Geoffrey sat on the low stone parapet edging the cobbled court before Goodrich castle, his fingertips plucking nervously at flakes of lichen. The setting sun was warm upon his face and the wind soughed sweetly through the young oaken leaves. A distant rumble of resonant voices and the lowing of nervous cattle told him that the dragons down the hill were enjoying their dinner as he himself lately had. The very air was lush with the promise of Spring, but it failed to engender hope in Geoffrey's breast.
A waft of stinging smoke made him catch his breath; two other aviators were strolling upwind, burning Sir Walter's infernal weed as they chatted. They were some distance away, but Geoffrey's hearing was acute these days, and he could easily guess what they were talking about: it was on every man's lips.
"Drake may be counted upon to sail rings round the Spaniards," said one man, who by his nasal baritone Geoffrey marked as Lieutenant Troubury. "He burned two dozens of ships right in Cadiz harbor less than a year ago!"
"Aye, and it would have been three times as many, save for the Spanish aerial support." This was a lighter voice, harder for Geoffrey to catch; that would be the captain of the little Winchester courier that had brought the latest news. "The dragons, there's the rub, you see…" The voices grew fainter as the men's rambling path turned them away.
"Riding right on their ships, on specially constructed decks! Even Cauchadors, nigh the size of our Royal Coppers!" Troubury's booming indignation was clear enough, but the rest of what he said was lost amid a chorus of unhappy noises from the cattle below as several pairs of wings whistled downward.
Eventually the cows were silent and the men's circuit brought them back toward Geoffrey again. The courier captain was less sanguine, it seemed. "The English Navy might well match three Spanish galleons for one of our bold frigates. As for the Aerial Corps, on heart and marrow I would count our beasts and men worth ten of the enemy - but we have no fire-breathers. That is like to be the doom of our ships."
Troubury actually lowered his voice for a response, but Geoffrey could glean "Flecha del Fuego" and "done for Captain Waites, and his lieutenant --"
Geoffrey tightened his lips. "I am not done for yet!" he wished to cry, but in truth he didn't know. Even now, it was uncertain how severe his injuries might prove. Like all of England, he was waiting.
He brushed fretfully at the bandages the chirurgeon had forbidden him to touch. The sun's warmth was fading from the air, and only a memory in the stones he sat upon. Perhaps he ought to go in and take his rest. He no longer felt any interest in listening to the other men talk.
But Troubury and the courier were ending their conversation, it seemed. There was a waft of stronger, sharper smoke as one man tapped out the contents of his pipe. Geoffrey took breath to call to them and request assistance back into the castle, but a commotion on the path below caught his attention.
One of the voices was the slow, measured cadence of David Horton, the training master. The other was unfamiliar to Geoffrey, higher and somewhat hoarse, with a note of panicked desperation that tugged at his ear.
"But I went to the recruitment station, and the Serjeant there bade me come here!" the young voice protested. "He said I was just the sort of fellow you could use!"
"Likely he was havin' a joke at your expense, only because you're small," said Horton not unkindly.
"But the Spanish are coming! I've travelled from Gloucester this day. I know how to load and fire a matchlock, and I'm not afraid of heights. You must have need of men, surely!"
"Men, to be sure. Grown and trained."
The youth made a frustrated noise. "How do they come to be trained, then? Don't they start young?"
"Aye. With proper arrangements made, letters of interest sent and signed by the boy's father, all proper and correct."
"But there isn't time for all of that! I can't just sit in a sunny bower writing letters, when England is about to be invaded!"
The frustration in that declaration rang through Geoffrey. He stood and headed toward the voices, his thigh brushing along the parapet for guidance. "Come, lad, the Aerial Corps no more than the infantry may accept - well, infantry."
"I'm not a child." The voice, Geoffrey could discern from this closer distance, was emanating from a spot not much higher than his breastbone. "I'm turned seventeen."
Horton coughed doubtfully. "Well, that's as may be."
Geoffrey saw no point debating what could not easily be proved, so he turned his argument. "You do realize that most of the boys who join the Aerial Corps have aviators in the family already? They're well acquainted with dragons."
"So am I!" the boy's voice went a note higher with tension. "I'm from Winchester originally. They breed dragons there."
"They used to," Geoffrey said drily. Eventually, even the small and mild-mannered beasts that had the county seat as a namesake had become too unnerving for the citizens and livestock of sleepy Hampshire. These days, dragons were bred further afield - near the border between Herefordshire and Wales, for instance. "Have you ever met a dragon, boy?"
"Yes!" That brought a firmer note of confidence to the boy's voice. "There was a dragon, a small one, a Winchester - those are couriers, right?"
"Most often," Geoffrey drawled. It was not uncommon for the courier beasts, flying everywhere and compact enough to land where other dragons might not, to have contact with folk who otherwise saw little of dragons.
"Some boys made to tie a bucket to its tail, as it were a goat or some dumb creature. I endeavoured to stop them but there were three, all larger than me. Then the dragon turned his head and said, very politely, that he would not like a bucket tied to his tail, but he would allow it if we would bring him a cow or a sheep."
Geoffrey guffawed at this. "What did you do then?"
"The boys ran away. I stayed and apologised to the dragon that I had no livestock for him. I would have spoken more with him, but his handler came with a message and they flew away."
