re going to get us killed.”
“I’m your prisoner,” she said through gritted teeth. “Those are my men down there.”
Her actions were perfectly legitimate from her point of view. She didn’t know us, didn’t care about what we were trying to do. She looked like Jenny, felt like her, smelled like her, but she wasn’t her.
I was angry but it wasn’t her fault. She wanted to get away from us. From me. I just wanted my Jenny back. She was right here, under me, and yet she was a million miles away and I missed her. I was filled with an immense feeling of loss.
“Stop it,” said Jenny, writhing under me. “I don’t want to feel this. Stop. Stop.” She scowled and grimaced. “I don’t want to be connected to you.”
The dragon flew higher, but we were shuddering and leaning at an angle that didn’t seem helpful. Fewer arrows were rising around us, but the dragon was hurt quite badly.
Flossie screamed and we veered sharply to the side. I grabbed hold of Keezy’s foot with one hand and pulled Jenny in tightly against me with the other. Then we straightened again, but the dragon was gliding this way and that, in obvious distress. Flossie was barely hanging onto the dragon’s neck, an arrow sticking out of her arm.
She was the only one standing. She skipped along the dragon’s neck, balancing her tiny feet on the raised ridges that ran all the way to the head. The wind was constant and quite forceful, but she paid it little heed. When she got to where Flossie was slouched, she jumped, one knee bent to her waist, the other leg straight. She seemed to float over Flossie’s head, and landed on Vikchutni’s broad, flat head.
The dragon let out a muted bellow. The flight steadied and we began to fly straight again. Biadet opened her arms wide and let her head fall back so she was facing the quickly lightening sky. And then she laughed.
I’d never heard her laugh before. It wasn’t maniacal or shrill like most of the laughter I tended to encounter, it was musical and sweet. A young girl’s laugh.
I shoved Jenny towards Keezy. “Hold her.” I crawled up the dragon’s neck, my progress a lot less balletic than Biadet’s, until I got to Flossie. She was moaning, eyes closed. I ripped the arrow out of her arm, which made her scream and the dragon jumped in the air.
“Vikchutni,” said Biadet, “your master needs you to be strong.” The dragon settled down.
I healed Flossie. She was bleeding quite a lot, but it quickly stopped. She nodded at me, breathing hard.
“We have to land and take care of Vikchutni,” she said through ragged breaths.
Below us, the men were too far to reach us, but Jenny was clearly going to be a problem. I’d have to tie her up and gag her, which would probably only make her more dead set against me.
“Dudley!” shouted Claire. Both Flossie and I sat up and looked back at her.
“Where?” I said.
Flossie was already up and running towards her, the injury forgotten. I followed, slowly.
“I saw him, someone down there is thinking about him.”
“Those soldiers?” I asked her.
“No, not that way. Over there.” She pointed south.
I looked out across the land lit gold by the emerging sun. There were fields and forests, but no signs of people. Flossie pushed me aside and ran back to the dragon’s head.
“Get off mah dragon,” she yelled at Biadet who leaped over her and strolled towards me. We pitched to the left, sending everyone (except Biadet) tumbling to that side.
“I thought we were going to Fengarad,” she said.
“We are,” I replied. “Scenic route.”
“Down there,” said Maurice, adjusting his glasses. “I see something.”
We all leaned over to look. In a clearing below, there were three large creatures; ogres. They were in a fight with three much smaller creatures; humans.
“Flossie! Take us—” I didn’t need to finish, we were already hurtling towards the ground.
The fighting stopped as the dragon coming into land took their attention away from each other. I hadn’t healed the dragon so the landing was a bit rough, wings flapping wildly, but we got down in one piece and clambered off.
“Keezy, can you deal with the ogres?”
He nodded and changed into his troll form, almost the same size as the smallest of the three. He shooed the ogres to one side like they were pets.
The humans comprised of two men, one very large with a giant axe, the other smaller but very muscular, dressed in black leather and with no weapon at all as far as I could tell. And one girl.
“Haha! Dragonslayer, you found me,” said Laney, sliding her sword into its scabbard. “Decided to take up my offer, did you? Nice ride, by the way.”
“Which one knows Dudley?” I asked Claire.
She looked from one to the next, and then turned towards the ogres. “That one.” She pointed at the smallest ogre.
Not what I was expecting. If the ogres had run into Dudley, he’d obviously made an impression. Hopefully, not as a memorable meal.
“Out of my way,” said Laney, suddenly not her perky self. “You. I wondered when I’d see you again.”
I turned to look where she was looking. Biadet was standing on the dragon’s head again.
“Hello, Princess. It’s been a long time.”
“Yes. Too long.” Laney drew her sword. “And now it ends.”
“I don’t have a weapon,” said Biadet.
Laney looked at the larger of the two men. “Roland, give her a weapon.”
He seemed surprised by the request. He looked at his companion who just shrugged. Roland tossed his axe, which was about the same size as Biadet, and it rotated end over end as it flew towards her as the dragon brought her down. She caught it one handed.
“Not bad.” She swung it around like it was a cheerleader’s baton. “I hope you’ve been practising, Princess. I have.”