The following short story comes to us courtesy of Mark Sehestedt—author of this month's novel release: The Fall of Highwatch. This first book in his Forgotten Realms trilogy returns to the wild tundra of Narfell—and to familiar faces from his first book Frostfell—as well as bringing forward new and dangerous villains from distant planes.
1. A very serious problem
They found the corpses late in the afternoon, two days out from the fortress of Highwatch.
"Where are the riders?"
Ardan said it more to himself, but Soran, standing behind him, answered. "No tracks leading out of here except for wolves'."
The two men stood in the middle of a clearing, walled by a high peak to the north and the lower foothills to the south. Though the priest's calendars showed spring to be well underway, snow still covered most of Narfell, and here in the lower Giantspires, the only difference between spring and winter was that the sun—little more than a bit of cloud slightly paler than the rest of the gray sky—managed to rise a bit earlier and stay a bit later; it did little to push back the cold, even at midday.
Though tears blurred his vision and he looked through a cloud of his own frozen breath, Ardan could not force himself to turn away. In front of him, two dead scythe wings—mounts of the Knights of Ondrahar—lay in the snow, their batlike wings broken and torn, a long trail of blood staining the snow around them. Ravens and other scavengers had taken the beasts' eyes and chewed away the lips so that the four saberlike fangs surrounded by double rows of smaller teeth stretched in a permanent grin. But flesh and bone was missing from the beasts' torsos—a great deal of flesh and bone, considering that a scythe wing's body was easily as big as a cave bear's. Whatever had killed the scythe wings had feasted afterward, and it was far more than ravens or wolves could account for. And there was no sign of their riders.
"What could have done such a thing?"
Again, Ardan said it more to himself. But this time, Soran had no answer.
The first sign of trouble had come over a month ago. With spring gaining its meager foothold on the steppe, the Nar were beginning to break their winter camps. Those coming out of the north spoke of parties going out to hunt and never coming home, of entire clans disappearing.
Vandalar, the Warden of Highwatch and Ardan's father, suspected it was the usual mountain rabble. Some hobgoblin chieftain's ambition had likely outgrown its caution. If so, it would be wise to put a stop to it before they could become more than a nuisance.
The north country over the arm of the mountains and Icelace Lake was under Ardan's watch, but he found himself remaining in Highwatch. His daughter Hweilan was being particularly troublesome this winter. Most recently, guardsmen had caught her hunting cats in the alleys of Kistrad, below the castle, and when they'd marched her home, the confrontation hadn't been pleasant.
"Hunting cats, Hweilan?" Merah, her mother, kept her voice low, but Ardan recognized the flush in her cheeks as a sign of her building fury. Although Merah had lived among the Damarans for almost fifteen years, she had been born among a people who wandered the wild lands to the east. The slight cant to her eyes and sharp point to her ears showed that her lineage was not entirely human. She had adopted Damaran ways, dress, and manner, but her daughter, like no other, had the ability to bring out the barbarian chieftain's daughter in Merah. "What were you thinking?"
"I wasn't hunting-hunting them," said Hweilan, ten years old. She had the dark hair of her father's family, but her mother showed in her lean build and features. "I used fowling arrows—no points—and I wrapped the ends with a ball of wool and cloth. It didn't hurt them. Much."
"But . . . cats?" Her mother shook her head. "Why?"
"Scith says we can't go real hunting till the snows break, and I don't want to get soft. I started with the herds outside the village, but cattle can't really hide and they're too stupid to run. They just snort and move away, and the herd chief told me he'd thrash me—Warden's kin or no—if he caught me again. And dogs just run. They're too easy to catch. No fun. But cats are crafty."
"Because cats are solitary hunters," said Scith from where he leaned on the wall near the room's one window. He was a huntsman of one of the Nar tribes who served the High Warden as an intermediary between the Damarans and local human tribes. He'd taken Hweilan under his wing as a sort of surrogate niece. "A cat can—"
"Do not encourage her!" said Merah. Scith clamped his jaw shut and lowered his eyes.
"Easy, Merah," said Ardan. "It's not his fault."
Ardan turned his daughter to face him. He looked down on her, doing his best to put on a look of grave solemnity. But he saw the set of Hweilan's jaw, her stiff back, and the hard look in her eye. He knew that ordering her would only strengthen her resolve. When she thought she was right, no amount of punishment would bend her.
Ardan knelt so that he had to look up at her. He said, "Think about what you've done, Hweilan. The cats of Kistrad may be crafty, but they're not wild. The villagers depend on them to hunt the rats. If the cats are hurt—"
"But I didn't hurt—!"
"If the cats are hurt, intended or not, or if you have them scared so skittish that they won't hunt the rats, the village will be overrun with rats by high summer. Rats breed disease. Is that what you want, Hweilan?"
Her brow furrowed as she considered. "If I scare the cats, they won't hunt the rats?"
Hweilan's eyes lit. "Then I'll hunt the rats! If you just give me back my bow, I'll—"
A loud snort cut her off. Everyone looked to its source. Scith, half-turned away, was biting his palm, tears leaking from his eyes. Seeing everyone watching him—Merah with steadily growing fury—he wiped away the tears, swallowed, and bowed. "Your pardon my lord and ladies," he said, then walked stiffly—but very quickly—out of the room.
Merah slammed the door behind him. Still, the thick wood could not drown out the sounds of the Nar's laughter.
Hweilan said, "Does that mean I can have my bow?"
Being confined to the castle and village was driving the little hellion mad. So Ardan had sent out his second, Gueren, with two other riders—Hailac, Ardan's former squire and a knight for less than a year, and Imner—to patrol the north country and spent time with his daughter. For two tendays the knights found nothing beyond the usual mountain rabble and Nar tribes.
But then, four days ago, on a day when Ardan had chosen to remain behind to deal with Hweilan's latest mischief, the riders hadn't come back at all.
Ardan prepared a search party. At first light, he and his four companions were tightening the saddles and harnesses upon their scythe wings when Hailac's mount returned to the eyrie. The scythe wing was torn and bloody, and one leg a shattered mess so that its landing was little more than a barely-controlled crash. Bloody foam dripped from its jaws, and one eye was gone. The claw marks along its side were wide and deep—bigger even than the massive cave bears of the lower mountains could make. The healers said the scythe wing would live, but he'd never fly in battle again.
The search party was called off. It had become something else.
They were going hunting.
Companies of five riders each spread out over the north country, ranging from the westernmost peaks of the Giantspires to the lands of the Qu'ima east of Icelace Lake.
Ardan knew where he had sent his patrol, but that didn't necessarily mean that was where they had run into trouble. Still, it was the best place to begin looking.
Soran led Ardan and three others. They didn't wear full armor like knights of western lands. In Narfell, cold killed more often than steel, especially high in the air where the knights rode, so they dressed for warmth, wrapped in layers of wool and the finest leathers. They fought from the backs of the scythe wings with their blessed bows. In the hands of master archers like Soran and Ardan, their arrows could fly a quarter mile and pierce steel.