"Well, lad…" Geoffrey considered. The youth was fairly spoken, and his speech did indeed sound Wintonian, but other bits of his story fit together but loosely. "What is your name, by the by?"
"Llll," he gurgled.
"Once more, I pray you?"
"Will," he blurted. "Will Apslee."
"Lieutenant Geoffrey Barnett, on… currently unassigned, but very much at your service. And you have met the estimable Mr. Horton. Tell me Will, are you hungry?" That was a safe bet, since Geoffrey had heard the lad's gut rumble from several feet away.
"I shouldn't wish to be a bother," the boy said stoutly.
"Not at all. We have ragout going spare, or we did when I supped. Mr Horton, I propose we should let this young gentleman join our happy company -"
"But it's not proper," Horton protested.
"For the nonce," Geoffrey continued. "Put him to work, see how he deals with dragons larger than his auntie's favorite lapdog. Have him write to his family - would they be in Gloucester or Winchester, Will?"
"Yes. Both." The boy sounded flustered at his sudden change of fortune. "My father is in Hampshire, near Winchester. But he sent me to stay with my cousins in Gloucester."
Another piece of the puzzle, and likely a part of the boy's desperation. "Write to all of them, in that case, and see what they think of this start of yours."
"We shall all be charged with child-stealing," Horton prognosticated gloomily.
"Sir John - that's Sir John Talbott, the First Admiral of the Aerial Corps, you know, Will - should be back from London in a day or two, and he may make a more binding pronouncement on the matter. But we can hardly send the boy packing this very eve with the light near gone. Put him in Turlough's care with the squeakers and midwingmen."
"I hope you know what you're about, Barnett," Horton said gloomily. Technically, he had the rank of a Captain, though the elderly dragon he had inherited from his father did little flying any longer. Horton's authority was primarily over the younger dragons, though, since they were the ones who needed training. In regards to the disposition of persons, Horton had no more power than Geoffrey.
In truth, Geoffrey couldn't say why he was taking up this youngster's cause. It was perhaps a diversion in part, something to keep his mind off the uncertain future awaiting himself and his country. In part there was something about the lad's story that intrigued him; something did not quite fit and he felt driven to discover what it was. And no doubt it was true that England had need of all her able-bodied men and boys, and no youth of spirit or sense could wait dormant while the Armada descended on the land. So Geoffrey perversely played the Devil's barrister and championed a cause he was fairly sure no other aviator would. He was eager to find out what would happen.
"No worries, Horton, I'll see the lad properly disposed of!" Geoffrey proclaimed with a cheerful wave.
Horton retreated down the path amid dark mutters of "Proper's not the word I would use."
"That is to say," Geoffrey corrected ruefully, "I shan't see you disposed at all, but I can tell you where to go if you'll agree to be my eyes." He held out his hand at the height of his own chest, and was obliged when, after a moment's pause, the boy's shoulder nudged in underneath it. He had guessed the height exactly, and he noted that Will's habits of speech were borne out by the fine-woven wool jerkin.
"What happened to, erm, your eyes?" young Will asked in subdued tones.
"Fire," Geoffrey said shortly. "The doctor says I have an excellent chance of recovery -" In fact, the doctor had been rather more guarded. "But he was most emphatic that I must rest my eyes completely for at least a fortnight. Then we shall see if I shall see." He forced a smile to his lips and hoped it did not look too ghastly.
"Was your whole face burnt?" the boy asked, twisting around to look.
"My whole head," he corrected. "I trust you've noticed this charming new hairstyle I invented? It works wonders against lice."
Will tittered nervously.
"But skin heals and hair grows back. Only my eyes are in question, and this is why I have them wrapped up like the precious treasures they are, against damage in transport. Speaking of transport, we shall start by going in under the barbican." He waved his hand in the general direction, trusting the boy to fill in the details.
Their heels clattered in the short tunnel under the ancient defensive wall.
"This is the front court," said Geoffrey when he felt the air open around him. "To the right are the mews - not much used for their intended purpose these days, since few men attempt to ride a horse to the dragon grounds. We keep some of the harnesses and tools there, and occasionally one of the smaller dragons, if ill or injured. Or …" On cue, he heard the scrape of talons over cobbled stone. "Hatchlings not yet grown enough to fly," he said.
"Ohhh," breathed Will, shoulder going rigid beneath Geoffrey's hand.
"I'm very hungry," the hatchling rasped crossly. "I've had nothing to eat for hours."
"In that case, very likely Lieutenant Phipps will be bringing you something soon," Geoffrey replied, keeping his tone even and pleasant.
"Lieutenant Phipps," said the hatchling darkly, "says that a dragon of my age should not eat so much. He says it is unhealthy."
"What age are you?" asked Will.
There was a pause, and Geoffrey could just hear the flick-flick of the dragonet's tongue as it tasted the air around the newcomer. "I am nearly three days old," said the hatchling at last, loftily.
"Oh, and you speak so clearly? How clever of you!"
"That's normal for dragons," Geoffrey explained. "They hatch knowing any language they heard while in the shell."
"But it's true, I am very clever. And I'm sure if eating were unhealthy I would not be so hungry."
