If she had a man, things would be different Someone who, for preference, was a big strapping lad but short on brains. Someone who would do what he was told.
The biggest of the three now fleeing the dragonlands might do. And if it turned out that he wouldn’t, then dragons were always hungry and needed to be fed regularly. She could see to it that they got ugly.
Uglier than usual, anyway.
The stairway passed through a stone arch and ended in a narrow ledge near the roof of the great cavern where the Wyrms roosted.
Sunbeams from the myriad entrances around the walls cries-crossed the dusty gloom like amber rods in which a million golden insects had been preserved. Below, they revealed nothing but a thin haze. Above…
The walking rings started so close to Liessa’s head that she could reach up and touch one. They stretched away in their thousands across the upturned acres of the cavern roof. It had taken a score of masons a score of years to hammer the pitons for all those, hanging from their work as they progressed. Yet they were as nothing compared to the eighty-eight major rings that clustered near the apex of the dome. A further fifty had been lost in the old days, as they were swung into place by teams of sweating slaves (and there had been slaves aplenty, in the first days of the Power) and the great rings had gone crashing into the depths, dragging their unfortunate manipulators with them.
But eighty-eight had been installed, huge as rainbows, rusty as blood. From them the dragons sense Liessa’s presence. Air swishes around the cavern as eighty-eight pairs of wings unfold like a complicated puzzle. Great heads with green, multi-faceted eyes peer down at her. The beasts were still faintly transparent. While the men around her take their hookboots from the rack. Liessa bends her mind to the task of full visualisation; about her in the musty air the dragons become fully visible, bronze scales dully reflecting the sunbeam shafts. Her mind throbs, but now that the Power is flowing fully she can, with barely a wander of concentration, think of other things.
Now she too buckles on the hookboots and turns a graceful cartwheel to bring their hooks, with a faint clung, against a couple of the walking rings in the ceiling.
Only now it is the floor. The world has changed. Now she is standing on the edge of a deep bowl or crater, floored with the little rings across which the dragonriders are already strolling with a pendulum grit. In the centre of the bowl their huge mounts wait among the herd. Far above are the distant rocks of the cavern floor, discoloured by centuries of dragon droppings.
Moving with the easy gliding movement that is second nature Liessa sets off towards her own dragon, Laolith, who turns his great horsey head towards her. His jowls are greasy with pork fat. It was very enjoyable, he says in her mind.
“I thought I said there were to be no unaccompanied flights?” she snaps.
I was hungry, Liessa.
“Curb your hunger. Soon there will be horses to eat.”
The reins stick in our teeth. Are there any warriors? We like warriors.
Liessa swings down the mounting ladder and lands with her legs locked around Laolith’s leathery neck.
“The warrior is mine. There are a couple of others you can have. One appears to be a wizard of sorts,” she adds by way of encouragement.
Oh, you know how it is with wizards. Half an hour afterwards you could do with another one, the dragon grumbles.
He spreads his wings and drops.
“They’re gaining,” screamed Rincewind. He bent even lower over his horse’s neck and groaned. Twoflower was trying to keep up while at the same time craning round to look at the flying beasts.
“You don’t understand!” screamed the tourist, above the terrible noise of the wingbeats. “All my life I’ve wanted to see dragons!”
“From the inside?” shouted Rincewind. “Shut up and ride!” He whipped at his horse with the reins and stared at the woods ahead, trying to drag it closer by sheer willpower. Under those trees they’d be safe. Under those trees no dragons could fly… He heard the clap of wings before shadows folded around him. Instinctively he rolled in the saddle and felt the white-hot stab of pain as something sharp scored a line across his shoulders.
Behind him Hrun screamed, but it sounded more like a bellow of rage than a cry of pain. The barbarian had vaulted down into the heather and had drawn the black sword, Kring. He flourished it as one of the dragons curved in for another low pass.
“No bloody lizard does that to me!” he roared.
Rincewind leaned over and grabbed Twoflower’s reins.
“Come on,” he hissed.
“But, the dragons-” said Twoflower, entranced.
“Blast the-” began the wizard, and froze. Another dragon had peeled off from the circling dots overhead and was gliding towards them. Rincewind let go of Twoflower’s horse, swore bitterly, and spurred his own mount towards the trees, alone. He didn’t look back at the sudden commotion behind him and, when a shadow passed over him, merely gibbered weakly and tried to burrow into the horse’s mane.
Then, instead of the searing, piercing pain he had expected, there was a series of stinging blows as the terrified animal passed under the leaves of the wood. The wizard tried to hang on but another low branch, stouter than the others, knocked him out of the saddle. The last thing he heard before the flashing blue lights of unconsciousness closed in was a high reptilian scream of frustration, and the thrashing of talons in the treetops.
