Two days later we pass by a village that had been emptied in a hurry. Broken wagons, stripped of wheels and decorated with torn bits of fabric, clog the main street into an impassable mire. Yellow flyers featuring comically undetailed pictures of what looks like cross-shaped lizards cover every surface.
The houses are all abandoned, their wind-beaten doors dancing to the bell atop the village chapel, which is only a stone’s throw from the edge of the highway. The chapel’s walls are splattered with what looks like green paint; perhaps an aspiring painter took advantage of the quiet to indulge in his art...but perhaps not.
How does it feel to be racing toward where everyone else is fleeing from? If I’m by myself, the answer would of course be ‘pretty bad, don’t mind me just turning around,’ but for the esquire of a dragon slayer that’s not an acceptable line.
What could I do, with my toothpick of a sword and ready-to-boil leather armour?
When Kathanhiel is asked this she always gives the same answer: leave the fighting to me.
Which is no answer at all.
So very nervous.
A cup from her tea set lay in pieces now because I forgot I was pouring boiling water as I was pouring boiling water.
During training I manage to land a hit on Haylis’s hip – a feat as incredible as spotting a flying frog – and in turn she punches me on the nose, drawing blood. Her profuse apology sounds like the buzzing of mosquitos in the summer: infuriating and never-ending.
At least three times a day I end up in the horses’ room before remembering that Arkai had Killisan taken away. Never thought I’d miss the company of a horse. Bobby is not the same; a great white stallion is not a creature one could casually approach, never mind feel comfortable with.
My hands are shaking again.
Coward. You’ve not even seen a dragon yet.
Another day, another morning with no dragons to fight. Despite having passed three abandoned towns now there’s still no sign of them. We’re alone in the middle of the vast plains, running north on a highway that will never end.
This waiting has to be worse than actually fighting. It has to be.
Otherwise I’m more of a coward than I thought.
The crossroads. Here the highway intersects with the road that runs to the Ford.
Kathanhiel doesn’t say it, but she’s still considering the ferries despite Arkai not being here to “escort” me. I’ve made up my mind say no but by the looks of it all that self-steeling had been unnecessary.
Smoke is rising on the eastern horizon.
After two minutes of gazing at it, Kathanhiel announces from the roof, ‘not dragon fire, too sparse and cold.’
Thought this was finally it, that the time has come to face the dragons at last. Too bad.
‘What is it then?’ asks Haylis with her face pressed against a window.
‘Riots, most likely. Too many scared people in one place.’ Kathanhiel climbs down quickly. ‘A shame. I’d hoped that…’
‘Kastor was going to tell you he’s staying no matter what.’
For a moment I briefly consider roleplaying Arkai and yell at Haylis ‘mind your own business!’ but of course, I don’t actually do that.
Kathanhiel smiles. ‘I expected as much. Perhaps I was foolish to suggest it in the first place.’ She comes close and takes my hand. After spending so much time together this level of intimacy should be nothing by now. Instead, my stupid heart is beating faster than ever.
Why is it so hard to speak? ‘I-I want t-to stay with you.’
‘And you’re not just saying that because there’s no longer a choice?’ she asks.
‘I’ll not run away while you fight. I’m better than Talu.’
‘But your hands tremble so.’
‘They do what they want.’ Maybe if I shake my head like a tambourine the nerves will go away. Nope, still here. ‘But I’m staying with you and you can’t make me leave – I mean, you can but – I’d p-prefer that you don’t.’
‘What will you do when the dragons come?’ she asks.
There’s only one answer to that – the only one I can allow myself.
‘I don’t know.’
Her fingers, so smooth and strong, give mine a firm squeeze. ‘You will stand. I chose you for a reason, Kastor.’
That night, the dragons come.
Kathanhiel has sat on the roof for over three hours when she suddenly calls out, ‘Haylis! HAYLIS!’
She comes running out of her room in a lacy nightgown. ‘What is it? Are they here?’
‘Tell the little giants that they’re not to stop, no matter what.’
Ah, finally. My cuirass, my sword – they’re right here, already warm from being hugged close.
‘Kastor, fetch my bow, then gather every last drop of water we have and put them in barrels.’