"I will inquire -" Geoffrey began, but he was interrupted by Will's enthusiasm.
"Clever and beautiful, too! I've never seen a dragon with such colouring. What breed are you?"
"She is a Longwing. It's a relatively new breed, barely a century old. She will be venomous when she reaches her full size." That, thought Geoffrey, was very likely why Phipps was under-feeding the beast; he didn't want the venom-spitting capability to develop before the dragon was quite well trained.
"Oh. And what's your n-"
"Very well, we shall just be getting along now," Geoffrey all but shouted. "I'll send word for Lieutenant Phipps. Here we go now, Will, there are some steps and a doorway to the left, here…"
"Why did you -"
"Through the door and turn to the right, and just ahead here is the solarium where we have our meals. Are not the windows magnificent? It can be chill, of a winter, but sunny and airy at this season."
"But why did you interrupt me?"
Geoffrey sighed and fumbled for a chair. "Get us both some ale and a bowl of ragout for yourself -- Mrs. Evans will help you, I can hear her puttering about in the next room -- and then I will explain."
When they were both settled and Will was assaulting a suspiciously heavy-sounding bowl (with no slurping noises, another sign of gentle birth), Geoffrey tried to decide where to begin. "She doesn't have a name, yet, the Longwing. She has rejected every suggestion of a name that was given her. They are a notoriously intractable breed, and she has not yet accepted Lieutenant Phipps as her captain. She barely consents to take food from his hand, and will not agree to the slightest scrap of harness."
Will's spoon clinked down. "Doesn't that mean she's untamed?"
"An unharnessed dragon is not the same as a feral dragon. Most are amenable to some forms of reason and will be allowed to live in the breeding grounds so long as they remain peacable. But they cannot fight in battle if they will not accept riders. And a venom-spitter would be a great asset in combat."
Will was silent a moment, perhaps still eating or perhaps merely thinking. "I thought dragons had to accept harness after they were hatched."
Geoffrey shrugged. "There's an explanation for simpletons - or Parliament, perhaps. A dragon's acceptance of a handler is a complex matter of trust, and every dragon is different. Many dragons develop a strong bond with the first man to offer food. For others, the crux is when the dragon requests a name. Accepting a harness is merely a symbol of this trusting bond. A dragon that will take a harness may also be persuaded to any number of dull or distasteful or even perilous tasks, of which there are a great many
in any military organisation."
"So, when I asked her name…?"
"You had just complimented her, and dragons are quite susceptible to flattery. If she had asked you to name her, we should be in a pretty pickle."
"But then she would be harnessed, and tamed, would she not?"
"But not by the man chosen for the job. With time so short, she will need a seasoned handler with experience of aerial warfare."
Will took breath to speak, but just then Geoffrey heard a voice nearby, and he leaned away from the table to call out, "Phipps! That beast of yours is hungry again."
"None of mine," Phipps rumbled unhappily, clumping nearer in his heavy boots. "Not yet, though I do all I can to sway her. Perhaps a spate of hunger will turn her head."
"Satiety is more like to do so, for all I know of dragons," Geoffrey returned.
"Aye, and with satiety comes growth. The longer to reach her first flight, the more time I shall have to woo."
"Little good she will be to England's defense half-starved."
"Less good she'll be half-wild!" Phipps retorted. "If I miss my chance at a captaincy for that hussy --"
"If you do, England may miss her chance at freedom."
"Enough blatheration, I'm off to the bridal bower with the butcher's bucket in hand. You may count upon me to do what's needed for England." The heavy footsteps thumped away.
Geoffrey smiled in spite of himself, but he sensed a disapproving silence coming from across the table. "Phipps is a fine fellow. He deserves a captaincy."
"If the dragon must trust him, can it help that he jests of her so?"
"His humor is even-handed; he mocks himself as soon as any other."
"Should he not rather flatter her, compliment her, win her with kind words?" Will thumped the table angrily. "There, now I too speak of it as a marriage."
"The likeness is hard to deny. But in all earnestness, Phipps has treated her with great kindness and warmth, and she all unyielding. No Longwing has been harnessed since the breed was named a century ago."
"Not one. Some call them intractable. Each attempt to cross the breed with some more docile blood has also resulted in a weakening of the poison." Geoffrey omitted mention of the messier failures, which had effectively poisoned themselves. "The breed is deadly as anything the Spaniards or French might levee against us, yet none are fit to be used in combat. Some question whether they are worth the trouble at all."
"But such a magnificent breed! I have not seen such colours on a dragon before."
"Unfortunately, the colouring is like to make them more recognizable. If we can ever get one harnessed, it shall be the target of every enemy formation."
Will's spoon scraped his bowl. "But the first time, no one will know what the colours signify. The first time, we may take them unawares."
"And would it not be sweet justice for that first attack to be on the Armada?" Geoffrey sighed, for it seemed most unlikely. "But come, you have finished your sup, and now we must find Turlough that he may give you a spot in the midwingmen's barracks."
They crossed the courtyard again, and again the young dragon importuned them. "I'm still hungry!"
Will halted, and perforce Geoffrey also. "Did not Lieutenant Phipps bring you some meat?" the boy asked.
"He brought me a ham hock, and it was very nice, and now I should like some more. An entire pig would suffice, I think."
