Siobhan was kicked awake in the morning by Luke.
‘Come on, Freckles, get up,’ she was saying.
Siobhan felt herself being kicked closer to the water. ‘Waaaaaaah! Alright, alright, I’m getting up.’
She got to her feet. Luke ruffled her hair and spat. It landed an inch from Siobhan’s shoe, and she grimaced in disgust.
‘Where’s the guy with the feathers? And where the clag is my boat?’
Siobhan was about to answer, when she saw the boat being paddled frantically towards them. Luke stomped over to the water’s edge and waited impatiently, legs apart, arms crossed.
Warloc landed the boat on the island, already trying to tether it back up. Luke kicked his hands and crouched down to his level.
‘What the clag do you think you were doing? Stealing my boat?’
‘The apparitions were bothering me,’ Warloc said wearily. He looked up and they saw dark rings under his eyes. ‘They bothered me all night, I haven’t slept. The Emperor must know we’re coming and he’s punishing me for it.’
‘Clagger,’ Luke responded. ‘Don’t tie the boat up, we’re getting back in.’
Siobhan nodded and gathered everything up. Luke got her by the collar and threw her in the boat, next to Warloc. He slumped down and went to sleep. Luke jumped in the boat, making everything inside rattle about and water slosh out from all sides. She grabbed both paddles and threw the other one to Siobhan.
Siobhan watched as she quickly warmed up, rotating her shoulder and flexing her arms in and out. Then without warning, Luke stuck her paddle in the water and shoved them away from the island.
Siobhan crawled to the front, and she and Luke paddled. Siobhan guessed it might be easier this time, but it was about the same. Her muscles were aching a bit from yesterday, which didn’t help. As they rowed, she tried to take in the loveliness of the morning. It was foggy and cold, but the trees stood out a clear turquoise in the distance, and the lake had become a pool of silver.
‘Your friend’s a bit lazy,’ Luke said contemptuously.
‘He is not,’ Siobhan protested as angrily as she was able. A glob of water splashed over the side.
‘Well he’s asleep now isn’t he?’
‘You’re not very nice.’
Luke looked as her viciously and stopped paddling. ‘I’m nice.’
‘No you’re not. You swear all the time and kick people.’
Siobhan also stopped paddling. ‘It means using a bad word. I mean, it’s not even as if using the same, er, bad word all the time is very scary or anything.’
‘Oh yes, Freckle-face, and how many clagging bad words do you know?’
Luke smirked. ‘How do you know twenty bad words?’
‘You may not have noticed,’’ Siobhan said, ‘but I’m not from Augura.’
‘I noticed, Freckles, you’ve only got to listen to that voice -’
‘Yes, yes, yes. I’m from England, OK? I’m what Warloc keeps calling a strange person.’
Luke’s eyes widened slightly. ‘Oh yeah?’
‘Yeah. Where I come from, Luke is a boy’s name, and we wear vile green jumpers and we have LOTS of swearwords.’
As they paddled across the rest of the river, Siobhan reeled off some of her world’s most popular curses, and Luke started chanting them. This was amusing at first, but quickly lost its appeal, and she was glad when they reached the other side.
‘Right,’ Luke said, kicking Siobhan in the side. ‘Thanks a lot, get off now.’
Siobhan stood up and looked over at Warloc, still snoozing.
‘Warloc,’ she said, nudging his shoulder. ‘Time to go.’
He woke up, nodded his head up and down a few times and also stood up. Before he left the boat, he cupped his hands in front of his mouth and made an odd noise. It was long and loud, and sounded like a humming whistle.
‘Come on, get out of it,’ Luke said, helping him onto the grass. ‘That’s as far as I’m supposed to take you. But...’ she sighed dramatically. ‘I suppose I could show you the way to the Rider District. They might help you get up the mountain.’
Warloc yawned. ‘If it weren’t for you, we could be halfway up already.’
