"I'm not a dragonslayer, El. There aren't dragonslayers anymore, because dragons almost never come down from the Wall these days."
"You're the sheriff, honey," El said, rummaging through a shelf of crowded jars bound in different colored ribbons. "People expect you to deal with this kind of thing."
Peter sighed. The worst he usually had to deal with was drunken farm kids causing mischief, and the occasional brigand or highwayman. Dragons -- dragons were an entirely different thing. There should be specialists to deal with them. And maybe there were, in other parts of the world. Beyond the mountains in the capital, there must be specialists in everything, including dragonslaying.
If only they had time to send someone to the capital to find one. They'd dispatched a message with the most recent silver caravan through the mountains, but the dragon had set upon the caravan, stolen its cargo and set fire to the wagons. Several caravan guards had been killed.
The York Valley had a very serious, very clear and present dragon problem, and everyone expected Peter to deal with it.
The last dragon to stray into the Valley had come down from the north a generation ago. It had destroyed entire herds of cattle, burned fields by the score, and left a number of casualties before a contingent of soldiers from the capital had arrived to kill it.
Thus far, this dragon hadn't been terribly destructive. The destruction and casualties at the silver caravan had been its worst predations. Otherwise, it had killed some sheep and cattle, and terrorized the silver mines, which were the valley's main source of income. A few people had come to Peter claiming that the dragon had stolen various items of jewelry and precious keepsakes, but that was completely ridiculous -- yes, dragons were well known to like shiny things, but the idea of a dragon trying to amass a treasure hoard one necklace at a time was just silly.
However, the silver mines were clearly its target. The mine owner had hired extra security, but the dragon somehow got around them and made off with another few days' worth of smelted ore anyway. So far no one had been killed at the mine, but this was clearly down to luck and chance. At this rate the mine would soon be cleaned out, the Valley would go bust and all the little towns scattered up and down its length would soon be nothing but crumbling walls and fields going back to forest. And that was assuming that the dragon didn't take things into its own claws and finish them off before economic hardship could do it. There were still abandoned, overgrown farms at the north end of the Valley, burned along with their owners by the last dragon to come south from the Wall.
Something had to be done, and as usual, Peter was the guy who had to do it.
Peter knew for a fact that he couldn't go up against a dragon and survive. He wasn't bad with a cudgel, and his boyhood on a farm at the edge of the forest had made him a good shot with both sling and shortbow. None of which would be any use at all against a dragon. He'd read up on dragonslaying in the Valley's limited supply of books, but most of the methods detailed in the books seemed to be long on flashy style and short on practicality.
Luckily, he had El. The advantage to being married to the best herb-witch in the Valley was that she had a potion, spell or powder on hand for every problem.
"Aha! Here it is." El pressed a jar into his hand. Peter looked at it dubiously. "This will put anything to sleep instantly. Even something as big as a dragon. And then," she looked sad, "you can kill it."
"Don't start feeling sorry for the dragon, El. It's a dragon. They're vicious killers."
"Well, obviously if it's the dragon or you, I'd rather it be the dragon." She leaned in close and kissed him.
El helped him buckle on his old, battered leather armor -- as oiled and polished as she could make it, which, given what she had to work with, still wasn't terribly impressive. Then she rubbed him down with a cloth dipped in something that she said would kill his scent, a formula that she often made for hunters.
And finally, she doctored his knife and some of the arrows for his shortbow with a poison that farmers sometimes used when they had to kill wolves that were preying on their sheep.
Peter told himself that it would work. It had to work.
"Come back to me," El whispered, and wrapped her arms around him. Her voice was firm, but he could feel her trembling.
As dusk settled on the Valley, Peter took up his position inside the silver mine, and waited.
No one knew how the dragon was getting in and out of the mine. Presumably it had discovered some hidden entrance to the maze of caverns that made up the depths of the mine. Dragons were big, but they were also very long and sinuous, capable of sliding through openings that even a man could hardly get through.
The mine workers had planned several ambushes for the dragon in the past few days, but it had always avoided them. Peter wasn't surprised; dragons were as intelligent as any human, according to his books, and a mob of farm boys with cudgels, spears and torches was hardly subtle and easy to miss. Which was why he'd refused their offers of assistance; a group of people hiding in the mine would only scare it off. One man, hidden in the cave where the day's silver diggings were stored, might have a chance.
Or maybe he'd just get himself incinerated. Dragons were cruel and vicious and placed no value on human life. The attack on the silver caravan had proven that. His only chance was to be as fast as possible, attack with El's potion before the dragon could get the jump on him, and behead it before it could recover.
In the meantime, all he had to do was wait. Peter had asked the mine owner to leave an oil lamp in the storeroom, turned down low as if someone had forgotten it. The dim, uncertain light filled the room with flickering shadows. Huddled behind an ore cart, Peter tried to keep himself out of sight.
He'd brought a book to read -- not that he hadn't read it before, he'd read every book in the Valley's limited supply, but at least it would give him something to do. Peter was not most people's idea of a bookish man -- he was big, athletic, equally good at hunting and at busting heads when the farm kids got out of control on a holiday night. But his mother had taught him to read, and it was actually because of a book that he'd met El ...
The light wasn't good enough, though. So all he had to do was wait, with his bow propped up against the ore cart, the jar of sleeping draught in one hand, and his heavy knife in the other. A sword would have been better, but no one in the Vally owned a proper one; the closest thing they had were the big knives that were more often used for hacking brush in the fields than for self-defence.
What could have brought a dragon to the Valley? Dragons were rare. In the past -- hundreds of years in the past -- they had been a common threat in the north country, but over the last few generations they had grown much less common, and now, only a handful of far-ranging herdsmen and hunters ever saw them, circling high in the sky near the impassable rampart of mountains and ice known as the Wall. Maybe they were dying out, or maybe they had moved on to hunting grounds far from humankind. In any case, Peter had never thought he'd see one in his lifetime.
Well, think, he told himself. A dragon was a big, smart predator, but it was still a predator like any other, and should behave similarly. Wolves didn't come and hunt the sheep for fun; they came down from the mountains in harsh winters, when there was nothing else to prey on. Sometimes a wolf or bear would venture into the Valley when it was driven out of its own territory by a bigger, nastier bear or wolf, or when it was old and injured, and could not hunt properly anymore.
Something must have driven this dragon south. Starvation? An even bigger, meaner dragon taking over its hunting territory? The surviving guards from the silver caravan had said that it was a big dragon, but then, any dragon probably looked big when it was attacking you, and some of the old histories said that dragons could get very big indeed. Or maybe young dragons wandered, like a lot of young animals, in search of new places to hunt and live.
Some writers theorized that a dragon's most basic drive, even more than its innate viciousness, was its craving for treasure. They stole it from humans or from each other. Perhaps this dragon had come to the Valley because of the silver mine, thinking that it would be easier than stealing a hoard from another dragon. It might be a young dragon or one that couldn't fight very well. Except for the time that it had openly attacked and destroyed the silver caravan, the dragon had tried to steal silver from the mine through stealth rather than attacking the guards and taking it directly. It hadn't even been seen, except by a few herd-boys watching their flocks at night, until it had attacked the caravan. The only signs of its presence had been clawed footprints, the occasional missing sheep or cow, and of course the missing silver.
The attack on the silver caravan was anomalous in a lot of ways, actually, Peter mused. It had happened during the daytime, for one thing. It was the only time the dragon had not attacked by night; it always hunted in the fields under the cover of darkness, and all its assaults on the mine had been at night, also. Perhaps the lure of all that silver had been enough to drive it out of hiding, but --
There was a rustle from the far end of the cavern.
Putting his musings aside, Peter held his breath and peeked around the ore cart.
Something was moving in the shadowy entrance to the cavern. Something low-slung, slipping along with predatory caution, one step at a time. It raised its long, spiked head, and Peter felt as if his heart had frozen in his chest. He could only see its silhouette and the occasional gleam of its scales in the darkness, but there was no mistaking it.
A dragon. A real live dragon.
Before he had time to let himself become terrified, he lunged over the ore cart and threw the jar. Peter had a good throwing arm, another legacy of his farm-boy upbringing. The missile arced across the room and the dragon raised its head reflexively to snap at it. The jar shattered, as it had been designed to do, and splashed the dragon's snout with green-tinted liquid. The dragon hissed, choked and then its neck went limp and its head smacked to the floor, followed by the rest of it.
When El made a sleeping draught, she didn't mess around.
Peter gripped his knife, picked up the lamp and crossed the room, his heart pounding. El had said that the sleeping potion's power would dissipate quickly in the open air, but in the confines of the cavern, enough of it remained to make his head spin as he bent over the dragon, looking at it.
It looked a lot like the illustrations in the books: spiky, long and slender, with a frilled ridge along its spine. It was glossy black with iridescent hints of blue, green and red, gliding along its polished scales in the lamplight. In sunlight, Peter thought, it would probably be beautiful, in a sharp, lethal kind of way. There was a white patch on its chest that made him think incongruously of a cat.
It was also very small. Either all the stories about dragons were highly exaggerated, or this was a little one. When it stood on all fours, its low-slung back wouldn't have been much taller than a man's waist. Peter doubted if it was much more massive than a pony, though it was much longer, of course.
As he stood looking down at it, the suspicion that had been percolating through the back of his mind finally burst full-formed upon him.
This wasn't the dragon that had attacked the caravan.
It just wasn't big enough, for one thing. That dragon had burned five wagons and killed three armed men along with several horses, all in broad daylight. He couldn't even imagine this dragon being capable of something like that, even with the element of surprise on its side.
And none of the facts fit. This dragon always hid in the daytime, only came out at night, and had yet to so much as singe a single hair on a herd-boy's head. If he were investigating a cattle theft or looking into malicious mischief in someone's barn, he wouldn't ignore that kind of evidence. And all the evidence pointed to the fact that this dragon was, well ...
Not harmless, exactly. That was ludicrous. It was a dragon, and everyone knew that dragons were about as harmless as starving wolves. Its serrated rows of teeth, plainly visible in the half-open mouth, provided abundant proof of that. (The fact that the dragon was also drooling gently on the floor made it look a little less intimidating at the moment, though.)
But there was another dragon out there, a much bigger and more dangerous dragon, and, Peter realized, the dragon lying at his feet would almost certainly know about it. That, too, he had learned from watching predators: a wolf always knew when another wolf was in its territory. This dragon could probably tell him where the other one had come from, and maybe even how to kill it.
No one talked with dragons much, if they could help it, but dragons did talk; the books were all very clear about that. And if it can talk, Peter thought, then I can interrogate it.
The trick would be interrogating it without having it incinerate him where he stood. There were very good reasons why most people, sane people, did not have conversations with dragons.
But most people weren't married to an enchantress.
Peter found some rope in a side room and trussed the dragon as securely as possible. Getting it into the ore cart took longer. He pushed it deeper into the mine, down into the cold, dank depths of the earth, and left it hidden in a little side passage.
The ropes probably wouldn't hold it if it woke up, but they made Peter feel a little better. He wondered how long the sleeping draught would last. Probably good to hurry.
There was an augmented contingent of guards around the mouth of the silver mine -- Peter had insisted that they keep the routines the same, since he didn't want to risk the dragon noticing a change and being scared off. They crowded around him, fascinated and curious. "Well? You kill it? You see anything?"
"No one goes in the mine," Peter ordered. "The dragon could show up at any moment." Not entirely a lie, especially if it broke free of its ropes. "I'll be right back. I need to get more magic from my wife." Everyone in the Valley knew El, and while there were some murmurs, no one tried to stop him.
El was awake, as he'd expected she'd be -- kneeling by the fire and parceling out pinches of ingredients into one of her mixing bowls. She dropped the bowl when he opened the door. "Not that I thought you couldn't handle it, of course," she said after flinging her arms around him and kissing him. Looking him up and down, and probably noticing the lack of dragon blood, she said, "What happened? Didn't it show up?"
"It did," Peter said.
Her mouth formed a small circle of dismay. "My potion didn't work."
"It worked beautifully. Exactly as you said. Uh ... how long will it last?"
Peter quickly sketched out his two-dragon theory. "But I need to ask this dragon questions, and I need to get back up there before either it wakes up, or the mine workers go into the mine and find it. I expect they'll probably kill it if they do -- admittedly the smart thing to do, but we will have lost our most valuable source of information. I need something to immobilize it and keep it from breathing flames at me until I can finish questioning it."
"Let me think, let me think ..." El took down a large basket from a shelf, and began hastily sweeping items into it. Turning, she took a deep breath. "All right, I'm ready. Take me to it."
Peter stared at her. "Uh ... I was hoping you could give me something ..."
"Yes, because I happen to have a dragon anti-flame potion sitting on my shelf? I don't think so. I'll have to improvise on the spot. Come on, honey, there isn't time to argue."
Peter ground his teeth, but she was already out the door, lugging her basket. All he could do was catch up. "At least stay behind me, all right? This isn't someone's lost puppy. It's a dragon. They kill people."
The dragon was where he'd left it. Peter tipped it out of the ore cart onto the floor; it tumbled out in a limp heap, whacking its head on the wheel of the cart. Peter tried not to feel sorry for it. El lit some candles and began sorting out her ingredients.
"The quickest thing under the circumstances is some sort of binding magic," she explained. "The spell I'm thinking of is used on livestock, occasionally. I've seen people do it to break wild horses to the saddle, or to tame falcons. It isn't normally done on intelligent beings, though."
"Will it hurt the dragon?" A gibbering mess of a dragon would be useless for questioning.
El shook her head. "No, but it might be troubling for it."
Peter stared at her. At his feet, the dragon twitched. "El, I'm less worried about the dragon's state of mind than about the dragon burning our faces off if it wakes up in the middle of this process!"
"Don't be cranky." El shook out an iron chain, about two feet long. "The binding is already laid on this chain -- it takes days to lay one properly, but this one is already prepared and ready to use. I just have to shape it for the task we want." She opened some bottles.
"Hurry," Peter said. He knelt and pressed his knee into the dragon's chest, and laid the poisoned blade at its throat. He could feel its heartbeat against his leg.
El used a small horsehair brush to carefully brush a sharp-smelling substance onto the iron links. "As long as the dragon wears this, it will not be able to use its innate magic -- it cannot fly or breathe fire." She blew on the chain and shook it to dry it. Then she bent over one of the dragon's back legs. Peter watched her nervously. He hated seeing her that close to the long, wicked talons, bigger than the claws of a bear.
El carefully sized the chain to the dragon's ankle. "Honey, do you see a hammer or mallet around here somewhere?" She grabbed a candle and trotted off. Peter waited, heart pounding in time with the dragon's, as its twitching became more purposeful. One of its eyes cracked open and then closed again. Hurry, El, he thought, but then she reappeared with a massive hammer on her hand and a pair of shears tucked into the crook of her arm.
She snipped off the extra links, and pounded the chain shut in a ring around the dragon's ankle, just tight enough that it could not be slipped off over its clawed foot. Straightening, El held out the short length of chain that she'd cut off. "If it were a horse or a dog, anyone holding this would be able to give it commands. Since it's intelligent, you can still do the same, but you must win a battle of wills each time. It will fight back as you try to command it." El's lips pressed together into a tight line. "I'm not sure I like this, Peter. It feels like slavery to me."
"This creature would kill us in an instant, if it could," Peter reminded her. "We don't have a choice." He took the control chain from her and slipped it into a pocket. It felt warm in his hand, and slithered into his pocket as if alive.
The dragon blinked slowly. Its eyes were jewel-like in the candlelight, a deep sapphire blue with hints of other colors in their depths. A third eyelid flicked back and forth. It closed its gaping jaws, and the tip of a dark-colored tongue ran around its lips, moistening them in a disturbingly humanlike manner.
"You are a prisoner," Peter said. The dragon flinched. "I'm the sheriff around here. My name is Peter. I need to ask you some questions. Do you understand me?"
The dragon sighed. It was a very humanlike sigh. After a moment, it moved its head: nodding.
Peter took the blade away from its throat and stepped back. The dragon's head whipped up. It opened its jaws and hissed at them. Then it lurched as it tried to get up, but only succeeded in falling flat and banging its chin on the floor. Peter winced in sympathy.
The dragon's eyes had opened wide, again a very humanlike expression. It looked down at the ropes binding its body, then at Peter and El. Its eyes narrowed and its jaws parted.
Peter stepped in front of Elizabeth, his blade in front of them both -- for all the good that would do, if El's magic didn't hold. He found himself bracing for heat and pain.
But the dragon only said, in a peevish voice, "You tied me up! And hit me!"
Peter told himself that he absolutely did not feel guilty about any of that. "You were going to steal someone else's treasure and then escape," he pointed out. "Right?"
The dragon didn't answer. Instead it bent its sinuous neck back on itself -- keeping one eye cocked at them over its shoulder -- and nipped the ropes, parting them one at a time. Its teeth must be as sharp as finely honed knives. Then it nosed at the chain around its ankle, and whipped its head around to look at the two humans, nearly overbalancing as it did so -- it wasn't very steady yet.
"What is this?" it demanded, in a very different tone: dark, silky and dangerous. Peter had to stop himself from taking a step backwards in an instinctive attempt to get away. According to the books, another power of dragons was the ability to hypnotize people with their voices. Even through the barrier of El's magic, he could feel that dark power tug at him.
"It keeps you from using magic," Peter said. "And as long as you're wearing it, you have to do what I say."
The dragon's head reared back in shock.
El smacked his arm. "You could be more tactful!"
The dragon blinked at them. Then it pulled itself to its feet, moving with slow, careful motions that reminded Peter of a drunk trying not to display his inebriation. Though he didn't want to admit it, even to himself, there was something that made his throat ache about its struggle to appear strong and not to show weakness to its enemies: him and El. It sat down on its haunches, curled its tail neatly around its feet and tucked in its wings, and regarded them levelly. "Well," it said. "Now what."
"I need to ask you some questions --" Peter began.
"Wait!" El said. She knelt and rummaged in her basket. To the dragon, she said, "You probably have a pretty nasty headache from my sleep draught."
"I should be able to heal it," the dragon said. "I can't."
"That's because my chain is blocking your magic. Here, this will help with your headache." She held out a clay bottle with a green ribbon wrapped around it and bound in a complex series of knots. All El's potions were marked according to the old system that her grandmother had taught her, a secret language known only to the herb women of the Valley.
Peter and the dragon both regarded her with equal disbelief. "You're giving it headache medicine now?" Peter said.
The dragon reached out its forepaw and took the bottle delicately in the tips of its claws. It sniffed at it.
"I'm not trying to poison you," El said. "If you're going to be our prisoner --" she gave Peter a dark look, which he thought was completely unfair under the circumstances "-- then the least we can do is make you comfortable."
The dragon pinched off the top of the bottle, sniffed again and then ate it bottle and all. El's eyes went a bit wide at that.
"I don't suppose you have anything to drink," the dragon said.
"I think I have a waterskin --" El began, rummaging in her basket again.
"Not water," the dragon said impatiently. "I mean wine. Good wine, if you have it. Or I suppose ale will do, in a pinch. If we're going to discuss things, we may as well do it like civilized beings."
Peter could feel himself rapidly losing control of his interrogation. "We're not discussing anything. You're my prisoner, because you broke the law." He wasn't sure if the law even applied to dragons, but he was on a roll now and didn't want to stop. "So I'm going to ask questions and you're going to answer them. Understand?"
The dragon rolled its eyes. "I'll answer your questions if I feel like answering them."
"Did you attack the silver caravan in the mountains two days ago?"
The dragon's eyes opened wide, a visible expression of surprise that announced its innocence more eloquently than words.
I'm right, Peter thought. "It was another dragon, wasn't it? Do you know about more dragons around here?"
The dragon's sapphire eyes went narrow, calculating. "What's the answer worth to you?"
All Peter could do was stare at him in disbelief. "You're trying to make a deal?"
"Yes." The dragon looked away from Peter and studied his claws in a pose of calculated, studious indifference. "You're a clever human, aren't you? You want information about the attack on the caravan. I have information. Let's make a deal."
"You're hardly in a position to be making demands," Peter said.
"What are you going to do?" the dragon said. "Torture me? Force me to answer your questions?"
Peter slipped his hand into his pocket and touched the chain. It was still warm, and throbbed like a heartbeat under his hand. Then he let it slither out of his fingers. No. Not like that. His stomach twisted with revulsion. El was right: that much power over another intelligent, thinking being was too much power to have.
Instead, he said, "Like I said before, my name is Peter. This is El."
The dragon looked up, wary and guarded. "Neal," he said after a moment. Peter suspected that it wasn't his real name -- seriously, a dragon named Neal? -- but it was something to work with, anyway.