The knights followed the arm of the mountains, north then angling east toward Icelace Lake. Like earlier patrols, they saw Nar on the move, the occasional band of hobgoblins or trolls that scampered back into their caves at the sight of the scythe wings. But the deeper the knights flew into the mountains, the emptier the lands became. And still no sign of their missing knights.
On the second day, as the sun's rim neared the peaks to the west, their mounts caught a scent on the wind. The scythe wings roared and fought against their reins, wanting to dive. Scythe wings had poor sight, but the beasts' sense of smell rivaled any hound's, and they knew the scent of their own.
Soran and Ardan put arrows to their bowstrings, and while the other knights kept vigil above, let their mounts take them down to a steep valley where the mountains met the highest foothills. Shattered pines littered the floor of the valley, and in the midst of a small clearing carpeted with blood and snow lay the two dead scythe wings and no sign of their riders.
They stood in silence a long time, each man staring at the carnage before them. Ardan heard Soran begin to pace, and saw that the older knight walked with his gaze fixed to the ground, searching for signs.
Ardan took a deep breath—time to push the horror to the back of his mind and do something useful—and searched in the other direction.
Most of the snow, ice, and ground beneath had been trampled. The slight melting of the snow during the hottest part of the day, which then froze again at night, had softened the edges of everything. The few tracks he found were mostly from scavengers—wolves, ravens, vultures, a wolverine—but not a single boot print.
He walked a bit farther out, then saw it.
"Here!" he called. Soran ran to him and looked down at the ground where he was pointing.
Ardan said, "Look how the snow has been swept flat there, and crested almost to a wave on one side."
"A tail," said Soran. "Something's tail swept through the snow."
"Yes," said Ardan. "A very large tail. And look here."
They walked to the other side of the area of flattened snow to where more snow and soil had been churned up. Most of it was an unrecognizable mess, but in one bit of deep snow, hardened by the day's crust of ice, was a footprint over a yard across, the front of it gouged deep by four massive claws.
"What could have made that?" said Ardan.
Soran was silent a moment, then he removed his helmet and bent in close over the print. His ice-blue eyes fixed on the print before them, and Ardan saw the flush pale from Soran's cheeks. "I've only seen one in my life, and never close, but if it's what I think it is, we have a very serious problem on our hands."
"What?" said Ardan.
Soran looked up. "A dragon. And a damned big one."
2. The wizard
They remounted and rejoined their companions, and Soran led them to a level table of rock only a few hundred feet from the mountain's peak. There wasn't room for every rider and mount, so the scythe wings landed one at a time, and after its rider dismounted, took to the air again. Once everyone was gathered, Soran told them what he and Ardan had found.
"The other patrols must be warned," said Soran, "we are likely hunting a dragon."
"And Highwatch," Ardan said. Seeing the slaughtered scythe wings in the snow, knowing that the men he had sent out in his place were likely dead, still his first thoughts went to Hweilan and Merah. "Highwatch must be warned."
"Yes," said Soran. "I want the fortress watch doubled, and during daylight hours I want three knights in the air over the valley at all times."
"And what of you two?" said Lathram, Soran's second.
Ardan answered for him. "We're going after Gueren, Hailac, and Imner."
Udila, a hawk-faced woman with graying hair, looked hard at Soran and said, "After what you saw . . . you really think there's any hope they—?"
"Hope or not," said Ardan, "I won't stop looking till I know for certain."
Soran nodded his approval. "You have your orders. Get to them."
Soran and Ardan continued their search until the blurry eye of the sun fell beneath the mountains. They'd found nothing. With daylight fading fast, they made camp for the night. Scythe wings were creatures of the mountains, never comfortable on the ground and able to sleep perched on sheer cliffs. They settled in a high mountain valley where they had a bit of flat ground for sleeping, a rock wall behind them and small trees in front to keep off the worst of the wind. Above, on a sheer basalt cliff, their mounts could perch above them during the night.
Ardan and Soran huddled close to the fire, eating cold rations. An iron kettle boiled tea over the fire. Silence held round the fire for a long time, each man staring into the flames.
"Killing a dragon," said Soran, pausing as he lifted the kettle off the flames with his dagger, "is no easy task. Judging by the size of that track, we're dealing with a big one, which means it's old and cunning. But . . . dragons are territorial beasts by nature. The fact that this is the first season we've had trouble makes me think this particular monster has come here recently. Which means it won't know these lands as well as we do. That gives us one advantage, small as it may be."
"The men," said Ardan.
"We found their mounts, half-eaten. Hailac's barely escaped with his life. But of the men . . . not so much as a boot print. They might still be alive."
Soran put one of his gloves back on so that he could grasp the hot kettle. He poured tea into small tin cups and handed one to Ardan. "They weigh heavily on you," he said. "Especially Hailac."
"I sent them," said Ardan, "while I stayed home."
"You have a family. That is a sacred responsibility. You did no wrong, Ardan. You carry this guilt needlessly. Besides"—a mischievous glint lit Soran's eye; it was the closest he ever came to smiling—"with Hweilan, you carry a heavier burden than any man in Highwatch."
Ardan laughed softly. "Aye. If our brotherhood had only half that little hellcat's spirit, the mountain tribes would never dare leave their caves."
"Given her parents, I would expect nothing less."
Ardan nodded his thanks. The people of Damara were known for valuing deeds above blood. A person's actions counted for more than their lineage. But among many of the Damarans in Highwatch—especially Ardan's mother and the other ladies of the court—Merah's acceptance had been grudgingly given. There was still little love lost between them. But Ardan knew that Soran and his father did not share the sentiment. Vandalar in particular loved Merah as his own daughter. On the day before their wedding, he had told Ardan, "Treat her well, my son. You're one of the finest men I've ever known. You make a father's heart proud. But even you aren't worthy of that one. Pray to the Loyal Fury every day that she never realizes that."
Ardan had smiled and replied, "Even if she doesn't know it, I do."
If Vandalar loved and admired Merah, he adored his granddaughter. The word "doting" hardly described it. She was the center of his heart.
Ardan's thoughts turned back to the matter at hand. "Hailac . . . damn it all, he's little more than a boy."
"You're wrong," said Soran. "Hailac is young, but he's a knight, and servant of Torm, the Loyal Fury. He left his boyhood behind when he took his oath. Have faith."
"You really think they might be alive?"
Soran put his cup down and looked Ardan in the eye. "My heart fears the worst, but my faith clings to hope."
"And if they are dead?"
"Then the Loyal Fury will lead us to their killer, and he should pray we're swift."
"Better to pray your brothers are dead." The voice came from the darkness beyond the glow of their little fire, and it brought Ardan and Soran to their feet.
Backs to the fire, their hands went to their weapons—Soran drawing steel and Ardan grabbing his bow and pulling an arrow to his cheek. Both man whispered prayers to Torm, the god of law, and the runes carved into their weapons lit with an angry light.