Can ‘a frenzy of activity’ be used to describe the actions of only two people? Sure it can, especially when Haylis and I make up for the lack of activity with plenty of frenzy.
Barrel – no, bow first. It’s in her room. Alright, here it is, leaning against her table. Already strung – that’s a relief, wasn’t sure I was going to manage. Wow, it’s metal, even the string is metal – how strong must she be to use this?
Wait, where are the arrows? Where are they?
Have-have I even packed arrows? They weren’t in the quartermaster’s list of inventory. That means -
Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no oh no oh no.
‘Kastor, my bow!’
What do I say what do I say what do I say what do I say what do I say what do I say what do I say –
‘I-I can’t find the quiver! I must have left it some-some-no I forgot to-no this is not happening –’
‘I don’t use arrows. Just bring the bow, hurry!’
Oh but of course.
I run out, shove the bow out through the roof hatch, and then proceed to hunt down those pesky barrels with renewed vigour.
Water. At the back, in barrels already. Argh! Heavy! Come on you measly biceps, now’s the time to show off, not in front of a mirror!
‘Haylis, is everything secured?’ Kathanhiel yells, her voice easily riding above the wind.
‘Yes!’ ‘Cover yourself with treated shirts from my wardrobe. Kastor you do the same!’
I hear it as I secure the last barrel under the hatch.
The roar of dragons.
Imagine standing alone on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. You look up to a sky roiling in dark rage, spitting lightning and hail. The wind knocks you off your feet, and as you lie there, prone and freezing, a great wave rises in the distance and come galloping towards you, thundering, infinitely vast. There’s no thinking of survival, no strategizing, only fear and awe and the inevitability of the abyss that will swallow all in its path.
That is the sound they make.
I dive under the pile of shirts and almost shove out Haylis. Instead of making a smart comment as per usual, she instantly grabs my arm and clings to it as if that’s going to help. Her burning breath puffs onto my neck three times a second.
‘Kathanhiel is here!’ I grab her trembling hands with my trembling hands. ‘She’ll beat them! This isn’t even her final –’
Something huge slams into the side of the carriage. The steel walls buckle, and the sound of massive teeth grinding against it overwhelms my own screams.
Another, from the opposite side, SLAM, shattering two inner walls and a cabinet full of plates.
Then another. SLAM. And another. SLAM. The back half of the coach suddenly folds in as if clenched by a massive hand. The carriage rears like a panicked horse, suddenly running on two wheels.
The horses. They’re trapped back there.
‘Wh-where are you going? Kastor? KASTOR!’
Haylis’s grip is so strong I’ve no idea how I shook it off. Walking on this floor feels like treading ripples. Nonsense! How does one tread ripples?!
Why am I laughing? What is so funny?!
SLAM, and the door to the back snaps from its frame in a gesture of welcome. Bobby and Haylis’s horse are tossed – hooves thrashing, mouths foaming – against the far end of the room, right on top of the only door big enough for them to get out from. One stray hoof lands square on the shoulder. Thank you, overly large shoulder pads; may the smith who made you live forever.
Come on now, edge across, one step at a time. The lever is right there. If I pull it the big door will open and the horses can try and run -
The opposite wall splits open with a metallic scream. A great jaw, filled with three gleaming rows of teeth and a purple snake-like tongue, shoves itself into the hole, screeching and snapping at the air. Never have my eyes been more perceptive than this moment.
The dragon has three different incisors, a big one at the front and two behind waiting to replace it.
All its teeth a brilliantly white, which makes no sense. Shouldn’t it be charcoal black from all the fire-?
Oh, the fire.
A blue sphere appears in its throat. Blue.
Can’t even close my eyes. Can’t even remember to raise my arm. I just stare at it, the sun in its mouth.
I haven’t even done anything –
A spear of flame descends from the roof and runs clean through those jaws as if the iron scales are cotton. The scream that ensues is like a thousand long nails scraping across steel.
Kaishen. It withdraws as quickly as it came but the dragon is already dead and falling out of sight. A meaty crunch, and the carriage heaves dangerously; Oon’Shei had stepped on its corpse.
The horses. Move it!
That gap is too ragged to fit the animals through, but outside noises are coming in just fine. Ever seen violent seagulls that snatch bread straight from your hands? Imagine that, but louder, bigger, and hotter, as if they want to eat the world itself.
