It felt strange, going to see a dragon in the daylight. But the darkness continued obstinately to drain from the sky, and the birds woke and sang in response, and by the time the old grandmother (who seemed to have the stamina of an ox; she moved at least as fast as their yaeger bodyguards, if not faster) drew to a halt it was full daylight, and pleasantly warm.
"Here," announced the Grandmother, leaning on the gnarled stick she carried and peering intently forwards. Drakon, hovering just behind her, blinked; for a second he could see nothing but a wall of greyish rock, rearing unexpectedly up out of the trees- and then Alastor shifted and let through a sunbeam that struck the 'rock' and brought out a trillion shifting tones of bronze and highlighted the fact that there...were...scales.And, quite suddenly, an eye.
It was an eye bigger than Drakon's head and the colour of the flawless sapphires the young Drakon had once seen locked away in the Royal Treasury. It blinked once, twice, slowly and lazily. Behind him, the prince heard his father mutter a curse.
The dragon yawned.
Rows of teeth as sharp as knives, the shortest the length of a human's forearm. A burning red cavern of a mouth, damp and hot. Despite himself, Drakon rocked backwards in primal fear. Even the yaegers blanched. But the Grandmother stood as steady as a rock.
"Aged one," she said, her voice rising loud and clear, the words strangely incongruous coming from someone who, in normal circumstances, would be seen as aged enough herself to deserve that term of respect. "I bring a King who is past his prime and a King just entering his. I seek your advice, and your help."
The dragon breathed a sigh. A gust of warm wind rocked the trees at the edge of the clearing which, Drakon began to realise, must be far more immense than it appeared.
"I have seen kings aplenty come and go," said Old Snapbeak, in a voice that sounded like the grumbling of a volcano on the edge of eruption. "Wherefore hast thou brought me two to disturb my rest?"
"There are events of great portent occuring in the land," persisted the Grandmother, mimicking the dragon's profoundly formal tone. "This young King be of our blood. You know we would not disturb thy rest if it were not of great import."
The dragon rolled that great sapphire eye around and looked at Drakon, who tried not to flinch.
"I have seen events of great portent aplenty come and go," he said, indifferently. "This tiny kinglet will be no different."
"The prophecies are clear," declared the Grandmother. "Should he become king, he will usher in a Golden Age. Should he fail, this great Empire which has stood in peace and prosperity for one hundred and forty-six years will shatter and fall and all will be turmoil."
The sapphire eye rolled to stare at her. She stood, unmoved.
"Turmoil passes, as do Golden Ages. Thine enthusiasm does thee credit, however, and there has been little in the way of interest in these latter days, save for an impudent owl-man to whose tail-feathers I gave a roasting, and he was of little moment. What advice seekest thou?"
The Grandmother turned to Drakon expectantly. The boy blinked, taken unawares; he had not thought he would be asked to actually say anything. Desperately he scraped together what he remembered of the ancient formal speech, and asked the only thing that occurred to him.
"A battle is brewing. These brave yaegers will meet with those in scarlet cloaks and the perverted prince who leads them. I humbly ask thou-willst thou undertake to spy for us?"
There was a pause. Alastor shut his eyes and prayed that his son's foolishness would not doom them all. And then- a rumbling gurgle that made the ground shake beneath their feet. Old Snapbeak was laughing.
"You are impudent, human!" returned the dragon, with amusement to match his immense size. "To ask one such as I to 'spy'-to leave aside the plain fact that a creature of my size could not fail to be seen-is surely far below my dignity. But because you asked-because you had the courage to ask- I shall indeed. And I shall endeavour to aid you in other ways also. First, I shall heave aloft to spy-" another rumbling gurgle of laughter, the word seemed to enetertain him greatly-"-the lie of the land."
Abruptly the great head lifted from the ground and Old Snapbeak stood upright on all four legs. He was truly vast-the tallest man standing on the saddle of the largest horse in the Empire could not have touched his lithe bronze-scaled belly-but he was also beautiful. Drakon almost gaped as two immense wings unfolded and with one beat, two beats, seeming almost effortless, lifted the dragon up and away into the sky.
Once he had dwindled to nothing more than a speck, the Grandmother turned on Alastor. She did not even look at Drakon.
"You taught your son poorly," she snapped, displeasure written all over her seamed face, and with that strode away once again into the trees. The stoic yaegers followed without change of expression, although the one that seemed the youngest flashed Drakon what was almost a smile as he went past.
Alastor breathed out.
"Well son, I would say that today was not your finest moment," he said, still staring at the huge clearing where the dragon had lain. "Sent away all of our protectors and cheeked a dragon who could have eaten us all and still been hungry-I think we shall leave these episodes out of the history books!"
Drakon looked at his feet, face burning with humiliation. He couldn't believe he had just tried to reduce a creature of such magnificence to a mere spy, and it did not particularly help that Old Snapbeak had seemed to find it so funny.
"I am sorry, father. I...I will not be so foolish again."
Alastor looked at his son, who had tried so hard and lost so much in recent weeks, and smiled. He put his rough hand on the boy's shoulder and patted it, then abruptly pulled him into a hug. Drakon, surprised but gratified, hugged back.
"You are still learning, son. And you did it, did you not? We have a dragon on our side, because of you-because he liked your spirit, lad. That's nothing to be ashamed of."
"The Grandmother is cross with me," came Drakon's voice, somewhat muffled as his face was still buried in his father's chest.
"Ah, one thing you'll learn my lad in your dealings with these people is that Grandmothers are always cross with someone," Alastor told him cheerfully. "She will help us nonetheless. She was probably just as scared as I was-and I can tell you, I was pissin' myself."
Snorting with laughter despite himself, Drakon pulled back and firmly suppressed the tears of embarrassment that had threatened to spring up.
"So was I," he confided. "Shall we go back to camp?"
"Aye, I think we should," said his father warmly.