As evening brought a heavy hand down on the Augurian empire, and the weary team of adventurers were falling asleep in Crusall's hut, Emperor Quelch was deciding Jocosa had suffered long enough.
'Bring her to me,' he ordered of two of his guards. They bowed, and left the room. The Emperor strode over to the window, looking at the sun dipping. A few stars had already emerged. They seemed to be winking down at him, saying what a clever man he was. Well, maybe not, but he was clever.
A few moments later, he turned to the guards who had returned, expecting to see a furious wife in armlock. He turned, saw her, and his face lit up.
The guards were holding Jocosa by the wrists. She wasn't looking very well. Her arms were shaking, and evidently her legs as well. Her eyes darted around the room and then found his, looked into his. He saw fear.
'Boo,' he said, jumping forwards with a grin.
Jocosa whined and started crying.
Quelch looked at the two guards with satisfaction. 'My secret weapon works,' he told them. 'This is the woman you dragged to the dungeon yesterday, and we had to put her to sleep to do it. Now look at her. She's pathetic.'
Jocosa just stood there, crying and not bothering to wipe her face, though her wrists were now free. They were clenched at her sides.
The Emperor let her sobs fill the room for a full twenty seconds, and then shrugged. 'Take her back to her chambre and offer her something to eat. I'll be ready to see those rogue protesters soon.'
The guards took her wrists again. Nose streaming, the Emperor's wife allowed herself to be lead away like a complacent child.
Luke was up early. Luke was always up early.
They were all snoring. Siobhan's snore was a lady-like wheeze, with an occasional smacking of the lips that Luke found highly amusing. Crusall snored like a Mooz with a cold. Even Hurley made noises, snoozing upside down from a beam in the roof.
Warloc wasn't there. He must have walked off to deal with his apparitions quietly.
She stumbled out of her chair, ignoring the pain in her side. It has stopped bleeding now, and didn't look all that serious, truth be told. She grabbed the green jumper, which was now stiff with dried blood, and she sighed as she took the dagger from her belt.
As she cut the material into strips, she wondered why in the name of Clag she'd got dragged into all this. She wanted to get back to her boat. Taking people across the river was what she was good at, and what if her vessel was stolen?
She tied strips together. She rolled up her top, put what was left of the jumper over the wound in her side and secured it there, tying it securely at the back. She was going to look a bit lumpy now; not that she cared. She stepped over Siobhan. The wheezing stopped, she smacked her lips and opened her eyes.
'Where are you going?' she mumbled into her own arm. She'd gone to sleep last night reading the spell book, and now she was lying on top of it. It was a tad uncomfortable.
'For a walk,' Luke told her grumpily.
'You shouldn't. Your foot's still bad…'
Luke ignored this and took herself out of the hut. Normally, she would have taken the ladder down out of pride, but as nobody could see her, she decided that riding down in that ridiculous harness would probably be better. She didn't want to slip with her bad foot and plummet to her death, not particularly.
As she lowered herself to the ground, a rider smiled jovially at her and waved. She glowered and roared a few of the 'swearwords' that the freckly girl had taught her. They didn't have much effect, and Luke decided not to use them again.
Luke reached the ground. The earth was flattish and nice. She made her way towards yellow grass. They could make their own way to the mountain. They didn't need her.
'Luke,' came a voice behind her.
She spun on her good foot. It was Warloc, leaning against the metal support of Crusall's house. His eyes were dark-rimmed and bloodshot, but Luke didn't waste time feeling sorry for him.
'Look,' she told him, 'I'm going to go now. I've stayed long enough, and my boat needs me and I need my boat.'
'Don't leave us,' Warloc said. He was leaning all his weight back on the metal leg, too tired to stand properly.
'Look here, Feathers,' Luke began, but Warloc glared at her.
'Don't call me Feathers.'
He reached a hand up, grabbed the plumage on his head and yanked it out. He gasped in pain and let the feathers fall to the ground. Luke stared.
'You didn't need to do that,' she said, arms folded.
'I would have done it anyway. They look ridiculous.' He leaned forward for a second, then fixed his gaze on Luke. 'Luke. I need you here in case I can't climb the mountain any more. Even if we make it to the top, the Emperor could kill me.'
Luke paused. 'That's true.'