A pack of seagulls. How does that even compare – what am I – why is that so terrifying and hysterical at the same time?
‘I don’t knoowwww!’
The lever is right there, pull it!
The big door snaps open and breaks off its hinges immediately, tumbling into the night with a series of bangs. The highway is a blur; the horses might break some bones, but at least they’ll have a chance at living.
‘Hurry you two! Jump!’
They’re horses, idiot! They don’t understand!
Bobby is the first to get up. The night air must have encouraged him, for he doesn’t even hesitate before taking the leap, his mane fluttering in the wind as bravely as any king’s banner.
Ooph, that landing.
Now your turn, Haylis’s horse, stop backing up like a coward. Do I really have to kick you? Do I really – alright I kicked you now get moving!
The animal jumps for it, and for a second it looks like it’s going to make it…then a massive jaw swoops in front the right and snatches it clean out of the air.
One blink and poof, gone.
I scramble from the doorway not a second too soon as a pommel-like tail comes crashing onto that exact spot, shattering the floor and tearing steel from the wall like pieces of paper from an old tome.
A second later, the room fills with fire.
A roast chicken inside an oven, helpless, surrounded by an inescapable inferno; that’s me. The hay piles flash and turn to dust in an instant, the wooden trough shatters into black bits, and the ceiling, made from triple-layered steel, glows white hot and droops like a piece of tarp.
How am I still alive?
The wall of flames stands three inches from my nose, but instead of cooking the meat it just hangs there, roiling waves of orange and red and slithering tongues of blue. Its heat is surprisingly tame. Something’s holding it in check…but what?
SLAM. This one comes from the ceiling.
Wait a minute, that’s no dragon’s head.
Long, thin, wreathed in fire, Kaishen plunges through the roof in a narrow arc, only to drown in a roomful of inferno.
The dragon fire is suddenly struggling. It’s spinning now, spiralling around Kaishen in ever tighter circles as if the sword is drawing it in.
It is drawing it in. Every bit of fire is plummeting into Kaishen like water into an infinite hole.
Got no time for this. Stop looking and run.
Stumbling, crawling, I make it out of the fire and into a front room filled with smoke. Where is – there she is, under the table.
The moment I hear Haylis coughing I immediately join in. The smoke is purple-black and putrid, filled with the ash of something that’s not supposed to be made ash.
‘Can’t – breathe –we have to – open the – ’
Front door. If we open it the tunnelling wind will clear this up.
But the dragons will also see us.
There’s no sane choice here. Would you like to suffocate or be incinerated? For someone who is currently suffocating, there is no choice at all.
Drunken footsteps, punctuated with hacking coughs, hammer away on the floor. A moment later Haylis rips open front door, and a violent gust clears the room in seconds.
So hard to open my eyes – the smoke makes them bloodshot and painful – but you can’t just walk blind into the middle of –
A swarm of small dragons, each the size of a pony, are clinging to Oon’Shang’s head and torso. These ones’ screeching really resemble seagulls, shrill and violent and utterly berserk. Claws are flying, jaws tearing, orange plumes puffing between their teeth, wings bashing against one another – not even rabid dogs are this vicious.
Oon’Shang is still running at full speed and pulling the coach with one hand. With the other she swats at the little dragons the way one would swat a fly. One gets crushed against her back, all its bones instantly broken; two more are thrown to the ground and trampled.
One latches onto the back of her neck and bites into it just as she grabs its nail. A disgusting tearing sound ensues. Its body falls, but its head is still latched firmly onto her flesh, its teeth having sunk all the way through the muscle and into an artery. Blood starts cascading down her back in thick streams.
A burst of red explodes from above, sending what sounds like a small mountain into the ground. A severed tail, longer than the entire length of the carriage, falls out of sight.
Can’t even pay attention to that right now, whatever monstrosity Kathanhiel is keeping at bay.
Haylis has drawn her sword but there’s no getting close. The tails of half a dozen little dragons are thrashing before her face, slowing reducing the front of the carriage to woodchips. They’re like iron-cored whips; a single hit would be enough to break an arm.
‘What do I do?!’ she yells.
‘What do I do?!’ I yell at her.
Oh that’s not good.