Geoffrey held back a chuckle. He doubted the infant dragon was as large as a yearling pig, and he could imagine her belly distended with overindulgence. "Lieutenant Phipps would gladly bring you a pig, if only you would accept his company."
The dragon made an odd rasping noise. "I'm sure he is most attentive, but I cannot like it. Perhaps it is the beard. You do not have beards, either of you. You are very nearly the only ones here who do not."
Will stiffened under Geoffrey's hand. "I suffered with the pox, a year ago and more. The scars have kept my beard from growing in."
And also, Geoffrey suspected, the lad was still too young to show much hair on his lip. But the excuse would suffice; he had one of his own. "My own beard was burnt," he offered.
"Is that why you wear that odd headdress over your eyes?" The dragonet came nearer, and the flickering tongue disturbed the air near Geoffrey's face.
He considered a moment. He did not like to speak of the matter, as it still pained his heart even more than his face and eyes. But dragons often responded well to a good tale, and perhaps it would inspire the beast to some form of patriotism. Geoffrey ruthlessly squashed the phantasy that the beast might be inspired to a more personal acceptance, as well.
"I'll tell you the story," he said at length. "I was the Lieutenant assigned to Festina. She is a small, swift dragon, part Winchester and part Pascal's Blue, so that at the most her crew complement is six, and less than that for courier duty where she must fly great distances. We were assigned to a small formation - all light-weights, no capital dragons - to scout the Armada being formed up in Cadiz harbour. On the fifth of May they set sail, a vast fleet of over a hundred ships and half as many dragons, all bound here for England to take away our freedom."
Geoffrey let that notion sink in a moment, then he continued. "When the fleet was scarce two days out of harbour, a storm blew up. Ships, you understand, may not sail wherever they wish as a dragon flies, but they must follow the dictates of wind and water. So the Armada was scattered by the gale, and our scouting formation split into pieces to follow them. When the fleet began to reform, it transpired that we could not find any of our fellows from the formation. Some had carried messages off already, some had been unable to beat back against the strong winds. And so it was only Festina, with Captain Waites and a crew of two men, myself and Mr. Dauntry, who witnessed the Armada rebuilding itself and taking aim once more at dear England.
"So we undertook to bear the message of warning. But it was a great distance to fly, and primarily over hostile territory. The French, you understand, are sympathetic to Spanish ambitions and wish to see England crushed as well. If France is not directly supporting Spain in this attack, at the least you may be sure they will not lightly sell livestock for the comfort of an English courier dragon. Therefore, we traveled along the coast so that Festina might catch fish when she grew hungry.
"But following the coast kept us within sight of the leading Spanish ships. You see, English dragons like Festina must succeed through heart and wit and clever flying. But there are some Spanish and French breeds with special abilties - some that can see at night, and others that breathe fire." He heard the hatchling's breath catch at this; apparently he was holding her attention, at least.
"One such Spanish dragon came upon us unawares, in the sleepy hour before dawn, when we had scarcely half a day's flight to reach safety and rest. A Flecha del Fuego came down upon us from above and threw fire after us. Captain Waites was dreadfully burned, and Mr Dauntry's strap came free and he fell to his death. I was under Festina's chest at the time, adjusting a bit of harness that had been troubling her. And so it was only my face and the top of my head, as I looked up round the curve of her wing, which caught the effects of the fire."
"What did you do?" breathed Will, and "Was the dragon badly hurt?" asked the hatchling.
"Festina was in considerable pain, but dragon skin is thicker than human and she was not dangerously injured. She was most worried about Captain Waites. She would have landed to try to help him, but he urged her to fly on, and she quickly outpaced the Spanish dragon. I believe the fellow tried to flame us once more, but my eyes were stinging and streaming so that I could barely see as they fell behind.
"I climbed up to the top, to Festina's back, but her skin was quite tender and she could scarcely bear my presence there. I checked on Captain Waites. He was terribly burned on his entire back as well as his head and face, and I'm sure he could see no better than I, but he insisted we must keep on. I gave him what water I had and then I descended again to Festina's chest where I would cause her the least discomfort." Geoffrey swallowed hard. "I know that Waites was giving Festina encouragement as long as his voice held out. My eyes swelled shut from the injuries and I was unable to be of any further help, but Festina knew the way and brought us safely to the covert on Ushant. But when they pulled Captain Waites from her back, he was already dead."
A long silence greeted the end of this story. "What will happen to Festina now?" asked the dragonet at length.
"She is still on Ushant at present, healing from her burns and mourning her loss. It is very hard for a dragon to lose her captain. But he was not the first captain she had, and likely she will accept another when she is ready." Geoffrey added cannily, "I'm sure she is eager to aid in the fight against the Spanish, but of course she can only do that if she takes a new captain."
"I have a special ability!" the dragon piped up. "Or I will, when I am grown."
"Indeed," said Geoffrey, "and a very useful ability it should be. I am sure you could give those Spanish fire-breathers something to think about - if you were part of a regular formation, that is."
"But what if I don't want to have a captain?" said the dragon petulantly.
"Without a captain, you will not know where to go or how best to target your abilities," said Geoffrey gently. "And a full crew of men can be most helpful in fending off attacks, or taking messages when you are too busy to notice the signal flags. If you wish to fly in formation you must have a captain and crew."
