Jane headed back across the meadow. Her stomach was full, and the three sisters were happy with her solution - though Dragon might not be when she told him she’d volunteered his mountain cave as a new home for the bats.
Dragon saw her coming and waved. It was the shy three-finger wave he made when he knew she was cross with him. He thought it made him look too cute to be chastised. He was wrong.
‘Jane, good breakfast?’ Jane didn’t reply, she stopped a few paces away and stared at him. Waiting.
Jane said nothing. She folded her arm and continued to stare. Drago held her gaze for a moment, gave up, and spread his hands in a theatrical display of submission.
‘What could I do?’
‘Wait. Like I asked you!’
‘They smelt delicious, AND they were for me,’ he settled back on his hind legs and folded his arms in a mock reflection of Jane’s posture. ‘AND, I am not hear at your command. If I choose to eat a pile of turnips without your approval, then I will eat a pile of turnips.’
‘Is that right? Then why did you come with me this morning?’
‘Because I wanted to! Not because you commanded it,’ Dragon looked up at the sky in a display of deep thought. ‘Now I’ve changed my mind.’
‘Oh you have, have you?’
‘The Rusty Mountains are big place, we won’t stumble on a cave of runes without a map.’
‘Agreed,’ said Jane. She reached into her tunic and pulled out the folded parchment Haroldus had given to her. ‘One map.’
‘Yes!’ Dragon dropped onto his front legs, his neck settling to the ground like a gently falling tree, his huge head landing just inches from Jane. ‘If my breath wasn’t so fermented with turnips, I would kiss you.’
‘Well, all praise to the turnips, then.’ Jane climbed up onto his neck and took hold of his horns. Dragon spread his wings and they rose slowly into the sky.
It was a beautiful morning, and Jane settled back for the ride. There was no urgency about this, so long as they completed the rest of their patrol after seeing the runes. Sometimes she had to remind herself how special this was, to be riding a dragon.
Over the years it had become so common place, she needed to stop and remind herself that she was flying. For all she knew, she was the only shortlife anywhere in the world to be riding through the sky on the back of another creature. Jester would sometimes sing about a boy seen riding a giant eagle across some far away desert. Perhaps it was true.
‘Are you happy, Dragon?’
‘We are going to look at some scratchings. My belly is full. So today is a good day. You will spoil it by asking me to do something tedious and irritating, but until then, yes, a good day.’
‘Then I’ll do it now and get it over with. Can a colony of bats come and share your cave?’
‘Not up to me. I’ll have to ask Squeaky.’
‘Of course.’ Jane thought that only fair. Squeaky was a large bat who lived at the back of Dragon’s cave. ‘Wait! When you say you have to ask him. Do you mean you can talk in bat?’
‘No, I squeak it. Very squeaky language.’
‘Well please do squeak to him, it’s important.’ That was all she could do. Ask Dragon for the favor and hope he would agree.
Their relationship was complicated. At the beginning it had been simple, they had needed each other. Dragon had promised to help Jane in her quest to become a knight; in return she’d promised to help him unravel the many mysteries which surrounded his birth in the mountains high above Kippernia Castle.
In time their bargain had turned into something else, an odd dependency that neither would speak of, not directly anyway; a bond that had set roots down deep into their bones. Perhaps their hearts.
Back at the castle, Jester stared across the Royal Gardens to the large central fountain. The cascading water looked so inviting. If he was a little younger and a great deal more foolish, he would race over there and throw himself in. Life, it seemed, was nothing but a series of small decisions with large consequences.
‘High poo potty mouse,’ said Lavinia. Jester and the princess were sitting in the shade of the unicorn tree, a large yew that had been trimmed and clipped and nursed over many years into the shape of a giant unicorn. Rake’s grandfather had planted all the trees here, starting their long evolution into the majestic shapes they depicted.
Rake had continued the task when the role fell to him, a role that had jumped a full generation when Rake’s father had forsaken both son and duty and boarded a ship to seek fame and fortune in the world.
‘Is that it?’ asked Lavinia. ‘High Poo Potty Mouse?’ She pointed to a word in the book she was reading.’
‘Very nearly,’ said Jester. ‘The word is Hippopotamus.’
‘That’s exactly what I said.’
‘Indeed you did.’
‘This is boring,’ Lavinia snapped the book shut. ‘I want to play Maidens and Monsters. You can be the monster.’
‘I would make a much better maiden,’ said Jester, ‘And you are a fearsome monster, trust me.’
‘Look!’ Lavinia jumped up and pointed across the gardens to the royal terrace. Sir Theodore was coming down the steps. Lavinia struck a dramatic pose. ‘Beware! It is the Grey Knight come to slay us all.’ She put up her fists and started to shadow box the old knight. ‘Fear not Jester, I shall defend you. Before this day is spent we shall dine on his liver.’
‘Right. Splendid. We made to tenderise it first.’
Lavinia ran at Sir Theodore who side-stepped, danced a quick circle around her, and carried on towards Jester.
‘If I may interrupt your tuition a moment.’
