The high-pitched scream of a dragon echoed across the swamp. Lilka leaped to her feet, sending her meal into the fire. She ran to her drake, grabbed the nose ring and hauled his head down, choking off his answering cry.
A full squad of nine dragons flew over them, high up in the wispy autumn clouds.
Lilka watched until the dragons disappeared from view to the north, all the while keeping a firm grip on Corion’s nose ring.
“All right, they’re gone.” She scratched under his jaw. “Settle down. No point getting huffy my lad, they’d make a quick meal out of you.” Corion snorted, washing her with his warm carrion breath. Barely larger than a draught horse, the drake was a third of the size of the big war dragons.
Lilka soothed him and then checked his wing, where a long scar marred the smooth, cold hide. No heat, no pus, but the area was tender and Corion pulled away from her hands.
The afternoon sun painted the narrow channels in blood, and tipped every reed with fire. Lilka stared out across the swamp. Too often now the flights of dragons would pass over. How soon until one of them swooped low and spotted her hiding place?
She chewed at her lip. Corion’s wing was healed enough. They would have to fly, try to get back to their own side. How far, though? How far had Matten advanced in the two months she had been here? Corion snorted and she glanced up in alarm, but the skies were empty. She dared not stay longer.
Lilka spent the evening dismantling her camp, one eye on the skies, ready to run for the thicket where Corion was concealed. She scattered reeds and brush over the bare ground and dragged her gear under the tangled branches. She packed her saddlebags and hung them over a tree branch.
As she did every night, she pulled out the short-bristled brushes and rough cloth from her kit, and brushed and buffed the drake’s hide until it shone. She checked the wing again. Tomorrow. Just one more night. Tomorrow they would fly.
At midnight the snap and crack of Corion’s tether woke her and she was glad she had tied the drake’s head down. Above them the stars winked in and out as flight after flight of dragons passed overhead. There must have been well over a hundred. Lilka leaned into Corion’s neck as the drake fussed and fussed.
No-one had guessed what Matten, the strange new king from the northern countries, had been breeding in his cold stone halls. No rumours had escaped to warn her country of what was coming. Dragons. How? How had he controlled them, trained them, brought these ancient creatures of magic to his army?
Lilka closed her eyes and shuddered. Her squad had been doing a sweep along the border. Nights spent in camp under the stars with men and women who were her friends as well as her peers. How could they have known what waited for them? Madness. Madness. Tumbling, screaming, the crunch of bone and the beat of wings. Flying home before the invaders, warning the outpost but too late, too late to save anyone.
Lilka opened her eyes again so she wouldn’t see the images in her mind. When the retreat was called she had lost sight of her companions in the dark. She didn’t know if they had survived. She and Corion had limped away into the night while behind her the outpost burned.
Corion grumbled and rubbed his jaw along the ground. Up above, the stars shone unimpeded and to the north, a hundred dragons flew on. How far would they go? How much resistance would the dragons meet before they reached the capitol and the great hall of the senate? And in between, her village, the old brown house with the creaky stairs and her mother who always smelled of cinnamon cake and soap.
After the dragons would come the foot soldiers, the support for the great army machine. Her swamp was no longer safe.
She harnessed Corion in the darkness, placing straps by familiarity and touch. At the first hint of dawn, she led the drake out of the thicket. Mist rose in pale fingers from the dark channels, and over to the east a lonely bird cried in the day. She rubbed a hand over Corion’s nose, spoke reassuring nonsense to him, then stepped back.
“Up!” she cried. Corion shuffled his half-spread wings, tensed, every movement one of uncertainty. Lilka’s heart sank.
“Come on. Just give it a try.” That was no good. She stepped closer, stood right in his view. “Up!” She flung up one arm to reinforce the command. Corion crouched on powerful legs, then thrust himself into the air. His wings spread and Lilka held her breath for that split-second moment before the first powerful downstroke swept him into flight.
One cry of pain, but he was flying! She whistled at him to circle, watching critically from below. The wing beats were short, that was obvious, but he had enough movement there to keep himself in the air.
She whistled him down and he back-winged, claws digging into the mud. She rubbed his jaw, made a fuss, wished she had some fresh meat to give him. The wing seemed fine when she checked it, trembling, but not hot. He wouldn’t manage a long flight;, they would have to do it in stages. But he could fly. Finally, they were going home.