"Peace!" said the voice, and a cloaked figure emerged from the darkness.
"Name yourself," said Soran. The point of his blade did not waver.
A figure, draped in a long cloak and hood of oiled leather, stepped into the light. He said, "I am Quen Tahab."
The man reached up and dropped the hood so that it rested upon his shoulders. His hair, in need of washing, hung past his ears, and as he brushed it aside with his fingers, he revealed a livid scar. It twisted the left side of his face into a permanent sneer, and the eye it crossed stared out in a blank, milky gray. He spread his open hands, displaying that he held no weapons. Under his cloak, he wore scaled leather, etched or stitched with symbols and runes that Ardan had never seen before.
Resting on his left forearm was a sleek falcon, its underside a pure white like new snow under sudden sunshine, its head, back, and wings a gold so pure that Ardan could have sworn they were glowing.
"How did you come here?" said Ardan. Their scythe wings, still perched on the cliff face above, had not even stirred.
Quen Tahab smiled and flourished his cloak. For a moment, Ardan thought he saw the symbols glitter with a pale blue light. "I have my ways," he said.
Ardan noted the man's accent. He spoke flawless Common, but with a strange pronunciation, measured and precise.
Quen Tahab looked at the point of Ardan's arrow and smiled. "You are lords of this land, yes?"
Soran's gaze didn't shift from him. "We serve the Warden of Highwatch, who guards these lands in the name of Torm."
"Then we have much to discuss," said Quen Tahab. "May I share your fire?"
Soran's blade didn't waver.
Quen Tahab gave them a smile twisted by his face-long scar, and said, "I have had a long road, and by the Blessing, I find myself amongst friends. Shall we stand here all night, or be more comfortable by the fire? I will gladly answer any questions you have. But I could use some of your tea."
"You say you serve the guardian of this land," said Quen Tahab. He sipped at the tin cup filled with tea. The falcon perched on the man's knee and watched the knights. Quen Tahab swallowed then inhaled the thick steam coming out of the cup. "You have a most grave problem then."
"You mean the dragon," said Soran.
Quen Tahab started. "You know?"
"We . . . suspected," said Soran. "We have not seen the beast, but tales have been coming out of the hills for tendays about folk gone missing. Earlier today we found the slaughtered remains of some of our mounts. And one very big footprint."
"And two of our number have disappeared," said Ardan.
"Only two, eh?" Quen Tahab's face twisted around his ruined eye. "Count yourself blessed then."
"Blessed!" Ardan said, real anger in his voice.
Soran raised a hand to silence him. "It is a dragon then? You know beyond doubt?"
"A dragon?" Quen Tahab chuckled. "This isn't just a dragon. You and every man, woman, child, and beast in this land are now prey. Your land is now haunted by Gurgurthuran the Winter Scourge. You're both now dead men if you're blessed; thralls, if your god has looked away from you."
Soran's eyes narrowed. "You tread perilously close to blasphemy."
Quen Tahab shrugged. "I'm a wizard. It's one of the privileges."
"Not at my fire."
The wizard tossed the dregs of his tea into the fire. It hissed and steam rose between them. The falcon screeched in annoyance. "I am far from home, and my trials have left me ill-mannered," he said. "I beg your forgiveness."
"You know this dragon?" said Soran. "Tell us of it."
"Him," said Quen Tahab. "Do not think of Gurgurthuran as an ‘it,' as some beast to hunt. Gurgurthuran is an ancient mind, cruel and cunning beyond the grasp of mortal men. Look at my face, lords. This ruin is what comes from underestimating the Winter Scourge."
The wizard turned his face so that it caught the full light of the fire. His ruined eye seemed dull and lifeless, even in the warm light of the fire. That side of his face was a mass of scar tissue, and along his jaw, his beard grew only in sparse tufts. The scar ran down his neck and disappeared beneath his clothes.
"You have faced it—him before?" said Ardan.
Quen Tahab laughed, but there was no mirth in it. It held the pain of bitter memory.
"I come from lands to the west—far, far away—where my people suffer under the rule of dragons. Most people are little more than slaves. But there are some among us who dare to resist. Some who have sworn to spend their lives destroying our oppressors and bringing freedom to our people. I would like to tell you that I am one of those brave souls and have always been. But I am not. I was born a thrall. Worse, I was born a fool. I thought that if we obeyed that monster, cowered before him and obeyed as good little slaves, we could live in peace. I scoffed at those who said otherwise. Once, I even informed against them. As punishment for the growing rebellion, Gurgurthuran and his minions attacked our village. Our ‘beneficent master' made no distinction between the loyal and the traitorous. I lost my wife, my children, and any hope of happiness I'd ever had."
Hearing the wizard's tale, Ardan could see it in his mind—but not this strange land or its people. He could see only Merah and Hweilan, and the thought of the dragon coming to Highwatch, the ruin . . .
"You have our sincere sympathies," said Soran.
"Sympathies?" Quen Tahab snorted. "Keep them. I don't want them."
"You said you come from lands far to the west. Why then is this monster here?"
"To shorten a very long tale," said Quen Tahab, "we succeeded in driving Gurgurthuran from our land. Most of our people were content to rejoice at his departure, but not I. A few of us swore to see Gurgurthuran dead, or die in the attempt. We followed the dragon, harrying him across Faerûn. We almost killed him two years ago, in realms west of Damara. We would have killed him had our allies not betrayed us." A spasm of pain twisted his features. "We came so close. Now I am the last, but I will kill him. Or die trying."
Silence settled in, broken only by the crackling of the flames. Soran seemed lost in his own thoughts.
Ardan spoke. "You know for certain this Gurgurthuran has settled in our lands?"
"No doubt in my mind, my lord. I have devoted my life to finding and killing these creatures—and this particular creature especially. I know him. I know the way his twisted mind works. The way he moves, the way he eats, his . . . his stench. And that stench has taken up residence in your land. Why? I know not. I and my companions—may they rest in the Blessing—have harried him for thousands of miles. Why he has chosen to hole up here . . . I don't know. And I don't care. Don't give a half-damn. My only desire is to kill him."
Quen Tahab told them the dragon had taken up residence in a cavern once inhabited by some of the local tribes. He'd been watching the area for two days and had seen no sign of the hobgoblins, which meant that they were either dead or had been run off. A spring, which had carved out the cavern over the millennia, ran out of the cave and into a nearby lake. The fresh runoff out of the deep ground kept the near end of the lake from freezing.
No one spoke for a long while as they weighed these things in their minds, and the fire began to burn down to embers. Ardan tossed on a bit more wood, then said, "Pray they are dead."
"What?" said Quen Tahab.
"Your words," said Ardan. "When you came to us out of the dark, you said, 'Pray your brothers are dead.'"