Luke shrugged, tethering the boat to a pole. ‘I’m taking you to the Rider District, you coming or what?’
Siobhan looked at Warloc, who still looked like he could use a few hours more sleep. But he nodded and let Luke lead the way over the grass. Siobhan walked alongside him.
‘Are you OK?’ she asked.
‘Fine,’ Warloc answered. ‘Not entirely sure what’s going on, but I’m fine.’
‘Where did Hurley go?’
‘We left him behind. But I called him and he’ll find us soon.’
Siobhan looked around. Here, unlike the Enchanted Woodland, the landscape was bare. There were just miles of yellow grass as far as she could see. A few glaucous blue trees were dotted here and there, and small green vines wound their way through the grass. She tried not to tread on any.
‘Come on,’ Luke called impatiently, standing on a rocky hill some way in front of them. Siobhan left Warloc behind, dashing towards the rocks.
It was looking over the Rider District. It looked nothing like Siobhan had imagined. She’d expected to see more stone buildings and trees. Instead, she saw wooden huts suspended high above the ground on long metal legs. Ladders led up to the homes of the riders. The ground here was bare, and what little grass Siobhan saw was brown and needle-like. The riders themselves were walking around, going about their business. Some wore woollen clothing. Others were dressed head to toe in a sort of leathery armour and carrying odd looking weapons.
In the centre of this district were a number of strange enclosures. They were made of wood – several trees had been planted in a circle, stripped of their leaves and tied together at the top, forming a dome shape. Inside were the dragons. Impressively long beasts of every colour, growling and circling. Occasionally, she saw a dragon throw its body against the side of the enclosure, but the wood didn’t bend or break. Siobhan guessed the enclosures were magically reinforced.
Some of the enclosures had fully-armoured riders inside. They were working with the dragons, training them and taming them. Siobhan saw a burst of flame on her peripheral vision, but was too late to see what had happened.
She stood beside Luke, gazing at it all, until Warloc joined them. Then the three of them walked down the hill.
‘What happens now?’ Warloc asked wearily.
‘What happens now,’ Luke answered, ‘is I grab a dragon from one of these enclosures, and then you fly it up the mountain and see the Emperor. Why do you want to see him anyway?’
‘We’re going to kick his butt, basically,’ Siobhan answered.
Luke ducked behind a metal leg of some rider’s house. A female rider walked past. Luke waited until she’d gone, then dashed over to the nearest enclosure. She motioned to Warloc and Siobhan, and they dashed over too. Siobhan wondered what was going to happen next.
Luke pressed her face up against the wooden exterior, looking through the gaps at the dragons within.
‘We’ll go for the red one,’ she told them. ‘I’m gonna find the door, stay close.’
Siobhan blinked at her. ‘Are we stealing a dragon?’
‘Yeah. Done it before. Not a problem, this.’
Warloc looked dubious, but nodded. They followed close behind Luke, who had one hand on the wall of the dome, feeling for the entrance. In a moment, she found it, pressed against it, and it sprang open. She slipped inside.
Immediately, the three dragons lifted their heads. Luke scowled, and moved towards the red dragon.
This beast was about seven feet long from snout to tail. It had long gleaming claws and a horned tail that was now swishing from side to side. It twitched its wings as Luke strode towards it. She reached into a pocket, taking out a blade.
She waved the dagger in the air so the dragon could see it. As soon as the beast clapped its yellow eyes on Luke’s weapon, it snarled and stomped towards her.
‘Is that supposed to happen?’ Siobhan whispered.
‘I’m not sure...’ Warloc murmured back.
Luke swiped the weapon towards the dragon’s ear, but it didn’t move back. It bellowed and she threw the weapon up in shock. The dragon put a foot down, trapping it. Luke swore and smacked the dragon on the nose.
This was a mistake. The dragon blew thick yellow smoke from its nostrils and reared up on two legs. It swiped out with its claws. One caught Luke in the ribs and she yelled in pain. She dropped to the floor and rolled to avoid the beast as it landed again. It stamped on her foot. She yelled again.