‘I would welcome it,’ said Jester. ‘I have all but lost control of the lesson. In one step we have moved from studying exotic beasts to the science of dissection. How may I help?’
‘Say nothing, Jester!’ Lavinia leapt between them and pointed a royal finger at the old knight. ‘He means to trick us with sly words of desiccation!’
‘Splendid,’ said Sir Theodore. ‘Now, have either of you seen Jane this morning?’
‘No!’ Lavinia waved her finger. ‘And we will never reveal her whereabouts to the Grey Knight for fear you might throw her into his foul dungeons!’
‘As I well might.’ Sir Theodore extended a finger and began to spar with Lavinia in a finger duel. ‘If Jane has neglected her duties.’
‘She left earlier than usual,’ said Jester.
‘How much earlier?’
‘Before sunrise; before breakfast if you can imagine it!’
‘Was she armed?’
‘She had her dragonblade strapped to her back.’
‘Good. I believe she will need it.’ Sir Theodore allowed himself to be finger-stabbed in the chest. He dropped down onto his knees and begged the princess for his life. She declined.
‘Now for your liver,’ she cried, knocking him backwards and leaping astride his chest.
‘Jester,’ he sighed. ‘A little assistance if you please.’
There was no mistaking the Rust Mountains. The peaks were snowcapped rock, but the lower slopes were stained orange as if each mountain was wearing a bright skirt. They had flown this way before, but there had never been a reason to land.
‘There!’ Jane tapped Dragon’s right ear. He turned his head and scanned the world to their right.
‘What am I looking for?’
‘See the mountain that looks like a row of broken teeth.’
‘It’s right there!’ She leaned forward, her arm stretching above his eye so he could see where she was pointing.
‘I can only see a mountain that looks like a crouching dragon, his magnificent back plates etched against the ice blue sky.’
‘Exactly, it’s marked here on the map Haroldus gave me, we have to land over there, on the slopes of Broken Teeth Peak.’
‘Broken teeth! Where is the poetry in that?’ They touched down at the base of the slope. It was an austere landscape of rugged stone, a mix of scoria and boulders. There was little vegetation, only clumps of yellow grass. And no sign of a cave.
‘Wrong place!’ said Dragon. He sounded irritated, but it was an act, Jane could read the disappointment in his voice. She dismounted and pointed to a shadow line further down the slope.
‘What’s that do you think? The edge of a ravine?’ Jane set off without waiting for an answer. The scattered stones were painful to walk across. Her boots had three layers of leather sewn into the soles, yet she could still feel the sharper stones pressing through.
It was, indeed, a ravine, and it ran on for a hundred yards or more, a narrow cut in the rocky ground. Jane walked to the edge and stared down. It was deep, and very narrow, the side walls the height of her tower back at the castle. Jane’s heart sank. She needed to get Dragon to safety and play this charade out to the end without him. He sidled up beside her as Jane kicked a stone over the edge. They stood together, watching as it clattered and tumbled to the bottom.
‘I can’t fly down there,’ said Dragon. ‘No room to spread my magnificent wings.’
‘I’ll climb down.’
‘You could. IF there was a path. Do you see a path?’
‘Your tail. If you dangle it over the edge I can climb halfway, that’s the steepest part, then I can jump and slide the rest.’
‘Dangle? That is disrespectful, Jane, this magnificent tail is not for dangling.’
‘What a pity. I shall never get to see the runes in the cave that sits just below the shadow line over there.’ Jane pointed across to the far wall. The morning sun was still too low to light the floor of the ravine, but it bathed the opposite wall where the mouth of a cave was just visible.
‘Down you go,’ Dragon spun round and dropped his tail over the edge. ‘Careful with the tip, very ticklish, with a mind of its own.’
Jane clambered up onto his back and worked her way down the ridge of plates that grew along the spine of his tail.
‘Just like climbing down a tree,’ said Jane.
‘A magnificent green tree.’
‘Better, but no hugs.’
‘Nearly there,’ Jane stopped. She was close to the tip on his tail now, and knew from painful experience how ticklish it could be. Dragon hadn’t been joking when he said it had a mind of its own. He had no control over the tip if anything tickled it. Jane had brushed passed it once when he had been taking an afternoon snooze on the battlements. She had been climbing the steps below and her hair had swept across the end of his tail. The next thing she remembered was waking up in the courtyard below with Smithy and Gunther bending over her, her mind foggy, her body shouting pain at her from a dozen cuts and bruises.
Jane looked down at the wall of the ravine beside her. It was no longer vertical, more of a steep bank of shale and pebbles. Was it safer to jump onto that and slide to the bottom, or climb down the tip of Dragon’s tail and risk being hurled across the trench.
She jumped. Three winters ago there had been a heavy fall of snow across Kippernia that had blanketed the kingdom for days. Rake and Smithy had built a sled for the Royal children. They had adapted it from the mud sled Rake used for dragging compost and soil around the grounds when it was too muddy for his barrow. Jane and Jester had spent hours on it with Princess Lavinia, who had refused to stop until her fingers and face was a blue as her dress.