The dragon sighed gustily and subsided back toward the ground. "But I don't wish any of these men who have been hanging about. None of them smell right." She paused. "You don't smell like them, though."
Will coughed. "Well, I have not been around dragons before. Likely you smell horse and hay, since I was riding a cart half the day. I expect that horse does smell appetizing to a hungry young dragon, does it?"
"No, that's not it…" The dragon seemed frustrated somehow.
"Both you youngsters should be seeking your beds soon," Geoffrey declared. "Come along, Will Apslee. I will show you where to find Turlough, and he may tell off someone else to give me escort."
Geoffrey did not speak to young Will again for a few days, though he heard report of him from Turlough and Horton. The lad was bright and quick and diligent and showed no fear of the larger dragons. "Bold enough to climb Cronus's shoulder when we adjusted harness," said Turlough, referring to one of the largest dragons in the Corps, "and nimble enough to get clear when he shifted." But that was not the same as the years of training the other middies had experienced, and apparently there had been no reply from the boy's father.
The next time Geoffrey heard Will's voice was out in the forecourt where they had first met. It was one of the better spots for watching the dragons fly formation excerises up and down the valley, and many an aviator had idled there to see the fun.
"There, you see?" came the boy's voice as Geoffrey stepped out cautiously from under the barbican. "The smaller dragons fly low carrying the men with crossbows and matchlocks, while the larger ones fly above for protection and to drop petards."
Wondering whom Will bespoke, Geoffrey wandered in that direction. He needed no guide to know his way here, but the cobbles were uneven so he trod carefully.
Down below, Horton's voice echoed through a speaking trumpet, distorted by the distance.
"They left a gap on that last turn," Will explained. "The formation was unprotected. Captain Horton bade them fly it again."
"I do not see where a venom-spitter would fit into this formation," said a raspy voice.
Geoffrey nearly choked; it was the Longwing dragonet. He halted his progress and stood to listen. Was this importunate child trying to ensure his place by stealing a captaincy?
"I asked Lieutenant Phipps about that," said Will, "and he said it would be a different formation, with the venomous dragon in the center, larger dragons above, and the smaller ones well to the rear and sides."
The dragon gave a doubtful snort, either at the formation or the mention of Phipps.
"It would take a great deal of practise to ensure that you didn't spit on any of your friends," Will said stoutly. "Your bone spurs are nearly grown in, so you will soon be ready. But in order to practise - in order to be in a formation at all - you would need a captain."
So Will was only trying to insire the dragon to obedience, even as Geoffrey had. There was no malice in it, to be sure. Yet something in their easy tone with each other gave him pause.
"You suppose that I want to be in a formation at all," said the dragon uncertainly. "I do not see what is so noble about it, attacking other dragons."
"The Spanish dragons and ships are the ones doing the attacking. They wish to take our religious freedoms from us… er, and also our livestock," Will added cogently. "We are defending ourselves, which is quite noble. My father is a Naval Captain on the blockade in the channel, so I take this Spanish attack very personally indeed."
So, this explained why the father had made no answer to their letters. Geoffrey sighed in dismay.
"Why do you not fight in the Navy, then, with your father?"
"He would not have me there. He sent me away."
"I think he did not wish to look on me."
Geoffrey hid a smile; many young dragons evinced this questioning habit, and it made a topic for aviators' jests.
Will was silent for a long time, but the dragonet, uncharacteristically, waited patiently for the answer. "A year ago and more, my two young brothers fell ill with the small pox. Soon I was stricken as well. Both my brothers succumbed, and I lay near to death for some time. My mother… died of grief, they said. I am not sure, but I think perhaps they said so in order that she might be buried in the churchyard." There was a sniffle, and a sound perhaps of sleeve scrubbed across face. "My father, in his grief, wished nothing more to do with me, so he sent me to relatives. And they want nothing of me either. They tried to ma-- to m-make me go away. So I did. And here I am. If I become an aviator, I shan't need approval or help from my father or my cousins."
Geoffrey bit his lip, hearing how the tale filled in many of the gaps he had sensed in the boy's earlier story. Many, he thought, but perhaps not all.
"I'm hungry again," said the dragon plaintively.
"I asked Mrs. Evans to put by what she might; we shall go see her presently. But stay, look at the sky!"
"It is the sky; what of it?"
"The sunset turning the clouds orange, the way they streak across the blue - it's like the colours of your wings."
The dragon made a pleased sound, and Geoffrey frowned uneasily as he fumbled his way back through the barbican.
Two days later, Doctor Terhune declared that it was at least time to remove Geoffrey's bandages and discover if his eyes were healing.
"May we not do this outside?" Geoffrey asked, perched unhappily on the edge of his cot. Since his injury he had begun to find himself uncomfortable in his small, stuffy chamber. If he were assigned to a dragon he might go out to the coverts, but that was impossible, so of late he had shifted unhappily from solarium to courtyard to forecourt throughout the day.
"Your eyes will be too sensible of the light," said the doctor in his rich burr. "Here we may have the window while I inspect your injuries, and then close the shutter before the final bandage is lifted. This looks to be healing well." He traced one of the sensitive, likely mottled red patches on Geoffrey's cheek.
