Aidan landed neatly on a square of rock beside Evian, his large, leatherlike black wings shrinking rapidly into stubs on his back. He drew his cloak around his shoulders, shielding them from Evian’s curious, burning gaze. ‘Close to ten thousand of them,’ he muttered. ‘Bloody nuisance it is, they’ve been allowed to live freely in Coltra for this long.' He gripped his arm, hissing as he did, his dark eyes intent on surveying the band of men Pedra had so far assembled. Although it looked like a lot, Evian knew the total could scarcely amount to two-thousand, and that was with the count including more than a thousand of Arrowroad’s own men, many of whom could barely hold a sword, let alone wield one.
'Do you think--do you think we can keep them out?' he asked. Aidan's expression darkened, his lips twisting into a scowl. A dark patch of red was steadily staining his collar, and his cloak was soaked through, clinging to his skin. Next to Evian, Edith's eyes widened.
'Are you--?' she began, but Aidan cut her off.
'We're going to need reinforcements,' he grunted. 'Excuse me.' He pushed past Evian and Edith quite brusquely and stalked over to where Pedra stood, surrounded by a group of Ixisters. Their faces were drawn and Pedra herself looked exhausted; wisps of hair escaped the tightly-coiled bun at the base of her neck and her dress was dishevelled from having run around everywhere. She was arguing, it appeared, with the Ixisters--and from the expression on her face, it was obvious that she was losing.
'Pedra!' Aidan yelled as he neared her. She looked around at him, exasperation filling up her eyes. Evian felt sorry for her. The mayor was nowhere in sight and she had been burdened with taking care of a city she knew nothing about, in a region she was unfamiliar with. Aidan looked positively livid as he marched towards her, his cloak flapping around his heels--he was a striking figure even when injured.
'Mobilise your troops,' he said.'We don't need all these men to stand here and make the gates look pretty--the East, North and South gates are unguarded. Get you men to cover them!'
Pedra replied quietly, so that Evian could not hear her. But whatever she said, Aidan obviously did not like it. His eyes glittered with rage as he cast a glance over the Ixisters huddled around the chieftess, his stance rigid, his face as stoic and unreadable as a brick wall. 'Your advisors are wrong,' he said. 'A show of power does not guarantee the town's safety. You should know better.' He cocked his head at her, disappointment flooding his eyes. 'Mobilise your troops,' he repeated. The incline the west gate is on is too steep for direct attack. They might attack from behind. The land is too woodsy towards the North for them to strike from there. That ... is my advice.' He cast a hard, lingering look at the Ixisters, who returned Aidan's gaze with one equally as intense.
'Threshold'--Aidan looked over his shoulder at Evian, who nearly jumped out of skin--'come on. Town hall. Bring the girl.' He turned back to Pedra. 'I'm going to have to ask to borrow a dragon. I know you need them, but we have to get to Durthnõt. Any messages you want to carry, I'll take them. The orb network isn't safe.' With a last, curt nod, he was storming down the cobblestoned street. Evian looked at Edith, and at Lira, who was clutching Edith's satchel tightly to her chest. She grabbed his hand and nodded at him eagerly, her large, brown eyes glowing almost lantern-like in the dim.
Their farewells to Edith were exchanged in silence. She hugged Lira tightly and whispered, 'There are a couple of daggers I slipped into the inside pocket. Use them. And take care of yourself.'
Edith gave Evian's hand a squeeze and kissed him on the cheek. With a quick nod, she ran off toward the gates, where a young-looking Ixister had erected a makeshift stall beneath the shade of a large tree, and was crafting bows and arrows from its branches. Baubles of orange light hung around the buildings, and most of the houses had become centres for the Ixisters to work their magic; the flares of magic illuminated the housefronts and sent shadows skidding across the street, so everything was at once light and dark.
'At once light and dark,' Evian muttered. Lira nodded.
The cries of the Blacksmith army rumbled in the distance. Evian could hear them--even as they arrived at the town hall, even as Aidan took them up flights of stairs and on to the roof, where a dragon awaited them. Closer up, Evian saw that it was bigger than ever, with a neck the size and width of a spiral staircase, and scales that glowed like amber gems in the moonlight. The creature reared its head, and Aidan spoke to it in a language that sounded like the warbling melody of a lute and the scratch of nails against slate all at once. The dragon bowed its head to them and spoke back, and this time the words sounded like thorns scraping bruised knees and the rustling of silk.
Things were getting blurry for Evian again. He found himself squashed between Lira and Aidan on the dragon's warm body, tucked between the dragon's wings, which were like huge leather sails, but with bumps in a thousand places. A ridge of scales went down the dragon's back. Evian held onto it for dear life, his breath lodged in his throat, feeling rather like he had managed to swallow a dragon himself. Bile rose up his throat. He closed his eyes tightly, promising himself he would not open them no matter what. The air around them filled with a steady hum. Lira began to quiver. Only Aidan seemed composed, out of all them. A rasping sound escaped his throat--'Kherrara!'--and the dragon roared. Its entire body shook. Evian's heart quaked, beating as fast as the wings of a bird that is being rattled in its cage.
Cold air whipping his face. Evian could feel the blood rushing to his head, could feel his hair cease to cling to his damp forehead as the dragon turned upside down. Still, he did not open his eyes. Aidan yelled again. Still, he refused to look.