"I meant," said Quen Tahab, "that if your friends were indeed taken by Gurgurthuran, it would be best for them if they already sleep the peace of death. Gurgurthuran likes fresh meat."
Ardan felt his face grow hot. "How do we kill him?"
"We? Ha!" Quen Tahab's grin had an unmistakable mockery to it. "We don't. You think you and your flying beasts are a match for Gurgurthuran?"
"That monster killed my knights," said Ardan. "My friends."
"Dying yourself will not bring them back," Quen Tahab said. "Even if you could defeat him—and I very much doubt that, no offence intended—Gurgurthuran is mine."
Ardan opened his mouth to speak, but Soran cut him off. "And how do you expect to kill the dragon?"
"I have long prepared for this," said the wizard. He took a large pouch off his belt, untied the flap, and removed a dark bundle bound with tight cord. He pulled off his gloves with his teeth, and Ardan gasped at the sight. Like his face, the wizard's hands were a wreck. Several fingers had no nails, and the skin over both hands was a mottled mess of scar tissue—some of it still pink and shiny, as if from a recently healed wound.
The wizard very carefully untied the cord from the bundle, then unfolded it. Inside, resting on a bed of lamb's wool, were two stones, smooth and shiny as glass, more ovular than round, and though they were dark as sapphires, the light of their campfire caught in their heart and winked back a sharp red that seemed to burn the back of Ardan's eyes. He had to look away after a moment.
"What are those?" said Soran.
"What they are called hardly matters," said Quen Tahab. "What they do . . . What do you know of the Art?"
"Magic?" said Soran.
"Magic, yes. Not much, I deem. Nor do I think you'd care much for a lesson. Suffice to say that each spell—from the simplest cantrip to the deadliest battle magic—must be carefully crafted and executed. Any mishap, and they will not work. Quite a danger when the Winter Scourge is staring down at you. But these stones . . . they are a rare treasure indeed, and as far as I know, these two are the last specimens of their kind. Ancient beyond the most secret lore of the wizards of Abeir. Prepared correctly—and I have spent years preparing these two—they are like containers."
"Containers?" said Ardan.
Quen Tahab took one of the stones and held it between his finger and thumb. "Every spell, once it is triggered, once it does its work, it is spent. These little beauties allow me to store several spells at once, and release them. Fire, lightning, the deadliest arcane powers . . . all in concert and at my command."
"Impressive," said Soran. "And these particular spells you have prepared . . . they are strong enough to kill the dragon?"
Quen Tahab concentrated on putting away the stones. When they were safely stowed away, he said, "Once before, I tried. Our second meeting in our homeland, the one that drove Gurgurthuran away at last . . . It hurt him quite badly."
"But didn't kill him," said Ardan.
Quen Tahab gave him a withering look. "Obviously. Gurgurthuran is an ancient monster, his scales thick as winter ice and hard as iron."
"Enough," said Quen Tahab. "I will say no more on this. Gurgurthuran may well have spies around—eyes, ears, or worse. This particular advantage, I will keep to myself."
"You mean the dragon could be watching us, even now?" said Soran. "He may already know we're coming?"
"Quite likely, yes."
"Loyal Fury save us," Soran muttered.
Quen Tahab grinned and flourished his cloak. "Go back to your home, my lords. Stay out of my way, and pray to your god that Gurgurthuran dies. Because if I fail, this will be a very bad summer for you. Perhaps your last."
"Three of our men are missing," said Ardan. "I sent them into danger while I stayed behind once already. I won't do it again."
Quen Tahab scowled and looked to Soran, who said, "These lands are our sacred charge. If you go to face this dragon, we go with you. We will fight from the air, on our mounts and with our arrows. Your dragon flies, does he not?"
"Oh yes. He'll take to wing if need be, but Gurgurthuran and his ilk are not strong fliers. He's clumsy in the air. He prefers to stay on the ground—or even water. Make no mistake: Gurgurthuran is ancient and crafty. Go against the Winter Scourge, and he will lure you to the ground. By force or trickery, he'll get you down. And then he'll kill you."
"Nevertheless," Soran said, "it is our duty to protect these lands. It is the will of Torm."
The wizard scowled and stared into the fire a long time. He didn't look up when he spoke. "Have it your way, my lords. You might even prove useful.
"Here's how it will be: You circle over Gurgurthuran's lair, you and your winged beasts. Make as much noise as you can. Draw him out. Let me do the rest."
3. The dragon
Despite the wizard's assurance that he would deal with the dragon, Ardan and Soran prepared for battle. They rose before even the first gray glow of dawn shadowed the eastern sky. After morning prayers and a light meal, they cinched every saddle-strap tight, checked safety harnesses then checked again, and securely fastened the faceplates of their helmets.
Both men flew with arrows held to bowstrings and prayers on their lips. The sun rose behind a thick layer of cloud, giving the sky the color of old copper. Ahead, Ardan saw the peak that the wizard had described—a basalt ridge rising well above the tree line, broken on the eastern face so that it formed a cliff wall several hundred feet high. They were still over half a mile away, and if Quen Tahab's description proved true, the entrance to the cavern lay on the far side.
Soran led them westward around the mountain so that they could circle around and approach from the north. Ardan looked down as his mount banked. The thick pine woods covering the foothills still lay deep in dawn shadows. But nothing moved below. No bears awakening from their winter sleep. No ravens in the trees. Not even an eagle or hawk taking to the air for a morning hunt.
The knights came round the peak, and Ardan saw it. Just as the wizard had described. A black fissure split the base of the cliff, and a frothing stream spilled out of it, tumbling over rocks through the valley below before filling a small lake. The far side of the lake lay frozen under a thick blanket of snow, but the side nearest the spring was unfrozen.
The scythe wings dipped out of the air currents coming off the peak, and a stench hit Ardan—thick, cloying, and musky. It made Ardan's eyes water, and he could taste the tang of metal on his tongue. The air, already bitterly cold, seemed suddenly frigid and hard. Ardan's heart beat double-time. The world around him had changed on some primal level, in some way his intellect could not explain but some older part of his brain could feel. Ardan found himself very aware, every sense sharp, every detail clear, from the smell and taste of the air, to the air whistling through his helmet, to the tense movements of his mount's muscles beneath him. But running through it all, like a deep underground current, was a fear Ardan had not felt in a long time. His breath came in short gasps, and the hand grasping his bow trembled. He felt frightened down to his marrow.
From ahead came the high drone of Soran's horn—two long blasts.
Both scythe wings let out a long bellow that seemed to shatter the brittle air. Ardan's helmet rang like a bell, and the distant cliff wall vibrated like a drum struck. Bits of ice and snow broke loose from ledges along the rock face and littered the valley below.
Utter silence followed. The scythe wings ceased beating their wings and glided on the air. As his mount banked, Ardan looked down. The valley was all broken stone and stunted, winter-bare brush, and the snow covering it looked rock hard. Quen Tahab stood facing the entrance to the cavern about a hundred yards away. The golden hawk flitted around him, adding its harsh cries to the bellows of the scythe wings.