Lilka ran to the thicket for her sack. As she bent to grab it, she saw Corion stiffen.
“No!” She dashed forward, but was too slow. He reared, flung his head back and bellowed a challenge to the sky. She grabbed the halter and hauled him down, but the damage had been done.
High above, three dark shapes banked and turned. Lilka threw herself onto Corion’s back, felt him dance beneath her, bubbling with fight.
“Up!” she cried.
Corion crouched, then launched himself into the air. For a moment the ground tilted at a crazy angle, and then his wing beats steadied and they surged upwards. She guided him low over the trees, glanced behind her, saw the massive dragons arrowing down towards them.
Ahead was all scrub, with narrow channels between the reeds, and the distant glint of a lake. Nowhere to hide. A low dark line to the east might be forest and she urged Corion in that direction. He turned poorly, already tiring. Too much, too fast, for a recently healed wing.
Then the dragons were on them, great beasts dwarfing them both, riders faceless behind goggles and scarves. Lilka tensed and cried out, waiting for the grip of talons, the sharp bite of a spear.
But no pain came. The three dragons crowded in, forcing them east around the lake. Corion bellowed, fought for control. She tried to duck away under them, but Corion’s wings beat three times for every one of theirs. He moaned, his ribs between her calves heaving with effort.
Then they were over land and he was struggling, pulling short, losing height and they tumbled down and slammed into the mud.
Dazed, Lilka struggled to her feet, her mind full of teeth and talons and faceless enemies. Pain exploded up her back, her ribs, and then she was soaring up, away from the ground, arms and legs dangling and a vice around her chest.
She screamed. Below her, Corion struggled in the grip of another dragon. The wind buffeted her, icy and deafening, and louder still the rhythmic thump and slap of the great wings.
Fields swung below her, patchwork greens and browns, toy houses, growing smaller. Then blackened patches and hollow shells of villages and she shuddered. The cold ate at her, seeped into her bones. Time dragged and she grew woozy with motion sickness, like a rookie on their first flight. She vomited, retching until her belly was empty. Then they banked, pushing her ribs painfully against the iron talons.
Below and to the right she saw grey stone buildings. The dragons back-winged and her vision went black. She came to as they thumped into the ground.
The talons opened and she tumbled onto the dirt. Someone hauled her to her feet. She realised she was surrounded by soldiers, pale men in uniforms slashed with red. They dragged her, stumbling and shaking, to a door and hurled her through. She landed on her knees. The sickly smell of decaying flesh overwhelmed her and she retched onto the dank straw beneath her.
A pair of dirty boots appeared in her vision.
“Welcome to Jurien internment camp, soldier.”
The words made no sense. Jurien was a farming community. Her patrol had been through there many times. She tried to stand, stumbled down again. This was all wrong.
Hedersen, the one-armed sergeant, was from Teres. Vander with the missing eye was from Barrenan. No-one knew where the man with the charred and festering skin came from. He died the first night Lilka spent at the camp.
Two men carried him out to the edge of the fields to bury him, under the watchful eyes of the soldiers. Lilka sat with her back against the rough stone wall of the barn. Her stomach refused to keep food down, between the lingering smell of the dead soldier and her own aching ribs and head.
Occasionally she would hear Corion calling to her. She wiped her eyes. The two of them had not been apart since she had been accepted into the scout wing. Corion, newly hatched and untrained, had been such a handful to a young private barely out of her teens. But they had learned together, lived together for so long, his absence was painful. He wanted food, he wanted attention, he wanted her. She wanted nothing more than to fling herself on his back and fly away.
Hedersen came over to her.
“How are you feeling this morning?”
He grunted as he sat down beside her.
“What happened to the village, sir?”
“No, idea. It was like this when I came.”
“When was that?”
“Two weeks ago. But I won’t be here much longer. They clear the camp out every month or so, or when it gets too full.”
“How do you know?”
“Because that’s what they told me when I got here.” He shuffled around to a more comfortable position. “Listen up, because now you get to hear the spiel too. Everyone does, and hopefully someone will get the information we have back over the line.”