Lira screamed. Evian's eyes shot open. He looked, transfixed, at the huge, white pupil that hung before him. The moon, he realised. The cold night air pricked at his eyes, but somehow, he found himself unable to move, frozen stiff in place. Lira's face was split into a wide grin; her thin, coppery braids danced in the wind, and she looked absolutely delighted.
'This is wonderful!' she yelled, delighted, over the sound of the wind rushing into their ears. Evian smiled weakly, then rotated his head slightly to get their bearings.
The view was incredible. The world looked like an upturned glass bowl, with the sky meeting the ground at its rim. Moonlight suffused everything, so that Evian swore even the veins on the back of his hands shone silver instead of blue; clouds wafted about them, their smoky tendrils appearing to catch on the hangnail that was the earth below them. Evian could see everything: the hills, like green waves, the trees that looked as through they were tiny ink-brushes pressed between folds of land. And on the flattened bit of land below them, at the foot of the hill Arrowroad stood upon, was a pulsing mass of brown and black. Evian watched as the mass divided into columns; the Blacksmiths surrounded Arrowroad on all sides.
They flew lower over the town. From inside the walls, their archers shot a hail of arrows at the Blacksmith lines--some met their mark, while most ricocheted clean off their bodies. The Blacksmiths tossed what looked to be clods of dirt at the town walls, but as soon as a flame struck up near the east wall, Evian realised that what they had been throwing was not dirt.
It was gunpowder.
He felt sick. Explosions started up along the wall; chunks of brick began to give way, and Evian's view of it was largely obscured by clouds of grey and crimson. Several archers fell. The Ixisters' walls of radiating energy rose slightly higher and curved outwards. The Blacksmiths began to jeer, shouting, 'Fall, walls, fall!' in unison. Aidan shifted on the dragon's back, snarling a command.
'Hold on,' he yelled. 'We're going down.'
The dragon swooped downwards--lower, lower, until they were almost directly above the Blacksmith army's vanguard. Evian could see their spears glinting like so many rows of sharp teeth below them, and he knew that if it were not for the fact that he was tucked so comfortably between the wings of a giant beast, he would have been able to pierce his feet on the Blacksmiths' weaponry. The Blacksmith army had no archers, because they were far too strong to pull back a bowstring without snapping it, but their skin was tough and leathery. It was almost like dragon hide.
Evian could feel his cheeks flapping in the wind, and swore that his stomach was flapping wildly, too. His heart was pulsating hard enough to break out of his chest. Frightened, he tightened his grip on the dragon's ridged back, his hands clammy, sweat streaming down his back. Lira clutched the satchel to her chest. Aidan's eyes were narrowed as he concentrated on the ground.
'Loffeir,' he commanded, and the dragon spurted fire through its nostrils. Evian squinted against the blaze. The dragon's back was already warm enough that he was sweating profusely; the flames that curled in front of them made it hot--stiflingly hot. The attack, however, had been aimed at the Blacksmiths' heads: they wore no helmets, and the fiery jets set their skulls aflame. Evian watched, both horrified and enthralled as they screamed and cried out in pain. Blacksmiths were gargantuan, like men, except much stronger, and with longer lives. Aidan laughed, and repeated the command, again and again, until the entire front line had been reduced to a writhing mass of men clutching at their heads. The dragon coughed and grunted, smoke spiralling from its mouth: it curled around the Blacksmiths like the tops of bonzai trees. They sputtered as they inhaled the smoke, and several of them collapsed, like trees being chopped down.
'Best thing about them!' he yelled. Evian twisted around to look at him, and nearly swallowed a mouthful of his hair as he did. 'They're arrogant. The weakest spot'--Aidan rapped at his own skull--'is the head. It's nothing but a bit of flabby muscle, thin layers of cartilage instead of bone. They lost like this the last time, and they're going to lose this way again.' He grinned, his fangs elongating and reaching past his collar. 'Oh, Pedra owes me. She's probably going to send the dragon ma--look.'
A host of dragons descended all around them, their bodies writhing and twisting in a way that seemed almost physically impossible. It was like watching rivers take to the sky, meandering in bright shades of amethyst, yellow, orange and green. One of the dragons--a brilliant purple one, speckled over with blue, with black horns the size and shape of a church spire on its head--streaked past them. A woman rode atop it, her green cloak flapping behind her. Evian caught sight of her face for only a minute--she was dark-skinned, and wore a mask. He couldn't help it--he whooped. The adrenaline was sizzling down his veins. The Blacksmith were falling. He laughed.
The Dragon Master raised a hand toward them in greeting, before raising her arms and shouting the command 'loffier' loud and clear. The dragons all congregated around her, forming a hive, and flames leapt from their nostrils, like scarlet wings that torched the army below. The Blacksmiths tossed their spears at the dragons and began to scatter, shielding their heads with their hands. Aidan yelled at their dragon to take them higher. They spiralled upwards and into the sky, above the clouds. Lira clung to Evian. She was quiet, and had remained quiet for much of the short-lived airstrike, her face grave and eyes dead-looking. Evian did not notice. The possibility of everything turning out for the better was a fantastic one, and he was drunk on the optimism that almost seemed to rivulet through the night.
'The fight is theirs now!' Aidan yelled. 'Hang on!'
They flew, deeper and deeper into the recesses of the night, water droplets condensing on their faces. The dragon--their dragon--kept them warm. And below them, the war raged on.
Lost as they were, amongst the clouds--lost as they were, in the high of a single victory, none of them could have predicted the fall that would strike them next.