Kadav gave the dazed smith a hard shove toward the safety of the tavern. The rest was up to him for there was not a second to lose. The priest was already scrambling for cover, unceremoniously hiking his habit up to his hips. Parents shouted and children raced home. Doors slammed and shutters clacked shut. Chimney smoke turned thick and dark as the fires inside were doused. It was all done very quickly. By this point, the panic was becoming routine.
As carefully as he had prepared for this moment, Kadav realized he had already committed a couple crucial mistakes. In the first place, he should not have tethered the horse so securely to its hitching post; his fingers fumbled at the tight knot, wasting precious seconds. And rather than waiting under the familiar eaves of the tavern, he should have staked out a position closer to the edge of town. If he never reached the cover of the woods, all his ingenuity would be for naught. But it was too late for second guessing. He would have to make the best of the situation. There, he had the knot free!
He swung up into the saddle more smoothly than he ever had before; danger always brought out the best in him. Not so the jittery horse which tossed its head and stamped in circles. Kadav was no master of horses, but he knew intuitively what the situation required; he had to show the horse that his will was stronger than its own fear. He compressed his knees against its flank and choked up on the reins until his knuckles turned white. His will won out. With a final shake, the stallion broke into an all-out gallop. It would have kept right on galloping had Kadav not brought it to a skidding halt at the edge of town, pulling up hard.
Sweating profusely under his bonnet, he turned to face the road. At the far end of town, past the gap-toothed rows of shops, only a heap of blackened timbers remained where the white steeple of the chapel had once loomed. As much as he loathed that place, the town felt somehow incomplete without it, hardly a proper town at all.
The forest was patched with autumn russet and gold. The dragon sent up flocks of multi-hued leaves as it skimmed over it. The sky was milky blue. In the distance, Kadav noticed thin columns of campfire smoke. The Bursacks? If fortune hunters had arrived from afar, they were too late! By the end of the day, the dragon would already be slain and Kadav would be a legend or…
The dragon glided earthward, setting itself down in the dirt road with a bird’s grace.
A new idea caught Kadav’s imagination: what if he could capture the beast alive? Perhaps it could be tamed or taught to do tricks. Better yet, what if it could be saddled and ridden, a flying steed of mythical proportions, able to rain down fire and brimstone at his command? Kingdoms would pay homage and the common people would revere him like a god. But then the dragon turned its great golden eyes upon him and Kadav realized just how foolish a notion it was. A monster like that could never be brought under control. A tick would have a better chance of taming a dog.
The dragon tilted its head to one side as if considering what to make of the twiggy ingénue astride its svelte stallion. At length it snorted, as if having reached a decision. It settled its weight on its hind legs, unfurled its great wings, and prepared to spring. It had taken the bait.
“YAH!” Kadav snapped the reins. Needing no urging, the stallion launched itself toward cover of the woods. “YAH-YAH-YAH!” Wind gusted in his face and whipped the dress about his legs. He pressed himself low in the saddle. The ground blurred, churning past in a continuous thunder. Ahead of them, the forest loomed dark and welcoming. If only it wasn’t so far away.
Kadav didn’t dare look back. The roar of the dragon’s breath filled his ears, a sound like water being thrown on an inferno, something between a bellow and a hiss. An intense heat washed over his neck and shoulders, causing the tiny hairs there to crackle. A dark shadow fell over him and he feared that the end had come. He wondered if he would feel any pain.
Suddenly, the dragon let out an ear-splitting screech of rage. Trunks flashed past, twigs lashing him in the face. Had he any breath to spare, Kadav would have whooped in triumph. He was still alive and they were in the woods.
* * * * *
On previous rides, Kadav had set the course through the woods, keeping to level ground and open spaces. This time, driven by its animal instincts, the stallion chose its own way, threading between trees and bounding over fallen logs and weed-clogged channels without breaking stride. Kadav had only to hold on. Surprisingly, this was not hard to do, the ride being unusually smooth. He had never experienced such an exhilaration of speed. It was like being saddled onto the wind. When the stallion banked, he leaned. When it leaped, he soared. Like some mythical breed of two-headed centaur, their two bodies flowed together as one.
Close behind, the dragon tore through the forest like a boulder hurtled from the catapult of the gods. It smashed aside trees, sending out a whistling spray of wood chips that stung and peened him in the back. Yet, just as Kadav hoped, the forest was enough of an encumbrance for them to maintain and even extend their lead. Gradually, the sounds of pursuit diminished from a mind-obliterating cacophony to an ear-throbbing roar to merely loud noise. He became aware of the drumbeat of hooves again, a quick two-part rhythm: tha-bum, tha-bum, tha-bum.
Then, all at once, the noise ceased.
Kadav’s momentary relief turned to worry. Had the dragon given up the chase? Maybe it tracking them from above, ready to swoop down like a hawk through a break in the canopy? There was no way of knowing. Looking around gave him vertigo and he didn’t dare alter course or stop lest they present an easy target. All he could do was carry on with the plan and hope the dragon caught up with them later. Less frightened, the stallion dropped into a fast canter. Suddenly out of phase, Kadav bumped jarringly in the saddle but resisted giving it the heel. Best to let it catch its wind in case they needed another burst of speed later.
Kadav could tell by the open spaces and eerie quiet that they were entering the grove of god trees. Even the pounding of hoofbeats was strangely muted on the deadfall. Tall, straight trunks marched off like the pillars of a giant’s mansion.
A sudden change in air pressure, like the arrival of a storm front, signaled the dragon’s return. Sensing it also, the stallion lengthened its stride, once again achieving that gliding velocity that was one part horse and one part wind spirit. He could hear the dragon now, the rush of displaced air, the musical chiming of its scales, and the snap and thrum of its wings.
Kadav risked a glance over his shoulder. It was a couple hundred paces behind them and closing fast. The open spaces gave it the room it needed to extend its wings. Seen face on it was all tooth-studded mouth and tapered golden eyes. Tearing his gaze away, he peered ahead into the gray-green haze where he could just make out the outlines of the giant pillars. Just below the canopy, the bottom edge of the crossbeam glinted like a knife’s blade. Now he could make out the crow’s nest where a sturdy hammer blow to the trigger mechanism would send it razoring downward. It was all coming into focus now. Everything was going according to plan—except for one all-important detail. The crow’s nest was empty.
Unbidden, the words of a prayer came to mind. Kadav and his mother and all eight siblings had knelt at their bedsides and uttered it every night before turning in for sleep. Rhojë, Rhojë, keeper of light. You are my watchman in the night. And should my soul be set to flight, welcome me in your halls tonight. Rhojë, Rhojë… The words cycled in his mind, a haunting childhood refrain. There! His heart leaped at the sight of Hrago clambering up the ladder, a large hammer held between his teeth.
Relieved and terrified, there was nothing to do now but hold on. It was a politician’s worst nightmare; everything was out of his control. It was all up to the stallion, whether it could reach the apparatus ahead of the dragon. It was all up to Hrago, whether he could get to the crow’s nest in time and trigger the mechanism at precisely the right moment. It was all up to wood and steel and the acceleration of gravity. And it was all up to Rhojë in heaven, if he smiled upon him this day.