Hedersen jerked his head in the direction of the door. “The dragons.”
Lilka shivered, and clenched her hands together to stop them trembling. “What about them?”
“We think—-” He glanced at the door, lowered his voice. “We’re pretty sure they’re controlled by magic.”
Lilka’s head snapped up. “What?”
She lowered her voice to a whisper. “It can’t be. Not even Matten would use magic.” She swallowed bile at the word, then saw the look on Hederson’s face. “Would he?”
“Hah.” Hedersen stood. “You come with me.” He led her over to the ladder up to the loft. The climb hurt her, and she had to pause for a moment at the top.
She followed him to one of the narrow slits high in the wall. There was a prisoner stationed at each one, watching.
Hedersen nodded to the thin man peering through the gap. He stepped back, limping, and Lilka saw the bloody bandage on his thigh.
Hedersen pointed to the left. “Look.”
She leaned forward and peered out. In the yard, sentries followed their circuit between the barn and the drystone wall. On the other side of the wall, cows grazed.
“What am I supposed to see?”
“Look! To the left, near the gate.”
She shifted until she could see the gate, and then she saw what Hedersen wanted her to see.
Three men sat in a circle around a low fire. Each wore a heavy circlet of metal. Around them, six slender poles were arranged in a regular pattern. Between the poles hung ropes strung with odd, pale objects that she couldn’t identify. Then the wind rose, rattling the objects against each other and she realised they were bones.
She thrust herself back from the window and tumbled into the straw. “No.”
“Yes.” Hedersen crouched down beside her.
She looked up at him, still not willing to believe, not willing to accept that anyone, any human, would be so depraved as to perform magic.
“Come on.” He held out a hand to help her up.
Lilka followed him back down the ladder, slowly because her hands were still shaking and her gut rolling worse than ever. At the bottom she leaned her head on the ladder and closed her eyes.
“Pull yourself together, private.”
“Yes, sir.” She swallowed. Had they dug those bones up from a grave, she wondered, or had they chopped someone up like a carcass?
She went down on her knees in the straw and vomited, thankful that her belly was already empty. Hedersen stepped back until she was done.
“Now you know,” he said as she wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “Those—”
The door was flung open and everyone turned. A group of filthy, bloody men were herded through and the door slammed behind them.
Hedersen strode over to them, other soldiers at his heels and the newcomers were assisted to the corner where the injured lay on blankets over straw. Lilka pushed herself to her feet and went to see if she could help. Someone shoved a bucket at her. “Water!”
“I’ll show you.” Vander, the soldier with the missing eye, grabbed another bucket. “Follow me.” He walked over to the door and knocked on it.
“What is it?” came through the door.
“We need water.”
There was the sound of the bar being lifted and the door swung open. Lilka followed Vander through the door, past a pair of guards.
Vander led her across the yard to the pump, and her heart lifted. Aside from the soldiers on the door, she could see only four sentries, the pair doing the circuit around the barn, and the pair on the gate. Beyond them the fields were open, and on the other side of the fields was the edge of a wood.
“Is this all the soldiers?” she asked Vander as they bent over the pump. “It doesn’t look well-guarded.”
“Look up,” he said.
She looked. Overhead, three dragons flew in lazy circles. “Oh.”
“You’re not the first to think about trying it. Ask Hedersen about what happened to the soldiers who made a run for it.”
The image of bones in the wind filled her mind and she pushed it away.
They filled the buckets and returned under the watchful eyes of the sentries. She deposited her bucket near the injured soldiers, but there was nothing else for her to do. Hedersen was deep in conversation with a group of men including one of the newcomers. Vander moved over to join them and she followed.
“—came over the hills. No idea they could fly that high. They were into the city before we realised.”
City? “Which city?” she asked.
“Quiet!” snapped Hedersen. “Go on.”
“We were expecting them to come around, come at the city from the south. We had scouts out as soon as we heard that Glen Moore had fallen. They said we’d have three days to prepare. We had about three3 hours. There weren’t even any refugees on the road. They started coming after the battle. It was all over so fast.”