They ended up taking Neal home to interrogate him.
If they stayed in the mine, Peter was worried about being interrupted by a torch-wielding mob at any moment. He wasn't too thrilled about the idea of taking the dragon to his house, either, but at least they'd have some privacy. And after they finished their chat with the dragon ... well. They'd figure out what to do next at that point, he supposed.
The dragon, no more pleased than Peter at the idea of encountering a mob of angry silver miners, offered to show them a different way out of the mine. "I knew it," Peter said. "You do have a secret entrance."
"About to become much less secret," the dragon grumbled.
He led the way. Peter followed, knife in hand and bow slung over his shoulder. Even with the chain suppressing his magic, the dragon was still quite dangerous. Peter had seen how fast he could move. However, whether it was the chain or the threat of the knife or simply some whim of his own, Neal made no attempt to attack them as he led them through a twisting series of passageways. They emerged at last under a star-filled sky, a couple of miles on the opposite side of the village.
"Lived here all my life and I never knew this was here," Peter said, looking around. "How'd you find it?"
"I'm a dragon," Neal said impatiently. "We're good at finding secret ways in and out of places. It's one of the things we do."
"The other ones being stealing things, kidnapping virgins and killing people?"
"You're so judgmental," Neal said.
They extinguished El's candle and kept to the shelter of trees and shrubbery as they made their way back to the village. I can't believe I'm doing this, Peter thought. He'd gone out to kill a dragon; now he was smuggling that same, dangerous dragon into the village where he lived. There were little kids here.
If I have to, I can stop him, Peter thought, slipping his hand into his pocket and feeling the living warmth of the chain.
He felt a wash of utter relief when they reached the neat little cottage that he shared with El without being seen by any of the neighbors -- and without Neal killing and eating any of the neighbors. Once inside their garden gate, he felt safer. There was something about this place that always made his stress and worries melt away. El loved tending her garden, and its neat flowerbeds and tidy vegetable patches were an oasis of peace and tranquility.
... though, at the moment, an oasis of peace and tranquility with a dragon in the middle of it.
Satchmo came trotting up to greet them. Then he caught a whiff of Neal's scent. His hackles went up and he snarled -- Satch was the mildest dog Peter had ever met; he'd never heard Satch growl before -- and then turned tail and fled into the backyard.
"Animals don't get along with my kind very well," Neal explained. "Can't imagine why."
Neal fit through the door easily, though he had to fold up his wings and duck his head. Once inside, he curled up in front of the fire. El had to walk around him and step over his tail as she bustled around putting away the contents of her basket. Peter went to the well in the backyard to fetch a bucket of water to heat for tea, and gave Satch a conciliatory pat along the way.
"I believe there was mention of wine?" Neal said, lazily raising his head. The flames gleamed on his scales, giving him a sinister air.
"Yes," Peter said. "By you. We're not wasting our good wine on you."
"Don't worry, Neal," El said, patting his snout. "I make an excellent cup of tea."
"El, he's a prisoner, not a guest," Peter said impatiently as he stripped off his armor. Hopefully he wouldn't regret it, but the armor was hot and heavy, and he didn't want to sit around in it.
Knife in hand, he sat at the table. He and the dragon eyed one another.
"Let's talk deals," Neal said.
"Yes. Let's." On the walk back, the thought had occurred to Peter that if he planned to go up against a dragon, having another dragon on his side, willing or not, could be useful in a great many ways beyond simply getting information. "The dragon that attacked the silver caravan -- I'd like your help in finding and ... neutralizing it. Him. Her."
"By neutralize, you mean kill." Neal's tail twitched, the serrated tip flicking back and forth.
"Well, yes," Peter said. "Whatever it takes. I mean, that dragon -- and I'm still giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming it isn't you -- murdered three people, and is likely to kill more. I'm not just going to let it walk away."
El put a cup of tea in front of Peter, and slipped one of her larger bowls under the dragon's snout. Neal lapped delicately, like a cat, and then raised his head. "Let's say that I take you up on your offer," he said. "I help you against one of my own kind. What do I get in return?"
That was the awkward question. "We don't kill you," Peter said.
El gave him a disapproving frown. Neal laughed. It sounded like a human laugh, aside from a sibilant undertone. "I think your negotiating skills could use some work."
"Look, you're stealing from us," Peter said. "Even if you didn't take the silver from the caravan, I caught you in the act of stealing from the mine."
The spiny frill on Neal's back bristled. "I'm a dragon. I take what I please. And I've never hurt anyone in your precious mine, or in this valley, at all."
Peter couldn't help noticing that he said nothing about anyone outside the Valley. "Oh really? What about the people who depend on the silver for their livelihood? Without that silver, this town's going to die. The whole Valley will wither and die. Any human who did what you did would have been put to death, as well."
Neal tapped his claws thoughtfully together. His frill ruffled and then lowered.
"What I'm offering you is a far better deal than I'd offer most human criminals. If you help us against the other dragon, I'll let you go afterwards, as long as you promise to go far away from here and never bother us again." Peter wondered if it was worth trying to extort a promise that Neal would return to the lands beyond the Wall, while he was at it, but there was no way he could ever tell if Neal kept a promise like that, so he didn't see any point in bothering.
Neal's frill flattened, and so did his head. "You're asking for a lot of trust, human. How do I know you'll keep your word?"
"How do I know you'll keep yours?"
Neal wordlessly stuck out his foot with the chain on it.
"Yes, and as soon as we remove it, you could burn our fields, kill our cattle, kill all of us. We're both taking a leap of faith, Neal." Peter held out a hand.
Neal stared at it for a moment. Then he held out his forepaw and engulfed Peter's hand in it. Peter had to brace himself not to pull away when the huge claws swallowed his hand, wrist and the lower part of his forearm. Neal's skin was scaly, warm and dry.
"It's a deal," Neal said, "for now," and dipped his snout to lap from the bowl of tea again.
El brought some cold chicken from the cold-storage room, cut off some for herself and Peter, and placed the rest on a plate in front of the dragon.
"So," Peter said. "The other dragon. Do you know him?"
"He uses the name Keller," Neal said. He nipped up the snack that El had offered him in a single quick, dainty bite. "He's dangerous."
"He's a dragon. You're all dangerous."
"More dangerous than me," Neal clarified. "All dragons love metals that glitter --" the blue of his eyes darkened for a wistful moment "-- but Keller cares for it above all things: friends, family, honor."
The idea that any dragons cared about friends, family or honor was news to Peter, but he kept his mouth shut.
"And he likes the terror that he evokes in humans," Neal went on. "He likes to play games, to be admired, to be feared. Right now he is probably resting in his lair, wherever it is. The energy that he spent when he attacked the caravan will take a while to recover."
And right there was a useful bit of information about dragons that wasn't in any of the books that Peter had read: flying, fighting, presumably using their dragonfire wore them out. They weren't invincible fighting machines, and they needed days to recover after a major fight, during which time they were vulnerable. Peter quietly filed this away for future reference.
"So is this a good time to attack him?"
Neal shook his head. "He will be approaching full strength again." He smiled briefly, showing his teeth. "I'm sure he'll be coming to you soon enough."
"Do you know where his lair is?"
"Did you miss the part where I said wherever it is? No dragon shares that information with anyone, dragon or otherwise. The lair," Neal said with a bit of a growl in his voice, "is where the treasure is. Every dragon guards that lair at all costs."
Peter watched him thoughtfully. "Do you have one?"
"Of course I do. And you will never learn where it is."
I could force him, Peter thought. But it was an ugly thought and he pushed it away with a little shudder. Besides, Neal wouldn't be stealing anything else as long as he wore El's chain. They could deal later with the matter of what he'd already stolen.
"We need a plan," he said, and pointed at the dragon curled up in front of the fire. "You're going to help us come up with a plan."
"Of course I will," Neal agreed calmly. He yawned, showing long jaws filled with very sharp-looking teeth. "Right now, I intend to sleep. I think best when I'm well rested."
Peter sighed. He could already feel a headache coming on. "All right. I suppose I'd better go explain why the dragon that's been robbing the silver mines is now sleeping in my house."
El put a hand on his arm as he rose. "Do you think that's a good idea?"
"What else can I do? It's not as if we can hide him under the rug. Someone's bound to notice eventually."
It went over better than Peter had hoped.
At least, they didn't immediately drag him through the streets and string him up.
Hughes, the mine owner, was the one he had to convince. The old miner was as hard as an ingot from one of his forges, not a man who gave trust lightly. But Hughes was one of the most powerful men in the Valley, and the one who'd been most directly affected by Neal's actions so far. And Hughes' word carried a lot of weight around here.
"You say it's not the one that killed my men."
"I believe he's not," Peter agreed. They were outside the smelting furnaces, and the heavy stink of the fires drifted on the dawn air.
"Because it told you so."
"No," Peter said. "Because the facts don't fit. I've been keeping the peace around here for a long time, Hughes. We've been friends a long time. And you know I'm not going to fall for honeyed words without evidence to support them."
"They say dragons can cloud men's minds."
"Not this dragon," Peter said. "My wife has placed a binding on him that renders him incapable of using any of his magic. He can't breathe fire and he can't fly. If the need arises, I can use the magic to control him, though I'd rather not have to. He seems to be cooperating willingly."
Hughes leaned against the wall and looked at Peter flatly. "You can't trust a dragon," he said. "They're pure evil, through and through. It's not their fault, it's just what they are."
"I'm not asking you to trust him." Peter spread his hands. "I'm asking you to trust me. I believe I can keep him under control while he cooperates in finding and killing the dragon that killed your men."
Peter drew a deep breath. This was the part he'd hoped wouldn't come up, but Hughes was too smart for that, and Peter didn't feel right about lying. "I told him I'd let him go, as long as he left the Valley and never came back."
"You can't possibly mean that."
"I don't know yet," Peter said. "If he plays straight with me, I don't want to be the one to double-cross him."
"What do you think he'll do to you, as soon as your wife releases the binding? Believing the word of dragons is a good way to die."
"We can work out that part out later, then. This isn't the time. From what Neal says, this Keller dragon is going to be back soon, and we need his help."
Hughes studied him for a long moment.
"You're positive that your wife's magic can keep this dragon under control."
"You've known El all her life, and her mother and grandmother before her," Peter said. "Did you ever know any of those women to fail at something they said they'd do?"
A slight smile appeared on Hughes' sharp-edged face.
So now there was a dragon living in Peter and El's back garden.
The garden turned out to be a much better place for him than the house. Small though he might be, Neal's length filled the main room of Peter and El's little house from one side to the other. The garden was cool, shady and comfortable, and Neal seemed to enjoy lying under El's roses, idly picking a weed now and then.
Satchmo shunned the backyard and stayed in the house.
"He's terrorizing the dog," Peter complained to El.
"Neal hasn't done a thing to Satch," El said, ruffling the dog's ears. "He's been a perfect gentleman. Satch is going to have to learn to live with him."
"This is temporary," Peter said quickly. "Very temporary. Let's all keep that in mind, why don't we? We do not want a dangerous predator living in our garden for very long."
"At least it'll keep the neighbor kids from getting into my apple tree," El said cheerfully, and at Peter's disbelieving look, dissolved into giggles. She smacked him in the shoulder as she wound down to little chuckles. "Oh, stop making that face. I'm joking. Although he's keeping the rosebushes nicely weeded."
"You realize he's dangerous, right?"
The neighbors certainly did. As word began to spread around town that their dragonslayer had actually brought the dragon home to live with him, Peter and El had a steady supply of irate neighbors stopping them in the street to complain. Some were complaining about the danger; others insisted on the return of small personal items that they believed, against all logic or evidence, that the dragon had stolen. A few die-hard souls even went so far as to knock on their door, but that stopped cold when Neal poked his head around the house to get a better look.
Neal thought it was hilarious. He liked to stretch out his neck, rest his chin on top of Peter and El's garden wall, and watch life go on around the house -- which usually consisted of the neighbors going about their daily business until they noticed him, then screamed and fled.
Peter thought gloomily that at this rate, it was only a matter of time before an armed mob showed up at his door.
But people being people, it only took a day or two for the fear to wear off and interest in the novelty to set in. There was not ever a whole lot that was new and different in the Valley, and having a real live (small, tame) dragon living in Peter and El's garden became a source of fascination. Rather than avoiding the area, people began flocking into the alley behind the house, standing on crates or piles of bricks to see over the wall into the garden.
Neal seemed to be basking in it, although sometimes he came into the house to escape the attention when the attention and notoriety got to be too much for him.
"We ought to charge a fee to look at him," Peter muttered.
Neal overheard him, and looked cheerful at the idea. "That's a great idea. Coins are shiny."
"I was thinking more along the lines of paying for your upkeep."
So far, feeding him hadn't been that much of a problem. Neal wanted to hunt, but there was no way in hell Peter was turning him loose to do that. Peter and El were not wealthy people, but they did keep a small flock of sheep and a couple of cows, inherited from Peter's parents; they leased a plot of grazing land and hired a couple to look after the flock. They'd sacrificed a couple of these animals to Neal's appetite. That wasn't going to last in the long term, though.
Hopefully, though, there wouldn't be a long term. Thus far, Keller hadn't shown up again. There was one part of Peter that could only be glad -- when Keller did show up, death and destruction would follow in his wake -- and yet, if Keller wasn't here, what if he'd gone off to bother some other valley in the mountains, a valley that didn't have its own tame(ish) dragon to help out?
Not that the dragon had been all that much use so far. Peter spent a lot of time in the back garden with Neal, working on plans for taking down Keller. Or, more accurately, being told that most of his plans were stupid and would only get him killed.
"I caught you, didn't I?"
Neal growled softly, low in his throat. "By trickery, in the dark. Keller doesn't hunt in the dark like I do. He attacks in daylight, from above."
"So we come up with a different plan, then."
"If he's gone away, then he's not your problem," Neal pointed out. He was stretched out in the sun, looking comfortable, though he kept idly scratching at the chain with his back foot. "That's a good thing, right? You can go on about your life and --" he cracked an eye open hopefully "-- let me go."
"But he's someone else's problem, then," Peter said. "Because I let him get away."
"Why does it matter to you?" Neal asked, genuinely curious.
"Must be a human thing, I guess."
Life didn't stop just because a dragon threatened the Valley. Two days after Neal's capture, Peter was awakened by someone pounding on the door. He was halfway out of bed and reaching for his knife before his brain caught up; his first thought was They finally came for us, because of the dragon.
But instead, it was a mother frightened for her son. The boy had been out watching the flocks, but hadn't come home that evening. They had been searching for him all night, finding nothing.
"What if dragons killed him?" she whispered, casting nervous glances towards the backyard.
"It wasn't dragons," Peter told her, hoping against hope that it was true.
He got her to sit down by the fire, and El plied her with tea, while Peter got dressed and slipped out into the darkness. And almost ran into a dragon; only the white patch at Neal's throat alerted him before he smacked into his resident garden houseguest.
"Neal, whatever you want, I don't have time for it." Two days ago, he never would have believed that if he ever walked into a dragon, he'd simply shove it out of his way and keep going, but that was exactly what he did.
Neal allowed himself to be moved aside in catlike style, then kept pace with him to the garden gate. "Don't be so hasty," he said. "I can help out. For a price, of course." His tail swished back and forth.
"I heard what she wants. I can probably find the human fledgling, if you want me to."
Peter stopped in his tracks. "Say what?"
"By smell," Neal said. "Dragons have a good sense of smell. What, you didn't know that?"
"No, I didn't know that." He studied the dragon in the dim light, wondering what his angle was. Neal never did anything without wanting something in return. "What's your price to help?"
"Shiny things, obviously," the dragon said impatiently. "If she has any jewelry or such, I'll take that, but only if it's real gold or silver. Otherwise, you can fetch me something suitably expensive."
Peter hesitated, remembering the rumors about the dragon stealing necklaces and such, right out of people's bedrooms or locked cabinets. He'd thought it was complete nonsense, but that was back when he'd thought a dragon would be the size of a house, slow and ponderous and huge. Now that he'd actually seen Neal -- small, lithe, fast-moving Neal, capable of squeezing his bulk into impossibly tiny spaces -- it suddenly seemed a lot more likely.
"You really think you can find this kid."
"If he's there to be found," Neal said loftily, "then I can find him. Payment in advance, of course."
"No way. The kid's more important than you getting your shiny things. I'll pay you after you find him."
Neal put up a token resistance, but he seemed pleased enough that he didn't protest very hard. Peter considered that Neal had been separated from his treasure hoard for a few days now; if what they said about dragons and their gold was true, he must be pining for it like a drunk denied his alcohol.
The motley crew of farmers and herdboys searching for the lost child were nonplused, to say the least, by the appearance of Peter with an apparently free-range dragon. Peter had to explain over and over again that Neal was under magical control, that he could neither breathe fire nor fly, and that he was no danger to anyone (Peter hoped). Meanwhile, Neal roamed the field, belly-deep in dew-damp grass. Peter couldn't tell if he was actually searching for the boy or simply glorying in being out in the countryside for the first time in two days. All he seemed to be managing to accomplish was terrifying the animals out of their wits.
The thought occurred to him that Neal might take advantage of the opportunity to run for it. The first night, he'd done exactly that, which was when El had introduced Peter to another property of the control chain: it allowed them to find Neal anywhere. They caught up him only about a mile away, outside the town gates, standing with his forepaws on the top rail of a fence and his nose to the wind. Neal had bared his teeth and for a moment Peter thought they might have to use force -- he interposed himself between El and Neal, and got ready to fight. But Neal just sighed and dropped down to all fours again. "It figures," he said with a sharp-toothed smile, and followed them back to the house.
Later that night, curled up in bed with El, Peter couldn't sleep. "What if he gets farther next time?" What if he runs off and kills someone, was the part he couldn't say. He was the one who'd brought the dragon into the town, the one who hadn't killed it -- killed him -- when he'd had the chance. Anything that Neal did from here on out was on Peter's head.
"I don't think he will," she said. "He can feel as he gets farther away from the other half of the chain. It's uncomfortable for him. I'm pretty sure that's why he didn't go any farther than he did."
So Neal, theoretically, could only roam about a mile in any direction from Peter -- or whoever had the control half of the chain. Still, two miles was a lot of territory, and a lot could happen in just a few minutes if he took his eyes off the dragon. El seemed to be confident that Neal would not hurt anyone, but Peter didn't share her confidence, especially with all these tempting snacks around: human and sheep alike.
In fact, Neal appeared to be giving the sheep a speculative look. Peter trotted over and smacked him on the shoulder. "Don't even think about it."
Neal rolled his eyes at him. "I see that you still presume guilt, regardless of evidence."
"You're you," Peter said. "That's all the evidence I need."
But Neal did find the lost child, and it only took him about an hour of ranging in ever-widening spirals through the fields. The boy had fallen into a small gully in the rough country where the rolling hills of the Valley met the forest marching down from the mountains. Neal's call of "Over here!" brought the farmers, and Peter, running to find the dragon standing with his legs braced on loose ground and his long neck craned down into a narrow ravine.
Neal sat on his haunches at the edge of the proceedings and watched the rescue efforts. The boy was shivering and covered with mud, but unharmed. After he'd been packed off to the farmhouse, the boy's father, a big gruff sheepherder, approached the dragon with diffident caution. "Sir dragon," he said politely. "Gotta admit, I wasn't too keen when I first saw you here, scarin' the sheep and all. But you found my boy, and I thank you for that, from the bottom of my heart." He held out a big, callused hand.
Peter was getting pretty good at reading Neal's expressions, and he looked both pleased and baffled. The dragon studied the old farmer's hand for a long time before he took it carefully in the tips of his claws and shook it.
"There was talk of payment," Neal said.
And it had been going so well. Peter quickly interposed himself between the dragon and the farmer. "I'll handle that end of things," he said.
The farmer shook his head. "He found my boy," he said stubbornly. "I pay my debts." To the dragon, he said, "Come on back with me. We don't have much, but anything we have is yours."
Oh, that is NOT a good offer to make, Peter thought. Neal looked pleased, though, and trotted along with them, as happy and obedient as a dog.
The family's little farm croft was like any of hundreds in the Valley, and very like the place where Peter had grown up: a tiny stone house with a sod roof, sunk into the side of a hill. The hay bier on one side and woodshed on the other were bigger than the house itself. But the yard was tidily kept, with a few scrawny chickens and a couple of dogs, all of which vanished in horror as Neal wandered into the yard, looking around curiously.