‘I’m pretty sure that’s not supposed to happen,’ Siobhan said worriedly.
Warloc had seen enough. He opened the door and stepped inside, holding up his staff – but someone pushed past Siobhan and grabbed Warloc. The stranger shoved them both out of the way and entered the enclosure.
Luke had got her blade back and was trying to keep the red dragon at a distance. But now it was swinging that horned tail towards her, and the two other dragons were coming for her as well.
The stranger darted in her direction, both hands out in front of him. His left hand found the dragon’s belly, and he felt his way along its scaly body.
‘STOP!’ he called.
Luke rolled out of the way as the dragon turned its head to the stranger. Whoever he was, he was wearing ordinary clothing instead of armour. He had brown hair and was tall and muscular. He stood in front of the dragon, placing both hands on its long nose.
Incredibly, the dragon was standing still now, and let the man stroke its nose. It breathed smoky tendrils into his face, which couldn’t have been very enjoyable, but he stayed where he was, gradually calming the dragon down.
The other two dragons lost interest and went back to walking around the other side of the enclosure.
Luke, now standing, did not seem grateful that this man had saved her from further harm. ‘Who the clag are you?’ she scowled.
The stranger turned to her. Siobhan saw him more clearly. He had a long, deep scar across his face. His eyes were a dull blue, and didn’t seem to be focusing on anything.
‘My name is Crusall,’ he told her sternly. ‘I don’t recognise you. Why were you in the enclosure?’
‘We needed a dragon,’ Luke replied. She drew herself up to her full height, and then suddenly bent over in pain.
‘You’ve been hurt,’ Crusall said. ‘Is it bleeding?’
‘It is,’ Siobhan said from outside.
Luke scowled at her as she retrieved her dagger. Crusall stretched out a hand for Luke to take. She looked at him darkly and grabbed him by the arm. ‘I’ll lead you out,’ she snarled reluctantly.
‘No, no,’ he said. ‘I was going to lead you out. You’ll be finding it difficult to walk.’
‘Not a chance. Ow!’
Warloc spoke up. ‘We’re sorry for the trouble.’
‘There’s no trouble,’ Crusall said, walking towards him. He gently led Luke out of the enclosure and they stopped in front of Warloc. ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m Warloc, and I’m a mage,’ Warloc said. ‘This is Siobhan, a friend of mine. We need to see the Emperor as soon as possible, and Luke here promised us a dragon.’
‘I never promised anything,’ Luke grumbled.
Crusall turned his head to her. ‘So it’s you who’s been stealing our dragons.’
‘I only borrowed them.’
‘You can follow me,’ Crusall said to Siobhan and Warloc. ‘She needs help. Is there any way you can heal her?’
‘I’m a mage,’ Warloc said apologetically. ‘My magic is limited, I’m afraid.’
‘I don’t need help,’ Luke said. ‘Look, my foot’s fine, and I’m hardly bleeding at all, look.’
‘Yes you are,’ Siobhan said. ‘Don’t kick me; it’ll only hurt you worse.’
Luke spat in her face and managed a laugh. Siobhan squawked and tried to wipe it away. Crusall just shrugged and stuck out a hand, finding the enclosure wall. He followed it, taking Luke with him. Warloc trailed behind, and Siobhan dragged herself after them.
Crusall took Luke to a relatively short rider residence. Luke got to the top in a harness made of rope, and the others climbed a ladder.
Inside the wooden hut at the top, there was a single room containing a bed, a chair and a thick carpet. Crusall carried Luke to the chair and set her down. She tried to kick him, but he moved away too quickly. He sat down on the bed, and Warloc and Siobhan sat cross-legged on the carpet.
‘Hey, you,’ Luke called to Crusall. ‘What happened to your eyes?’
Siobhan looked at her disapprovingly, but Crusall didn’t seem to mind.