They were less than a hundred feet from the ground. Three short blasts from Soran's horn, and the scythe wings each went its own direction, their black leathery wings fighting the air to climb higher. Scythe wings were strong fliers but they were not graceful, and Ardan had to buck and weave with the rhythm of the great beast to keep his bones from rattling. When they had climbed another hundred feet, the knights spread far apart and circled. Ardan's mount dipped into a turn, giving him a wide view of the valley.
He was looking straight down when felt it. Another change in the air. Something was hap—
A cloud billowed out of the cavern. It didn't drift or creep like a fog. It spewed like a geyser, but rather than steam, hard crystals of ice bounced and skittered across the rocks as it spread.
As the cloud began to settle, Ardan saw that the valley under the cliff was no longer empty. The dragon had come.
At first Ardan saw it as a blue shape within the cloud, and the size of the monster made his breath catch in his throat. But as the last of the ice fell to ground, Gurgurthuran stood revealed in the murky morning light. His body was easily as big as Soran's scythe wing—the largest of the knights' mounts. But where the scythe wings were all lithe muscle covered in wooly fur, the dragon had bones thick as pine trunks, and the taut muscles wrapping them rippled with strength. His claws rent through ice and snow to rake the rock beneath. His neck was at least three times the height of a man, and his tail twice that length again. His thick hide was the dark blue of the eastern horizon at summer sunset, and the membranes of his wings the pale blue of snow shadows. Thick ridges of serrated bone ran down his head and neck. His eyes seemed small in his wedge-shaped head, but Ardan could feel their gaze on him.
Beautiful was the word that came to mind. It was a terrible, even monstrous beauty, but it left Ardan awestruck nonetheless.
Gurgurthuran spread his wings, and let forth a roar that struck with a physical force. Ardan clenched his jaw and gripped his bow to keep it from slipping from his hands.
A flash of light, sun-bright, shot from the wizard's staff and struck the dragon in the chest. The light shattered and sizzled as it broke over him, then faded.
The dragon looked down, seeming more perturbed than hurt by the attack. He fixed his gaze on the wizard, and even from his great height Ardan heard the dragon's eager growl as he leaped.
Gurgurthuran hit the ground and his head snapped down, aiming for the wizard.
But another light flashed, and the wizard was gone.
Quen Tahab stood behind him. The dragon spun, spraying snow and stones before crashing into the lake.
Gurgurthuran struck, but again the wizard disappeared. The dragon returned his attention to the knights circling above.
"Soran?" Ardan called.
"Hold position!" Soran called.
The dragon crouched, tensing its muscles to leap, and the wizard appeared behind him. Quen Tahab stepped forward, punched the air, and a jagged shard of lighting lit the air, striking the dragon.
The beast roared—more in surprise than pain, Ardan thought—and swept its tail at the wizard.
But again, Quen Tahab disappeared.
Gurgurthuran slammed his tail on the ground in frustration, bringing down a fresh rain of stones and snow from the cliff. As they clattered down the valley floor, Ardan's gaze caught sight of something that made his hammering heart skip a beat.
A small figure scrambled out of the cave. It fell once, skidded a ways, then got up and kept going. Running, both arms spread wide, it tried to maintain its balance down the stone-strewn valley.
"Soran!" Ardan called. "Look! Look there! It's Gueren"
If Soran heard him, he did not respond.
Ardan gave his mount the signal, and they dived. He heard Soran's horn, ordering him back, but he ignored it.
The ground rushed up to meet him, and he brought his scythe wing to a rock-clattering landing between Gueren and the dragon. The man's clothes were torn almost to rags, his pale skin bleeding from dozens of cuts and scrapes, and his eyes shone white with terror.
Ardan spared a glance toward the dragon. The beast's gaze was fixed on Ardan, the black eyes narrow and a mountain-shaking rumble growing in his massive chest.
Scythe wings were awkward and clumsy on the ground, but their devotion to their riders never wavered. Ardan's mount spread its wings and tensed, the massive bone along its forewings that gave the beast its name raised and ready to strike.
Ardan wrenched the reins, turning his mount, and returned his attention to Gueren. "Run! Hurry!"
The dragon charged, his loping gate shaking the ground and rattling Ardan's teeth in his jaw. He raised his bow and pulled an arrow to his cheek.
A flash of gold streaked between him and the dragon, catching the monster's attention. The dragon ground to a skidding halt.
It was the wizard's falcon. The bird flew over the dragon, its harsh cry only slightly louder than the sound of blood rushing through Ardan's skull. It dived for the dragon's head, talons outstretched. In that brief instant, looking down the shaft of his arrow, Ardan saw the morning light catch and wink a flash of blue at the falcon's throat.
But then Gurgurthuran's head shot forward, adder-quick. His jaws opened wide for an instant, then slammed shut over the golden falcon. The muscles of his jaws and neck flexed as he swallowed, then he turned his black-eyed gaze to Ardan.
Ardan muttered a prayer to the Loyal Fury, and the runes along his bow glimmered. He aimed the point of the arrow above the monster's head, accounting for the height the arrow would fall in crossing the distance, then loosed.
The shaft flew straight and true, but Gurgurthuran merely flicked his head to one side—back and forth in two quick motions—and the arrow was knocked aside.
A rumbling growl—the sound of boulders rolling down an ice flow—came from the dragon, and in his heart, Ardan knew the beast was laughing at him. He reached for another arrow—
"Suket oran!" Ardan recognized the wizard's voice, amplified and given arcane strength.
—and Gurgurthuran's chest exploded.
Ardan saw it all, almost as if time had slowed to that of a dream. The great cavity of bone billowed outward, then cracked—the sound like the tearing of oak roots—and bits of burning muscle tore through the scales. Purple flame and green lightning shot outward, sizzling over the ground all around Ardan and his scythe wing.
Gurgurthuran's neck collapsed like a great tree felled beneath an avalanche. Both wings shot outward once in a death spasm then went limp, and the dragon's entire massive form struck the ground, shaking the stones beneath their feet.
The silence that followed was absolute, and it was only when other scythe wings began to land around him that Ardan realized the sound of the arcane detonation had deafened him. A quick glance counted five knights, Lathram and Udila among them. Soran and one other remained in their saddles, surveying the damage, while the others dismounted.
Ardan unstrapped his own saddle harness and slid to the ground. Still half-stunned he walked over to Gueren, who had fallen and lay panting on the rocks. Closer now, Ardan saw that the man's cheeks had sunk under his few days' growth of beard, and blood leaked from his cracked lips. He was shaking all over. but he was alive. Bless the Loyal Fury, he was alive!
The deafness began to recede, replaced by a high-pitched ringing, but beyond it, Ardan could hear other sounds: The knights calling out, stones rattling down the valley, the harsh scrape of the scythe wings claws over the stony ground, and someone shouting in a tone somewhere between exhilaration and fury.
