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Five, ten, fifteen, twenty riders were saved. We can do this, I can do this, We can do this, I repeated in my mind over and over, each line punctuated by the twang of a bow. Soon only one person remained left on the ground, Steams Lungs’ rider, Thur. Few of the King’s men remained standing and they shied away from Thur as Steam Lung landed in front of him. He opened his mouth and took a deep breath as if to call on his fire, but an arrow came whistling from below me. It climbed in an arc and then fell, piercing the soft, exposed skin of the dragon’s throat.
I raised my bow and, since I couldn’t see the shooter, I aimed at King’s man nearest to Thur and Steam Lungs. Even before the arrow was loosed a sound rang out from beneath me and King’s men began to pour out of the New Palace.
Druk cursed and grabbed my arm, guessing what I was going to do before I made up my mind. “Druk,” I hissed, trying to break free of his grip. “We have to help them.” We wrestled for a second, but he finally managed to pin my arms to my sides, grunting loudly with the effort.
He shook me until I stopped moving and then pointed at something above us, “Look.” I glanced up obediently. Two dragons had separated themselves from the rest of the group and were diving for the courtyard. Fire Breather angled himself straight for Storm Cloud and Thur. Cloud Skimmer stopped her dive at the level of the New Palace’s roof and turned to fly parallel to it.
Druk dropped his hold on me and took a step away. I tracked Cloud Skimmer’s progress carefully, bending my knees in preparation. When she was almost abreast of where I stood, I sprinted forward. Druk started a second after me. Then as one we braced our feet against the edge of the roof and leapt.
Sure of my calculations I closed my eyes and enjoyed the feel of dropping through the air weightless. I didn’t notice the third figure that jumped off the room.
The man hit me squarely from behind, his weight throwing me off. My eyes flew open and I caught a sight of gray scales to my left, felt the brush of the scales along the tips of my fingers and then the ground rushed up at me.
“Jaha!” Druk called and Cloud Skimmer roared. I heard Druk shout something else, but the wind filled my ears and I didn’t catch the words.
The man fell away from me as we landed. I instinctively rolled which lessened the impact and saved me from permanent damage, but it felt like every bone in my body was vibrating. I tried to stand up, but I was too dizzy to see straight and my legs were like jelly. A pair of hands grabbed me under my arms and raised me up.
Blindly, I struggled against the man holding me. I kicked and clawed and twisted in his grip, finally managing to break loose of him. I managed to bend and retrieve the dagger that was attached to my thigh strap, but I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking and two more men grabbed me before I could take a step. They pushed me down and my knees buckled, then I felt the touch of cool metal against my check.
My vision snapped back into focus. Carefully I turned my head, flinching as the sword cut into my neck and glared at the King’s man that held the sword. His face was scratched and bruised, one eye almost swollen shut and he held his left arm close to his body, but his sword hand didn’t quiver. A flicker of uncertainty passed his face as he saw my confident mask, but it was gone quickly and he glared back at me with pure hatred.
“Wait!” the King called from somewhere behind me. “Don’t harm her!”
The man glanced behind me and then ever so slowly, he lowered the sword. When it’s pressure was gone I tried to turn around and face the King, but the two men held me firmly to the ground. I heard footsteps approach from behind me and then the King stopped beside me. I watched him from the corner of my eyes. He glanced over at me, then up at the sky.
I looked up at the Guard my eyes skipping from dragon to dragon. Twenty two, that can’t be right. Twenty two?
“Call them off.”
“What?” I whipped my head to the side so sharply that my vision began to blur again. I squeezed my eyes shut and bit my lip, using the brief flash of pain to ground myself. This was worse than panic.
“Call them off. If they attack my men you will lose more of your people. If I attack I will lose more of my men.” An arrow whistled between us, so close to me that my hair was ruffled in its passage. “And if they shoot another arrow, I promise, you will be the first to go.”
“If you kill me they will attack.”
“Without doubt, but that brings us back to my first statement. How many more of them are you willing to sacrifice today?”
“You planned this…” I whispered. Then, chocking back a sob I said in a louder voice, “This was your plan.”
The King smiled at me, his teeth flashing bright white for a brief moment then he retreated quickly. An arrow clattered into the stones where he had been standing.