'So, if that happens, take Siobhan to a Wizard you trust and get her back to her world.'
Luke stood there, arms still crossed. This speech wasn't affecting her much. It looked a little pathetic, and besides, she wasn't walking to Wizard County for anybody.
'I don't trust anyone,' she responded simply, and turned away to leave.
Another voice rang out into the morning air.
'I wouldn't go anywhere, Luke. Not yet.'
She spun again, craning her neck up to the hut. Crusall was smiling down at them. She hurled various curse words at him, but he didn't seem to mind.
'Why shouldn't I leave now?' Luke called up angrily.
'Because,' Crusall replied, 'you need to eat first. And I thought you should meet Emberon.'
'Who the clag is Emberon?'
Crusall nodded as though he'd already won the argument. 'Stay here and see.'
Luke cursed, shook a fist at Crusall, threw the feathers back into Warloc's face and agreed to stick around for another few hours.
Crusall handed Siobhan a piece of bread from the sack he was carrying, and she ate it gratefully. Hurley had eaten everything in Warloc's herb bag during the night, and had got away before she could punish him. She wondered if Warloc was going to be able to climb up the mountain. He was looking rather poorly today as he stumbled into the hut and fell asleep.
Crusall dug into the sack and found a jar of orange coloured syrup, and then went over to the bed. He kept four cups underneath. He carefully dealt the syrup out and then passed them each one.
Siobhan drank it. It tasted like turnip.
'A friend of mine made this for you,' he explained. 'It should help your pain, Luke.'
'I don't need clagging help.'
'Thank you,' Siobhan remembered to say.
'It's not a problem. Wake up Warloc, he needs to drink too.'
Siobhan nodded and slid over to him. He was resting his head on the floor, and was breathing through his nose. Siobhan noticed for the first time that the feathers in his hair were gone, and his head seemed to be bleeding. Ignoring this as best she could, she shook him by the shoulder.
'Warloc,' she told him. 'Wake up, you need to drink this thing.'
He sat up grumpily and took the cup.
'When you've finished,' Crusall said, making the bed, 'I'm going to take you to see Emberon. He can get you up the mountain faster. Bring your possessions with you.'
'Who's Emberon?' Siobhan and Luke asked together.
They went outside, where the air was cool, but not as foggy as yesterday. And Crusall took them to Emberon.
'He's a very special dragon,' they were told. 'He was one of our few dragons born without wings, so we've magically aided his growth. You see?'
Siobhan saw. She gazed in wonder at the dragon, gleaming yellow, twelve foot long from snout to tail. It opened its mouth to lick its own eyelid. It reminded her rather of a large friendly, scaly cow.
Emberon had blunt little claws and stumpy horns on his head. Siobhan watched as the scales running along his back folded themselves away. Underneath were white downy feathers.
'How old is he?' Siobhan asked, taking a step forward. Emberon turned his head and glanced at her with blue eyes.
'He's five years old.'
'How long do dragons live?'
'We don't know. Riders have only been training dragons for the last century or so. Many of the dragons in these enclosures have been here since they were built.'
'Awwwwww, he's a baby dragon.'
Luke and Warloc both looked disgusted at the sentiment.
'I don't like to say this, Crusall,' Warloc said, leaning on his staff, 'but none of us can ride a dragon.'
'I can,' Luke said. 'Very well, actually.'
'That's once you have control of them,' Crusall corrected, a little sternly. 'And you're not good at that.'
Crusall approached the smiling beast from the front, putting his hands on his face. Emberon open and shut his jaws a few times and then licked Crusall's eyebrows.
Crusall blinked, wiped the dragon saliva off and turned his head in their direction. 'I'll keep him calm while you three climb on. Then, if nobody minds, I'll climb on and Luke will lead the way.'
'I won't,' Luke said, not looking their way.
Warloc suddenly slumped forward. Siobhan squawked and darted to catch him, and his head didn't hit the floor. He immediately got back to his feet.
'Sorry about that,' he mumbled. Siobhan swore she saw him shoot a glance at Luke, who then screwed up her face. 'Alright, I'll take you up the mountain! But I want payment.'
'We don't have anything.'
'Fine, when we get back then. Cruse, can I get on yet?'
Crusall still had his hands on Emberon's face. The dragon was licking its fangs and making giggly noises, but didn't seem to be paying much attention to them anymore.