The interior of the house, too, was so familiar that Peter felt a quick tug of nostalgia as soon as he stepped inside: a single room, smoky from the badly vented fireplace at one end, with a low ceiling and single small window by the door. It was tiny, cramped, little more than a place to sleep; the benches along the walls did double duty as places to sleep at night and to sit during the day, when the weather was too bad to go outside. Between the smoke and poor lighting, most of the family's work would be done outside except in the worst weather.
Right now, the room was crowded with every one of the boy's relatives who could stuff inside -- siblings, aunts, cousins, all fussing over him. El nudged her way through the crowd to sidle over and squeeze Peter's hand. There was no room for Neal; he couldn't do more than stick his head inside, which he did, peering around with his usual insatiable curiosity.
Everyone in the room fell silent. A cat hissed and fled under one of the benches.
Then the boy's mother separated herself from the group around the boy. Fearlessly, she went up to the dragon. "Thank you for bringing my boy home safe," she said, and hugged his head.
Peter stared. So did everyone else.
"But I didn't actually do much," Neal said, a bit muffled. It was the first thing approaching modesty that Peter had heard out of him.
"I promised him a reward, Sally," the farmer said, and his wife nodded, let go of Neal's head -- he shook it uncomfortably and preened at his ruff with one forefoot -- and climbed up on one of the benches, shooing aside a few kids who had clustered there to look at the dragon. She took down a small box from the rafters and unlocked it with a key she wore on a rope around her waist.
Peter's family had had a safebox like that, too. And, like theirs, hers contained the family's bare handful of precious possessions, probably all that they owned besides their farm tools and a few clay dishes. Peter glimpsed a lock of hair, probably belonging to a dead child, a handful of copper coins and a silver necklace with a wide, flaring clasp that had to be a family heirloom.
Neal's eyes lit up covetously at the sight of it. The woman saw. She took out the necklace, and cradled it gently in her hand for a moment, as if recalling the ancestresses who had worn it. Then she held it out to Neal.
Neal looked from the necklace in the woman's workworn hand, to the meager contents of the box. Then he reached for the necklace with his claws.
I can't just let him do this, Peter thought. For one thing, I don't think he understands what he's doing. The idea that the dragon might care if he did know was a thought he didn't want to examine too closely. He leaned his head against Neal's scaly cheek, closer than he'd every gotten to the dragon except when Neal was tied up and unconscious. "Neal," he whispered, and tried to think how to translate the situation into terms the dragon would understand. Luckily, in this case it wasn't hard. "That's all the treasure they have in the world. Humans aren't like dragons. They don't have a secret treasure cache somewhere else." Well, some humans perhaps, but not people like this. "If you take that, you'll be taking the only thing of any importance they've got."
Neal hesitated. He frowned sideways at Peter.
"Look," Peter whispered, "let her keep it and I'll find something shiny for you back at home, all right? I promise. Just ask her for something small. One or two of the coins. It'll hurt her pride if you don't take anything. But ... Neal. It'll hurt her in a way you can never fix if you take that."
Peter could see Neal was thinking it over. Then he drew his claw back from the necklace and pointed into the box. "Not that," he said. "I'd like one of those ... round things instead. No, maybe two." The copper coins winked in the firelight. "Four?" Neal said, and Peter surreptitiously kicked him in the scaly ankle.
The woman was obviously trying to hide her relief, but it kept breaking through. She counted out four copper coins into Neal's forepaw. Neal, to Peter's interest, tucked them under the edge of his frilly ruff.
They walked home quietly in the growing dawn, Peter and El holding hands and Neal trailing them, lost in thought. As they entered the village's narrow streets, he said at last, "Was that true? All the treasure they have is in that box?" He sounded skeptical. "That can't be true."
"It's true," Peter said. "I grew up in a house like that. Believe me, it's true."
Neal cocked a sideways look at him. "You did."
"Yeah. Little sheepherding family, a lot like that one."
"But ..." Neal seemed to be trying to wrap his mind around it. "Why do they have so few nice things?"
"Can't afford them," Peter said. "It's just the way of the world."
"But they could take them," Neal said, clearly baffled.
"That wouldn't be right, Neal," El said, patting his shoulder.
"You can't just go around taking people's things," Peter added.
"You can if you're stronger," Neal said. "Or faster, or smarter. Especially if you take things they don't really need. I wouldn't take someone's last piece of treasure --" he shuddered at the very thought, his scales rippling like a horse shaking off a fly "-- but if someone has a lot of it, then it's up to them to be smart and strong enough to protect it."
"That's how dragons do it, huh?" Peter said with an edge in his voice. El gave his hand a little quelling squeeze.
"That's how everyone does it."
"Not in my town," Peter said. He pushed open the garden gate to let them both in.
After that, Neal started going with Peter while he worked. Peter was not entirely comfortable with it, but he wasn't comfortable leaving El alone with the dragon while he was gone, either. And he had to admit that nothing garnered respect when breaking up a bar fight like a few hundred pounds of dragon ambling along at his heels.
None of his worst fears about Neal snapping up children for snacks came to pass. Peter was still on the fence as to whether Neal was simply playing the part of a nice, peaceful, friendly dragon right up until he unleashed a fiery revenge on the entire town, but if Neal was playing a role, he played it to the hilt.
In fact, after a little initial sullenness, he seemed to enjoy himself. Peter often noticed the dragon looking around curiously at the town and its inhabitants -- not so much in a "casing it for shiny things" way (though a little of that, too; Peter sometimes saw him staring intently at a woman's necklace or a set of silver dishes visible through a window) but with open, somewhat childlike fascination. Sometimes he would stop walking just to examine the pattern of bricks in a wall, or to stick his long snout into a drainpipe. Mostly, though, it seemed to be people that interested him; he found them endlessly fascinating, and didn't seem at all bothered by the fact that their reactions to him ranged from surprise to open terror. Children playing in the street, housewives gossiping on their way to market, timber-cutters dragging carts of split wood, drunken farmers stumbling out of the town's two small taverns -- it was all equally interesting to Neal.
He seemed to have no concept of private property. Or walls. In fact, with his long snakelike body and his claws, he could peer or climb over anything that stood between him and something that interested him. Peter kept having to drag him out of people's yards with hasty apologies. ("Sorry, sorry, don't mind us ...")
In the end, this might have been one of the things that prevented the pitchfork-wielding, dragon-hunting mob that Peter kept worrying about. This dragon was so utterly different from anything anyone had ever heard about dragons that no one knew what to make of him. It was easy to fear and hate dragons if you'd only ever heard stories about them or glimpsed one setting a caravan on fire. Having a curious dragon investigating the washing hanging in the backyard was a whole different experience.
Also, Peter kept taking pains to point out at every opportunity that the dragon had been tamed by El's magic. (Neal flattened his neck ruff at the word "tamed", but since it kept him from being hunted by every wannabe dragonslayer in the Valley, he didn't protest too loudly about it.) Peter pointed out the anklet to anyone who asked, and explained, to a certain amount of neck-ruff-flattening, that the dragon was completely harmless, not actually a threat at all.
Nearly everyone in the Valley had come to El at some point for her charms and wards. There was hardly a person for miles around who didn't swear by El's healing potions or who hadn't asked for her help with a difficult childbirth or lambing. They didn't trust the dragon, but they trusted El's enchantments to keep it under control.
It also helped that the sheepherding family had told everyone about the dragon finding their lost child. This had led to a few more requests from (very nervous) visitors to have Neal help find lost things for them: everything from a lamb that had gone astray to an old lady's prized brooch.
Neal was good at it, and he basked in the attention. But Peter couldn't help noticing that Neal never stopped looking up at the sky, wistfully watching birds darting over the village. No matter what they'd managed to convince most of the neighbors, Peter knew that Neal hadn't forgotten he'd once been able to fly. And Peter remained unconvinced that Neal hadn't killed people as well as stealing treasure in his wild, wandering dragon days. He'd been a free and dangerous predator once, and it was evident to Peter that Neal was still looking for an opportunity to slip off the chain and become that predator again.
And not everyone was willing to accept the presence of the dragon without comment. Peter had started receiving a number of dirty looks as he walked down the street, particularly from those who'd known people who had been on the silver caravan that was attacked. Some of the neighbors were no longer speaking to either Peter or El.
Peter's usual habit in the evening was to go for a beer at the tavern with some of his age-mates, but he'd only tried it once since he'd started going out in public with Neal. Naturally he hadn't taken Neal with him, but even so, all conversation had hushed when he'd walked into the tavern. People looked away. When he'd joined his friends at their usual table, the mood was distinctly awkward. Someone asked politely after El, someone else gave him a beer, but it wasn't the same.
He hadn't gone back -- to break up fights occasionally, but not for a social visit.
Things would go back to normal once the dragon was gone, Peter told himself. He almost managed to believe it.
Word trickled into the Valley, by way of passing fur traders and a lone merchant caravan, that Keller had struck again -- in a different valley, one that centered its industry around the local gold mine. Several buildings had collapsed, dozens of people had been killed and injured, and the dragon had made off with as much gold as it could carry and still fly.
"Gold mine?" Neal said, perking up.
"It's not your gold, so don't even think about it."
"You can't blame a dragon for thinking, Peter."
Peter thought about going over to see if he could help. But it would take days, leaving his Valley unprotected in the meantime, and the odds were good that Keller wasn't going to come back to the gold mine anytime in the near future anyway. Now that he had more of a pattern to work with, Peter was starting to see Keller's general strategy. He wanted to steal treasure and cause destruction and fear without risking himself any more than necessary. So he wouldn't strike in the same place twice in a row. The gold mine was probably safe for now; it would be fortified with extra defenses, production cut back to accommodate the increased security.
Like our silver mines were.
But now that Neal had been captured and Keller was elsewhere, the silver mines were cranking along at full production again. Peter suspected that the next silver caravan that went out from the mine was likely to be targeted by Keller.
And we'd better be ready.
El had been reluctant to help him brainstorm ways to kill Keller. She was convinced that they could capture Keller with an ankle chain in the same way that they'd captured Neal.
"And then what?"
"And then we'll talk to him, and figure something out," El said equanimously. "Dragons aren't so bad once you get to know them."
"I think Neal's a really unusual dragon," Peter said, looking out into the backyard, where Neal was lying on his back in the grass and lazily watching a couple of butterflies circle over his nose.
El just smiled. "Perhaps dragons are all different from each other, just as human beings are."
The next morning, El left at first light to attend a childbirth in one of the sheepherders' little crofts. The woman's husband and two large brothers accompanied her, so Peter figured that she'd be safe; he let her go with a kiss, and settled in to enjoy a few quiet hours of reading in the sunshine that bathed their little house in the mornings. El had quietly traded with the last merchant caravan for a new book, a military history that she'd thought he'd like, and he'd been doling it out to himself in small snatches -- new books were a rarity in the Valley, and time to read was always snatched from his daily responsibilities.
In the morning stillness, he eventually became aware of quiet voices in the backyard. One was Neal's. The other ... he wasn't really sure. Peter laid down the book and went quietly to the window to look out.
Neal tended to show his emotions all over his body, and right now his body language and the perky set of the spines on his back gave clear evidence of delight. Peter couldn't see who -- or what -- he was talking to, though, and their voices were so low that he couldn't tell what they were talking about.
Peter slipped out the front door, closing it with great care, and made his way stealthily around the side of the house. Satchmo, lying in the front yard, gave him a martyred look, as if to say Now there are two of them; where does it end?
As he crept along the wall, he heard Neal say "-- think you can get it off me?" and his heart beat faster. From the hope in Neal's voice, the dragon had to be talking about the ankle chain.
"No," the stranger's voice said immediately. "Human magic -- it's a tangled mess, utterly different from our magic. No one can keep up with all the different ways they do things. But I can ask around, see what I can find out."
Peter slowed still further, edging along the wall. He knew firsthand how sharp Neal's senses were.
"I'd really appreciate that," Neal said, and then in a different, gentler voice than Peter was used to hearing from him, "Thanks for coming, by the way."
"What was I going to do, not come? It's just not the same under the mountain without you around to make things interesting."
Peter peeked around the corner.
Neal was lying on his belly in the grass, filling much of the backyard, with his tail snaking under El's rosebushes. A few feet in front of his nose, perched on the edge of the stone well housing was a ... a something. Peter wasn't actually sure what it was. It was dragonlike, with scales and wings, but, sitting up on its haunches, it was only about two and a half feet tall. In contrast to Neal's sinuous grace, it was wide and squat with a stubby, doglike muzzle.
A wyvern? Peter thought, remembering plates of different kinds of dragons in some of the old books he'd seen. They were a kind of small dragon. But, no -- wyverns only had two legs, and this creature had four. Perhaps a gargoyle? But, no, they're supposed to be extinct ... and all the sculptures are much larger, nearly bear-sized ...
The little creature froze, hissed and scuttled down from the well. Neal's neck ruff went flat and he looked around. "Mozzie? What's wrong?"
"Human," Mozzie hissed, baring his teeth and scuttling behind Neal.
Neal's glance at Peter was warily bemused. "Oh ... that's not a human, that's Peter." He frowned slightly as he realized what he'd said, then shook himself, and gave Peter a small, rueful smile. "This house is where he and his wife live. I might have known he'd notice us."
"That's the same wife who put that chain on you?" Mozzie demanded. All Peter could see of him was a pair of bright eyes, glimmering from the shadow of Neal's wing.
"Yes," Neal said, "but they're all right. For humans."
Peter cleared his throat. "What is that?"
Mozzie squeaked. He withdrew deeper into the shadow under Neal's wing, and gave a small growl.
"He's a gargoyle," Neal said.
"I've heard of them. I thought they were extinct." Peter eyed the gargoyle that was still glaring at him from the shelter of Neal's wings. "Also, I always thought they'd be bigger."
Mozzie was eventually coaxed out of hiding when Peter brought out a bottle of blackberry wine. It had been payment from one of El's customers. Peter poured some into two pottery cups for the gargoyle and himself. Neal looked wistful until Peter handed him the bottle, still half full. Neal grinned and clasped it carefully in the claws of one large paw.
"So ... not so extinct after all, I guess," Peter said, sitting in the sun with his back against the garden wall and watching the gargoyle lapping from the cup.
"You humans," Mozzie scoffed. "You don't believe in anything unless you see it with your own eyes, and just because you never see us doesn't mean we're gone. We gargoyles prefer quiet dark places, close to stone and water. Unlike dragons --" he gave Neal a scowl that managed to be both exasperated and fond "-- we don't feel the need to advertise our presence or bother humans at all. We go about our business and let you go about yours."
"And yet you're here," Peter said, raising an eyebrow invitingly.
"I go where I please, Human," Mozzie said loftily, and buried his snout in the cup of wine.
"Total coincidence you happened to show up in my backyard, then. Right where Neal is."
Mozzie's eyes went wide -- they were big eyes anyway, big dark-adapted eyes; the sunlight made him squint. "I was ... traveling," he said. "Saw an old friend. Thought I'd stop in."
Uh-huh. In a small backyard garden in the middle of the village. Peter opened his mouth to press further ... and then shut it again.
Because, really, why shouldn't Neal visit with a friend every once in a while? Peter glanced at the dragon, who was lying with his head stretched out on the grass and the empty wine bottle in front of him, snaking his long tongue into the bottle to get out the last drops. Living here must be a very strange, lonely existence for him.
I am not feeling sorry for a dragon. A giant killing machine with legs.
Besides, if he pressed for answers, he guessed both of them would lie to him. Clearly Neal had contacted Mozzie -- somehow -- in the hopes that the little gargoyle could help free him from the chain. Peter could chase Mozzie off and ... then what? Maybe Neal's next "old friend" would be something a lot more dangerous than a three-foot-high gargoyle. And this way, he and El could keep an eye on what they were up to.
Nothing to do with feeling sorry for the dragon at all.
Peter thought that Elizabeth showed remarkable grace in dealing with the discovery that there was now not only a dragon living in her garden, but a gargoyle had moved into the potting shed. After stealing most of her wine.
Mozzie, in fact, had a tendency to walk off with anything that wasn't nailed down. Peter hadn't realized that he would end up appreciating Neal's relative restraint so much. Neal still had trouble with the idea of personal property, but his covetousness was restricted to shiny things (and the occasional sheep), and he was usually agreeable to being told "no". Mozzie scuttled in under the cover of darkness and scuttled out with ... well, whatever odd thing had caught his fancy. A spoon. A packet of herbs. A shoe (but not its mate). El's antique porcelain saltbox, which Peter quietly retrieved from the potting shed before she noticed it was missing.
Meanwhile, Peter worked on his plan to capture Keller. It was really just a refinement of the system that he and El had used to capture and chain Neal. "You're our expert on dragons," he told Neal, who was curled in front of the fire and looped around the living room. Neal wasn't really all that massive, in the grand scheme of things; Peter certainly couldn't have picked him up, but he was smaller than, say, a cow. He was, however, very long, and between the wings and legs and all the tail, he tended to fill a room.
Neal cracked an eye open. "I am a dragon; that doesn't mean I'm an expert on all dragons."
"You're closer to it than I am," Peter pointed out. "Where do you think Keller would strike next?"
"I may be a dragon," Neal said, "but I'm not --"
"Not Keller. I know." Neal had been very adamant on this point. "But give it a try. Come up here and take a look at this map."
Neal yawned and reluctantly peeled himself away from the fireplace. He reared up and studied the map spread out on the table. Peter pointed out to him the gold mine, the York Valley, the trade road across the mountains.
"That's not a very good map," Neal said. "There's a valley here --" he pointed with a claw "-- absolutely full of fat mountain goats that's not even on it. And this river is going entirely the wrong way. Who made this map?"
"People who can't fly," Peter said. "Come on, focus. There's an ironworks on the far side of Fang Mountain; do you think Keller would attack it?"
Neal pondered, tracing patterns on the map with his claw. "I doubt it. Iron is awfully common, and it isn't even very shiny, except when it's been made into things like swords." He looked disdainfully at the chain on his ankle.
"It'll take the gold mine awhile to get their production going again," Peter said. He frowned. "That means the next likely target is us. Silver mine or caravan, do you suppose?"
"Caravan, probably," Neal said. "If any are going out soon. If not, he might attack the mine. Dragons get bored easily."
"I've noticed." Peter looked at the map again, and realized that he didn't know where Keller had attacked the caravan before. Wide open space, or narrow canyon? "If you were going to attack a bunch of men and horses, where would be the best place?"
"I'd want room to maneuver," Neal said immediately. "Er, hypothetically speaking, of course. Space to fly around and avoid arrows or swords. Getting trapped is the worst thing that can happen to a dragon in a fight. Well, that or getting wet."
"Wet?" Peter said. "Really?" He'd seen Neal splashing in the stream outside the village, and running around in the rain. "I never noticed you going out of your way to avoid it."
"There's nothing wrong with water all by itself," Neal said. "We like bathing and swimming. But water extinguishes our flames. We're defenseless when we're wet. Sort of like me now." He lowered his ruff and scowled, but Peter refused to rise to the bait. Actually, he felt the glimmerings of a plan.
"So if we wanted to set a trap for Keller ..." He scanned the map for rivers, waterfalls and lakes. There were a lot to choose from.
Neal's frilly ruff and spikes all stood up in alarm. "We? We? Oh, no. You can persist in this folly if you want to, but I'm not coming within miles of Keller."
"You're really that afraid of him?" Peter asked.
"It's not a matter of being afraid," Neal said defensively. "Not really. It's just -- Peter, I don't think you realize how much dragons depend on our magic. Especially when we fight. I can't fly, I can't flame, I can't even heal myself -- if I try to fight Keller like this, he'll snap my neck. Well, no, being Keller, he'll probably break my spine in five places just watch me writhe for a while before he bites my head off."
Neal looked genuinely scared. Peter took pity on him. "Look, there's no reason why you have to get anywhere near the caravan, but I really could use your help now. If you want to be safe from Keller, then you'll be safest of all if I catch and trap him like I did you, right?"
"Thanks for reminding me -- again," Neal sulked, but he lowered his snout over the map again, studying it with his head cocked to the side like a dog's.
"Can you see a place that would be good for setting a trap -- somewhere with water, but open enough that Keller would think it looked like a good spot for an ambush?"
"I don't see how anyone can find anything at all on this map," Neal complained. "It's wrong. I can't stand it." He perked up. "What do humans use to make marks on paper?"
"Ink, mostly. And yes, I do have some," he said at Neal's puppyish look. "But I'm not going to mix up a batch of ink just so that you can draw all over my map. Maps are expensive." He could only imagine what sort of fine motor control Neal could possibly have with those claws.
"But I'll make you a better map," Neal said. "I've flown lots of places, but I never even thought of drawing a map of them. It's a clever idea; too bad you humans aren't very good at it. But how could you be? I don't know how you can ever find your way anywhere, not being able to see things from the air ..."