Lilka’s heart hammered in her chest and she turned away to hide her tears. Koongal was in the heartlands, a great, bright city of flowing banners and many thousands of people. And between there and here was her little village. She closed her eyes. Her mother, her brother. Dead? Or on the road, with thousands of other refugees, looking for food and shelter as winter crept nearer? She realised that the newcomer was still talking, and wiped her eyes.
“—was three days ago. We got separated, rode down across the lowlands, hoping to get to the port, which was still free last we heard. But they caught us in open country just north of here.”
Hedersen grabbed the man by the arm. “Did you see any posts on your way through?”
“Groups of six, with men in the middle.”
The man shook his head. “No, nothing. We didn’t even see any foot soldiers until about a day later.”
“No foot soldiers in the invasion?”
“No. The dragons came in, slaughtered the main defense and dropped men straight into the middle of the city. There were hundreds of them. We barely killed a score with the ballista.”
“I saw them.” The words came out without thinking, and suddenly Lilka was the centre of attention.
“In the swamplands, south of Wandal. They flew over, two nights ago.”
“Couldn’t be. We were attacked three days ago.”
“Which means there’s another wing out there somewhere.”
In the horrified silence, they could hear the moans of one of the injured men.
“We have to get this information back.” Hedersen slammed his fist against his thigh.
“How?” Vander stepped into the circle. “I’m not keen on ending my days as dragon food.”
“Doesn’t matter. If we don’t get this information back to the defenses—”
“Then what?” An injured soldier pushed in, angrily. “We’ve already lost. If they can get from Glen Moore to Koongal in a day, how are we supposed to defeat them?”
“We have to let people know about the—” he lowered his voice. “About the magic. It’s all we’ve got.”
“Come with me, and I’ll explain.”
Lilka left them to it. She leaned against the wall, slid down it. Hedersen was right, but so was the injured soldier. They had lost. They had nothing that could defeat the great beasts, the mass of Matten’s army.
They slept in shifts that night. Some soldiers on duty to warn if the enemy came too near the doors, others resting. Still others sat in a tight group in the centre of the barn, plotting in whispers.
Lilka found herself in that group. She knew why. Hedersen had ideas of her flying off on Corion. She was in favour of that idea in theory, but every time she thought about it, she remembered three great shadows forcing them down into the mud, claws slamming into her, dragging her through the whirling sky.
Hedersen’s voice was not made for whispering. Instead he produced a muted roar that Lilka was sure would carry out the door. “We just need to distract the dragons long enough for Lilka to get range.”
“By being eaten?” Lilka shifted on the coarse straw.
“Look, it’s risky, but it’s the only way.”
“They can outpace me.”
“Not if they don’t see where you go.” Vander leaned forward. “I say we set the barn on fire.”
Lilka looked away. It didn’t matter what they did on the ground. She didn’t want to get into the sky with those dragons. Not again.
“And how come she gets to ride, anyway? Why don’t we draw lots, give everyone a chance?” The speaker, Ferris, was one of the new soldiers.
Lilka shook her head. “Corion won’t let anyone else ride him.”
“She’s right. Scout drakes only have one rider.” Vander smiled at her.
“Can’t be that hard.”
Vander snorted. “He’s not a horse. Anyway, you’re too heavy.”
Ferris opened his mouth to argue.
“Enough.” Hedersen’s scowl chastised them all. “Lilka flies, and that’s the end of it. Now we need to get her far enough ahead that she can make it to Beacon’s Field.”
“Assuming they haven’t taken it already.”
“If they have, we’re done for anyway. That’s the last defense before the heartlands.”
“They might have gone around it.”
“And they might have given up and gone home! We can’t know. We can only work on what we’ve got. Lilka rides—”
“Sentry!” hissed one of the watchers. They fell silent until the watcher gave the all clear.
“Lilka rides to Beacon’s Field. We distract the guards and the dragons as long as we can to give her a start.”
“She’ll never make it.”
Lilka privately agreed, but Hedersen’s glare was enough to silence them.
“Any more gripes?”
“Other than I don’t want to die?” Vander grinned at Hedersen, mimed fending him off.
“Fine. Get some sleep, and prepare yourselves. We see a chance tomorrow, we’re going for it.”
