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26.12.2018

“Um, look,” began Twoflower. Liessa spared him a brief glance, and appeared actually to notice him for the first time.

“Take that away,” she said calmly, and turned back to Hrun. Two of the guards shouldered their bows, grasped Twoflower by the elbows and lifted him off the ground. Then they trotted smartly through the doorway.

“Hey,” said Twoflower, as they hurried down the corridor outside, “where” (as they stopped in front of another door) “is my” (as they dragged the door open) “Luggage?” He landed in a heap of what might once have been straw. The door banged shut, its echoes punctuated by the sound of bolts being slammed home.

In the other cell Hrun had barely blinked.

“Okay,” he said, “what is the second test?”

“You must kill my two brothers.” Hrun considered this.

“Both at the same time, or one after the other?” he said.

“Consecutively or concurrently,” she assured him

“What?”

“Just kill them,” she said sharply

“Good fighters, are they?”

“Renowned.”

“So in return for all this…?”

“You will wed me and become Lord of the Wyrmberg.”

There was a long pause. Hrun’s eyebrows twisted themselves in unaccustomed calculation.

“I get you and this mountain?” he said at last.

“Yes.” She looked him squarely in the eye, and her lips twitched. “The fee is worthwhile, I assure you.”

Hrun dropped his gaze to the rings on her hand The stones were large, being the incredibly rare blue milk diamonds from the clay basins of Mithos. When he managed to turn his eyes from them he saw Liessa glaring down at him in fury.

“So calculating?” she rasped. “Hrun the Barbarian who would boldly walk into the jaws of Death Himself?”

Hrun shrugged. “Sure,” he said, “the only reason for walking into the jaws of Death is so’s you can steal His gold teeth.” He brought one arm around expansively, and the wooden bunk was at the end of it. It cannoned into the bowmen and Hrun followed it joyously, felling one man with a blow and snatching the weapon from another. A moment later it was all over.

Liessa had not moved.

“Well?” she said.

“Well what?” said Hrun, from the carnage

“Do you intend to kill me?”

“What? Oh no. No, this is just, you know, kind of a habit. Just keeping in practice. So where are these brothers?” He grinned.

Twoflower sat on his straw and stared into the darkness. He wondered how long he had been there. Hours, at least. Days, probably. He speculated that perhaps it had been years, and he had simply forgotten.

No, that sort of thinking wouldn’t do. He tried to think of something else – grass, trees, fresh air, dragons. Dragons…

There was the faintest of scrabblings in the darkness. Twoflower felt the sweat prickle on his forehead.

Something was in the cell with him. Something that made small noises, but even in the pitch blackness gave the impression of hugeness. He felt the air move.

When he lifted his arm there was the greasy feel and faint shower of sparks that betokened a localised magical field. Twoflower found himself fervently wishing for light.

A gout of flame rolled past his head and struck the far wall. As the rocks flashed into furnace heat he looked up at the dragon that now occupied more than half the cell.

I obey, lord said a voice in his head.

By the glow of the crackling, spitting stone Twoflower looked into his own reflection in two enormous green eyes. Beyond them the dragon was as multi-hued, horned, spiked and lithe as the one in his memory – a real dragon. Its folded wings were nevertheless still wide enough to scrape the wall on both sides of the room. It lay with him between its talons.

“Obey?” he said, his voice vibrating with terror and delight.

Of course, lord.

The glow faded away. Twoflower pointed a trembling finger at where he remembered the door to be and said, “Open it!”

The dragon raised its huge head. Again the ball of flame rolled out but this time, as the dragon’s neck muscles contracted, its colour faded from orange to yellow, from yellow to white, and finally to the faintest of blues. By that time the flame was also very thin, and where it touched the wall the molten rock spat and ran. When it reached the door the metal exploded into a shower of hot droplets.

Black shadows arced and jiggered over the walls. The metal bubbled for an eye-aching moment, and then the door fell in two pieces in the passage beyond. The flame winked out with a suddenness that was almost as startling as its arrival.

Twoflower stepped gingerly over the cooling door and looked up and down the corridor. It was empty.

The dragon followed. The heavy door frame caused it some minor difficulty, which it overcame with a swing of its shoulders that tore the timber out and tossed it to one side. The creature looked expectantly at Twoflower, its skin rippling and twitching as it sought to open its wings in the confines of the passage.

“How did you get in there?” said Twoflower.

You summoned me, master.

“I don’t remember doing that.”

In your mind. You called me up, in, your mind thought the dragon, patiently.

“You mean I just thought of you and there You were?”

Yes.

“It was magic?”

Yes.

“But I’ve thought about dragons all my life.”

In this place the frontier between thought and reality is probably a little confused. All I know is that once I was not, and then you thought of me, and then I was. Therefore, of course, I am yours to command.