Peter sighed and got Neal a sheet of paper from his and El's small supply. "Here," he said, picking a piece of charcoal out of the edge of the hearth. "You can use this."
For a while, the only sounds in the small house were the crackling of the fire and the scritching of Neal's charcoal. Peter gazed at the map and tried to calculate where Keller would most likely attack the caravan. Maybe he could borrow a horse from someone and go up there to see the site of the last attack. El was out at a client's home, making them some protective house-charms; when she came back, he'd have to ask her if they could adapt their strategy to somehow lure Keller into the open near a river ...
"Hey, Peter," Neal said, raising his long head. "That little stream outside the village -- which way does it turn? Did you ever notice?"
"Hmm?" Peter looked over at what Neal was doing, and stopped, and stared. Then he leaned over the sheet of paper in amazement.
Neal had drawn a detailed and, as far as Peter could tell, perfectly accurate map of the Valley, complete with sketchy little puffs of sheep on the pastureland.
"That's amazing," Peter said, picking it up, over Neal's startled "Hey!" He held it to the light of the fire. "You've got everything, even the old millpond and the wood-hauling roads. Neal, this is really incredible."
Neal preened. "Well, I've flown over it a few times," he said modestly. "And I haven't had much to do except look around, following you about ..."
"I don't think I could draw anything this detailed." Peter looked down at Neal's claws, with the bit of charcoal pinched between them. "How do you do that?"
Neal's whole body rippled in a shrug. "I don't know. I've just always been good at it. I like to draw. Usually I use colored mud, or I scratch pictures on cave walls. Can't humans do that?"
"Some can," Peter said. He studied the map, then Neal. An artist dragon. Who ever heard of such a thing? "You know, I might not mind mixing up some ink, if you'll correct my map with it."
Neal grinned, showing a lot of teeth. "I thought you said I'd ruin it."
"Disrespectful dragon," Peter muttered, and went to get out his precious little box of letter-writing supplies. Neal's eyes followed him covetously. "These things are really hard to get hold of, out here," he said sharply, opening the box. "Don't ever take anything from this box without asking. And if your little friend gets into it, I'll set Satchmo on him."
It was a completely empty threat; Satchmo was even more nervous about the gargoyle than the dragon.
"I could probably get you more, if you wanted some," Neal offered.
"Without stealing it?"
"Um." Neal's neck-frill drooped. "I'm still not too clear on this whole 'stealing' concept. I think it sounds like something you humans made up in order to make things harder on yourselves."
"Really? Is that all that law and order means to you -- an obstacle to keep you from doing what you want?" Peter opened the box and laid out the little glass jars of iron-gall, copper rust, and gum arabic.
"Mostly ..." Neal said, wary as if sensing a trap.
"You know, I've never seen an old dragon," Peter said. In truth, he'd never seen any dragon at all except for Neal, but there was no reason Neal had to know that. At any rate, he'd never heard of anyone else seeing one. "Or a dragon with only one wing, say. Are there dragons like that?"
"Mostly we try not to get like that," Neal said. "And we live a very long time without aging as you do."
"So what do you suppose Keller would do if he found out what had happened to you?" Peter nodded to the iron anklet.
"Kill me," Neal said immediately. "And take my treasure, if he can find it. This is why I plan to stay far away from Keller, by the way, I'll remind you."
"But you've met Old Jack, the woodcutter," Peter said, stirring the ink. "The one whose daughter lost the copper hair ornament that you found for her?"
"Yes, I remember. Awfully careless with their things, these humans, since they can't replace them as easily as dragons can ..."
"Jack, you might have noticed, has only one leg; he lost the other in an accident some winters back. And his wife is dead. He lives with his daughter, whose husband has been dead for some years. They do for themselves as best they can, and when winters are difficult, the neighbors help out, chop wood for them or bring them over a haunch of lamb as a Solstice gift. There are a lot of people like them in the Valley."
"Very subtle," Neal said dryly. "And I suppose you'll expect me to believe that no humans ever take things from each other, or attack each other?"
"Of course they do," Peter said. "And when they do, I stop them." He used his knife to trim a quill from El's bag of chicken and goose feathers that she'd been saving for quilt-stuffing.
"You protect people," Neal said, as if the thought had never occurred to him. From the expression on his face, maybe it hadn't. Peter was a little startled to realize that he'd gotten quite good at reading Neal's facial expressions -- the features were alien, but the emotions under them were surprisingly human. "You protect people who can't protect themselves."
"And dragons, if necessary," Peter pointed out.
Now Neal looked truly confused.
"Come on, Neal, if you're really as helpless as you say, and Keller tried to attack you, do you seriously think I wouldn't try to stop him?"
"That would be incredibly stupid," Neal said. "You're even more helpless than I am, with that soft, unscaly, totally flammable human body." But he looked pleased and a little embarrassed as he took the quill pen delicately with his clawtips from Peter's fingers.
Armed with his newly corrected map, accurate down to a level of detail that he'd never seen on a map before, and Neal slinking at his heels, Peter went to talk to Hughes at the mine. The place was bustling with activity. Hughes scowled suspiciously at the dragon, who lowered his head and tried to look as inconspicuous as a spiky black dragon can look, and then ushered Peter into the tent that served as his office and held the scales to weigh the smelted silver.
Hughes told Peter that a lightly-loaded silver caravan was going out in a few days.
"And if you're here to talk me out of it, Sheriff, you can forget it. I'm trying to run a business, and with autumn coming, the passes will be closing soon. I have twice the guards on the caravan, with some of those new, more powerful crossbows from the city --"
Peter held up a hand. "I'm not here to talk you out of it. I want to work with you. If Keller tries to attack you, we're going to have a surprise for him."
He kept a wary eye on Neal as he pointed to various spots on the map and laid out the rudiments of his plan. He hadn't brought Neal near the mine since capturing him, because he figured there was no point in exposing the dragon to too much temptation. But Neal was behaving himself, staring covetously at the piles of silver ingots as Hughes' employees weighed them, but not going near them.
"A fake caravan," Hughes said thoughtfully.
"Not entirely. Some of the mules' packs will contain real silver. But some will have a few surprises that my wife and I have been preparing for Keller, and most will just have rocks, for ballast. That way you won't be risking your entire profit."
"What about ... that?" Hughes asked, pointing to Neal, who looked up quickly and guiltily -- one of his paws had been creeping towards the nearest pile of silver, but he quickly tucked it under his body. "What if he joins the other dragon, and you have to deal with two rather than one?"
"He can't," Peter said. "El's magic has him under control." Still, he couldn't help wondering. He believed Neal when Neal claimed to hate Keller, but would Neal really choose the humans' side when it came to going up against one of his own kind? And, said a small voice at the back of Peter's brain, is it really fair to ask him to?
They walked down the hill back to the village in the growing dusk. Peter wondered if he ought to frisk Neal for any stolen silver. There wasn't anywhere on Neal that one would think something like that could be hidden, but he'd seen Neal slip things under his neck ruff before.
As they entered the village gate, Peter heard the sound of raised voices, and a sudden, breathy scream. Neal perked up and went trotting in that direction.
"Neal!" Peter snapped after him, but it did no good. He slipped his hand into his pocket, wound his fingers around the control chain, and ran after him.
He caught up to Neal in the alley between the glassblower's house and the Widow Herman's place. Neal had placed himself between the widow's daughter and a young man that Peter recognized immediately as Bill Smithson, one of the village's young troublemakers, who had gone completely white and was frozen in place. All Neal's spikes stood on end and his wings were half-raised; he looked huge, and he was hissing in a threatening sort of way. The girl looked as if she wasn't sure whether to be more frightened of the dragon or the young man.
"What's going on here?" Peter demanded, wading between Neal and the youth. "Bill, are you bothering this woman?"
"This human," Neal said, indicating the widow's daughter with a jerk of his head, "was making a very unhappy sound, because this human wouldn't let go of her."
Glancing at the girl, Peter saw finger-shaped bruises on her bare arms. "Miss?" Peter said. "Is he bothering you?"
The girl managed to nod. "I have a beau, sir, but Bill won't stop coming around."
Neal thrust his head past Peter's leg and bared all his teeth. He had a lot of teeth. Neal growled, and Bill Smithson made a small, gurgling noise.
Peter grinned at him, showing a few teeth himself. "Do you want me to send my dragon after you?"
Bill shook his head vigorously.
"Your granddad has that sheep croft up by the waterfall, right?" Peter said. "I think you'd better go out there and help him for a month or two. What do you think?"
He turned and fled. Neal's growl subsided to a burbling hiss and trailed off like steam escaping from a kettle.
"Are you all right?" Peter asked the girl.
She nodded. "Um ... thank you." She reached out a shy hand and patted Neal cautiously on the muzzle, then fled.
Neal began preening his wings. "I protected her," he said cheerfully. "That other human was hurting her, but I made sure she was all right. Just like you said." He looked suddenly uncertain, perhaps at Peter's lack of reaction. "Did I do all right?"
"You did fine," Peter said, and then had a nightmarish mental image of Neal running around the village, unable to discern the finer points of human behavior, but determined to "protect" everyone in sight. "Uh, but ask me next time, all right? Humans can be complicated. You can't always tell by looking who needs to be protected from whom." A lesson he'd learned the hard way, more than once.
Still, Neal pranced happily as they walked back to Peter and El's house. "I can see why you like doing that sort of thing, Peter," he said as Peter unlatched the gate. "It's just like finding lost things. It feels good."
Inside, El was making dinner, and Mozzie was begging -- well, certainly he'd claim that's not what he was doing, but having lived with Satchmo for years, Peter recognized begging when he saw it. Neal and now Mozzie had become experts in hanging around and looking pathetic whenever food preparation was going on. Neal immediately took up a begging station himself, while cheerfully telling El about his big rescue, the tip of his tail swishing like a cat's.
Peter found himself making some idle calculations in his head as to how long their food budget would hold out with a dragon and a gargoyle to provide for. The results weren't encouraging. He unrolled the map on the table and tried to concentrate on it. El set a cup of tea at his elbow. Peter absently smacked away a small clawed gargoyle paw reaching for it from under the table.
How did this become my life? he thought, raising his head and watching his wife skillfully step over Neal's long, winding body as the dragon sprawled in front of the fireplace. She laughed at something Neal had said, and politely but firmly pushed his long snout away from the pot bubbling over the fire. Even Satchmo seemed to be resigning himself to the invasion of his space; he was lying by the bed with a loop of Neal's tail curving around him.
Peter and El could not have children, but both their livelihoods involved villagers bursting into their house at all hours, and they'd long since become content with their lives, cherishing the quiet days in their little house in between interruptions. If anyone had asked Peter if he would appreciate having his house invaded by a couple of disruptive, permanent houseguests, especially non-human ones with rather poor table manners -- he smacked Mozzie's hand again; the gargoyle growled at him from under the table -- he would have laughed at them. If he'd walked into a scene like this a couple of weeks ago, he would have stared in horror and then reached for the poker.
Peter shook his head and returned his attention to the map.
The silver caravan was ready to set out as scheduled, carrying a little silver for show. Mostly the mules were loaded with rocks.
In the gray light before dawn, Peter kissed Elizabeth goodbye at their garden gate. Neal stood up with his front paws on top of the fence, looking even more fidgety than usual.
Neal still flatly refused to go anywhere near Keller. Peter had thought about forcing him, but what good would it do to bring Neal along, really? Neal couldn't fight Keller, and the chaos of battle would give him a prime opportunity to slip his chain and escape -- or, if worst came to worst, to join forces with Keller.
At this point, Peter didn't actually believe that Neal would do any such thing -- escape, yes; join up with Keller and attack him, no -- but he reminded himself that he'd only ever known the little black dragon under the control chain's influence. He didn't know the real Neal at all.
So Neal remained at home with Elizabeth, the control chain looped about her slender wrist.
"-- and remember," El said, breaking their kiss to press yet another small jar into his hand, "yellow ribbons are for sleep, and the green one with the double knot will bring calm --"
"And red is for pain, and blue eases pain," Peter recited dutifully. "My arrow tips are painted with enough paralytic to stun a herd of cattle, and I have your nets and --" he hooked a finger into one of the charms on his shirt that El claimed would protect against fire, holding it up and letting it twirl. "Honey," he said, trying to infuse his voice with all the confidence that he wasn't feeling himself, "it'll work."
El only sighed, and rested her forehead against his. There were purple shadows under her eyes. She'd been hardly sleeping at all the last couple of nights, staying up until dawn at her workbench against the wall of the single room in which they lived, ate and slept.
"I don't understand why you have to do this." Neal sounded fretful. "Keller isn't threatening you at all. He'll take the silver --"
"And he'll kill a few men and a few mules while he's at it, right?" Peter said, turning his head to look past El's shoulder and fix the dragon with a stare. "Each one of those men has a family, Neal. Wives, kids ... If I sit here in safety and let a dragon attack the people I'm sworn to protect, what does that make me?"
"Sane?" Neal said, through his clenched, pointed teeth.
A shout echoed down the lane. Peter turned in surprise as one of Hughes' men from the mine pounded up to him at a dead run. Man -- no, boy, really: not more than seventeen. "Sheriff," the boy gasped. "The dragon -- it's here, right now. Attacking the mine!"
By the time Peter arrived, breathless from running, the damage was already done. Piles of flaming timbers bled smoke into the pink-and-gold sky; panicked mules and equally panicked men were running about everywhere. There was no sign of the dragon.
Hughes, soot-smudged but uninjured, was bending over one of the mine workers. Peter grabbed his arm. "What happened? Where's the dragon?"
"It flew away," Hughes snapped, yanking free and pointing, "that way, carrying half a caravan's worth of silver."
Peter barely heard Hughes' bitterly accusing tone; his mind was working rapidly. Laden with silver. Surely even a large dragon couldn't fly far ... Keller would have to stop to rest nearby. Peter looked around wildly. "I need a horse," he said. There were only a few horses in town, and Hughes owned most of them.
One argument later, he got his way and galloped down the hill. He didn't have to go all the way to his house, because El and Neal were waiting for him at the edge of town, looking up anxiously at the smudge of smoke visible atop the hill. "I need the chain," Peter said, and El handed it to him. "Neal, you have to help me find Keller. He can't have gone far; he's too loaded down to fly quickly."
Neal reared back, his ruff flaring. "No!"
Peter wrapped the chain around his fingers so tightly that it hurt, and shook it at the dragon. "I can force you, and I will. The mine's in ruins -- it'll take us the rest of the season to rebuild. Men are hurt and dead. That damn dragon isn't getting away with this."
Neal lowered his head and hissed furiously. "I'm not getting near him."
"You don't have to. Just get me to him. Hughes said he flew northeast."
"Northeast." Neal looked up at the sky. Wistfulness fleeted across his face. "I can think of a few places he might go to ground."
It turned out that Neal could easily keep up with the horse -- in fact, he kept having to stop and wait, looking back impatiently with his head twisted completely around to point backwards between his wings.
He led Peter on a winding mountain path, climbing out of the valley into truly wild country. The air was cold and crisp up here, every shadow sharp-edged in the clear morning sunshine. Peter could see his breath.
The path grew steeper, switchbacking up the side of a ravine. Far below them, a mountain river glistened like a silver ribbon. Peter had to dismount and lead the horse, while the dragon skittered lithely across the rocks and then waited every so often for them to catch up, silhouetted against the sky, his head swiveling alertly.
"I've never been here," Peter said, peering down into the shadow-cloaked ravine.
"Of course not," Neal retorted. He was as nervous as a cat, jumping at small noises, looking around constantly. "This is pure wilderness. No roads. An occasional woodcutter or hunter might come up here, but rarely. Why do you think dragons like it here?"
The horse, which had been skittish enough around Neal, threw its head up suddenly, rolling its eyes. Neal lowered his long neck, flattening himself to the ground. "Keller is nearby," he reported in a sibilant whisper. "I can smell him." Despite his obvious fear, he grinned at Peter's struggles with the horse. "I'm not the only one, I see."
Peter tied up the horse, hoping it didn't panic enough to throw itself into the ravine. "Stay here," he ordered Neal.
"As if you could make me come," Neal scoffed. Then he glanced at the pocket where Peter kept the control chain. "Well ... all right, yes, you could make me come. But I'll fight you every step of the way."
"Don't worry," Peter said. "One dragon is bad enough. Two doesn't bear thinking about."
"And don't eat the horse."
"Spoilsport," Neal said. He cleared his throat and his spiky ruff dipped anxiously. "Er, let's hypothetically say that you're careless enough to get yourself set on fire. What happens to me?" He glanced at Peter's pocket again.
"Let's hope we don't have to find out."
Peter slipped past the little dragon, and made his way up the trail as stealthily as possible. The land leveled out at last, the scrubby brush of the hill giving way to evergreens and large boulders.
Peter's senses might not be dragon-sharp, but he could smell something, too: a sharp smoky scent. He'd never noticed Neal having a brimstone smell, in particular, but then, Neal couldn't breathe fire while under the chain's influence, and he hadn't had a chance when Peter had captured him. In any case, Peter didn't blame the horse for panicking. It wasn't the sort of mild, warm smoky smell that evoked home and hearth; it made him think of wildfires, of hearths blazing out of control and setting fire to thatch roofs.
He slowed, and slung his bow from his back, nocking an arrow. Then he crept forward. Now that he was man-grown, Peter no longer had much need or opportunity to go hunting, but when he was a boy he'd been highly skilled at sneaking up on birds and small game. He'd had to be; in the household where he'd grown up, a boy's skill with a sling or a bird snare could sometimes be the difference between having a simmering pot of rabbit soup over the fire, or going to bed hungry.
As the smoky scent became stronger, Peter's progress slowed to a cautious crawl. Then, peeking around a boulder, he saw Keller for the first time.
Neal was the first dragon Peter had ever seen, and the only one he had to make comparisons to. There was something very feline about Neal: his lithe grace, his fastidious nature. Keller, however, was more like a dragon out of a book illustration -- thick-bodied where Neal was gracile, heavily armored with bony crests at his knees and elbows and the top of his head. He was at least twice Neal's size, and his wings were proportionally even larger, arcing high over his shoulders like the sails of a ship. Neal's glossy black scales were delicate-looking, a thin layer of flexible armor that rippled when he moved. But Keller's were thick and knobby and looked as functional as the iron plates on the hull of a warship. He was patterned brown and yellow, in a way that made Peter think of a poisonous snake.
No wonder Neal was afraid to fight Keller. Peter could imagine his arrows bouncing off those heavy scales like so many handfuls of straw. His stomach shriveled into a knot of absolute terror. For the first time in his life, he found himself thinking, I can't do this.
For a little while, he did nothing but watch. Keller was lying sprawled in the grass, his pose not dissimilar from Neal's when the little dragon was relaxed and contentedly spread out in front of El's fire. In this case, Keller was counting silver. He'd opened the bags and spread out the ingots around him, and he was making little stacks with his claws, very delicately for such a large creature.
At some point, Keller was going to finish his counting, finish resting, and collect up his spoils to fly off somewhere that Peter almost certainly couldn't follow. This was his chance. If only he could convince himself that he wasn't signing his death warrant.
For a moment Peter entertained the possibility of forcing Neal to come out of hiding -- maybe Keller would be willing to talk to him, dragon to dragon, and at the very least Neal could be used as a distraction ... but, no, that didn't feel right. It would be one thing if Neal voluntarily chose to help. But forcing him into a situation that had a real chance of causing his death ... no. It wasn't fair.
For that matter, Peter wondered would happen to Neal if worst came to worst: if Peter died on the mountainside. El had said she was fairly sure the enchantment would hold as long as she herself was still alive, provided that neither she nor Peter released it voluntarily. Peter had been very careful not to mention anything along those lines in Neal's hearing, because the absolute last thing he wanted was for Neal to get the (correct) idea that El's death would set him free. But he wasn't sure what would happen if the control chain was incinerated and melted by dragon fire. And he also wasn't sure if it would be possible for another dragon to take control of it. Neal being set free to attack the village would be terrible. But the idea of Neal under Keller's thrall made Peter feel just as sick -- though, if he was to be perfectly honest with himself, his revulsion was mostly on Neal's behalf. Whether Keller kept Neal for a slave, or made him helpless with the chain and then killed him slowly, it would be an awful fate.
But none of that will be a problem if you succeed, Peter thought, clenching his teeth.
He wished he'd been able to leave Neal at home with El. That had been the plan, after all, and it would mean that he didn't have to worry about Neal from any direction: Neal betraying him, or Neal falling into Keller's clutches. At least Neal seemed to have followed instructions to stay out of sight. All it took to get him to obey, apparently, was mortal terror. If only there was some way to invoke it on cue. For some reason, he didn't seem to be scared of Peter at all.