When he awoke a dragon was watching him; at least, it was staring in his general direction. Rincewind groaned and tried to dig his way into the moss with his shoulderblades, then gasped as the pain hit him.
Through the mists of agony and fear he looked back at the dragon.
The creature was hanging from a branch of a large dead oak tree, several hundred feet away. Its bronze-gold wings were tightly wrapped around its body but the long equine head turned this way and that at the end of a remarkably prehensile neck. It was scanning the forest.
It was also semi-transparent. Although the sun glinted off its scales, Rincewind could clearly make out the outlines of the branches behind it. On one of them a man was sitting, dwarfed by the hanging reptile. He appeared to be naked except for a pair of high boots, a tiny leather holdall in the region of his groin, and a high-crested helmet. He was swinging a short sword back and forth idly, and stared out across the tree tops with the air of one carrying out a tedious and unglamorous assignment.
A beetle began to crawl laboriously up Rincewind’s leg.
The wizard wondered how much damage a half solid dragon could do. Would it only half-kill him? He decided not to stay and find out.
Moving on heels, fingertips and shoulder muscles, Rincewind wriggled sideways until foliage masked the oak and its occupants. Then he scrambled to his feet and hared off between the trees.
He had no destination in mind, no provisions, and no horse. But while he still had legs he could run. Ferns and brambles whipped at him, but he didn’t feel them at all.
When he had put about a mile between him and the dragon he stopped and collapsed against a tree, which then spoke to him.
“Psst,” it said.
Dreading what he might see, Rincewind let his gaze slide upwards. It tried to fasten on innocuous bits of bark and leaf, but the scourge of curiosity forced it to leave them behind. Finally it fixed on a black sword thrust straight through the branch above Rincewind’s head.
“Don’t just stand there,” said the sword (in a voice like the sound of a finger dragged around the rim of a large empty wine glass). “Pull me out.”
“What?” said Rincewind, his chest still heaving.
“Pull me out,” repeated Kring. “It’s either that or I’ll be spending the next million years in a coal measure. Did I ever tell you about the time I was thrown into a lake up in th-“
“What happened to the others?” said Rincewind, still clutching the tree desperately.
“Oh, the dragons got them. And the horses. And that box thing. Me too, except that Hrun dropped me. What a stroke of luck for you.”
“Well-” began Rincewind. Kring ignored him.
“I expect you’ll be in a hurry to rescue them,” it added.
“So if you’ll just pull me out we can be off.”
Rincewind squinted up at the sword. A rescue attempt had hitherto been so far at the back of his mind that, if some advanced speculations on the nature and shape of the many-dimensioned multiplexity of the universe were correct, it was right at the front; but a magic sword was a valuable item…
And it would be a long trek back home, wherever that was…
He scrambled up the tree and inched along the branch. Kring was buried very firmly in the wood. He gripped the pommel and heaved until lights flashed in front of his eyes.
“Try again,” said the sword encouragingly.
Rincewind groaned and gritted his teeth.
“Could be worse,” said Kring. “This could have been an anvil.”
“Yaargh,” hissed the wizard, fearing for the future of his groin.
“I have had a multidimensional existence,” said the sword.
“I have had many names, you know.”
“Amazing,” said Rincewind. He swayed backwards as the blade slid free. It felt strangely light. back on the ground again he decided to break the news. “I really don’t think rescue is a good idea,” he said. “I think we’d better head back to a city, you know. To raise a search party.”
“The dragons headed hubwards,” said Kring.
“However, I suggest we start with the one in the trees over there.”
“You can’t leave them to their fate!”
Rincewind looked surprised. “I can’t?” he said.
“No. You can’t. Look, I’ll be frank. I’ve worked with better material than you, but it’s either that or-have you ever spent a million years in a coal measure?”
“So if you don’t stop arguing I’ll chop your head off.”
Rincewind saw his own arm snap up until the shimmering blade was humming a mere inch from his throat. He tried to force his fingers to let go. They wouldn’t.
“I don’t know how to be a hero!” he shouted.
“I propose to teach you.”
Bronze Psepha rumbled deep in his throat. K!sdra the dragonrider leaned forward and squinted across the
clearing. “I see him,” he said. He swung himself down easily from branch to branch and landed lightly on the tussocky grass, drawing his sword. He took a long look at the approaching man, who was obviously not keen on leaving the shelter of the trees. He was armed, but the dragonrider observed with some interest the strange way in which the man held the sword in front of him at arm’s length, as though embarrassed to be seen in its company.
K!sdra hefted his own sword and grinned expansively as the wizard shuffled towards him. Then he leapt.
Later, he remembered only two things about the fight. He recalled the uncanny way in which the wizard’s sword curved up and caught his own blade with a shock that jerked it out of his grip. The other thing – and it was this, he averred, that led to his downfall – was that the wizard was covering his eyes with one hand.