'You can get on now. Approach from the side, taking hold of the godas.'
Siobhan blinked. 'Sorry?'
'The flaps of skin above the leg. Luke, you go first.'
Luke sighed, rolled her shoulders, and walked towards Emberon. She stepped careful around his left forefoot and stuck the heel of her boot on the bend in his leg. Emberon made a sneezing noise but didn't look back. Luke grabbed the flaps of skin, like Crusall had told her, and hauled herself up. Her boot slipped a bit, and she shot out an arm and got hold of Emberon's feathery back. Siobhan was afraid the feathers would be ripped out, but luckily Luke was able to pull herself the rest of the way without any trouble. She swung a leg over and was siting on the beast's back. She patted its neck with both hands and smirked down at Crusall.
'Told you I was good.'
'You are,' he smiled in reply. Luke's smirk dropped. 'Warloc, you next.'
Warloc handed his staff over to Siobhan and approached the dragon. He put a hand flat against its side and tried to copy Luke's movements. However, it was proving difficult to do in an ankle-length blue robe. Siobhan managed not to laugh at him as he fell to the ground for the third time in a row, and he grumbled and snatched his staff back.
'General magical practice,' he said, bringing his staff above his head. 'Not a part of the training stages, sometimes considered to be completely independent. Some Wizards and Mages practice it alongside their training, or instead of their training. Sometimes it can be used by people who aren't interested in becoming a Mage or Wizard. But it can be useful.'
Siobhan nodded. 'Right.'
The staff thumped back onto the dirt. For a moment nothing happened, but then Warloc started to rise right off the ground.
'Wow,' Siobhan said.
Luke didn't look too impressed as Warloc became level with Emberon's back. He stopped levitating and landed. Siobhan looked up at them.
'How am I supposed to get up then?'
Crusall sighed. 'Did he go without you?'
'You'd better pull her up.'
Siobhan walked over and planted her foot on Emberon's leg while Crusall kept him calm. She looked up at Warloc's outstretched hand, counted to three, and jumped. She caught the hand, but her feet slipped, and she was dangling in midair.
'HELP!' she cried, legs kicking.
Warloc nearly fell off, but luke grabbed him and they both pulled. Siobhan's right trainer caught Emberon in the side. The dragon squeaked and then bellowed.
Warloc and Luke yanked her up just as Emberon started moving. Crusall was knocked over as the dragon started to panic, thrashing his tail and stamping his feet. Warloc, clutching his staff, was struggling to hold on. Siobhan gripped the feathery back of the beast, willing the panic to stop before someone was thrown off.
'Crusall!' she called, but the blind rider had fallen in the dirt and rolled out of harm's way. He got up, calling to the other riders, but it was too late.
Luke was thrown violently forward and had to hold on to Emberon's horns for dear life. She swore as the dragon stomped the ground one last time, and the turned away.
It wasn't a smooth ride, but at least they weren't in danger of being jolted off and trampled to death. She could feel the crash of each of Emberon's feet underneath her. He ran like a horse, galloping full pelt away from the Rider District. Looking back, she saw other riders rushing to the spot they had just been. Most of them were wearing full uniform, and each wore one glove tipped with claws. Siobhan didn't have time to admire this, however, as she was preoccupied with staying on this yellow lizard with horns.
Luke was doing her best to steer, twisting Emberon's head, but he wasn't paying attention to her. Warloc had a herb bag in his face and was yelling incoherently. The staff swung round in his hand and hit Siobhan in the face. She barely had time to say 'Ow' before she shot forward, landing nose-first into the back of Warloc.
'Come on, you clagger,' Luke said through gritted teeth, trying to control the dragon.
Emberon's nostrils were railing thin smokey tendrils as he carried on charging.
Warloc glanced down and groaned. 'We've just left the Rider District,' he said. 'He's taking us to the Forbidden Woodland.'
'Oh clag!' Luke responded, wrestling with Emberon's horns. 'Not there!'
Siobhan didn't know what to do. She didn't know if pulling on Emberon's tail would make him grind to a halt, or kill her with a single claw-stroke. She didn't want to get off. The best she could do to help was try not to bash into Warloc again as they were taken into the impenetrable and foreboding gloominess of the woodland.