Time's wasting, Peter thought. Better get moving.
His arrows would be useless unless he could score an extremely accurate hit -- through an eye, say. And no matter what happened in stories, Peter suspected he wasn't that good a shot. This left him with El's potions, and after slinging his bow once more on his back, he carefully, quietly set out the little clay jars and sorted through them. She had given him a larger jar of the same sleeping draught that had worked so well on Neal, and Peter chose that one, cupping it in the palm of his hand. For a backup, he had two small jars of El's calming potion that she used on panicked livestock. Peter picked up both of these, hooking his fingers through the colored ribbons wound around the necks of the jars.
If all else failed ... dragons didn't like water, right? He glanced towards the lip of the ravine. Of course, the fall would certainly kill him if the dragon didn't.
He took a deep breath, stood up and hurled the jar of sleeping potion.
His aim was good, but Keller was farther away than Neal had been, the last time Peter had tried this. The clay jar shattered on the bony ridge between Keller's eyes, scattering droplets of its greenish contents everywhere.
Keller snapped his head up with a roar, and then blinked and squinted, his long neck wobbling -- the potion was clearly affecting him, but not enough to put him completely out. His jaws opened and fire gushed forth in a searing wave.
Peter tried to dodge, but not fast enough. Fire washed over him, and he closed his eyes. El, I'm sorry ...
An instant later, he opened his eyes again, because the lack of excruciating pain made it clear that El's protective charms had held. His skin hurt as if from a sunburn, and glancing quickly around, he found that he was standing in the middle of a swathe of blackened ground. The pine trees around him were still smoldering, but Peter himself was only slightly singed.
The ribbons and delicate wooden beads that El had tied to his shirt curled up, turned black and fell to the ground around his feet. That would only work once. And Keller was staring, going almost cross-eyed as he tried to get his sleep-potion-fogged brain to focus on the fact that the little human was still alive.
Peter flung himself to the side, and the next blast of fire missed him utterly, though it left him shaking with reaction. He threw one of the green-ribboned jars -- El's calming potion -- but didn't have time to aim properly, and missed Keller's head; the jar shattered uselessly on the ground.
"Who are you?" Keller's voice was a deep, throaty growl, very unlike Neal's light tones.
"I'm the sheriff around here, and you're a thief and a murderer." Peter reached for his bow and arrows. Maybe he could score a lucky hit after all. "I'll arrest you if you'll go quietly; otherwise, I'm going to have to kill you."
Keller threw back his head and laughed, smoke curling out of his open jaws. "I'm a dragon, you stupid little monkey! Your rules don't apply to me."
"That's what the other dragon thought too," Peter said, and Keller stopped laughing.
"You're a dragonslayer," Keller said, standing up. "I hate dragonslayers." His legs were still a bit shaky, but the sleep potion's effects already seemed to be wearing off. He was simply too big; a full dose right in his mouth might have worked, but not the half-dose he'd gotten.
"I'm a fireproof dragonslayer, as you just saw," Peter pointed out, hoping desperately that Keller wasn't going to test it again. He aimed with care and loosed an arrow, but it clattered off the scales on Keller's neck; the dragon didn't appear to even notice it. Keller was simply moving too much, and the target he was aiming for -- Keller's eye -- was too small to hit.
"Fireproof, huh? You're tricky little things, you humans. Guess I'll just have to do this the old-fashioned way."
And Keller pounced, spreading his wings to give himself a boost. For a creature so large, he was horribly fast. Peter dropped the bow and flung himself into the shelter of the trees. Keller's bulk crashed through the pines, snapping them like twigs. He struck Peter with a sharp whack of his great paw, spinning Peter around and sending him flying.
Peter hit the ground hard and for a moment all he could do was lie on his back, gasping. He couldn't tell how badly he was hurt because everything hurt; his torn shirt clung to his ribs, sodden with blood. He was near the edge of the ravine -- he could hear the pounding of the river far below. For a crazy moment he thought about throwing himself over the edge, if only because it would be a quicker death.
Not a good plan, he thought. Not a good plan at all. At least he'd know what wouldn't work next time. If there was a next time ...
"Fireproof, are you?" Keller said, raising a paw. Peter's blood glistened on his claws. "Let's see how resistant you are to being crushed."
He set his paw on Peter's chest, digging in with his claws. Peter would have gasped in pain, except he couldn't draw a breath. Blackness danced around the corners of his vision. He tried to reach for the knife at his belt, but his arm wouldn't work.
"The question is," Keller said, raking his claws against Peter's ribs and bearing down harder, "is whether I should simply crush you like a grape in my claws, or have a little fun with you first -- ack!"
The "ack" was due to a growling black-and-silver streak coming out of nowhere and knocking him head over tail. Both dragons went tumbling into the trees. Peter managed to catch his breath enough to raise his head painfully. He saw that Neal had recovered his footing and was now crouching in front of Keller, blocking his approach to Peter.
"Neal," Keller said. He sat up on his haunches and fastidiously flicked a bit of dirt from his shoulder. "I knew you'd always been an odd one, but what's this about, coming between me and my prey?"
Neal spread his wings, raised all his spikes and snarled. It had made him look huge and terrifying when he was intimidating a human bully, but against the much bigger dragon it was pathetic, like a little dog facing down a bear. "Go away, Keller," he growled. "Take your silver and go."
"Oh, I don't think so." Keller's tail swished like a cat's. "That's a dragonslayer over there -- a wannabe dragonslayer, not a very good one, but still a threat to us ..." Then his head reared back, his eyes widened. "You smell like human. Are you helping him? What kind of dragon are you?"
He lashed out, striking Neal a hard blow across the shoulder. Neal staggered, but stood his ground and snapped at Keller's neck, his jaws clashing shut inches from Keller's neck-spines as the other dragon ducked.
Keller growled deep in his throat. "You know what? I've tolerated you before, but I think you just became a threat to me. This is my territory, and I don't want other dragons in it."
He reared on his back legs and threw his weight against Neal, clawing the small dragon viciously. Neal was knocked flat, rolling to the side with a yelp of pain. As the dragons brawled, Peter managed to stand up.
If Keller tried to attack you, do you seriously think I wouldn't try to stop him?
He could take advantage of the distraction and run. But he'd promised. It was, after all, his job.
The two dragons broke apart and glared at each other. Neal couldn't seem to put weight on one of his legs, holding it tucked up underneath him. Blood glistened bright red on the grass around him. For some reason this seemed like an important detail to Peter: They bleed red, just like we do.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, he nocked an arrow.
"What's the matter, you don't use fire anymore?" Keller asked. He was breathing hard, though, and not all of the blood on him was Neal's.
Neal spread his wings and leaped into the air, possibly by instinct, but came down again almost immediately, and yelped when he landed. Without magic, his wings wouldn't support his weight.
Keller laughed, and his long dark tongue snaked out to lick the blood from his jaws. "Something's happened to your magic, hasn't it? Oh, this is going to be fun."
Peter let the arrow fly. He nearly made the shot, so close -- but Keller blinked at exactly the wrong moment, and the arrow caromed off his scaly eyelid and ripped through the delicate membrane of one of his wings.
Keller's head whipped around. "You are becoming a pain in my ass," he growled, and opened his jaws. Possibly he'd forgotten that Peter was supposedly fireproof, or maybe he just wanted to try it again. Peter didn't bother trying to dodge; he knew he couldn't move fast enough in his present condition. Instead he braced himself, not that it would do much good. Perhaps he'd been wrong about El's charms being out of juice, but he didn't think so --
Neal sprang, using his wings for leverage to give himself more speed. He caught Peter in his forelegs, and knocked them both over the edge of the cliff just as a wave of heat washed over them.
"Are you mad? You can't fly!" Peter gasped, over the sound of the wind whistling in his ears.
"I can glide," Neal snapped back, sounding strained. He spread his wings with a great booming crack, and made a strangled, pained sound.
Whether it slowed them at all, Peter had no idea -- it certainly didn't feel like it -- but then they hit the water, and everything went black.
I feel compelled to point out that not only was the fight scene (mostly) written before the mid-season premiere, but it was one of the first scenes in the story that I came up with. I thought about rewriting it, but decided to leave it as-is. There are plenty of riffs on canonical scenes or themes in this story, so consider this another one ...
The voice penetrated the fog clogging Peter's brain. He coughed, which sent a lightning bolt through his lungs. Everything hurt. He decided that maybe he'd just lie here for a while.
Then something warm and wet swiped his cheek, and he realized to his disgust and horror that he'd just been licked.
"Neal!" Peter barked hoarsely, without opening his eyes.
He managed to peel them open a moment later to see Neal crouching and staring at him with wide blue eyes. The dragon was a far cry from his usual immaculate self -- bedraggled and hunched, with his wings spread around him like the broken spars and sails of a wrecked ship. Although the river had washed off most of the blood, Peter could see that the fight with Keller had left vivid reminders -- claw-gouges and bite-marks in Neal's scaly black hide.
"Don't," Peter said, wiping at his face, "ever do that again."
"Sorry," Neal said. "Instinct. It's what I would have done if you were a dragon."
With painful effort, Peter managed to sit up. He was lying among a welter of rocks and driftwood on the river's shore. The cliffside towered above them, and Peter stared up at it in amazement. He couldn't believe they'd fallen down that and survived.
"Where are we?" he asked, coughing again.
"Not too far downstream," Neal said. He sat back on his haunches with a wince. "Before you ask, I don't know where Keller is, but I don't smell him at all. My guess would be that once we were gone, he picked up his silver and flew away. There's not much chance he'd come down here -- between the water and the lack of maneuvering room, this is the last place any dragon would pick for a fight. And it would mean leaving his treasure unguarded, too."
"Greed and self-interest to the rescue," Peter muttered. He looked up at the canyon walls again, then along the river's debris-strewn banks. It was going to be possible to walk out, but not easy, especially since he felt like he'd been run over by a herd of cattle. He was shivering, and everything hurt so much that he couldn't tell if any of it was serious. He could feel a hot trickle of blood down his ribs.
"You were so cold when I pulled you out of the water," Neal said. "I couldn't even tell if you were breathing. Are you all right? How fast do humans heal?"
"Not as fast as we'd like," Peter said. "I've been better, but I guess I'll live." He looked up at the dragon, belatedly realizing that the main reason for this was Neal. "Uh -- are you all right?"
"No," Neal said fretfully. He started to raise one wing, then gave a little whimper and let it fall back into the sand. "I strained everything trying to carry us both. And my ribs hurt, and my -- my everything hurts. You know," he added, looking at Peter with a limpid, disingenuous gaze. "If you take off the control chain, I'll be able to heal myself, and I can fly and get help."
"Not a chance."
Neal sagged. "You don't trust me? I saved your life."
"I know," Peter said. "And I'm grateful. Believe me. But, Neal ..." He ran out of steam. He was simply too tired and in too much pain to have this argument; all he knew was that he'd just been given a thorough demonstration of how dangerous and ruthless a fully-powered dragon could be, and there was no way he would dare risk El and the lives of everyone in the village on Neal's word.
"Peter. Come on." Neal lifted his injured leg -- he wasn't putting much weight on it anyway -- and contrived to look as droopy and miserable as possible. Given the shape he was in, it wasn't hard. "It hurts. I'm cold. I'm wet. Let me have my magic back -- I'll heal in just a few minutes, and then I can go get everything you need."
"No," Peter said. "That's not negotiable. This isn't a debate."
Neal's hackles went up, just a little, and his eyes darted to Peter's pocket. Peter hastily slipped his hand into the pocket, hoping as he did so that the chain was still there -- with great relief he touched its unnaturally warm links. The idea of losing it at the bottom of the river, to be found by anyone who happened upon it, was a nightmare. He prepared himself in case Neal tried to take it by force.
But the dragon subsided after that initial instant of rebellion, drooping even further. "It hurts," he said plaintively.
A thought occurred to Peter. "You've never really felt pain before, have you?"
"Certainly I have," Neal retorted. "But not for this long. Normally I would have long since healed myself. I'd have to eat something, of course -- actually, I'm starving already," he added mournfully, and Peter renewed his grip on the control chain. "But I wouldn't still be feeling like, well, this."
"Welcome to how the rest of the world lives." Peter took a deep breath and reached for the boulder next to him, using his grip on it to pull himself upright. "If we can get home, El has potions that will help with the pain and speed our healing. All we have to do is get there."
"Lovely," Neal grumbled. He watched as Peter took a few limping steps and then had to stop, clutching his side and breathing hard. "And how many years older am I going to be when we do get there?"
"Sarcasm," Peter said, when the pain had subsided enough that he could speak again, "is not helpful. Can you find a stick for me?" He held his hand off the ground, a little below shoulder level. "About this long, strong enough to take my weight."
"I'm not a dog," Neal grumbled as he limped to the nearest pile of driftwood. Peter noticed that he was putting almost no weight on his leg, and his wings dragged behind him; Neal flinched whenever the delicate membranes caught on a snag. "Do I look like an errand dragon to you? I could have us home in no time, but no, you have to do this the hard way because you don't trust me ..." Growling softly, low in his throat, he bit through a sturdy tree branch with a snap of his powerful jaws. The sharp crack echoed in the canyon, and Peter once again wrapped his fingers around the control chain. Given his current state, and Neal with every reason to try to take it from him, he was taking no chances.
Neal lurched back to him and spat the stick at his feet. "There. Pfah! Wood. Splinters. Bleh." He unrolled his long tongue to look at it, presumably checking for splinters, then looked up again, his eyes going sharply to Peter's hand as Peter slipped it out of his pocket. "You really don't trust me at all, do you?" he asked, and there was an undertone of anger.
"It's not a matter of trust or don't trust." Peter bent stiffly and took hold of the makeshift walking stick, trying not to make it obvious that he was keeping a wary eye on Neal. "I don't know you, Neal. Not really. I have no idea how you'd act if you were off your leash. Keep in mind, the only uncontrolled dragon I've ever met was that one up there." He jerked his head at the top of the cliff.
"I'm not Keller!"
"I know you're not, but Neal, can you look me in the eyes and honestly say that you've never done any of the things he's done?" Peter saw Neal's hesitation, and pushed his advantage. "What would you have done if you'd seen me before I saw you in the silver mine?"
Neal struggled to maintain eye contact, then looked away, drooping a bit. "Well ... probably flamed you and then taken the silver. But!" he added quickly, his neck ruff lifting. "It would have been self-defense. People who lurk in dark mines don't usually mean anything good for dragons. Your turn to be honest, Peter. What would you have done if you weren't married to an enchanter and didn't have handy little magic potions to help you? Would you have gone completely unarmed to the mine to talk to me, human to dragon? I didn't think so."
Peter was possessed by an automatic, guilty urge to look away, and forced himself to meet Neal's eyes. "Yeah, okay, I would've put an arrow in you, but you just admitted that you would have flamed first and asked questions later! Can you blame me?"
"Well, I didn't know!" Neal protested, sounding frustrated. "I'd never even talked to a human before! I guess I never thought of humans as ... as ..."
"As people?" Peter said gently.
"Yes," Neal said, dropping his gaze again.
And there wasn't much that Peter could say back to that, because he'd always thought of dragons as vicious killing machines. You had to kill them first before they got you. He'd never realized that dragons were just as unique and individual as human beings. Some were vicious bastards. Others, perhaps, were curious and artistic and loyal.
No, he'd never thought of dragons as people. No one that he knew thought of dragons as people -- well, except for El, perhaps, but El felt compassion for everything. She hated the slaughter of lambs and calves in the fall; she even took care not to pick the last flower in a stand of marigold or foxglove when she was gathering them for her potions, so they could grow back.
Peter heaved a sigh, and took a few cautious steps, leaning on the stick. Neal, silent and contemplative, fell in beside him. They hadn't gone far before Peter stopped again. "The horse," he said.
Neal rolled his eyes. "Now what?"
"The horse. I can't just leave it out here; it'll pull loose and wander away, or fall victim to some predator. Horses are expensive. El and I can't afford to pay for it if something happens to it."
"You're assuming Keller hasn't eaten it already."
"Also," Peter said, ignoring him, "I could ride it. You want to get back to the village today? It's the only way." He was increasingly sure that, for him at least, it was the only way to get back to the village at all. The ground felt as if it was wobbling under him, and at every step his ribs ground unpleasantly.
"Are you insane?" Neal said. "Have you forgotten we have to climb a very steep trail to get there? In the length of time it'll take you, we could be most of the way home."
"I have a responsibility," Peter retorted stubbornly. "I borrowed that horse with the promise that I'd return it in good shape, and I intend to keep my word."
Gritting his teeth, he began limping along the riverbank, looking for a place to cross.
"All right, all right! Listen." Neal stopped him by taking a couple of hitching steps and blocking his path. "We haven't come far. It's probably still in my radius. I'll go get it."
"You'll get the horse?"
"Yes. I may not be very fast right now, but I'm a lot faster than you." Neal snorted. "I have three good legs; you have two that barely work."
Peter thought there were probably a dozen good reasons why he shouldn't allow this, but he couldn't think of any; all he could think about was how much it was going to hurt trying to climb that trail when he could barely even walk on a level surface. "All right," he said, "but be careful, okay? Keller might still be up there. And don't spook the horse, if you can help it."
"I'm not planning on it. I don't get along with animals very well. For some reason they think I'm going to eat them."
Yep, terrible idea. But it wasn't like he had a choice. Also, looking down at Neal's bedraggled wings in the sand, he thought of something else. "Can't you lift up your wings? You're going to destroy them if you go through the woods like that."
"You think I don't know that?" Neal demanded. "No, I can't. Everything's all sprained, and I think I might've broken something."
And yet he'd still tried to slow their fall, for Peter's sake more than his own. "I'll tie them up before you go," Peter said gruffly. "That way you won't have me to blame for getting them full of holes."
He took off his belt and tore a few strips from his shirt, as well as using a vine tangled in the driftwood logjam along the river. It was an ugly mess, and Neal complained the whole time ("Ow, what was that supposed to be, are you made of thumbs?") but eventually Neal's wings were bundled awkwardly on his back.
"Okay," Neal said when Peter was done. He tested his injured leg on the ground. "I'll be quick as I can. You stay here, okay?"
"Like I've got a choice." Peter settled to the ground with relief.
Neal turned and trotted away, with nothing like his usual speed and grace, but making good time anyway. In moments, a bend of the river hid him from Peter's view.
Peter lay back in the sand and gazed up at the blue sky at the top of the canyon. The sun was high enough to shine down here at the moment, drying his damp clothes, but it would be going behind the canyon wall soon. And then it was going to get cold.
Although the last thing he wanted to do was move, he forced himself to get up and limp over to a drift of last year's dead leaves above the high-water line. It was no blanket, but maybe it would help keep him of dying from hypothermia before Neal got back.
Neal's voice. Got stop waking up this way, Peter thought. At least this time, there was no licking.
Peter opened his eyes and got almost as much of a shock, though, when he discovered that Neal's long, sinuous body was curled around him, looped around his legs in a "U" shape. Judging by the dents in the leaves, Neal's head had been resting against Peter's, with his tail curled around the top of them both. Now he'd partly uncurled, raising his head -- the long snout was framed against a sky shading into evening.
Neal was very warm. It was all Peter could do not to try to burrow into him.
"You were asleep when I got back," Neal said. "I had to rest too, so I thought it would be a good idea to nap for a few minutes."
Neal, Peter thought, didn't look good. His normally glossy scales were dingy and grayish. He'll have to be all right, Peter thought, and so will I. There's no alternative. Except that there was an alternative, at least for Neal; Peter could feel the lumpy outline of the control chain pressing against his hip. He forced himself to remember Keller: the powerful swipes of his paws, the heat of the flames. Neal didn't have to be a bad dragon to be seduced by power. Humans fell to it just as readily. No. I can't let him. Not even for a minute.
"The horse?" he said.
"Right over there." Neal pointed with his snout. "I didn't eat it or anything. Even caught some rabbits along the way, so I'm not starving, you'll be happy to know. Although a sheep would be nice ..."
The horse had been tied very clumsily to a tree at the edge of the gravel bar. Peter stumbled over to it; he'd stiffened up while he'd been sleeping, which made walking even more of a torment. The horse, looking more than slightly disturbed by all of this, snorted at him and danced skittishly away, but eventually held still when Peter managed to make clear that it was going to be ridden and that was all there was to it.
"Now can we go home?" Neal asked plaintively.
"With pleasure," Peter said, and turned the horse in the direction of the York Valley.
Riding was better than walking, but only because it was faster. They fought their way through an endless series of deadfalls, logjams, and small ravines. The horse's uneven, jolting gate was constant misery for Peter.