"—it all! I told you not to come to ground. No matter what! Stay in the air, I said!" Quen Tahab ranted as he approached the knights, half-mad with relief and fury.
They had won. One moment, Ardan had been watching his death about to fall on him, and within a few breaths, it was over. Gurgurthuran was dead. Just like that.
But something felt wrong about it. Ardan scanned the area.
The only warning was a slight bulge in the nearest ice on the lake. A ripple, like a fold in the water.
It happened so fast. There was nothing he might have done.
The lake erupted.
Another dragon—like Gurgurthuran in almost every detail, but even larger—surged out of the lake. Its right claw came down on Lathram, smashing him in a crunch of steel and bone.
Quen Tahab didn't even have time to skid to a halt before the dragon's head shot down and the jaws closed over his head and torso. The monster raised and shook its head, and the bottom half of Quen Tahab went flying in a spray of blood and viscera.
The dragon fixed its eyes on the gathered knights.
The nearest scythe wing lurched forward, one wing cocked back to strike. Its rider ran behind and screamed for his mount to retreat. Torn between its fear and fury to attack the dragon and its unswerving obedience to its master, the scythe wing hesitated.
The dragon's head, jaws open wide, fell on the beast, and teeth long as sabers crushed the scythe wing's throat. The animal's bony wings beat against the dragon, but it was futile.
Ardan knew he had moments at best. He ran to Gueren and heaved the man up by his shoulders. The man's clothes were soaked. Ardan shook him and said, "The others?"
Gueren blinked once, then said. "Imner . . . dead. Boy's still in there."
"Hailac?" Ardan began to drag Gueren toward his scythe wing. "Where is he?"
"In the dragon's den."
Ardan set his bow on the ground long enough to help Gueren into the saddle and secure the harness around him. He risked a glance and saw that Soran and Udila had taken to the air again and were loosing arrows at the dragon, who stood with one claw planted in the torn chest cavity of another scythe wing. The scythe wing's rider lay nearby, unmoving. Ardan didn't see the others and couldn't risk the time to look.
"Go!" he told Gueren. "Tell Soran I'm going for Hailac."
Gueren's eyes went wide. "But . . . the dragon."
"I know!" Ardan leaped away and grabbed his bow.
"No!" Gueren said. "Listen!"
"No time!" Ardan replied, then signaled with his wooden whistle. His scythe wing leaped into the air. Gueren was still shouting something as he rose, but Ardan couldn't hear him over the roaring of the dragon.
He turned and ran, hoping that the attacking knights would grant him enough distraction to make it into the cavern unnoticed. He was halfway to the cave when the ground shook with such force that the entire valley seemed to leap out from under him then come crashing back with sudden force. Sharp rocks and ice bit through his sleeves. Ice and snow ground through the visor of his helmet, filling his eyes. With a practiced hand, he ripped away the helmet's strap and threw the heavy brass and leather helmet away. Blinking snow and grit from his eyes, he saw that the dragon had taken down another scythe wing—with a rider still in the saddle. It was Udila.
There was nothing Ardan could do for her. Still blinking tears, he turned and planted his free hand to push himself up. His glove slipped with a distinctive squish. When he looked down, he was staring into a pile of guts and blood strung out from the torn remains of two legs and most of the adjoining hips. All that was left of Quen Tahab. With no support, the belt had come off, and his shredded pouch lay open. In a ragged mess of bloody cloth and lamb's wool, something glittered—a sharp red glow in the midst of an eye of deepest blue. It was the last of the wizard's stones.
Ardan grabbed it and ran.
The stench inside the cave was overwhelming—thick but with no warmth at all, it stung Ardan's eyes and singed his throat with each breath. Inside, the cave led upward, into the inner heights of the cliff. The ceiling arched overhead—twice the height of the great hall in Highwatch. Fissures in the rock—some as thin as spider webs, others a handspan wide—let in the gray morning light, but the water crashing down the rocks from the spring in the heart of the mountain cast up a mist that hid everything in a frosty murk.
The cave was too cold for moss to grow there, but too warm for ice to form. Still, the constant mist made the rocks slick, and Ardan used his free hand to cling to the rocks as he climbed deeper and deeper into the cave. Outside the cave, he could hear the roar of the dragon and the bellowing of the scythe wings, but the ground had stopped shaking.
A few hundred paces into the cavern, the walls and ceiling drew in. The cave was still vast, but the fissures that cut through the mountain expanded as they met the floor, forming three large passages and several smaller ones. Ardan realized the flaw in his plan. In his haste to send Gueren off to safety, he had neglected to ask where Hailac might be. The Giantspire Mountains were veined with hundreds of caves, perhaps thousands. For all Ardan knew, this particular cave might wind for five hundred miles into the dark. And he'd brought no torch.
Outside, the dragon roared so loud that bits of dirt fell from the ceiling. Ardan kept going, and as he neared the first of the passages, he decided to risk a shout.
"Hailac! Hailac, where are you?"
He stopped at the entrance to the nearest—and largest—of the passages, his ears straining to hear anything in front of him.
Nothing but the cacophony of the dragon outside.
"It's Ardan! Call out and I will come to you!"
Outside, silence fell, and Ardan held his breath. Had he been heard?
The stone trembled beneath his boots. Footsteps. Each one stronger than the last.
The dragon was coming.
Ardan gripped the stone in a tight fist, muttered a desperate prayer, and plunged into the passage.
The deeper he went into the cave, the smaller and fewer the fissures in the ceiling became, making the light much dimmer. But once his eyes became accustomed, Ardan could see well enough. He plunged on, keeping the stream ever on his right, sometimes even plunging through small pools and soaking his trousers up to the knees in the frigid water.
The trembling of the floor was growing stronger, but the passages were getting tighter. Still more than large enough for the dragon to pass, but he prayed it would at least slow the beast.
Ardan's breath came in ragged gasps, and despite the moist air, his tongue and throat felt as dry as old boot leather, and rubbed raw by the foul air.
Another hundred yards and the fissures in the rock diminished as did the sunlight.
Ardan slowed, but then a roar from behind him swallowed his entire world. Standing there in the dark, sightless as a newborn pup, the roar of the monster drowned out all his other senses. For a moment, he didn't even feel the cold.
It spurred him on. The passage leveled out, the roar of the stream became more of an ever present hum, and he broke into a full run. The hand that held the bow he kept outstretched before him so that he wouldn't run headfirst into a rock wall.
He'd pounded no more than a dozen steps when his boot struck water. Two more steps and he was in frigid water up to his knees, and he fell forward with a splash. The cold seemed to suck the breath out of his lungs. From the rock under his feet and even in the water in which he lay, he could feel a recurring vibration, as if the whole world had turned into the skin of a drum on which some giant pounded.
Ardan pushed himself out of the water and floundered forward. The ground shook so violently he had a hard time keeping his balance.