They settled down into the straw. Lilka rolled to one side, her mouth dry. She closed her eyes, tried to sleep. The tread of the sentries as they circled the barn echoed in her head. What was the point of fearing the dragons, when there were men with swords outside? She got up and went to the bucket for a drink.
When she came back, Vander was propped up on one elbow, a dim shape in the gloom.
“Yes.” She hesitated, then sat down next to him. “How did you know about scout drakes?”
Vander pushed up to a sitting position. “I started in scouts. Years ago. But I got too heavy, so they moved me to signals. Now I spend my days mixing chemicals and trying not to blow up my company.”
Lilka smiled. “You don’t ride anymore?”
“Only horses. I thought I could stick with the corps, be a trainer, but it was too painful, seeing everyone else flying. Better to get right away.”
“I guess.” She wasn’t dreaming about flying now.
“So where’s your family?”
“Farley.” She looked up and caught his eye.
“I’m sorry.” His hand, warm, gripped hers.
“What about your family?” Her voice sounded rough and she cleared her throat.
“Oh, there’s just me. My father died just before I went into service, my mother soon after.”
“It’s all right. It was a long time ago.”
“A long time?”
“Well, it feels like it.” He smiled and then she noticed the laughter lines around his eyes.
“How did you get here?”
Vander shrugged. “I survived.” He looked away. “I suppose I was lucky.”
“We’re going to die tomorrow, aren’t we?”
He turned to her, face solemn. “Maybe.” Then a smile broke out. “But what’s life without adventure?” The smile faded when he saw her expression. “Sorry.” He squeezed her hand.
“I don’t want this to be the end.”
“I think the end is already here. We’ve got—” He shook his head. “We’ve got nothing against this army. Not when they can swoop across the land faster than we can defend.”
Lilka turned away. She didn’t want to think about life under Matten’s rule. Matten with his dark history, iron rule, whispers of slavery and who knew what else. Would there be ropes of bone strung over the villages?
She hugged her knees to her chest. “If we get this information back, they might be able to help. Strike in the right places.”
“You don’t believe it.”
Vander shrugged, gave her a half smile. “You keep hoping, Lilka. And no matter what happens, there’s a good chance you’ll get home.”
“Don’t think about that. Look too far ahead and you can see the darkness coming.” He lay down. “Go to bed. Try to sleep. It will all be over tomorrow.”
Lilka nodded and returned to her place. She caught a glimpse of pale eyes in the gloom, someone else who couldn’t sleep. As she passed, she realised it was Ferris. She smiled at him but he rolled onto his side, away from her.
In the morning, faces were drawn and pale, jaws tense, eyes downcast. Most of these men would die today if they went ahead with the plan. The thought made Lilka gag, and she hurried to the water bucket, gulped down the tepid liquid.
“All right there, Lilka?”
She wiped her mouth and turned to face Hedersen. “Yes, sir.” The bile bubbled up in her throat and she choked.
Hedersen stepped forward and grabbed her arm, his fingers digging in until she cried out.
“Don’t you dare!” he hissed. He hauled her over to the wall. “Pull yourself together, soldier!”
“I’m not—” His fingers dug in harder and she gasped. “We can’t do this. They’ll die. Those dragons—” Tears dampened her cheeks.
“Stop it.” He shook her, and she tried to gulp back her tears. “Maybe we will. But the only reason these men have the courage to go out there and face things is because they know that you will get that information back to the people who can do something about it. Do you hear me? If you give up, you’re spitting in the face of these men.”
“I don’t want anyone to die.”
“People are already dying. And a lot more will die if we don’t stop this. You want these people ruling us? You want your family to live in a village with dragons on the hills and bones rattling in the wind?”
“Then you’d better put everything you’ve got into today, because this might be our country’s last chance. Look at me.”
She raised her head to meet his gaze. Brown eyes, and a scar under his fringe that she hadn’t noticed before.
“Are you going to make it, scout?”
She took a deep breath. “Yes, sir.”
“Good soldier.” He let her go. Her fingers started to tingle and she realised he had been gripping her arm hard enough to cut off the circulation. He strode off, calling to the men in a low voice. Everyone who could stand was to play their part.
Lilka rubbed her arm. She had said she would do it, but she wondered, when it came to the time, if she would be able to run across that field under those dragons and onto Corion’s back.