Neal limped stiffly alongside, his head hanging low, looking utterly miserable. One of his wings had slipped loose of its bonds and the end was dragging on the forest floor; he didn't even seem to notice until Peter called a halt and tied it back up for him, using rope from the horse's saddlebag.
By the time they finally, blessedly made their way to a decent trail, night had fallen. At least there was a good moon, so they weren't blundering around in the dark. But the cold was as sharp and merciless as Peter had expected, edging past his defenses and making him sleepy and careless. He thought about tying himself to the horse, but what stopped him was stubborn pride: Neal couldn't sleep, since Neal was walking, so Peter was determined not to, either.
"Do you know, there are times when I don't even want to be free?" Neal said.
Peter looked down at him. The little dragon's narrow body was a river of rippling blackness in the moonlight as he plodded beside Peter's horse. Peter could see that Neal was nearly at the end of his strength; Neal's head had sunk so low that it almost dragged the ground. I can relate, Peter thought. He'd hit what he'd thought was the "too tired to go on" point awhile back, but they kept going, because the alternative was spending a freezing night in the woods, and Peter wasn't sure if either of them would wake up again.
"Why?" he said quietly to the dark, anonymous shape beside him. Somehow it was easier to talk about this sort of thing when they couldn't see each other's faces.
"Well, you met Keller," Neal said. He plodded along for awhile in silence, then said, "You aren't entirely wrong. I mean, I never laid waste to villages or anything like that, but I did things that ... you wouldn't approve of."
They went on in silence for a bit, and then Peter said, not entirely sure if he believed himself, "You're in control of yourself, you know. If you don't want to do the sort of things you did before, you don't have to."
"Well, I don't know that for certain, do I?" A bit of life came back into Neal's exhausted voice. "If I didn't have the chain to stop me -- I don't know, Peter. I'm so weak without my magic, and that makes it easy to get along with people. When you're more powerful than everyone around you, it's very easy to just take whatever you want, do whatever you want."
"The important thing is that you don't want to."
"You make it sound so easy," Neal said, in a tone that was almost a whine.
"It's not," Peter said, genuinely surprised. "Do you really think so? It's not easy for anyone. Everyone wants to take shortcuts, Neal. Everyone is tempted when there's an easy path and a hard path."
"You?" Neal said.
"Of course me. Do you think I don't want to live a relaxing life with El, able to give her every nice thing that she wants, never having to drag myself out of bed in the middle of the night to break up a fight between two drunks?"
Neal gave a soft, breathless laugh. "That's a lie. You love being the sheriff," he said. "You'd do it even if you didn't have to."
"I like doing it because I'm good at it and it means that no one else has to," Peter corrected him. "And sometimes there are those moments that make it worthwhile, and -- Okay, fine." He nudged the dragon gently with the toe of his boot. "Maybe I do like it. But I'd also like to live a life of luxury and peace, without needing to do things like, say, track down marauding dragons."
"But you don't," Neal said.
"I don't, no, because this is the real world, and you can't get something for nothing. Every time you think you've managed to put one over on the world, to make off with something free that you should have paid for, you wake up to find out there was a cost after all, and the only person who was ever really fooled was you."
The lights of the village glimmered through the darkness. The horse, as close to the end of its strength as the human and dragon, hastened its stumbling steps a bit, smelling familiar scents and knowing that the end of its journey was near.
"I think you humans wrap yourselves up in unnecessary rules," Neal said, his words slurred with weariness and paced to his slow, awkward steps. "I think you make things a dozen times harder on yourselves than they have to be. And yet, some of your rules really are good ones, made to keep people from being hurt, and I -- I like --"
He was silent then, for so long that Peter wondered if he was sleepwalking. They entered the outskirts of the village, stumping down the familiar streets. Everyone was long asleep, with just an occasional door-lamp burning, or a low-turned light in someone's bedroom window.
"I like the -- the person that I am when I'm with you and Elizabeth," Neal said, so quietly that Peter could barely hear him over the horse's soft hoofbeats. "I don't know who I'd be, otherwise."
The horse stopped walking. They were, Peter realized, at his garden gate. And there was a light burning in the window of their house -- of course there was -- and now the door opened, warm lamplight streaming out into the yard, haloing Elizabeth and the loose corona of unbraided hair on her shoulders.
Peter's attempt to dismount was more of a controlled fall. He caught himself on Neal's bundled wings.
"Ow," Neal said, mildly.
"Come on," Peter said. He put an arm around Neal's neck, partly to keep himself upright, and partly, perhaps, to keep Neal from falling over. The weary dragon rested his head against Peter's shoulder. "Come on," Peter said again. "We're home."
Many thanks to Schneefink, Saphirablue and Jayb111 on LJ/DW, whose input and suggestions (between the three of them) basically gave me the plot for this chapter. :D
For several days they did little but convalesce. Neal limped around looking as miserable as possible, shooting annoyed, put-upon looks at Peter, and occasionally sighing. Peter knew exactly what he wanted, and held firm. He wasn't taking off the control chain; Neal could damn well heal along with the rest of the mortal creatures of the world.
And if he slipped the dragon an extra treat now and then ... well, El didn't need to know about it. She spoiled Neal enough as it was.
The year continued to march on into autumn. On Peter's suggestion (relayed from Neal, though Peter didn't mention that part) Hughes sent the much-less-laden silver caravan through the mountains as quickly as possible. Keller had taken some of the mine's product from the past month, but not all of it, and Neal thought it was likely that Keller would follow his usual pattern of going to ground after a robbery and wouldn't be likely to molest it. Besides, anyone who wanted to get through the pass before early snows closed it had to move quickly.
"Keller will be back, though," Neal said. It was raining, but El had gone out anyway, carrying a basket of herbal remedies to visit some of the older shut-ins around the village. Neal lay stretched out in front of the fire, and Satchmo, who had finally either gotten used to their new living arrangements or was more drawn by the fire's heat than repelled by the idea of sharing space with the dragon, was sprawled alongside him with his head resting on Neal's tail.
"And it'll be different this time," Neal added morosely. "Keller never forgets a grudge, and all dragons fear dragonslayers anyway. He'll hunt you, Peter. And me, for helping you. It might take him awhile to find us -- I doubt if he'll think of asking anyone, so he'll simply have to look until he finds us. But I don't think he'll stop until he does."
Peter looked up -- he was sitting at the table, rewrapping the bindings on a snowshoe. There were always a thousand and one tasks to complete before winter, and he still wasn't healed enough for some of the things that needed to be done, such as cutting and stacking firewood. But at least the forced downtime gave him an opportunity to give Elizabeth some relief on the little chores around the house.
"Do you think the village might be in danger?" he asked.
"I think if Keller finds us here, the village will definitely be in danger."
But it wasn't as if there was anything they could do about it. At least not immediately.
Winter came early that year. Snows closed the pass and then, not long after, the first heavy snowfall settled on the village, burying El's garden beneath a soft blanket of snow.
Neal was entranced with the snow, catching flakes on his long tongue and rolling around, doglike, in the backyard. "You dragons live in the north," Peter said, watching him from the window in amusement. "Surely you've seen snow before."
Neal rolled over and back to his feet, shaking himself all over. "Of course I have. That doesn't mean it isn't fun."
El joined Peter at the window and kissed his cheek. "The garden is awfully tiny," she murmured. "Don't you think Neal would have more fun in the fields outside the village?"
Neal loved the idea, although in order to leave the house, Peter had to hunt for their winter furs -- finally tracing them down to the cabinet where Mozzie had taken up residence since it had gotten cold outside.
"You're not spending the winter nesting in my coat," he snapped, retrieving the stolen item.
The only thing visible of Mozzie was a pair of lamplike eyes blinking from the darkness in the cabinet. "I hate winter. Dragons like it, but I loathe this cold and snow business."
"Oh, come with us," El cajoled.
"I think you people are mad." A small clawed paw snaked out of the cabinet and slammed the door from within.
The rest of them, including Satchmo, trudged through the trampled, snowy streets to the edge of the village, where the fields stretched white and unbroken. Here and there, distant smudges of woodsmoke marked the locations of farmers' and herders' little crofts. At the top of a hill outside the village, Peter brushed the snow off a stone wall and spread out a small rug that he'd brought for himself and El.
Neal was just as delighted with the wide-open spaces as El had thought he would be. He slid down the hill on his belly like an otter, wallowed around in the snow, and played tag with Satchmo in the fields. The humans watched from the top of the hill, laughing.
"Oh, hon," El said, finding Peter's hand under the fur and giving it a squeeze, "what are we going to do with him? We can't afford to keep feeding him, especially since he's eating more now that the weather's cold."
"I was thinking about taking him up to the hills occasionally, now that he's healed, and letting him hunt for himself." Peter was silent for a moment, watching the dragon hide to ambush Satchmo. Neal burrowed under the snow until nothing was visible but his eyes and the tip of his long tail, twitching like a cat's.
"He's certainly got the energy for it," Peter added with a sigh. Being trapped in the house with a smart, curious dragon suffering from cabin fever was very trying at times.
"That's fine for the short term, but we never intended to ..." El hesitated. "It sounds wrong to say 'keep him'. He's not a pet. He's a ..." She trailed off.
"A person," Peter said. "I know."
Below them, Neal burst out of the snow, sending Satchmo veering off with a startled yelp. Peter was on the verge of rising to his feet and scolding Neal for bullying the dog, when Satchmo veered back around, dashing past Neal with a clear attitude of "catch me if you can!"
"Well, technically he's a criminal," Peter said as the two of them left an erratic trail of dog- and dragon-prints winding around the trees at the bottom of the hill, taking turns being chaser or chasee. "If he's an intelligent, thinking being -- which clearly he is -- then he's responsible for his actions."
"What would you have done if he'd been a human criminal?"
"Oh, probably had him return what he stole and maybe work for the victim's family for a little while to make restitution. Or in this case, work for the mine, since that's who he tried to steal from."
"And then you'd let him go."
"Yes. If he were human. But he's not, El. He's a dragon." Peter's ribs still twinged painfully, a lingering reminder of his fight with Keller. "I can't trust that he won't go right back to his old ways the minute the chain is off."
Down below, the small shape of the running dog caught up to the dragon. Neal flopped dramatically onto his back, letting his wings sprawl around him and curling up his forepaws in a passable imitation of dog body language. Satchmo responded to this by licking Neal's snout.
"But what's the alternative?" El asked, smiling absently at the byplay. "Keep him here forever? Even leaving aside the fact that he'll eat us right into the poorhouse, he's either a wild creature or a free person -- depending on how you look at it -- and either way, it isn't fair to keep him locked up." She lost her smile and looked sad. "Never able to fly again."
"I don't know. I just know that I won't be able to live with myself if I let him go and he turns right around and kills a bunch of people."
"You'll never know unless you give him a chance," El pointed out.
"I'm aware of that, but I'm not willing to gamble the lives of our friends and neighbors on it."
El sighed and rose from the wall.
"Where are you going?" Peter asked, afraid he'd offended her.
She turned to give him a smile. "They look like they're having fun down there. Didn't you throw snowballs when you were a boy?"
"Yes," Peter muttered, "but that was some time ago ..." as he trailed her down the hill.
Neal didn't pay much attention to their approach until El pelted him with a large, wet snowball right in the middle of his back, between his wings. He turned and gave her a look of baffled hurt, like a dog that's been accidentally stepped on.
"It's a game, silly," El said, bending to scoop up more snow into a mittened hand.
Neal brightened. "Oh! I can play that game," and he scooped up about a bucket's worth of snow in his front paws.
Peter had every intention of staying out of this and letting El reap what she'd sown, especially since Neal quickly figured out that he could make even bigger snowballs using his wings -- the injured wing was still weak enough that he probably couldn't have flown with it, but it was more than equal to snowball-rolling. However, Peter's attempt to remain a conscientious objector lasted only until a loosely packed snowball nearly the size of Satchmo missed El and knocked him off his feet. Realizing what he'd done, Neal's mouth dropped open in a very human expression of anxious surprise.
Peter wiped snow out of his eyes. "This thing," he said grimly, "is on."
Neal's lips drew back in a grin that showed all his teeth.
They chased each other to the edge of the field and into the woods, where the stark black tree-trunks stood like sentinels against the snow -- and provided patchy cover for one cheerfully frolicking dragon and two laughing humans. With Satchmo racing around them, barking in excitement, they battled their way deeper into the winter-bare woods, soaked and giggling and breathless.
"Caught you, caught you," Neal chanted, almost as out of breath as the humans, cornering them against a huge, sprawling oak tree. El shrieked, and tried to use Peter for a human shield -- "Hey!" -- while she scrabbled for more ammunition with soaked mittens.
Neal looked above them, at the snow-laden branches, then back at the two damp humans, and his smile was full of mischief.
"Oh, you wouldn't," Peter panted.
"Oh, I would." Neal reared up on his hind legs and batted at the nearest branch he could reach. Clumps of half-frozen snow rained down around them. El shrieked again, and covered her head with her arms.
Neal grinned, his tongue lolling from the corner of his mouth, and swiped a paw at another branch -- then staggered, and his eyes went wide. He dropped heavily back to all fours.
"Neal?" Peter said, pausing as he reached for another handful of snow. Satchmo gave a sudden, sharp bark.
"I --" Neal began, and stumbled sideways, one of his forelegs crumpling under him. Peter glimpsed a stubby arrow shaft protruding from the fleshy part of his thigh, and spun to see where it had come from, too shocked to feel anger. Yet.
The person who stood framed between two birch trees was short -- a woman, Peter realized, and a stranger. She was bundled in furs and leather, and she held a shortbow in a confident grip, with another arrow nocked.
"Don't run!" she snapped at Peter and El. "Dragons are predators; they chase movement. Just hold still, I'll put this next one through its eye --"
"Don't!" Peter and El shouted with one voice, and Peter stumbled forward through the snow, unable to think of anything except getting between her and Neal.
Neal staggered to his feet, eyes huge. Ignoring El reaching out for him, he whirled and fled, clearing the oak's tangled mass of roots in a single leap and vanishing into the woods.
"It's getting away!" the woman said. "Don't worry, I can track it. You two had better get back to that village --"
"The hell we will." Peter crossed the distance between them in a few quick bounds and reached for her bow, meaning to knock it out of her hands. The woman jerked it away.
"Careful," she said, lowering it. "There's poison on the arrows. Hopefully it'll finish off the beast, if it got a good enough dose --"
"How dare you," El gasped, and grabbed Peter's arm. "I'll go after him -- Is there an antidote?" she appealed to the stranger in furs.
"No," the woman said, and frowned at the two of them; clearly this was not standard rescuee behavior. "Wait -- was that dragon your pet?"
"He wasn't our pet," Peter said between his teeth. He seized a handful of the woman's fur ruff, dragging her closer, to her obvious surprise and anger. "Lady, I'm the sheriff here, and you just assaulted someone in my village. You'd better pray to whatever gods you follow that he doesn't die, because that's murder and I won't hesitate to --"
"Peter," El said quietly, though her eyes still burned with anger of her own, "there's no time for this. We have to find Neal."
"She's coming with us," Peter said grimly. "I want her where I can see her."
Even without relying on the control chain, Neal was easy to track in the snow. Spots of blood dotted his trail.
Peter could tell that El was furious, all the more so because she'd gone very, very quiet and polite.
The woman with the bow was also quiet, mostly in confusion. "I'm not really sure what's going on here," she ventured as they pressed on between the trees. Neal, clearly panicked, was heading out of the valley, for the deep wilderness of the mountains.
"Shut up," Peter said. "You're under arrest."
"I was trying to protect you. I thought the dragon was attacking you." She hesitated. "I'm guessing that I made an incorrect assumption?"
"Who are you, anyway?" Peter said.
"My name is Diana. I'm a dragonslayer."
Peter hadn't known there were actual, professional dragonslayers in the world anymore. "What are you doing here?"
"In the city, we've heard stories of dragon attacks back here in mountain country. I've spent the last few weeks following rumors. When I got here --" She waved a gloved hand. "I saw a dragon chasing you. What was I supposed to think?"
"Perhaps you could have tried asking questions before shooting," El said in the calm, steady voice that Peter had learned to dread. She dropped her hand to rest it on Satchmo's head. The dog, responding to the humans' mood, had been quiet and clingy, sticking close to El's side.
"You crossed the mountains from the city?" Peter said, interested despite his anger and worry for Neal. "In the winter? That's incredibly dangerous."
"Not if you know what you're doing," Diana said. "Hunters and woodsmen do it all the time. And I've learned from the best. I come from a long line of dragonslayers. I've trained since I was a child."
"And how many dragons have you killed?" El asked in that same calm, precise voice.
Diana looked away. They walked in silence for a few minutes, as the land began to rise and grow rougher. They were leaving the valley for the hills; around them the trees were becoming sparser, and outcrops of windswept rock jutted from the snow like broken giants' teeth.
Finally Diana said, "None. This is the first time I've seen one, actually." After another minute or two: "He was smaller than I was expecting."
"Look," El said, and knelt to pick up a stubby arrow. Peter's stomach twisted at the blood smeared along the shaft and splattered around it in the snow. "He pulled it out."
"That's good." Diana took the arrow and examined it, then sniffed it. "Good for his survival, I mean. The less of the poison that's in his system, the more likely he'll live."
"What did you give him?" El asked.
"I can't tell you. It's a dragonslayer trade secret, a poison passed down from parent to --"
Peter turned and gripped her arm hard enough that he saw her blanch in pain before she twisted free. "My wife is an herbalist -- she knows poisons and antidotes. If there's a way to fix what you've done, she'll know it. If not ..." He allowed the threat to hang on the air between them.
Diana took a deep breath of the crisp winter air, rubbing her wrist. "It's a blend of dragonbane, Bitter Mary and burning-star."
"What's it do?" Peter asked. He was no expert tracker, but he could tell that Neal's trail through the snow was becoming erratic, weaving between the trees. And the sun was already low. Hopefully Neal would be able to walk when they found him, because Peter didn't like the idea of spending the night out here.
"I'm not sure," Diana said. "I've never seen it used on an actual dragon. The old lore says that it's fatal -- dragons are notoriously hard to poison, but this is supposed to work on them, defeating their healing capability. If the first dose isn't high enough, they will be distracted with severe pain and delirium, so you can shoot them again, as many times as necessary."
As she'd been about to do. Peter thought about Neal out here in the snow, hurt and scared and possibly so out of his mind by now that he had no idea where he was or what had happened to him. Glancing at El, he saw his own concern mirrored in her pale face.
"It really does matter to you." Diana looked between them. "You're worried about him."
Peter didn't bother answering, because he'd just seen something dark move between the trees ahead. "There." He pointed.
The landscape was rough and wild here, the forest diminished to wind-sculpted evergreens among huge boulders. Ahead of them, the rising hillside ended in an overhanging cliff face, and here Neal was crouched, shivering. Either he'd run to the end of his strength and stopped to rest, or he was too confused to figure out a way around the obstacle. His wings, rather than being tucked neatly along his spine as usual, had come unfurled and flopped about him in the snow.
He appeared not to notice their approach until they were no more than fifteen feet away, then raised his head and snarled at them.
"Don't go any closer," Diana said. "Even if he does know you, he's probably too disoriented to recognize you. He could easily kill you by accident." She laid a hand on her bow where it was slung across her shoulder, but didn't attempt to use it. Her other hand had dropped down to rest on the hilt of the sword at her waist.
"It's Neal," El said quietly. "He wouldn't hurt us."
Peter wasn't so sure. Neal's eyes were glassy and unfocused, and his head swung back and forth, now orienting on them, now on the trees blowing in the wind. When El stepped forward, her hands held out as Peter had sometimes seen her do when she was trying to calm injured livestock, Neal's head jerked around with surprising speed. His jaws opened and Diana flinched backwards.
"He can't breathe fire," El said, directing the words over her shoulder to Diana but keeping her eyes on Neal. "He's not going to hurt anyone, are you? Neal, you know me. You know us."
A low growl bubbled in Neal's throat, and he backed up, limping with obvious pain, until his hindquarters hit the cliffside. His lips were drawn back from his teeth, exposing his long, gleaming fangs. Even without the ability to flame, he still had teeth and claws bigger than a bear's. He was far from harmless.
Peter slipped his hand into his pocket and touched the control chain. He might be able to use it to get Neal to calm down. But a deep part of him balked at that idea. If using the control chain was repugnant to him under normal circumstances, then doing it when Neal was sick and disoriented seemed like the worst kind of violation -- a betrayal of the fragile trust that had grown between them.
"Peter," El said softly. She crouched down, making herself lower and perhaps less intimidating. "You spend more time with him than I do. He might recognize you more readily than me."