Now here Jane was, sledding again, on shale and gravel this time, with no mud sled beneath her, just the stones collapsing and rolling all around her like a thousand small wheels that carried her to the bottom.
‘And you’ll come back up the same way, will you?’ Dragon turned and peered down into the ravine. ‘Did we think this through?’
‘I did,’ said Jane. ‘I’ll check out the cave, you fly back to the last village we saw and borrow some rope.’
‘Rope and turnips. Yes, on my way.’
‘Just rope. No feasting, you’ll lose track of time and I’m not going to sit here all day. I have to finish the patrol and get back to the castle in good time or I’ll face a grilling from Sir Theodore.’
‘What if they insist Jane. Have you thought of that? You taught me this. Shortlives can be very insistent on feeding you and it’s rude to say know. If I have to force down a meal to get the rope, then I will do it. For you Jane. For you!’
‘Fine,’ Jane turned and headed for the mouth of the cave. ‘Just bring enough rope to reach down here.’
From his window in the eaves of the knight’s quarters, Sir Theodore could see nothing but sky. If he was to step out onto the balcony he would see much of the castle grounds, but from here, seated at his oak desk, when he swung his chair to face the open shutters, all he could see was this square of blue sky.
He stared at it now. Somewhere, beneath that huge dome of blue, his young protégé was being tested as never before. This day was always going to come, the first of many more in the years ahead. Word of a dragon had brought him here all those decades ago. As it had now brought Haroldus. Their reasons might be different, but the pull to be a part of this new history was the same. They were both moths, and Dragon was the flame. More would come. Many more.
Last night, the urge to drag Haroldus down into the dungeons had been like a fierce itch. It had taken all his resolve no to scratch it, not to shackle the man and tease a confession from him.
‘Yes, Gunther?’, the old knight had heard Gunther’s approach. The young man had a particular gait, there was a hesitancy to it, his unique failing. One that would undoubtedly get the boy killed one day. He stood and turned from the window. ‘What is it?’
‘Jane. There has been no sign of her since she left the tavern last night. No sign of Dragon either.’
‘Correct. What point are you making?’
‘Point?’ Gunther frowned and looked at the floorboards, then back up at Sir Theodore.
‘An observation then?’
‘Yes. Exactly. An observation. I completed my patrol through the village as instructed. I see that Sir Ivon’s horse is back too, and the other guards. All back. I see their written reports on the posting board below, and they are all now at their duties around the castle where they await your inspection.’
‘Which will I be making shortly.’
‘Forgive me, Sir Theodore, inspection was due some time past, and I find you staring from your window. This is something you do when you are troubled.’
‘Is it indeed?’ Sir Theodore lifted his chair, turned it back to face his desk, and sat down. ‘I am becoming transparent in my old age. I will endeavor to be more cautious.’
‘I meant no disrespect.’
‘Of course you did. In some things you are a chip off your father’s block. Thankfully in most things you are carving your own form. Now attend to your duties, as Jane is attending to hers.’
The entrance to the cave was low and narrow. Jane stooped and peered inside. Nothing but darkness. It would be sunset before any light fell directly into the opening. Jane walked past the entrance and explored the rest of the ravine floor. The far end was lost beyond the steady curve of the cliff walls, and from the air she hadn’t seen anyone hiding there, but she needed to be certain. Let caution be your companion, Jane. It was a phrase Sir Theodore had repeated on many occasions through her training.
There was no-one, and nowhere to hide. Whoever had set this up was waiting for her in the cave. She went back and stared at the entrance. There was no question of going inside. Out here she could defend herself against an entire army. Anyone stepping out to attack her would have to crouch down, the bright light would dazzle them, and they would have to hold their sword tight to their body just to make it through the narrow space. The advantages were all hers.
But who was here? Not Haroldus himself; it was a day’s ride from the castle. Haroldus might be the architect of this adventure, or he might be a pawn in someone else’s game, but he was not here in the cave. Not yet at least.
Whoever this was, their objective was not to kill her. It looked like the perfect spot to trap Dragon if he tried to land down here, but how would they hope to achieve that? Or did they plan to butcher him? Every tooth and claw would be worth a fortune. But for that they would need her dragonblade. Jane stepped to the side, suddenly aware that she could be taken out by a single arrow fired from deep in the cave.
Was that their plan? Injure her and leave her to die in the open so Dragon would fly down to her aid. Then butcher him with her own blade? Her decision to send Dragon away had been instinctive when she’d seen how narrow the ravine was, but as Sir Theodore was fond of saying: instinct is just a word for a thousand small details coming together at the back of your mind.
‘Well here we are,’ Jane kept to the side of the cavemouth as she called out. ‘This took a lot of planning, so it must be important to you. Sadly it’s just me. Dragon had to leave.’
She waited. Then heard footsteps approaching the entrance. She raised her dragonblade and waited. No weapon appeared, no sword, no arrow. Her adversary peered out into the sunlight, blinked, and turned to her.
‘You!’ said Jane.