His right fist suddenly flared with light—so bright and intense that it shone through bone, flesh, and his leather glove—Quen Tahab's stone had come to brilliant life. In that instant of light Ardan saw that he was standing thigh-deep in a steaming pool. But the air was cold enough that the steam only rose a foot or so above the water, and beyond he could see a small island made of a thousand years of detritus. How far the cavern's walls were beyond the light, he couldn't see. Beyond, all was blackness.
Ardan rushed forward, the water growing shallower with each step. Behind him, he could hear the dragon—claws splashing through the stream, rending stone, and under it all the rasp of scales. So close—
Ardan was accustomed to fighting in the air, and he knew that on the ground he had no chance against the dragon. Here, in the very heart of the dragon's lair, he had less chance than a snowball in forge fire. He knew the dragon had him. But he would not go down easy. Flight had failed. Time to fight.
Ardan tossed the wizard's stone away from him, reached for an arrow, and began to turn to face his foe.
The stone had lost most of its initial brilliance, but it still shone with a soft blue light, still had that angry fire at its heart. The light shone over something that made Ardan freeze—half-turned around, the shaft of an arrow caught between two fingers and most of the way out of the quiver.
The island was covered in more than just detritus: broken weapons, shattered bones, and what Ardan in that first moment thought were beautiful, ovular stones. Their mottled surface glowed like frost-covered sapphires in the magic light. Each was slightly larger than the helmet he had cast aside. They were not stones, but eggs. Nine of them. Why Gurgurthuran had settled here and why there had been two dragons now seemed clear.
And just beyond them, a human face stared back at him. Haggard and haunted, thin and pale, still there was no mistaking it—Hailac. The boy lay against a boulder, his arms and most of his torso covered in some sort of thick resin that shone with a wet glisten.
Wind pushed against Ardan's cheek, and with it a smell that brought tears to his eyes and made his throat clench.
Wrenching his eyes away from Hailac and the eggs, he turned to see the dragon enter the chamber.
Blood and gore dripped from the monster's jaws. Arrow shafts—some sunk up to their fletching in the dragon's scales—decorated the dragon's head and neck. The dragon's gaze swept over the chamber, and Ardan, who had never seen such a magnificent beast in his life, even he could see the surprise—and was it fear?—as her eyes lit on the glowing stone. But then the eyes rested on Ardan. They narrowed to black slits, and he felt the weight of their gaze pressing on his mind. Surpassing even horror. Ardan felt nothing but utter and complete awe. The arrow dropped from his nerveless fingers and clattered on the ground.
The dragon stepped forward, one taloned foot splashing into the pool, and lowered her head to Ardan's level. She opened her jaws and drew in a deep breath.
Held by that gaze, knowing his heart was likely down to its last few beats before going forever silent, Ardan didn't think of Hailac behind him, his comrades outside, of his duty to Highwatch, or even of Torm. The only thought that managed to break though to his frozen brain was the image of Merah and Hweilan, his wife and daughter. Seeing them, holding their image in his heart, he wanted to live. He demanded it.
And with that, a glimmer of hope came to him.
Ardan leaped back and pointed at the stone, still glowing where he had tossed it, only a few feet from the eggs.
"No!" he shouted. "One more move, and I say the words."
The dragon didn't move. Wasn't even breathing as near as Ardan could tell.
"You will die," the dragon said. Ardan wasn't sure if the beast spoke, or if the creature's dauntless will had forced the words into his mind.
"Yes," he said, "but so will every one of your young. And, very likely, so will you. You saw what this stone's brother did to your mate. We will all die here, together, and the mountain will fall on our heads. No one will even remember your name."
In truth, he wasn't sure the stone would even obey his command. He remembered the wizard's incantation, but he was no wizard. Had never studied the Art. But the dragon didn't know that.
The dragon let out a great breath, and steam billowed out, hiding her. But when it settled Ardan saw that she had stepped aside, clearing a path. Her jaw was closed, but her eyes were still fixed on Ardan.
"Go," she said.
Ardan didn't dare look away, but he replied, "The boy comes with me."
"The stone too."
Until she said that, Ardan had fully intended to take the stone with him, but once the eggs were safe, he realized, there would be nothing to hold back the dragon's fury.
"No," he said. "Once we are gone, you can do with it what you will."
"I'm not giving you a choice," said Ardan. "Do as I say, and you can drop the stone down the deepest pit. Don't do as I say, and we can all die here together. Now." He waved his free hand in what he hoped was a good imitation of a wizard's gesture. "Suket or—!"
"No!" The dragon roared, deafening Ardan, and the sheer force of will that struck his mind made lights dance before his eyes. "Take him then. Take him and go."
Ardan stepped backward toward Hailac, but kept his eyes fixed on the dragon.
"Hailac?" he said.
The boy said something, but Ardan couldn't understand it. Wasn't even sure there were words there or just terrified gibberish.
Ardan drew his dagger and stabbed at the substance encasing Hailac. He looked back at the dragon. She still had not moved, so Ardan set to work. The substance was hard, like old tree sap. His steel sliced away at it—hard and fast. Hailac still had on the thick leathers and wool, and if he suffered a gash, it would be a small price to pay to be out of the caverns.
Ardan heard movement and looked up, sure that the dragon was descending upon them. But she crouched motionless as before, the steam of her breath leaking between her jaws. What then—?
The nearest egg moved. A slight tremor, like a cricket crawling under a piece of thick parchment. But with the movement came a distinct crack! And Ardan thought he saw a hairline fracture snake its way up the surface of the egg.
"Loyal Fury save us." Ardan dropped the knife, praying he had cleared enough away, grabbed a fistful of Hailac's clothes, and yanked.
For the first time a semblance of awareness returned to Hailac's eyes. They widened at the sight of the dragon. His jaw trembled, and his body spasmed. It tore him out of Ardan's grip, but it also tore him out of the last of the muck.
Ardan kept his voice low and even. "Run, Hailac."
The boy swallowed and just stared at the dragon.
Another crack, and Ardan saw two of the eggs tremble. The fissure in the one had grown ever so slightly wider.
"Go now, boy," said Ardan. "Out that passage. Follow the spring. Soran and the others are outside."
"S-S-Soran?" said Hailac, voice scarcely above a whisper. "Here?"
"Out there," said Ardan. "That beast follows you out, and Soran will send her straight to the deepest of the Hells."
Hailac took one step, then stopped. "What about you?"
"Once you're in the passage, I'll be right behind you."
"On my life."
Hailac ran. Ardan heard him splashing through the pool, but he kept his eyes fixed on the dragon. She didn't watch the boy go. Didn't turn her head or even flick an eye.
When the splashing stopped, Ardan counted a slow ten, then—giving the eggs a wide berth—stepped toward the water.
As he sidled through the water toward the exit, the dragon turned her head, watching him go. The intense will still pressed on his mind, but her intent was hidden from him.