She had to stop thinking about it. While the men prepared, she climbed up into the loft to the narrow window. Corion was still calling to her.
Someone hissed her name and she turned to see Vander at the top of the ladder.
She almost fell down the ladder on shaking legs. Vander led her to Hedersen, standing by the water buckets.
There was only one answer. “Yes, sir.”
Hedersen banged on the door. “Water!”
Lilka held her breath. Men waited on either side of the door as it opened to let Hedersen and Vander out. The two stepped between the soldiers and then the men charged, forcing the doors wide.
The guards went down in the scuffle, and the opening was clear. But Lilka couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Go. Go now! she told her unresponsive body.
Then Vander was beside her, blood running down his arm. She ran forward into the sunlight. Hedersen and another soldier charged alongside them.
Corion bellowed from the other side of the yard. Between them was a melee of soldiers and guards.
She heard the thump and crack of wings and froze.
Vander grabbed her and dragged her into the melee and then they were charging across the yard, a wedge of men around her, not stopping for the guards running towards them, all intent on Corion. A shadow swept over them.
“Scatter!” shouted Hedersen. She doveived to the side and there was a thump and screams and she spat out dirt. She rolled and scrambled away, sobbing, smelling blood in the air. Corion screamed and she concentrated on him. She stumbled over a body, heard something snap behind her but she didn’t stop to look.
She scrambled over the low wall to Corion, pulling frantically at the chain around his neck. With fumbling fingers she tried to unclip the hook but he pulled it out of her hands. Unthinking, she looked behind her.
A dragon filled the yard, wings unfurled, ground bloody and torn beneath its feet. It plucked a soldier up in its jaws and she watched, unable to look away, as the soldier tumbled down in pieces.
Then Hedersen was running, under the great neck and across the yard and she screamed as it saw him and the horned head turned. But then he was among the wizards. A sword flashed up and one of them fell into the fire.
The dragon screamed and reared and the guards dropped their weapons and fled. She saw the rider tossed high into the air.
She turned away, screaming at Corion to be still, and then the latch was undone and the chain fell to the ground. She grabbed for his neck harness and hauled herself up.
Something grabbed her foot and slammed her into the dirt. She looked up to see Ferris dive at Corion and haul himself onto the drake’s back. He kicked the drake in the ribs, shouted at him to fly. Corion reared and Ferris tumbled to the dirt.
Lilka ran around him and grabbed the drake’s halter. Corion rolled his eyes and backed away from her. She pulled herself up onto his back.
The soldier grabbed her leg and she kicked out. Corion danced away, wings up. Ferris stumbled after them.
“Take me too!” he cried.
“I can’t!” She turned away from his face, swallowed a sob and commanded Corion to take wing.
They leaped upwards. Lilka looked back, wind lashing her face and drawing tears. Through a film of water she saw the soldiers and guards fleeing into buildings as the uncontrolled dragon rampaged through them. Guilt squirrelled in her guts and she urged Corion on.
It was difficult to fly without her goggles. She could only guide Corion in the general direction and hope that she could keep him on track. Every time she recognised a landmark, she corrected their path.
Below her the forest gave way to farmland and her chest constricted. But the buildings were undisturbed. Men carried loads or worked the soil and beasts fed in peace in the fields. The normality shocked her. Had the war passed this area by? Hope rose for her family and her little village.
Instinctively she urged Corion to the right. In a few minutes she found the eastern highway, one of the great roads that led into the heart of their country. If she followed this for an hour, she would come to the low hill country and the massive fortification of Beacon’s Field.
The illusion of normalcy didn’t last. Small groups appeared on the road, one or two, then a dozen, then more. Families with wagons and oxen, or on foot. Displaced people moving to the edge of the country, not to its heart. Matten’s army had cut into them, split the country in two, and these people were now in enemy territory.
Ahead she saw the outline of a large town and she veered to go around it. Too late she saw the poles at the gate. She urged Corion away, looking behind her for the shape of a dragon launching into the air.
Corion stiffened beneath her and she nearly lost her seat as he ducked to the left, crying out in pain. Then she heard the snap of wings and the shadow of a dragon passed over her.