"Well enough." Geoffrey was impatient to get on with it. He could hear men loitering in the hall by the door, waiting to hear the result.
The doctor unwound all but the last coil of the bandage, and Geoffrey found that the cloth he had grown accustomed to now prickled in unexpected ways. Then the shutter doors banged shut, and air brushed Geoffrey's eyelids for the first time in a fortnight.
"Aye, the swelling has gone down nicely," said the doctor. "Now you may open them, slowly. Stop at once if you feel pain."
It wasn't painful, but the cool air against his orbs startled Geoffrey so that he blinked again and again without truly seeing anything. There was light, he knew that, and not so dim as he had expected. As the sensations settled, he could make out shapes - the doctor looming over him, and the chair in the corner.
"Well?" asked the doctor.
"I can see," Geoffrey rasped, his throat feeling unaccountably as disused as his eyes. "I can see." He turned toward the door, where several figures stood limned in the brighter light from beyond. Recognizing the nearest, he smiled. "Is it not remarkable, Troubury?"
The dark eyebrows came lower in the blurred face, and the outline of the head tilted. "I am not Lieutenany Troubury," said a cultured voice.
"Sir John!" Geoffrey jumped to his feet and swayed precariously as the world swam about him. Terhune caught his elbow and tried to ease him back down to the bed, and half a dozen voices seemed to be remonstrating with him that he was not well yet. He wanted to gainsay them and declare that his vision was clearing already, but a more distant voice rose to a muffled howl and everyone fell silent, turning toward the disturbance.
It was Phipps. "That dragon was promised to me, Apslee! You've stolen her!"
They all trooped into the courtyard, Geoffrey blinking at the sunlight and the doctor pressing a broad-brimmed hat upon him to protect his fragile eyes. The young dragon was there, nearly the size of a pony already, each of her wings as long as a banquet table. At her head, with one hand resting on her shoulder, a diminutive figure waited with head held high.
Geoffrey blinked and squinted some more. This was Will Apslee? No wonder everyone had taken him for a mere child. But, perhaps because certain details were made blurry for Geoffrey, other aspects stood out the more. He saw the fine features, slender shoulders, and rough-chopped brown curls, and he knew this was no boy. But he had no chance to speak.
"She asked me for a name," said Apslee. "I called her Hespera, after the evening star."
Several men tried to speak at once, but Sir John raised a hand and they fell silent. "You were not chosen for this duty, boy." His genteel vowels were deceptively smooth, but Geoffrey could hear anger in the flatness of his tone.
"I was chosen by Hespera, sir," said Apslee stoutly.
"I was to be the one --" began Phipps.
"I did not want you!" the dragon whistled, rearing back and half-spreading her wings. She had not the volume of a fully grown Regal Copper, but it was enough to overpower any further protest, and when an acrid smoke began to curl from her bone-spurs everyone took a few steps away. "I said I did not want you, or any other man here. I wanted Will."
"That's not your real name," Geoffrey said softly, and he saw the curly head turn toward him. But he could not focus on the expression in those eyes.
"We have a dozen fine, experienced officers here for you to choose from," said Sir John. "Why would you take this boy instead?"
"He's different. He smells different to all the others. I expect it's because he's a woman."
All the men in the courtyard froze.
"God's wounds," blasphemed the First Admiral of the Aerial Corps.
The dragon subsided onto her haunches, folded her wings, and turned her head, tongue flicking uncertainly. "Was I not supposed to tell them that?"
They crowded into Sir John's office, Apslee and Phipps at the front with Geoffrey and Horton and Turlough as witnesses. Sir John seated himself at the desk by the window and carefully adjusted the lace at his cuffs. He did not offer a seat to any of the rest of them. The room was so silent Geoffrey could hear every one of them breathe.
"Your name," said Sir John, not looking up. "Tell the truth, child."
"Eleanor Apslee, and I am no child. I'm seventeen."
"Do you realise what you have done?"
She swallowed hard. "I came here to serve England. And to escape from marriage to a man three times my age."
Sir John glanced up at that. "Did this marriage have your father's approval?"
"He had nothing to say to it. It was all my aunt; she wanted me out of her house, and she said no other man would have me for my ruined complexion."
"I would," Geoffrey breathed, but he kept it silent. This was not the time.
"Was the betrothal official?"
"I signed nothing and made no vows," she declared.
Sir John looked out the window. "You come to serve England, you claim, yet you have put us in a legal embroilment. You have been chosen by a dragon; your life is now bound and beholden to hers. Yet legally, you are the property of your father until such time as you are married."
"If she were to marry an officer of the corps…" Phipps began, and Geoffrey's heart attempted to leap and sink simultaneously.
"No!" Eleanor cried. "I will not consent! Women are not mere chattel in a nation ruled by a Queen! I will not be--"
"This is outrageous--" began Phipps.
"Silence!" Sir John roared, and everyone went quite still. Geoffrey had never heard the man raise his voice before.
"The outcome of this marital dispute," Sir John continued, "can hardly be of interest to me when I am tasked with defending England from enemies on our very doorstep. Your willfulness, girl, has destroyed our best hope of facing down the Spanish fire-breathers. I hope you may rejoice when we are overrun."