When his right boot touched the shore, he turned and ran.
As he entered the tunnel, he heard a huge splash. Fearing that the dragon had leaped for him, he turned and reached for an arrow. But as he fitted the shaft to his bow, he saw that the dragon had only leaped to the island. She had her head down near the nest, and for a moment Ardan thought she was eating her own young. A massive black tongue flicked out, and one of the eggs disappeared into her mouth. But she never swallowed.
She was getting the eggs away. Why she hadn't gone for the wizard's stone instead . . .
Perhaps she was afraid to touch it. How many eggs could she hold in her mouth?
Ardan knew he didn't have long. He turned and ran.
When he began to see daylight ahead, he knew he was coming close to the cavern's main entrance. And he also knew that the dragon would soon be after him.
He stopped, turned, and shouted, "Suket oran!"
For a moment, nothing happened.
Then he heard the explosion, and a blast of hot air, smelling of fire and dry thunder, washed over him.
5. Rise and Fall
Ardan stumbled and fell on the slick rocks almost as much as he kept his feet, but he made it out, bow in hand. Sliding down into the valley, blinking under the morning light, he looked around. The dead lay everywhere—mangled scythe wings, broken and bloodied knights, and down by the shore, all that was left of Quen Tahab, Slayer of the Winter Scourge.
Hailac had made it to the nearest of the corpses. As Ardan approached, he heard that the boy was praying as he searched for an unbroken arrow.
Hearing Ardan's approach, Hailac whirled, eyes wide. But some of the fear left his face upon seeing Ardan.
"A wizard's weapon," said Ardan. "I'll explain later."
Hope lit Hailac's gaze. "The dragon . . . ?"
"I don't know." Ardan lifted his gaze to the sky. The clouds were still thick and heavy, but here and there they were beginning to break. And coming through one slight rent, two huge shapes made small by distance—bodies as large as bears, their batlike wings outstretched. Soran coming down fast, Ardan's riderless mount just behind him.
Hailac let out a shout of relief and utter joy. Ardan sighed, smiled, and thought that against all hope he might see his wife and daughter before the sun set.
But then he felt the ground shaking. That familiar rhythmic tremble.
Ardan fitted an arrow to his bowstring. "Hailac, run."
Before the last echo of his cry faded, a roar came out of the cavern. Ardan pulled feathers to his cheek and sighted down the arrow. Again, Merah and Hweilan's faces came to him. Seeing them, his hammering heart did not slow, but a fierce anger and determination beat along with the fear.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Hailac step beside him and bend his own bow.
"Hailac, run," said Ardan. "I'll try to hold it off, give Soran time to get you out."
"If you die here, you aren't dying alone."
"I don't intend to die, damn it!"
"Then we'll do that together too."
Ardan's heart swelled with pride and love for the young man, and he had to blink away tears. Together, they prayed, and the sacred symbols burned into their bows glowed with a holy light.
The dragon burst from the cavern, spread her wings, and looked down upon the knights. Scales across her face, neck, and one side were scorched and bloody, and her left eye was a ruin.
Ardan and Hailac loosed. Their arrows flew true. Ardan's buried itself up to the fletching in the wide, flat scales where the dragon's neck met its forelegs. Hailac's went into the monster's throat and disappeared. The dragon flinched. The knights reached for arrows. The dragon let forth a bellow that shook the mountain and leaped into the air. She folded her wings and dived.
Ardan and Hailac loosed again as the dragon's shadow fell upon them.
Both shafts struck the dragon—as did a third, from above—
And then Soran's scythe wing struck the dragon in midair, taking them both to the ground. The force of the dragon striking the valley knocked Ardan and Hailac off their feet.
Ardan's mount landed beside them, showering them in ice and grit. Ardan pushed himself to his feet and looked at the battle. Soran's mount had apparently leaped away before the dragon struck the ground. The knight landed his mount beside Ardan's.
"In the saddle!" Soran said. "This fight is for another day."
Ardan looked at the dragon. She had slid a ways down the valley, crashing into the corpse of her mate. Soran's attack had stunned her. No more.
Hailac ran to Soran, leaped into the secondary saddle behind him and began strapping himself in.
"Hurry!" said Soran.
Ardan leaped into his own saddle and fitted the harnesses around his thighs and waist.
A roar washed over them. The dragon was coming.
At Soran's signal, the scythe wings took to the air. With no helmet, Ardan was almost blinded by the force of the wind, and in moments he lost all feeling in his face.
He turned and saw that the dragon was right behind them, her cobalt wings pulling her into the air at an alarming speed. Squinting against the rush of wind, Ardan fumbled for the flying prod—a thin staff a yard or so long that a rider used to convey signals to his mount. Bless the Loyal Fury, it was still there, dangling from the saddle strap. He grabbed and tapped the signal in the soft fur behind his mount's head. His scythe wing increased speed. Ardan quickly overtook and passed Soran. The extra weight of two riders was slowing Soran's mount.
Ardan took another look over his shoulder. His hair whipped into his eyes, but through it he saw two things: fast as the dragon was, his scythe wing was faster still and would have no trouble outflying the monster.
But Soran's would not. The two riders were just too heavy.
Soran had seen the same thing and loosed arrow after arrow. The dragon swerved to avoid some, and those that did strike home seemed to have little effect. Ardan knew that his two brothers had only moments at best, and he knew his own bow would do no better against the dragon than Soran's.
But then he remembered something. Quen Tahab's words—
Gurgurthuran and his ilk are not strong fliers.
Not strong fliers. Soran's mount hitting the dragon, knocking her from the sky . . .
Ardan gave his mount the signal—five quick taps followed by a crosswise stroke—then held the reins with all his strength.
They turned, and Ardan had time to take one breath before they struck the dragon. The force threw Ardan against his mount's back with bone-jarring force. Lights danced before his eyes, and he tasted blood.
The scythe wing clawed itself away, spread its wings, and fought to stay in the air. It worked, and as his vision cleared, Ardan saw that they had lost no more than a hundred feet or so of height.
But the dragon had stayed in the air as well. Their attack had only slowed her, and she, too, was gaining altitude again, her hateful gaze still fixed on Soran and Hailac.
Ardan knew what he had to do.
"Forgive me," he said, and he held that image of Merah and Hweilan close to his heart.
He gave his mount the signal again, and one more with it: attack.
They struck the dragon again, with less force this time, only now the scythe wing did not leap away. It sank both claws into the dragon's belly, buried both jaws in the monster's throat, and wrapped its wings around the monster.
The dragon shrieked, clawing at his mount and snapping at the wings with her jaws. But one of her own wings was trapped, and together, the three combatants plummeted.
He shut his eyes. In those last moments, over the roar of dragon and scythe wing, Ardan thought he might have heard Soran call out from high above him.
Merah and Hweilan seemed so close that, as he fell, Ardan reached out to place his hand against his wife's cheek and to pull his daughter near.