A stone voice spoke in the darkness.
We must go at once. The dragon guarding the valley is aware of us.
Still she couldn’t stir, but someone else must have heard that voice, for now as she swam up into consciousness Maja felt herself to be lying face down and half bent over something that jolted unsteadily into her stomach, and with something that held her fast when she tried to stir… Yes, lashed onto a saddle – they were already hurrying away …
“Awake?” said Ribek’s voice. “Hold it a moment — we’re in a hurry. Jex …”
“I heard him too.”
The lashings eased. Ribek steadied her as she sat up. They were already well into the sunk lane. The others were a little way ahead.
“Great you’ve come to,” said Ribek, panting as they hurried to catch up. “We’re going to need you to tell us where the brute’s got to. Something’s happened to Benayu. He’s pretty well passed out on his feet.”
Maja managed to pull herself together. The magic-storm over Tarshu seemed to have lessened with the destruction of the airboat. She felt for her amulet.
It had changed. The cord was there, but strung through only four or five beads, and those chipped and sharp-cornered. Dimly she remembered a series of snaps and crackles close above her wrist as the amulet had fought to withstand the immense impulse of Jex’s return. She pushed what was left up her arm. Nothing happened. It wasn’t working. But, but…
I am shielding you. Is it enough?
“Less! Less!… There!”
Laid open now to more and more of the tangled magical flow around, reaching out through it with all her soul-energy, she picked out the single strand that came from the guardian dragon.
It was still some distance to the south, but racing towards them. There was a change in it. When they’d watched it from the woods above the mill its power had seemed somehow diffuse, because its attention had been spread over the whole valley. Now it was concentrated, aimed at a single target…
“Hurry!” she yelled. “It’s coming! It knows where we are!”
They stumbled on down the track. It was dangerous going, trenched as it was by the axle-deep ruts. Saranja was dragging Benayu by the elbow. The only hope Maja could see was the shelter of the thick stone walls of the mill, but they weren’t going to make it, nothing like. Pogo had vanished. Rocky was on the verge of bolting, just as he’d been at Woodbourne when he’d seen the airboat. Maja slid herself down just in time, and he was away, with Levanter behind.
“Get against the wall!” she yelled. “It’s almost here!”
They huddled against the chalk wall and stared up. The pelting rain had stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The fringes of the whirling storm that had destroyed the airboat were screaming overhead, shredding the cloud-layer into racing tatters, suddenly hidden behind a glare of blazing orange, lighting the whole lane. Desperately Maja flung herself down into the great rut at her feet and huddled there as the dragon’s blazing breath blasted against the far chalk wall. She felt her hair beginning to frizzle in the roasting air, and then it was over.
Shakily she climbed to her feet. Everything was pitch dark after the glare, but the others must have hidden in the rut, as she had, because now she heard Ribek’s voice asking if she was all right, and a moment later Saranja’s furious yell.
“Benayu! Benayu! Wake up! Pull yourself together! Do something! You’re our only hope!”
And then the double crack of flesh on flesh as she slapped him twice on the cheek, and Benayu’s dazed voice.
“The dragon! It’ll get us next time! Do something! You’re our only hope, you and you stupid magic!”
“Oh… Sorry… Right.”
“Where’s the dragon, Maja?”
That was Ribek. She tried to concentrate.
“It’s starting to turn… It’s not coming back! Yes, it is, only it’s circling so it can come down the lane next time.”
(And it would be no use hiding in the rut again when it did. The flaming breath would scour the floor of the lane and they’d all four of them be roasted where they lay.)
“Right,” said Benayu’s voice, firmer now. “I think… yes… Tell me what it’s up to, Maja.”
She felt his magic beginning to gather itself, and further off the dragon nearing and nearing, fighting all the while to hold its course through the screaming wind. Steady-voiced she called out the news of its approach. It was at the top of the lane, plunging down the slope… any moment now…
She reeled as Benayu’s magic intensified, but Jex’s shield caught her, steadied her. The magic built to a single intense, directed pressure, not against the dragon, but…
The wind fell suddenly still, as if the whole world held its breath for the encounter…
And now they could all four see the monster against the glare from Tarshu, hear the booming bell-beat of its wing-strokes, watch as it lowered its head its head for the blast that would roast them alive…
Benayu switched off his powers and at once the tempest they had been holding back for those short moments screamed in again, its fury doubled, tripled in intensity by being so pent. It snatched the dragon from its course and whirled it away like a blown leaf. Maja felt its powers flare up and vanish as it was smashed into something unseen.
Jex’s shield enveloped her in a bubble of calm.Excerpt from Angel Isle, copyright © Peter Dickinson 2006