Approaching a drugged, injured dragon -- not a good choice for a long and healthy life. But, when it came right down to it ... Peter recognized the feeling twisting in his chest as guilt. Protecting the people in his village was his responsibility. In Neal's case, he'd failed to do that, and so, here they were. He'd let this happen, and it was his responsibility to fix it.
"Neal," Peter said, and Neal's head swung around. The dragon was panting in small harsh gasps, each one marked by a little puff of steam on the cold winter air.
Peter took his hand out of his pocket, letting the control chain go. At the movement, Neal growled again.
"Knock it off," Peter said. "You're making the heavily armed dragonslayer nervous, and that's not a good idea. El and I both know you aren't going to hurt anyone, so quit the posturing."
He'd spent most of his adult life dealing with rowdy drunks, spouse-beaters and other petty criminals around the village. There was no trick to it except confidence. Most people, faced with a confident and determined person in authority, backed down. He could only hope that dragons worked the same way.
Without letting himself falter, he strode up to the shivering, snarling dragon. He didn't move too fast but he didn't hesitate, either. Behind him he heard the rustling of El's skirts as she followed him.
Neal's low growl rose into a higher-pitched warning sound.
"Neal, poisoned or not, if you bite me, I'll kick your scaly ass," Peter said, and laid a hand on Neal's neck. Normally the dragon was warm to the touch, his body temperature slightly higher than a human's, but this time he felt cool under Peter's hand. Neal's skin flinched like a horse troubled by flies, and Peter braced himself to jerk away, taking El with him, just in case Neal attacked.
But he didn't attack. Instead he turned his head on his supple neck and looked Peter directly in the eyes. His pupils were dilated, and his harsh panting now struck Peter more as desperation than anything else. "Peter," he said hoarsely.
"And Elizabeth," El said, coming up to Peter's side. Without hesitating, she slid her arms around Neal's neck. The dragon closed his eyes and rested his head on her shoulder, then shuddered as if he'd finally hit the limits of his strength and sank down into the snow, taking El with him.
"Oh honey," El said, stroking his head. She reached for his injured leg. When she touched it, Neal made a terrible keening sound in his throat. "I have to, Neal, I'm so sorry," El said, and he pressed his head into her lap and shivered as she prodded gently at the swollen, discolored flesh.
Peter shrugged out of his coat. The winter wind bit into his sleeves; the sun had already vanished behind the highest peaks. He draped it over Neal. "Yours too," he told Diana.
"It's freezing out here," the dragonslayer protested.
"It's your fault we're out here," Peter countered without sympathy. He headed for the nearest stand of evergreens and began to break off the dry lower branches.
Diana joined him a moment later, now stripped down to her shirt too, her mouth set in a grim line. Without speaking, she helped him drag armloads of dry branches to make a large heap next to the cliffside. Diana lit it from a firehorn she carried on her belt.
"I need some things from the house," El said. Gently, she laid Neal's head down in the snow and stood up. "Peter, you'll have to -- no, no, I know exactly what I need and where it is. It'll be much faster if I do it myself."
"You can't go alone," Peter said. "It's getting dark. Just tell me what I need to bring."
El shook her head -- the quiet but deep-rooted stubbornness that had always been impossible to argue with. El didn't argue when she had her mind set on something. She just did it anyway. "I'll be fine. With my potions and charms, I'm probably safer than the two of you."
"I could go with you," Diana said.
"No," Peter said sharply. He wasn't sure how far he trusted this dangerous stranger -- certainly not enough to leave her alone with his wife.
El stood on tiptoe to kiss Peter. "I'll be back as fast as I can."
He held her for a moment, feeling her heart beating against him. "Is there anything that I should -- uh --"
El glanced at the dragon, a black lump huddled beneath Peter and Diana's coats. "No. Just try to get him warm and keep him from moving too much. I really don't think he's badly poisoned enough to die, though he might think he's going to, but the sooner I can find the herbs I need, the better I'll feel about it."
And with a final squeeze of his hands, she was gone into the darkening woods, with Satchmo at her heels.
Peter let out a long breath, then turned to Diana. "More wood," he said.
They built a massive bonfire, throwing off so much heat that Peter had to drag Neal a little farther from the flames. The rock wall acted like a reflector, casting heat back into the frigid night. There was plenty of wood, and, Peter thought, the light of the flames would help searchers find them too.
He gathered some more evergreen boughs to make a heap for Neal to lie on, keeping him off the snow, at least. Neal whimpered when Peter forced him to move onto the makeshift bed. "Peter," he said faintly. "It hurts, Peter."
"I know. I'm sorry." Peter sat down on the edge of the pile of branches, with his back resting against the fire-warmed rock, and -- as El had done -- gathered Neal's head into his lap. He wasn't sure if it made any difference, but it didn't feel right to let it droop onto the cold ground. Neal was still dreadfully cool to the touch, but his shivering had mostly stopped. Was that good or bad? In a human, Peter would be able to judge it -- he'd helped treat more than one hypothermia victim in his time. But with the dragon, he had no idea.
Diana stood beside the flames, one hand on the hilt of her sword, staring out into the winter twilight. "Aren't you worried about your wife?"
"El? No," Peter said. He ran a hand along Neal's spiky ruff -- mobile and expressive, it was currently folded down, like Satchmo's ears when the dog wasn't feeling well. "She's an enchantress of no small ability. As she said, she's probably safer than we are."
Diana snorted, and crouched down to poke idly at the fire. "This is not how I expected my first dragon hunt to go."
Peter studied her in the firelight. She was young, he thought -- quite a bit younger than himself. "I imagine there isn't much call for dragonslayers these days."
Diana shook her head. "No. It's an ancient and honorable profession, and a necessary one, once upon a time. But all the dragons have retreated to the north these days. There are occasional sightings, but few encounters." Her gaze traveled to rest curiously on the dragon's spiky head in Peter's lap. "If you don't mind my asking, how did this come to be?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," Peter said. He continued to stroke Neal's head, scritching along the row of small spikes on the dragon's neck as he knew Neal liked. There was no response. "He tried to steal from the valley's silver mines, so El put an enchantment on him, using that." He nodded to the chain around Neal's ankle. "He can't breathe fire or use his magic, and he has to stay near us."
Looking at the ankle chain reminded him that they did in fact have a last resort against the poison. Removing the chain should allow Neal to heal himself. Except -- no. If the poison worked on a normal, unbound dragon, taking off the chain probably wouldn't help this time.
That thought made a violent shiver work its way through him. No last resort. No magical fix. All they could do was hope that Neal hadn't gotten enough of the stuff in his system to kill him, and if so, that El's potions would be able to counter it.
Still, he was no longer angry at Diana. She'd only been trying to help. A few months ago, Peter thought, I'd probably have cheered her on.
Without anger to lean on, he was left with nothing but terrible, terrible fear.
A shadow fell across him. Peter looked up to see that Diana had knelt down beside Neal's outflung foreleg. "May I?" she asked.
He was too worn out -- from the whole day, from worry, from fear -- to do more than nod. Diana started to reach out with a gloved hand, then pulled off the glove and laid her bare hand on the lightly scaled side of Neal's face.
"He's not cold," she said in surprise.
He felt cold to Peter, but only compared to his usual heat. If you were expecting something like a fish or a snake ... "No. He's always warm."
She petted him carefully, as Peter was doing.
"He saved my life," Peter said.
Diana looked up, her face half in shadow.
"Protected me. I'd be dead if not for him." He stopped; it was too hard to talk about it. Not right now.
"I always thought that dragons were monsters," Diana said after a moment. "Savage, inhuman beasts."
"So did I. And I suppose some are." Peter thought of Keller, and then looked down again at Neal's head in his lap. The little dragon's jaws were slightly parted. He looked dead. Only the quick rise and fall of his sides and the warm puffs of his breath on Peter's leg indicated that he still lived. "But some aren't. They're just people, some good and some bad, like anywhere."
Neal stirred a little, and squirmed closer to Peter, nestling his head against Peter's stomach. Probably for the heat, Peter thought -- although come to think of it, the fire was warmer, and it was in the other direction.
It was fully dark by the time that a crashing among the trees drew Peter and Diana's attention. Diana rose and drew her sword. Then Satchmo bounded out of the darkness, wriggling with delight, and tried to lick first Peter's face and then Neal's.
El was right on the dog's heels. She kissed Peter and then knelt beside Neal and opened a satchel hanging from her shoulder. "Some of our neighbors are right behind me," she said. "They're bringing a sledge that should be large enough to carry him."
"What have you people done?" demanded a voice at Peter's elbow, and Peter almost jumped out of his skin as Mozzie materialized out of nowhere.
"He came too," El added unnecessarily, pulling a stopper out of a jar with her teeth.
The clearing began to fill up with people. Peter stood stiffly, accepting a hand up, and realized that the people around him -- those who'd been willing to follow El out into a dark winter night to help a sick dragon -- were those that he and Neal had helped over the past couple of months. The mother of the young woman Neal had rescued in the alley. The uncle of the missing child they'd found. A woman whose wedding ring Neal had recovered. All those whose lives Neal had made better in some way, come out in the cold and the dark to help in their turn.
They'd brought a large wood-hauling sledge, piled high with quilts and blankets. Peter helped them bundle up the limp dragon and load him onto the sledge; then they started for home, taking turns pulling the sled in shifts. Mozzie hopped up on the sledge with Neal and burrowed under the quilts, vanishing from sight.
Peter walked beside it, one hand resting on Neal's blanket-wrapped form. Diana fell in next to him after kicking snow over the bonfire. "All these people," she said wonderingly. "To help a dragon."
"Times change," Peter said, feeling Neal's side rise and fall, rise and fall under his hand.
And we've made it, at last, to the end! Thank you to the gang on LJ/DW for contributing suggestions that helped me put together Team Good Guy's final plan against Keller, and to Soteriophobe for looking over this for me and reassuring me that it didn't suck after all. :)
For the next few days, Neal was a very sick dragon who spent most of his time sleeping in front of the fire, and occasionally throwing up on El.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
"You can't help it," she said, petting the side of his face. "You're sick. In fact, I'd say you're a better patient than someone else I know."
"Seriously?" Peter said in disbelief.
Despite his obvious misery, Neal grinned.
Peter spent most of his time in the house as well. At this time of year, there was little for him to do in his official sheriff role. He'd be busy later in the winter, when cabin fever set in, tempers frayed and people began to seek refuge in alcohol and arguing. But right now, most people were still finishing up the autumn flurry of chores, or enjoying the unaccustomed period of rest, relaxation, and visiting time that followed it.
Diana had temporarily rented a room from a widow down the street rather than crossing back over the mountains just yet. Now that she'd stopped trying to kill Neal, she was fascinated by the idea of getting to know a real live dragon, and finding out how much of the dragonlore she'd learned growing up was real.
Neal, for his part, didn't seem to have a resentful bone in his sinuous body. Once he was confident that Diana no longer wanted to kill him, he was more than happy to be friends.
Peter supposed that he and El had also tried to kill Neal. Perhaps this was a perfectly normal way for friendships involving dragons to begin.
In any case, Diana came over frequently, spending hours talking with Peter and, when he was awake, with Neal. Peter was fairly sure that she felt guilty about shooting Neal, although she never admitted it. Their conversations were very interesting to listen to -- a continual parry and riposte as Diana probed for details about dragon biology and defenses, and Neal delicately evaded the questions that were rather obviously geared towards dragonslaying.
Once Neal turned the corner, he got better fast, and soon was once again accompanying Peter on rounds of the village. It hadn't felt right without him there, Peter realized; he'd gotten used to looking over his shoulder and seeing Neal's low-slung dark shape, standing out against the snow.
He reminded himself that the situation with Neal was temporary. It had to be. El was right, keeping Neal prisoner indefinitely wasn't an option -- not just because of the problem of feeding him (though that was becoming an increasingly pressing issue) but also because, as El had pointed out, Neal was a wild creature. Chaining him to the ground, never to fly again, was cruel. And the more that Neal wormed his scaly little self into their lives, the more it hurt Peter, somewhere deep inside him, when he looked over at the dragon and saw Neal with his snout tilted up to the sky, watching a flock of birds swirling overhead.
No -- keeping Neal chained to the ground, to them, had never been an option.
But Peter didn't want to even think about letting Neal off his leash until the Keller situation was resolved. One dragon at a time was enough.
"We have an idea," Elizabeth announced.
The "we" and the fact that Mozzie was perched on the edge of the table, looking considerably more cheerful than usual, should have tipped Peter off that he wasn't going to like this. And when she'd explained it, he definitely didn't like it.
"I don't want you anywhere near Keller."
"I don't have to get near," El argued. "I just need to be close enough to set up an illusion to lure him into a trap. I rarely use my magic that way, but I do know how. And with Mozzie's help, I think I can craft an illusion that'll fool him."
"Gargoyles are good at illusion," Mozzie said. "You should have just asked me in the first place."
"An illusion of what, though? Not that I'm agreeing to this plan," Peter added hastily.
"Something he can't resist. We don't want him thinking too hard about it, or he might back out." El frowned. "We're still working on that."
"And once you lure him in -- then what? That's the big problem, isn't it? I've tried fighting him. It's true that we have Diana's help now, but two humans against a dragon is still not good odds."
"My idea again," Mozzie said smugly. "Gargoyles are masters of fighting by subterfuge and trickery. Once again, if you'd just come to me --"
"Consider me chastened," Peter said impatiently. "Tell me what you're planning to do."
El showed him the detailed map Neal had drawn, and touched the thin black line of the road leading out of the valley. "The pass is closed at this time of year because of deep snows and the danger of avalanches."
"Avalanche," Peter said. Once she'd said it, the appeal was obvious. "Even a dragon can't defend himself against an avalanche. Though he can fly out of its way."
"Well, we never said it was going to be easy," Mozzie said. He curled up on the edge of the table, tail over his stubby snout. "I'm just the idea man. Working out the details is your area."
Between the five of them -- Peter, Elizabeth, Neal, Diana and Mozzie -- they managed to work out what Peter thought just might be a very usable plan over the next few days. He still hated having El anywhere near the fighting, but she promised to stay well out of the way.
And then there was Neal ...
"I can't make you do this," Peter said, as the two of them strolled down an alleyway piled high with snow on both sides, doing their rounds of the village. "And I'm not going to force you. You've already fought Keller once on my behalf. With both me and El there, we'll have to take you along, but I don't mind at all if you stay with her. In fact, I think it might make me feel better to have you guard her."
Neal shook his head. His half-bared teeth gleamed. "It's not just about you humans anymore. I owe Keller a real fight." For a moment his voice dropped a register and rumbled in his chest, almost a growl. Peter was reminded of what he often tried to forget: that Neal was, deep down, a predator, and that he could be quite dangerous if he wanted to be.
Extra urgency was lent to their preparations when news reached them of another dragon attack at the head of the valley, only a few miles from the village. Keller had swooped in at dusk and carried off a cow for his dinner, but not before he'd slaughtered the rest of the herd and set the farmer's house on fire. The bodies of the dead cattle were left lying in the snow. The message was clear: it was a reminder to the residents of the valley that Keller was here, not going anywhere, and too dangerous to mess with.
There was no question of leaving him alone now.
When their plan was finalized and they had everything they needed, Peter and El shut up the house and left Satchmo with a neighbor. They weren't sure how long they'd need to be gone. It would depend on how long it took Keller to take their bait.
They made a strange procession heading out of the village: three humans, bundled in their winter gear, and a low-slung black dragon, along with one small sled that contained the various components of their plan plus one blanket-wrapped gargoyle.
Peter was amazed that Mozzie had agreed to go with them. It was loyalty to Neal, mostly, with a side helping of animosity towards Keller -- apparently Keller had a track record of hunting gargoyles for sport. The three humans took turns pulling the sled; Neal considered it beneath his dignity. Mozzie complained vigorously every time they went over a bump, until Peter threatened to stuff a handful of snow under the blanket, and then subsided into sulky silence.
They camped in a cave that Diana knew about, a little way off the main road. The cave had been used by hunters and trappers for years, and at some point, someone had built a wooden barricade across the cave mouth, providing some shelter from the wind and cold. With a fire blazing, it was fairly comfortable, if smoky. At least, Peter thought so. Mozzie loudly disagreed. "I can't believe you people talked me into this," the gargoyle muttered, huddling so close to the fire that he was in danger of setting himself ablaze.
In the morning, all of them except Mozzie -- who stayed in the cave -- scouted the area and began to put the final elements of their plan together. Diana, who had been through the pass recently, had suggested this spot for their ambush, and Peter could see why. The mountainside hung steeply over the road, and by the way it was swept clear of trees, it was obvious that avalanches were a regular occurrence. Diana had told them on the way up that she thought conditions in the area should be ripe for the snow to slide. They'd gotten a lot of fresh snow lately, and the days had been relatively warm.
Better yet, there were signs of fresh dragon activity in the area: the remains of a deer kill in the snow (too high to be wolves), and gouge marks on trees where something very large and very tall had been sharpening its claws. Neal also said that he could smell Keller, though the scent was faint and not very fresh. "Believe me, if it was fresh, I wouldn't be standing here."
They didn't stay out in the open too long; it would completely destroy their plan (not to mention risking all of their lives) if they were seen. Their tracks were bad enough, but Neal said that dragons weren't especially skilled trackers. "Why should we be? We can fly. We're used to seeing everything from high above."
Now that they'd examined the area, they put together the rest of their plan under the cover of darkness. Peter and Diana climbed high on the mountainside and, very carefully, set up a row of El's small pots containing an explosive potion. Triggering them would be El's role, which hopefully would keep her far from the action and safely out of danger. While Peter and Diana set the explosives, El and Neal were down below, hauling snow to make it look as if a small avalanche had already swept down the mountainside. El and Mozzie would use illusion to augment it later on, but it would work the best if most of it was real to begin with ... or real-looking, anyway.
Come daylight, they were ready to set up the key part of their plan: the bait in the trap.
This was perhaps the riskiest part. Elizabeth didn't like it. No one liked it. But there was only one thing they could think of that would almost certainly intrigue Keller so thoroughly that he'd be lured in without carefully reconnoitering the area. Their initial idea had been to present him with some sort of prize, gold or silver or jewels, but it was clear from the amount of snow on the road that the merchant caravans did not cross the pass at this time of year. A heap of gold in the middle of the trail might as well scream "Trap!" As Neal pointed out scathingly, dragons weren't stupid.
Two stranded travelers, on the other hand ... and specifically, two travelers that Keller was very interested in ...
The bait in the trap was to be Peter and Neal.
"Are you comfortable?" El asked worriedly, not for the first time. "You might have to stay here all day."
And, if this didn't work as quickly as they'd hoped, the next day and the next one ... although he could head back to the cave at night, at least. "I'm fine," Peter said, turning his head to the side as El patted a little more snow on top of his legs. "It'll be okay."
"It had better be okay." She bent to kiss him. The eastern sky was brightening towards dawn, and there was already a wan gray gloaming, enough for Peter to see Neal's dark bulk a few feet away from him.
The idea was to make it look as if Peter and Neal had been caught in an avalanche themselves. It had to look convincing from the air. Bundled up as much as possible so that he wasn't in danger of hypothermia, Peter was lying on his side with snow heaped over his legs and one outflung arm. Nearby, Neal sprawled with one wing outspread and snow heaped on top of him. He'd reassured Peter, multiple times, that he was going to be all right, but they'd still folded up a couple of blankets underneath him (hidden from above by his body, they hoped) to keep him from losing too much body heat.
Bringing Keller to the scene was also an issue -- in the normal scheme of things, it could be weeks before he happened to overfly that area. They had been careful not to make too much smoke at their campsite -- dry wood, and only at night, where the smoke wouldn't show. But last night they'd built a large fire, not at their campsite but alongside the trail, a little farther down the mountain. Diana was stoking it one last time before going to take up her battle station, hidden behind a heap of boulders near Peter and Neal's location. Once the sun rose, the column of smoke from the fire would be visible for miles.
If Keller stopped to think about it, Peter thought that he'd have to wonder why they'd built such a ridiculously large campfire. "No, he won't," Neal said. "Dragons aren't stupid, but we don't know that much about human things. All he'll know is that there are humans in an area he's been hunting, and he'll want to know what you're up to."
And then he'd arrive and see Peter and Neal sprawled amid avalanche wreckage. It was Peter's hope that he'd land to investigate, and Peter's fervent hope that he'd do it without charring them both to a crisp beforehand. They were both wearing charms from El that would stave off one good blast of dragonbreath, but if Keller flamed them and it did nothing, then the fact that it was a trap would become instantly obvious. At best, Keller would fly away and they would have lost him (as well as making any trap they tried to set afterwards twice as hard). At worst ... well ... there were a whole lot of worst-case scenarios, and he tried not to dwell on them.