‘I was attacked by an angry dragon when I was young,’ he said. ‘But I have not let it stop me training them now. And I’ve learnt to find my way around the district.’
‘How interesting,’ Luke said sarcastically, pressing Siobhan's green PE jumper to the wound.
Siobhan asked Crusall the vital question herself. ‘Crusall, do you think you could help us, please? We need to get up the mountain, and walking won’t get us there fast enough.’
‘You’re going to see the Emperor,’ he nodded. ‘Why are you going?’
‘Warloc here is cursed,’ Siobhan informed him. ‘We’re going to go to Quelch and demand that he fix him.’
‘He’s got an apparition thing,’ Luke said.
Warloc looked up. ‘Tell everyone, why don’t you.’
There was a pause.
‘So, Luke,’ Crusall said. ‘Do you get into a lot of trouble?’
‘What do you care, you blind clagger?’ she spat back.
If this upset Crusall, he didn’t show it. ‘I’m just interested. Don’t worry, I won’t punish you for trying to steal a dragon this time. You’ve been punished enough.’
Warloc started snoring. Siobhan carefully opened his herb bag and took out a jar of red stuff. She scooped out a handful and started to eat.
‘I can help you,’ Crusall said to her. ‘But you should probably rest for the night first. You can stay here.’
‘Thank you,’ Siobhan said gratefully.
‘Hey,’ Luke said. ‘You. You’re blind, you shouldn’t be working with dragons.’
‘Thank you for the advice,’ Crusall answered, ‘but I’m perfectly capable. If anyone shouldn’t be handling dragons, it’s you.’
Luke sat back and grumbled. Siobhan carried on eating the stuff from the jar. It was very sticky and she had to be careful not to get it everywhere.
She looked at Crusall, who was resting back on the bed, and seemed to be looking at the spot near Luke’s shoulder. Luke was doing her best to ignore both of them. She was looking at a mirror on the wall.
Siobhan put down her jar, quietly got up and went to examine it. She stepped in front and a huge eye stared out at her. She ducked out of the way, startled.
‘That’s a magically enhanced mirror,’ Crusall said, not looking at her. ‘So I can see myself a bit.’
‘Right,’ Siobhan said, looking in it again. ‘So it’s been magnified.’
'How, er, how much can you see?'
'Not a lot.' Crusall scratched his head. 'Let's talk about something else. Tell me more about yourselves.'
'Erm, OK. Like what?'
'Are you from Augura?'
'How did you get here? Warloc's a Mage. I don't know much about Mages, but if he can't heal Luke, he certainly can't open a gateway.'
'He can't, no.' Siobhan shuffled. For some reason talking to Crusall made her uncomfortable. She looked around the room, but there wasn't much to see.
'Does he have a familiar?'
'Claggy things,' Luke contributed.
'That might be him outside. I thought I heard something tapping on the door.'
Siobhan glanced over at the wooden door. There was indeed a rhythmic tapping noise coming from outside.
'Oh,' she said. 'Can I let him in?'
'Of course, if he's not carrying anything dead.'
'He… might be…'
She hunkered down and peered through a gap in the wood. Hurley was clicking his beak at her and not smelling like a bed of roses, but luckily he wasn't carrying anything. She opened the door and let him in.
Hurley didn't bother with flying. He walked over on his two legs to where Warloc was still snoring and pecked his shoes for two minutes. Everyone watched, fixated on this little bird, all conversation for the moment irrelevant. Hurley then hopped over to the bed and jumped up and perched on Crusall's shoe. Then he flew over to the chair where Luke sat. Luke had no shoes, and swatted the familiar angrily away when he began pecking her toes.
'Come here, Hurley,' Siobhan cooed, clicking her fingers and whistling a bit.
Hurley came over to perch on her shoulder. She felt quite pleased, until he started clawing and trying to eat her hair. She batted the bird off, and he finally came to rest on the floor, waddled over to Siobhan's jar of mysterious red stuff, and gobbled up the leftovers.