“Good grief”

Half a dozen guards chose that moment to turn the bend in the corridor. They stopped, openmouthed. Then one remembered himself sufficiently to raise his crossbow and fire.

The dragon’s chest heaved. The quarrel exploded into flaming fragments in mid-air. The guards scurried out of sight. A fraction of a second later a wash of flame played over the stones where they had been standing.

Twoflower looked up in admiration “Can you fly too?” he said.

Of course.

Twoflower glanced up and down the corridor, and decided against following the guards. Since he knew himself to be totally lost already, any direction was probably an improvement. He edged past the dragon and hurried away, the huge beast turning with difficulty to follow him.

They padded down a series of passages that crisscrossed like a maze. At one point Twoflower thought he heard shouts, a long way behind them but they soon faded away. Sometimes the dark arch of a crumbling doorway loomed past them in the gloom. Light filtered through dimly from various shafts and, here and there, bounced off big mirrors that had been mortared into angles of the passage. Sometimes there was a brighter glow from a distant light-well.

What was odd, thought Twoflower as he strolled down a wide flight of stairs and kicked up billowing clouds of silver dust motes, was that the tunnels here were much wider. And better constructed, too. There were statues in niches set in the walls, and here and there faded but interesting tapestries had been hung. They mainly showed dragons -dragons by the hundreds in flight or hanging from their perch rings, dragons with men on their backs hunting down deer and, sometimes other men. Twoflower touched one tapestry gingerly. The fabric crumbled instantly in the hot dry air, leaving only a dangling mesh where some threads had been plaited with fine gold wire.

“I wonder why they left all this?” he said.

I don’t know said a polite voice in his head.

He turned and looked up into the scaley horse face above him.

“What is your name, dragon?” said Twoflower.

I don’t know.

“I think I shall call you Ninereeds.”

That is my name, then.

They waded through the all-encroaching dust in a series of huge, dark-pillared halls which had been delved out of the solid rock. With some cunning too, from floor to ceiling the walls were a mass of statues, gargoyles, bas-reliefs and fluted columns that cast weirdly-moving shadows when the dragon gave an obliging illumination at Twoflower’s request. They crossed the lengthy galleries and vast carven amphitheatres, all awash with deep soft dust and completely uninhabited. No-one had come to these dead caverns in centuries.

Then he saw the path, leading away into yet another dark tunnel mouth. Someone had been using it regularly, and recently. It was a deep narrow trail in the grey blanket.

Twoflower followed it. It led through still more lofty halls and winding corridors quite big enough for a dragon (and dragons had come this way once, it seemed; there was a room full of rotting harness, dragon-sized, and another room containing plate and chain mail big enough for elephants). They ended in a pair of green bronze doors, each so high that they disappeared into the gloom. In front of Twoflower, at chest height, was a small handle shaped like a brass dragon.

When he touched it the doors swung open instantly and with a disconcerting noiselessness.

Instantly sparks crackled in Twoflower’s hair and there was a sudden gust of hot dry wind that didn’t disturb the dust in the way that ordinary wind should but, instead, whipped it up momentarily into unpleasantly half-living shapes before it settled again. In Twoflower’s ears came the strange shrill twittering of the Things locked in the distant dungeon Dimensions, out beyond the fragile lattice of time and space. Shadows appeared where there was nothing to cause them. The air buzzed like a hive.

In short, there was a vast discharge of magic going on around him.

The chamber beyond the door was lit by a pale green glow. Stacked around the walls, each on its own marble shelf, were tier upon tier of coffins. In the centre of the room was a stone chair on a raised dais, and it contained a slumped figure which did not move but said, in a brittle old voice, “Come in, young man.”

Twoflower stepped forward. The figure in the seat was human, as far as he could make out in the murky light, but there was something about the awkward way it was sprawled in the chair that made him glad he couldn’t see it any clearer.

“I’m dead, you know,” came a voice from what Twoflower fervently hoped was a head, in conversational tones. “I expect you can tell.”

“Um,” said Twoflower. “Yes.” He began to back away.

“Obvious, isn’t it?” agreed the voice. “You’d be Twoflower, wouldn’t you? Or is that later?”

“Later?” said Twoflower. “Later than what?” He stopped.

“Well,” said the voice. “You see, one of the disadvantages of being dead is that one is released as it were from the bonds of time and therefore I can see everything that has happened or will happen, all at the same time except that of course I now know that Time does not, for all practical purposes, exist.”

“That doesn’t sound like a disadvantage,” said Twoflower.

“You don’t think so? Imagine every moment being at one and the same time a distant memory and a nasty surprise and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, I now recall what it was I am about to tell you. Or have I already done so? That’s a fine looking dragon, by the way. Or don’t I say that, yet?”

“It is rather good. It just turned up,” said Twoflower.