I took a large breath and then quickly, before they could fire another arrow I yelled, “Stop!”
Druk called my name and I pushed against my captures. They loosened their hold on me enough so that I could sit up straight. I lifted my head high and yelled in the loudest voice I could, “I order you to retreat! Don’t attack, just go!”
Druk stared back at me from his perch on Cloud Skimmer’s back. He glanced back at the others. Storm Cloud dropped down below Cloud Skimmer, hovering just out of bow range. My field of vision narrowed to catch the expression on ___’s face. He raised his hand and his eyebrows shot up until they were almost lost behind his hair.
I shook my head, making it a jerky, unsure motion. Then set my mouth into a grim frown. Druk watched the exchange with growing alarm and shouted my name again, trying to regain my attention.
I kept my gaze fixed on ___. He would understand, he would make the right choice. I waited, not daring to move or breath as ___ weighted the choices in his mind. Finally he dropped his hand and urged Storm Cloud to turn around. “As Jaha orders!”
Storm Cloud rose through the group and circled the courtyard a few more times, the Guard members falling into a loose formation behind him. All except Cloud Skimmer. She opened her mouth, a pillar of fire shouting out from between her jaws and then she roared loudly. The other dragons joined their voices with hers, singing their anguish to the world.
My resolve hardened as I watched Cloud Skimmer dive down toward me. The men holding me pushed me down into a bowing position and crouched over me. Cloud Skimmer didn’t attack them though, for fear of hurting me.
She unleashed her fire on the King’s men standing furthest away from me. Only I remained still as the men on fire began to yell and thrash around violently. The men behind me let me go and turned to stare at the men on fire. I raised a hand as I saw Cloud Skimmer rose up to meet the Guard.
The riders raised their right hands and thumped them against their hearts and then they turned and started to fly off in the direction of the mountains.
Twenty two. The number flashed again in my head and realization dawned on me. I dropped my gaze and found the mound that lay at the far end of the courtyard. I jumped up and ran toward it.
“Let her go!” the King called behind me, a note of curiosity in his voice.
I pumped my arms harder, not trusting him. When I reached Fire Temper I ignored the lake of blood that surrounded her and dropped heavily onto my knees. I pulled her head into my lap and bent down low to whisper in her hear. “Come on, Fire Temper. Please, please…” I felt the hollow of her neck for a pulse and tugged on her top eyelid, but she didn’t respond.
At last I gave up and held her head in my lap a moment longer, stroking a finger gently along the top of her head. Then with a growing feeling of dread I pushed her aside to reveal Steam Lungs. I repeated the motions with the younger dragon, pushing harder along his neck as I dared myself to hope for one second that he might have been spared. When I couldn’t deny any longer that he was dead I slowly lifted him and rolled him away.
The sob in my throat that had caught earlier escaped now.
The sound caused Thur’s eyelids to flicker. I placed a hand over his mouth and felt the faint pressure of breath. I don’t know how he survived. Both Fire Temper and Steam Lungs must have shielded him with their bodies, holding themselves up as they fell, then lowering themselves gently over him.
One hand pressed against the bloody hole in Thur’s side and the other supporting his head, I lifted him into my lap. He stirred again and his breathing hitched. “Shh,shh,” I whispered.
Thur’s eyes opened a fraction of an inch, darting around without seeing anything. As I watched him his breath hitched again and a dribble of blood escaped from his lips. He tried to say something.
“Shh, Thur. Everything’s alright.”
He opened his eyes wider at my voice and after a long moment where his breathing slowed considerably, his eyes locked on mine and focused. “Jah…Ja…” He stopped suddenly and rolled his head from side to side. He stopped when he saw Steam Lungs and he reached out toward him direction. I placed him down beside the dragon, but kept a tight hold on one hand.
“Steam…” Thur whispered, burying his face into Steam Lungs side. I tried to hold it together, one minute, two minutes, almost three minutes and then Thur’s hand went slack in mine. I lost it.
Five dead- ___ and ___, Thur, Steam Lungs and Fire Breather- all because of the king. It was too much in one day.
I threw my head back and started to scream my anguish, seeking release from my emotions, but before I could utter more than a few notes something struck the side of my head and my vision went black.