Eleanor caught her breath. "I can fight. We both can. Hespera wants --"
"I care not in the least what an immature dragon wants."
"What of the mature Longwings, then?" Eleanor challenged, surprising Geoffrey.
"What significance have they?" Sir John frowned.
"Mrs. Evans the goodwife, her daughter was chosen by a Longwing. But it was kept quiet and they both were cloistered at the breeding grounds. This is a mature dragon with a handler raised among aviators, as you all were." Eleanor looked around the room as if appealing to them all for support. "Do you not see? The Longwings were thought intractable, but it is only that they prefer female handlers. If you wish venom-spitters in the Aerial Corps you must accept --"
"I need accept nothing that is contrary to the law," said Sir John. "When that dragon is fully grown, you will go with her to the breeding grounds. Until then, we must make preparations for war, and you will stay out of the way." He looked at the rest of them. "Phipps, report to Mirabile's captain; he is short a lieutenant. Horton, Turlough, stay behind, we have matters to discuss."
Geoffrey braced. "And I, sir?"
Sir John's expression may have been unreadable even by the sharpest gaze. "You're half blind, Barnett. You're to remain here and mind the children. That will be all."
Swallowing his disappointment, Geoffrey shuffled from the room. Eleanor looked equally downcast as she headed for the courtyard and her new dragon. Only Phipps stepped out with determination, preparing for battle.
Geoffrey sat dejectedly in the solarium, half a mug of ale sitting unregarded at his elbow. But a few weeks since, he would have thought that merely the sight of the sun streaming through the grand windows would have cheered him beyond anything. But in that time all his friends had gone to war without him. All the officers, able airmen, and middies were gone; Geoffrey was left among pensioners and ground crew. Even Doctor Terhune had left for the Plymouth covert to be nearer the action where the injured men and dragons were likely to be found. Geoffrey himself was uninjured yet he had been declared unfit, only because the doctor said his vision would not permit aiming a weapon or bomb.
The few couriers that had stopped here to rest on their paths had related an alarming tale. Three days ago had marked the initial confrontations between the Armada and the English fleet. The smaller English ships had done an admirable job of harrying the slow, bulky Spaniards at first, and there were rumors that Sir Francis Drake had captured a galleon rich with funds to pay the armies. But when the larger portion of the Armada had reached the Channel, their dragons had joined the battle. The Flechas had wrought terrible destruction on the English ships, burning and sinking a dozen or more. The English dragons had attempted aerial protection, but without special decks they could not land on the ships to rest, or guard the fleet around the clock. At night the English ships must needs withdraw for safety, and the Armada continued its progress up the Channel. The ships were to meet with the Duke of Parma in the Low Countries and ferry his men across the Channel. As the fight was presently going, it appeared that the armies would be able to cross the water unimpeded, and England's shores would see their first foreign invasion since William the Conqueror.
While Geoffrey was contemplating this grim prospect, Mrs. Evans brought him a fresh mug of frothing ale and a plate of roasted pheasant.
Geoffrey blinked down at the neatly-dressed meat. "Why, this is very fine."
"Oh!" She fluttered her apron. "'Tis nothing so special. My goodman brought the birds in, and I wouldn't wish the meat to spoil. As well, my daughter has come to visit. I've not seen her in some years."
"I see," Geoffrey said, and set to the meat with a will. He should enjoy the fruits of a free England while yet he might.
Captain Horton came in as Geoffrey was nearly done. "Barnett, what by God's tears are these strange dragons doing in the coverts, disturbing my Cicero?"
Geoffrey glanced up. "Beg pardon? I've seen no dragons this day."
Horton gave a snort. "Seen them, no, I suppose not."
Geoffrey's jaw tightened. "A low blow, David. But tell me of the dragons."
"Why, there's a Longwing from the breeding grounds, says he has come to check on his egg. But everyone knows dragons don't give a fig for eggs after they've hatched!"
"After… oh, you mean to say--"
"He's down at the pitch showing the young one how to spit at targets."
Geoffrey considered this. "Are they any good at it?"
Horton shrugged. "The grown one made smoking sludge out of a black sheep amid a flock of white ones, leaving the others untouched. The younger is more apt to spray the entire flock, but nigh every bit as deadly, I would say."
"And what does Miss Apslee have to say to this?"
"It may well have been her notion. I can't ask, since she's riding the young dragon. And another maid perched on the grown one."
Geoffrey sat up sharply and looked towards the hearth where he had last seen Mrs. Evans. It seemed this was her daughter who had returned. Now what did she and Apslee have in mind? "Wait, did you say more than one dragon had come?"
"Oh, aye, there's another. She mentioned you, so I thought you must know she was here. A mixed-breed courier meant to be on the sick list. Flew here from Ushant without a rider."
"Festina!" Geoffrey leapt to his feet and out the door without another thought for his dinner.
Down in the covert, he found Festina quite hale and unharmed, conversing with Horton's dragon, an elderly Pascal's Blue that looked rather like a larger, withered version of Festina herself. She turned and snaked her head down when Geoffrey arrived, touching his forehead with her tongue.
"How different you look with your hair all chopped off!" she said. "But you are well? Someone told me that you would be blind."