Once Keller was on the ground -- if they got him on the ground -- they had small pots of a sticky tangling material that El normally produced for owners of wayward livestock. It could be removed with a counterspell, but would bring its victim crashing down, legs all tangled up with the supernaturally sticky substance. They'd decided that poison was too uncertain. With this stuff, all they had to do was get it on Keller's body, and it only had to hold him in place long enough for the avalanche to happen.
There were so many things that could go wrong, and nothing at all that Peter liked about putting all of them in danger like this. But he'd tried facing Keller by himself. It wasn't going to work. Subterfuge and teamwork were the only option left -- well, that or letting Keller continue his predations unchecked.
El left to take up her own position up on the mountainside, ready to trigger the avalanche once they had Keller in position and themselves out of the way. Theoretically, Mozzie was with her, although Peter wasn't sure if that made things better or worse.
"How're you doing over there?" he asked softly. "Not too cold?"
"Not yet," Neal said. "I'm fine." Peter could hear him squirming a bit, trying to get into a more comfortable position.
The world around them continued to lighten, and brilliant but heatless sunshine crept across Peter's field of vision, glittering on the snow. He could see his shadow, and Neal's, stretching long and blue.
This is a crazy plan, he thought. It's not going to work. It's too dangerous. We'll either freeze to death, or Keller will kill us the instant he shows up.
He wiggled his fingers and toes, making sure that everything still worked. He was chilly, but his furs were keeping him warm -- though moving quickly was going to be difficult, bundled up like this.
"If you feel like you're starting to frostbite anything, we'll call it off and try again tomorrow," he said quietly in Neal's direction. "Better to risk missing Keller than to lose some toes or, I don't know, a wing or something."
"I'm all right. Just very, very bored." Neal shifted position again. Peter hoped Neal didn't shuffle around so much that it was obvious from the air he'd been moving. "Very, very, very bored."
This was a complication Peter hadn't thought of: having their ambush blown by a bored dragon. "You have to use patience when you're hunting, don't you?"
"Yes, but hunting is fun. The fascination of the search, the thrill of the chase ..." More small squirming sounds.
"I'm bored too. Quit wiggling and suck it up."
Neal growled softly -- Peter hoped it was a playful growl -- and then all was silent for a while.
This time, it was Peter who broke the still, cold silence. "Are you okay with this? Killing Keller?"
"Dragons fight among ourselves," Neal said. "And sometimes we die. I don't fight much because, as you've probably noticed, I'm not a very big dragon, and I'm not terribly good at it. But if Keller is hunting in a territory that I've claimed for myself, then I'm entirely within my rights to kill him ... if I can. No one ever said I couldn't have help doing it."
"This isn't about a territorial battle between dragons," Peter said, a bit stiffly. "It's about justice."
"Whatever," Neal sighed.
More silence; then Peter said, "I came to the mines to kill you, you know."
"I know," Neal said. "And I would have killed you, too, if I'd seen you before you saw me." After a moment's silence, he said, "Why didn't you?"
Because you looked so small and helpless lying at my feet probably wouldn't go over too well. "Because it obviously wasn't you who'd killed those people," Peter said. "All it took was a little deductive reasoning to figure that out. I wasn't going to kill you for something you hadn't done."
Neal snorted. "Justice again."
"Yes," Peter said.
Neal was quiet for a little while before he said softly, awkwardly, "Peter, if something goes wrong here -- if I don't -- anyway, I wanted to let you know --"
"Shh!" Peter hissed. He'd just glimpsed a dark shape circling against the pale blue sky.
Neal instantly fell silent. Peter tried not to move. How keen was dragons' vision? Would Keller be able to see him blinking, all the way up there? Should he keep his eyes open? The very thought itself was enough to make his eyeballs suddenly and intensely dry.
With his head turned to the side, he couldn't see the sky very well. Maybe the black fleck he'd glimpsed was a circling eagle. But then a shadow swooped across him, and his heart began to pound so hard that he was afraid keen draconic hearing couldn't help but detect it.
This was it. Their trap had actually managed to lure in Keller. Now if they could just survive the next few minutes ...
Keller landed with a thunk, hard enough to shake the ground -- though not to trigger the avalanche prematurely, a dreadful possibility Peter hadn't even thought of. Then Keller paused, raising his head, and Peter thought suddenly and horribly of yet another thing they hadn't considered: dragons' keen sense of smell. Any minute he was going to --
Luckily Diana had apparently thought of it too, because she popped up from behind her boulder. She was out of throwing range, but two of her crossbow bolts had been modified with El's little pots of tangle-trap strapped onto their ends, and she let one of these fly in Keller's direction.
The problem was that Peter and Neal weren't where Keller thought they were, something that was not visible from the air but would have become instantly obvious if he'd tried to sniff their supposed corpses. According to El and Mozzie, it was very difficult to produce a convincing illusion from thin air -- but very easy to move the existing image of something to a place nearby where it wasn't. That was the fundamental principle of illusion that gargoyles used to hide most of the time. Either they covered themselves with the illusion of something that was nearby, or they made it look like they were somewhere else themselves.
So Peter and Neal were not actually lying in the avalanche strike zone. They were lying outside it (at least, Peter hoped so) ... not at Keller's feet, but some hundred paces distant.
As Diana let fly her arrow, Peter scrambled to his feet. No point in waiting any longer; Keller's attention was on Diana and couldn't be allowed to remain there. It was the best opening he and Neal were going to get.
Diana's crossbow bolt glanced off Keller's armored neck. The pot shattered, but only a few drops struck him. Damn it, Peter thought. He was already running, closing on Keller while preparing to throw his own projectile. Keller had begun to spread his wings. Peter's little pot of tangle-trap hit him right between the wings, and exploded into a sticky mess.
Keller let out a deep-throated roar of rage, and swiveled his head to sweep flame across both of them. Peter had known it was coming and still felt an icy rush of panic right down to his feet. But El's amulet held, though Peter felt it shiver into ash against his chest as the wash of flame died away. Now they were both unprotected. Steam billowed up around him from melted snow, along with a powerful scorched smell.
"This is ridiculous!" Keller bellowed. He leaped into the air and came thudding back down immediately. One of his wings was stuck to his back, and also stuck to itself in half a dozen places. The other was free, but he couldn't fly with just one wing.
He could, however, still run. And El and Mozzie couldn't trigger the avalanche while Peter and Diana were so close to him.
Diana had had time to rewind her crossbow, and let fly with her other booby-trapped bolt. Keller danced nimbly backwards, and it shattered uselessly at his feet. Grinning, he opened his jaws, preparing to flame them again -- and this time they were defenseless.
Neal came dashing in low, and scored Keller's side with his fangs. Keller shrieked in pain and fury, his flame bursting prematurely in a fireball around his head. It didn't seem to hurt him, just left him wreathed in smoke and steam.
We have to get out of the avalanche zone, Peter thought. And they had to get Keller in a condition where he couldn't follow, or they were dead. Diana was fumbling for the other pots of tangle-trap in her pockets. Peter took out another of his -- he had only two more left after this one -- and lobbed it underhand at Keller's legs. He missed Keller completely, and just barely missed Neal. The two dragons were darting around each other, a blur of legs and tails, spikes and wings. Neal was faster, but Keller was much bigger. Peter didn't like Neal's chances.
"I can't get a clear shot!" Diana cried in frustration. "If I hit Neal, Keller will be all over him."
Peter was struck with distant surprise that it mattered to her, too. But she was right. They had to get Neal out of the way before they could do anything. On the other hand, Neal was the only thing keeping Keller from flaming them both. They'd reached a frustrating impasse.
And then Keller managed to close his jaws around Neal's narrow body. There was a terrible crunch and Neal let out a shriek of pain, a sound that cut straight through to Peter's heart. Keller hoisted him off the ground, the muscles of his neck and shoulders bunching as he lifted Neal in his jaws. Neal writhed and screamed.
Peter and Diana both threw their missiles as one. Peter hit Keller's legs, while Diana's tangle-pot struck Keller square between the eyes and spewed its sticky contents all over his face. Keller dropped Neal, who thudded to the snow. Peter was already running closer, nearly under the dragon's feet, knowing that he was in terrible danger of being flamed -- but he threw his last projectile into Keller's mouth. Keller snapped down on it automatically, and it burst, exploding all over his tongue and jaws.
Neal was struggling to get up; he managed to rise halfway and then fell down again. "Come on," Peter panted. Between the two of them, he and Diana helped Neal hobble away. Neal was in bad shape. His head drooped until it nearly dragged the ground, and he was leaving a vivid trail of blood in the snow. Finally his strength gave out and he collapsed in a heap. Peter and Diana struggled to drag him by brute strength alone.
Behind them, Keller thrashed and emitted tiny, stifled shrieks of fury. The only part of him not thoroughly tangled up -- the one wing they'd missed the first time -- beat on the snow in impotent rage.
Seeing Keller tangled up and helpless, the same feeling washed over Peter that he'd gotten from having Neal's unconscious body at his feet, back when Neal had been nothing more to him than a marauding dragon. It didn't feel right to execute Keller without at least giving him a chance.
"Keller!" Peter shouted, and Keller's head snapped up. His eyes were still covered, and he quested around blindly for the source of the voice. "It doesn't have to be like this, Keller! I can give you a deal, the same deal that Neal got."
Keller managed to unstick his jaws enough to answer in a furious, strangled voice. "And be your slave? Kill you, I'm going to kill you, just as soon as I get out of this --" Flames licked around his snout.
High above them, on the mountainside, there was a tiny series of pops. Peter looked up. At first it was just a little cloud of snow. Then the roar began, growing in intensity.
Peter closed his eyes and bent over Neal. Either they'd managed to gauge the distance correctly or they hadn't, but there was no way he could drag Neal out of danger. He'd just have to hope that Diana and El had known what they were doing when they'd calculated the avalanche's width and arranged accordingly.
The roar drowned out everything. Flying snow buffeted him. But when the sound died away and the snow stopped falling, Peter raised his head to find that the bulk of the avalanche had missed them completely. There was a light drift of snow mounded against Neal's uphill side; that was all.
Diana waded through loose, lightly drifted snow to Peter. "Keller -- if that didn't finish him off, he'll come after us for certain. I'm going to go check."
"Go," Peter agreed.
Diana scrambled off down the slope. Peter knelt in the snow beside Neal. He laid a hand on the little dragon's snout and called his name, but Neal seemed to be beyond hearing. His sides shuddered as he struggled to breathe. Peter could see the glint of bone in the raw flesh of his side. Blood bubbled from his mouth.
He was dying. El's best potions couldn't possibly heal that kind of wound.
Peter's eyes dropped to the chain around Neal's ankle. The only thing that could save Neal now would be his draconic healing ability, if he wasn't too far gone for that. It would mean taking Neal off the chain -- setting him free with all his strength and his powers.
It would mean trusting him. Trusting that his first act, when the chain was off, wouldn't be wholesale slaughter in revenge against the humans who'd chained him.
It would mean saying goodbye.
The shuddering of Neal's sides was slowing. There really was no choice; the alternative would be watching him die, and Peter wasn't prepared to do that.
He hooked a finger into the chain and tried to tug it over the bony hump of Neal's ankle. This didn't work, so Peter drew his knife and set the tip into one of the links, trying to break it. He wasn't strong enough. The chain dug into Neal's ankle, dimpling the scales, but stayed intact.
"Damn it," Peter whispered. His eyes prickled with tears of frustration and anger. Neal was dying, his breathing slowing, his warm scales growing cool to the touch. And Peter had no way to take the chain off. He had no tools that would work.
Except, perhaps, one. He took the control chain out of his pocket. As always, it was warm and alive-feeling in his hand -- warmer and more alive, at the moment, than Neal himself.
In all the time he'd carried the chain, Peter had never used it to command Neal. Now he laid it against the chain on Neal's ankle, and willed it, with all his heart, to release.
And that was all it took. The band of links around Neal's ankle sprang open and slithered into the snow.
It seemed that there should be more to it. That he should feel something break in his heart, a soft inward snap, when the bond between them broke.
Peter called Neal's name softly. At first there was no visible change. Neal's labored breathing continued to slow; his life's blood pumped out into the snow. Then the bleeding began to slow. As Peter watched, fascinated, the terrible wounds in Neal's side knit visibly together, smooth black scales hardening over them.
Neal opened his eyes, blinked dazedly at the sky, and raised his head. He shook himself all over, and then got his legs under him, scrambling awkwardly to his feet.
"Neal?" Peter said hesitantly.
Neal swiveled his head and looked at him, and the warmth that had once been in Neal's deep blue eyes when he'd looked at Peter was gone; they were once again the eyes of a wild creature, a predator sizing up a possible enemy or competitor. He was all dragon again, the softly taming influence of the chain swept away by a fierce rush of draconic magic, draconic ferocity. Neal's jaws parted, revealing sharp teeth and the glow of the fire that had been rekindled within him, and Peter was suddenly, painfully aware that he might be facing his own death.
Then Neal's wings spread, and he downbeat hard. The gust of wind made Peter stagger backward in a cloud of blowing snow, and it catapulted Neal skyward.
Looking up from the ground, Peter saw joy in every line of the little black dragon's body. Neal stretched out, and he flew -- as fast and as hard as he could, he flew, until he'd vanished into the blue bowl of the sky.
Peter stared after him until his eyes watered from the strain, until he became aware of his own aches and exhaustion. Neal might be fully healed, but Peter was only human, shivering with post-battle letdown, exhaustion and cold.
And, now, he was alone.
He'd dropped the control chain in the snow when the other one let go. Now he picked them up. Both were cold to the touch; whatever magic had been in them had gone, vanished as surely as Neal had vanished into the sky.
Elizabeth came scrambling and sliding down the hillside. She threw her arms around him. Peter buried his face in her hair.
"That was Neal, wasn't it?" El tipped her head back, looking up at the sky. Her face was radiant, and Peter's grief felt small and petty, suddenly, next to El's joy, next to Neal's joy.
"That was Neal," Peter confirmed, and he felt a small measure of her delight seeping into him. Neal was gone, and the Neal they'd known and loved was gone beyond recovery, severed with a snap of the chain -- he was once more the wild, proud creature he'd been. But he was alive, and safe, and free.
The two of them, with their arms around each other's waists, began to descend into the valley. Diana's small shape was visible below them.
"Is Mozzie gone too?" Peter asked.
"Yes; he was with me, but he took off as soon as he saw Neal in the sky," El said.
It made Peter feel a little better to notice that her eyes, too, kept going back to the sky. I wonder if we'll ever stop looking up, hoping to see them there, he thought. But at the same time, for Neal's sake and everyone else's, Peter hoped that the little dragon flew north with all that was in him. There was no place for dragons in this human world of farms and villages and cities.
Only for a small, chained dragon, for a short time.
Peter tucked the short, useless lengths of chain into his pocket as Diana came floundering through the snow to meet them. Her leathers were splashed with fresh dragon blood, and Peter felt his stomach turn at the sight of it. "Keller's dead," she said. "It's over. The village is safe. Where's Neal?"
"Gone," El said.
"Gone? What do you --" She looked between them, and then hastily up at the sky. "You mean, he's flying around loose out there? Are you serious? Peter --"
"He won't hurt anyone," El said firmly. "He's gone home, that's all. We've kept him long enough."
Diana frowned at her, but didn't argue. It was hard to argue with El when she used that tone of bone-deep certainty.
Still, all through the long, cold walk back to the village, the three of them kept looking skyward, until the last of the blue was gone from the sky and there was nothing to be seen but thousands of stars, sharp and cold and spread to eternity. Peter couldn't help thinking of Neal among those stars, flying and flying, the wind streaming through his spiky ruff, his teeth bared in a fierce grin and his eyes half-closed with pleasure -- flying and flying and flying, higher and higher, until the world was spread out beneath him like a black and silver quilt. Flying and flying, free at last.
Epilogue: 30 Years Later
The grass on the hill had grown long. Elizabeth climbed it slowly, leaning on her walking stick and pausing often. Her old bones ached. It was strange to think she used to run up this hill without a care -- strange, to think she'd once raced down it, and played tag with a dragon in the woods.
The grave was at the hilltop, marked by a simple wooden cross. Peter had come to the hill often, over the years. He'd liked to sit on the low stone wall, where she had once sat with him to watch Neal playing in the snow, and look up at the sky. Sometimes Elizabeth had joined him there, sitting hand in hand, watching the clouds swirl above the mountains.
She'd never said to Peter that Neal wasn't coming back; she was never that cruel. But she'd known it. She had made a chain to bind a dragon, but she had never for a moment believed -- as Peter had -- that he was anything other than a wild creature. She had respected him and loved him, and she hoped that he was happy beyond the Wall; they'd heard no more tales, over the years, of dragon predations on villages or silver mines, so his captivity in human lands had taught him wariness, at least. Peter believed that it had also taught him respect and kindness. But Peter had believed in things like that.
In his quiet, steadfast way, Peter had missed Neal all the days of his life. Elizabeth suspected that Neal probably did not miss them; she doubted that dragons felt emotions like that. But she wondered if he ever thought of them, maybe even with fondness.
When Peter had died -- and she missed him still, missed him with a deep and desperate ache -- she thought he would want to be on the hilltop, as close as she could bring him to the sky that was as blue as Neal's eyes.
After leaving her ceremonial offering of flowers and grain on Peter's grave, El sat on the stone wall and ate her lunch. Her hips ached and she didn't mind resting here for a while before trekking back down to the village. It was peaceful and pleasant. The wind riffled the grass and flowers, sending long ripples across the fields.
A speck in the blue depths above her caught El's attention. Her eyes weren't what they once had been, so she squinted for a while, trying to determine if it was merely an eagle or a hawk.
But it wasn't. The winged shape circled, growing larger. In the fields below the hill, a flock of sheep scattered for cover. El didn't move, even when the downdraft of those great wings flattened the grasses around her, even when the dragon touched down in front of her with tremendous grace for a creature so large.
It was clearly Neal; she'd know him anywhere. He was no longer so small as he'd once been, and now, even when he was down on all fours, his shoulder was as high as a horse's. They would never be able to carry him on a sledge now, as they'd done all those years ago. He couldn't have fit through the door of her little house.
Neal settled on his haunches and regarded her. His eyes were fey and wild -- not hostile, but not human eyes, El thought, not at all. But then, unlike Peter, she'd never been under the illusion that Neal was human. He was his own person, his own creature, beautiful and wild, and he had always been, even when he was their captive with the brightest and best parts of him locked away. This was Neal without the chain -- Neal with nothing human about him, no emotions that she could relate to, and she had no idea what he was thinking and feeling. She only knew that she was not afraid. She didn't truly believe that he'd hurt her, and if he did -- well, it would be over quickly, and she'd lived a good long life with few regrets.
"Elizabeth?" he said at last.
El smiled. "Yes."
"You've grown old." His head swiveled, taking in the grave. He'd lived among them long enough to know what it meant: the forlorn little wooden cross among the grasses.
"Humans don't live as long as dragons, I suppose," El said gently.
"I had forgotten that. Short lives." He shook his head, more bemused than grieved.
In the valley below, there were startled shouts and cries. Looking down, El saw tiny figures in the field, gesturing and pointing at the hill. Neal looked, too, his spiky ruff rising like the ears of an alert dog.
"They don't know you," El said. "The people you knew -- these are their children, now grown. You probably shouldn't stay."
Neal nodded, a heartbreakingly human gesture. If it bothered him, she couldn't tell.
"Are you well?" El asked quietly. "Happy?"
He nodded, more surely this time, and tilted his head, an inquiring little gesture that brought the past flooding back and made her heart trip over in her chest. "And you?"
"I am. We had a good life, Peter and I."
She reached out a hand. He hesitated, then extended his supple neck and let her stroke the warm, delicate scales on the side of his face. She could tell that it was something he was doing for her, that the touch of her human hand bothered him now that he no longer wore the chain. But he allowed it. El scritched at the edge of his ruff, behind his eyes, the way he always used to like. Neal closed his eyes, and for a moment El could almost imagine that they were back in the kitchen all those years ago: she'd be scritching Neal's neck to watch him stretch out in bliss, while Peter read peacefully at the table and Mozzie stealthily tried to snatch Peter's cup of tea.
And then Neal drew back, and spread his wings -- so much wider than they used to be, a great canopy that blocked the light.
"Stay safe," Elizabeth said. "Live well."
By the time the villagers reached her, Neal was long gone, and the sky a smooth unbroken blue above.