Terror blinded her and she screamed, driving Corion down towards the trees, waiting for the talons. The drake fought her, pulling them up just before the trees scraped his belly.
The dragon drove them towards the town and Lilka now saw the camps with their foreign flags flying. Defeat washed over her. She hadn’t tried hard enough. She saw the ring of mages ahead of her. More bones rattling in the wind.
Courage she didn’t realise she possessed bubbled up and she urged Corion down, sweeping straight for the mages and their vile circle. They heard Corion’s scream and leaped up, scattering the fire as she charged through. The ropes with their clattering bones caught around Corion’s neck, trailing after them as they soared upwards.
Behind her the dragon roared and she risked a look. It flung its great neck up, tossing its rider like a doll. The man hung on as the beast doveived.
Lilka urged Corion away towards Beacon’s Field. Five more minutes and they would be there. She felt lighter. Hedersen had been right. This information could save them.
She heard the scream of a dragon and looked behind. Its rider was gone, but the dragon was still after them. Corion needed no urging. The tired drake put on a burst of speed, and she felt him trembling between her calves. Every time she looked back, the dragon was closer.
Ahead the low, dark line of a fortification rose. She burst out over the field and saw below her a massed army of foot soldiers in gold and red. Matten’s army had caught up with the dragons.
Something whistled by her and she ducked. Then she saw the men around the ballistae on the walls. They were shooting at her! No, they were shooting at the dragon, she was just in the way.
She angled as low as she could, waiting for the tearing pain of a shaft, for the iron grip of talons, for the bite of jaws. A bolt hissed over her shoulder and the dragon screamed behind her. Then she was over the wall, too low, too fast. Corion backwingedback winged once and they slammed into the ground.
Shouting filled her ears and she was surrounded by armed soldiers. She tried to call her name and group, but her throat was raw from screaming. She coughed, saw someone holding Corion’s head. Then a hand reached down and pulled her to her feet.
“Lilka,” she gasped. “Fifth regiment scout. News—I have news. About the dragons.”
“What news?” A man stepped forward and she saluted when she saw the rank marks on his shoulder.
“Sir. About the dragons. They’re controlled by magic. But they only have a short range.”
“You’d better tell me more.”
She told the story. Over and over. To this officer, and that officer, and then another officer. Someone brought her a chair and she sank into it gratefully. They questioned her, about Hedersen, about the camp, about what she had seen, about how she had freed the dragon. At one point someone brought in the bone ropes and laid them on the table. She shivered and looked away from the tiny white objects.
Someone woke her before dawn, from a deep sleep. It took her a moment to realise she was in the ready-room just off the war-room. As she pulled on her boots, she heard the sounds of conversation outside.
She stepped into the war room and paused. A full scout wing, ready for flight, was gathered around the table.
“Here she is.” Captain Clarke, the officer who had brought her to the room last evening, beckoned her to join them at the table. She stepped past men and women in flying jackets, grim-faced, but there was something else in the room that had been missing last night.
“Lilka, this is Sergeant Roden. His wing will be doing a sweep across to that town you flew over. If there are any of these circles, we want to destroy them.”
“No more dragons?”
“None seen. If we can destroy the circles, we’ll be pushing forward tomorrow. Make it clear what they are looking for.”
“Sir, I’d like to go too. Then I can show them.”
“You don’t have to, soldier.”
“Yes, sir, I do. If my drake can fly, I’d like permission to go.”
Clarke looked at Roden, who smiled at her. “And welcome, scout.”
Someone gave her jacket, goggles and gloves, and she pulled on the leather gear as they jogged downstairs. In the dim pre-dawn, the torches on the walls blazed.
Roden handed her a crossbow. “If you see a mage, try to shoot him.”
“Scout wings are armed now, sir?”
“Times change, Lilka.”
Someone led Corion out, and she checked him over. He was clean, looked tired but bright. He leaned his head down to her and she scratched under his jaw. “No more hiding in the swamp for us,” she murmured to him.
Roden gave the signal and they mounted. Lilka turned her face into the wind. It wasn’t over. She wondered about the fate of Hedersen and Vander and the soldiers in the internment camp at Jurien. Maybe she would see them again after all.
Roden gave the signal to fly and they launched into the air.