"Not blind at all, my dear, only a little less sharp-eyed than I was." At the moment, Geoffrey was finding the world nearly as liquid and drippy as when his bandages were removed. He dashed a hand across his eyes. "I was worried about you, all alone at the Ushant covert, but they told me it was none of my concern."
Festina made a rasping noise of disgust and reached out her taloned hand to draw him closer. "Not your concern! I told them I would have you for my next captain, but no one cared to listen."
Geoffrey was staggered. Before he could begin to formulate an answer, there was a rush of wings followed by two thumps - one heavy, one lighter - of dragons landing. Geoffrey had not had close previous acquaintance of any adult Longwings, and he was impressed by the larger one's size. Not in bulk of body, which was not so much greater than a midweight Reaper, but in length of wing. The breed, it seemed, was aptly named.
A figure in aviator's gear climbed nimbly down from the shoulder of the grown dragon and pulled off a leathern cap to reveal a tousled red mop. "Hallo, I'm Mary Evans," she said cheerfully, "and this is Gentius."
The long, intimidating bone spurs pointed down at Geoffrey and he suppressed the urge to leap aside.
"Hespera was my egg," said the large dragon equably. "We've come to help her."
"We're going to join the fight against the Armada," came another voice at Geoffrey's shoulder, and he turned to find Eleanor Apslee there, her cheeks aflame from the chafing of the wind. "Hespera is small yet, but she can turn on a dime and spit nearly as accurately as her sire. The Spaniards will be wholly taken aback."
"This is a terrible idea," Geoffrey said. "It's too dangerous for a -"
"For a woman?" Eleanor demanded.
"For a mere hatchling!"
"Did you know," said Mary Evans, "that boats are setting sail from every port in the south of England? Fishermen and merchantmen and rich idle youths, with swords and cutlasses and pen-knives, they are all setting out to defend England. Can we do less?"
Since this was precisely what Geoffrey himself wished to do, his protests sounded weak.
Old Cicero craned over Festina's shoulder. "It is all decided. I am not so swift a flyer as I once was, but my eyes are sharp. David and I shall stay high where we may see approaching threats and warn all of you. Festina will draw out their attacks, as she is nimble enough to evade them. And then the Longwings will take them by surprise."
"Whose plan is this?" Geoffrey sputtered.
"We all of us came up with it, just now!" said Hespera excitedly. The fact that she was now large enough to loom over him did not make her enthusiasm any less appalling.
"This is… disobedience to Sir John's orders," said Geoffrey. "I should be cashiered even for thinking of it!"
"Well, Mary and I have no such orders to obey," said Eleanor. "We mean to prove our worth in this fight for the sake of all the female aviators who will follow us. That will also prove the worth of the Longwings as a breed - surely you cannot object to such a cause?"
"If you mean to stop us," said Mary, "you had best get your gear and harness your beast, for we leave as soon as we are provisioned." She gave a wave of her cap and hurried up the path to where Mrs. Evans and several other servants from the castle were carrying laden packs ready to be loaded on the beasts.
Festina lowered her head to look directly into Geoffrey's eyes. "Do say we may go, Barnett!"
Geoffrey ran a hand over the stubble of his hair and looked about distractedly, from Eleanor and Mary loading their dragons to Cicero trying to harness himself while David Horton remonstrated with him. "How can I say no?" he finished feebly.
Lord Howard's flagship was aflame, but not fully engulphed as yet. Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hind, named after his former exploratory vessel, was giving the Spaniards a drubbing and had as yet remained untouched by fire, but there were now two Flechas attempting to close in while the English dragons tried to keep them away. Cicero roared out a warning from his position above.
Festina, with a gallantry that wrung Geoffrey's heartstrings, threw herself fearlessly after the larger Flechas. She arrowed in upon one of them from above and behind, a point of attack that never failed to startle any dragon; yet she had no weapon save only her wings and talons. She gave a bellow and raked at the larger dragon's vulnerable wings, then folded her own aside and dropped like a stone when he tried to send flame after her. Enraged, he left his protective formation and took pursuit, following Festina's curving path down and then up - and right beneath the path of a great orange and blue shadow. Geoffrey heard the shouts from the Flecha's crew change from disapproving commands to alarmed cries and then agonised shrieks, and then they were circling back again toward the ships.
The day was bright, the sun beating upon the naked heads of the men massed before the fort at Tilbury, but the crowd was silent as they watched their Queen, clad in silver armor on a white horse, ride into their midst.
Where they stood near the edge, Geoffrey and Eleanor missed some of her Majesty's words. But these they heard, and they made Eleanor clutch at Geoffrey's forearm and stand the taller:
I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general.
Eleanor brushed a finger over the medallion upon her breast, presented to her two days ago by the Queen, and the even more precious sheaf of papers bearing the Queen's decree that women might serve at Her Majesty's pleasure in the Aerial Corps and should be counted chattel of no man.
"I am a free woman," Eleanor murmured.
"You are, Captain Apslee, with the heart and stomach of a dragon," Geoffrey affirmed.
"If that be so, I must be very brave and very, very hungry." But before Eleanor turned away to the covert where their dragons awaited, she looked up at Geoffrey. "I am free to make my own promises, Captain Barnett. Here is my promise to you." And standing on the tips of her toes she pressed a kiss to his lips.