The boy just grinned. “I am looking after the villagers.” He glanced at Blackstone and allowed, “A villager.”
This did not please Caldir. “I meant the villagers at home. You know Ginniver could have done this. With Gram if necessary.”
Bohr’s cheer didn’t falter. “I wanted to steal a look at him.” He turned to Blackstone. “I give you my name. Bohr Hunter, and I’ve heard a lot about you.” He held up a hand.
Blackstone was still confused. However, his manners hadn’t gone the way of his wits. “I… Jonathan Blackstone.” He gripped Bohr’s hand firmly, remembering just in time to keep still, as was their people’s way. “I – I give you my name?”
Bohr nodded approvingly, releasing Blackstone’s hand and looking again to Caldir. “He isn’t as stupid as you said.”
Caldir grimaced; it was evident even with the paint. “Bohr!” She exhaled heavily, and seemed about to raise a hand to her face before she remembered herself. “Don’t – do this again.” It was an obvious plea. “They might say I got my brother killed because I couldn’t hold my tongue, and I…” She lost the words, her head bowed.
Bohr stepped forwards and laid a hand on her arm. “They won’t. I won’t.” He withdrew, reaching into a large leather bag that Blackstone was sure had been on his back only moments before. With both hands, he lifted out of it a helmet. It looked as if several dents had been hammered nearly back into place. Scratches and perhaps clawmarks lined it. “Helm or not?”
Blackstone couldn’t help himself. “You’d fight without a helmet?”
With that level gaze which made him feel so very stupid, she answered, “It can breathe fire. Hot metal isn’t kind to one’s face.”
And with that, true understanding struck Blackstone. “It…” He waved a weak hand towards the village and the improbable beast which trampled upon it. “You’re going to fight… that?”
Her face was calm, but a muscle in her jaw twitched, and she watched the dragon, not him. “It’s my job.” Her eyes at last met his. “I’d rather you stayed alive. Do your best.”
He opened his mouth – to protest, to wish her luck, he wasn’t sure which – but she was already riding into the village.
He turned to Bohr and Ginniver. “She’ll die!”
Bohr raised a brow. “Doubtful, as she’s taken three like that down already.”
Blackstone choked. “Three?” His head swam, and he swayed on his feet.
“Please don’t swoon.”
Ginniver cut in, “Agreed. Keep moving.” Despite her words, an amused smile hovered around the edges of her mouth, never quite settling.
Blackstone stumbled onwards, his mind still echoing with three like that. Mother of God.
The light around him dimmed, and he realised belatedly that they’d entered the forest. To him, it was now far from the dull place of before; it seemed as if there could be dragon-hunters and villagers lurking behind every tree, a camp around every corner. He expected the bustle of more people like Caldir, Ginniver and Bohr, but it was as quiet as it had been on his first visit. In fact, the trees had almost swallowed the sounds from outside: the dragon was naught but a distant roar, and the sheer depth of the silence was daunting. Their footsteps seemed far too loud. It would be no surprise if a dracolisk crept up behind them and ate them all. Could dracolisks creep? He should have asked Caldir. Here he was reluctant to break the hush.
They turned a corner, stepped through some hedge growths, and then… the veil lifted. Sound surrounded them once more, and Blackstone blinked against the sudden light.
Before them lay a vast clearing speckled with what appeared to be brick huts and stone walls. Milling about were people, some of whom he recognised from the village. The buildings were simpler and the trees pressed closer, but in many ways it was a mirror image of the place he’d left.
“This is your home?” he asked.
Ginniver nodded, and Bohr said, “Some of it.”
It wasn’t a good answer, but it was an answer. Blackstone continued to follow them rather than prying further.
Bohr announced, “We’ll take you to the main hall, where you can wait with the others.”
Wait. Blackstone didn’t much like the sound of that. He’d never been one for waiting, for allowing rather than doing. After all, that was why he was here.
“I can’t just – “ He huffed a frustrated breath. “Is there not some way to help her?”
“No,” Ginniver and Bohr said in chorus.
There had to be something. “Can I at least watch her work?”
“No,” was Ginniver’s instant reply. Bohr, however, ducked his head, his shoulders tensing. Uncomfortable. There was something he was resisting the urge to say. Something that was likely important.
Blackstone tucked that information away for later, but followed them to a large brick building.
Flowers and vines coiled their way along it. It looked for all the world like a cottage from some pleasant little novel, but it was far larger.
He ducked through the door with this companions, and saw… well. He remembered reading of Viking halls; of arched timbers, long tables and great firepits. Of villagers walking in flickering shadows, of overheard conversations; of a central bustling place of life.
He saw something like that. Several heads turned as they walked through the hall; villagers watched them, some staring and some too weary to pay much attention.
Bohr clapped Blackstone on the shoulder and led him to a simple wooden seat, a glorified stool. Blackstone sat obediently and looked up at them.
Ginniver nodded, satisfied. “I ought to check on Gram.” Looking to Bohr, she added, “Keep him alive.” Then she turned on her heel and left.
Bohr hovered still, shifting his weight; he glanced up at the ceiling, then Blackstone, then the ceiling again. Blackstone waited, but Bohr didn’t attempt to move. Roughly a minute passed, in which Blackstone resigned himself to an awkward silence.
At last Bohr said, “You know, Caldir’ll kill you if you die.”
Blackstone frowned. “Wouldn’t I already be – ?”
Bohr gave him the flat “by God you’re stupid” look Caldir was so fine at. Suddenly Blackstone saw the family resemblance.
Blackstone’s mouth shut with an audible click.
“So,” Bohr continued, “what I’m saying is… Caldir. Off slaying the dragon. She likely wouldn’t appreciate spectators. But I’ve never been one for listening to my sister.”
Blackstone frowned at him. “What are you saying?”
Bohr’s mouth formed a moue of deep thought, then he said, “Fancy sneaking off and seeing a dragon-slaying?”
“I…” Blackstone managed, “Yes. Very much.”
Bohr clasped Blackstone’s shoulder. “Good.”
Saying nothing more, Bohr began walking away. Blackstone stood, rushing to follow without much dignity.
Bohr left the hall. Blackstone trailed after him. Blackstone had suspected where they would go, but he was still unsurprised to find himself being led back towards the forest. Bohr weaved his way easily through the trees, and Blackstone stumbled along in his wake.
After a few minutes, they heard a roar, and the trees shook. They were close.
Blackstone made to push through the trees, to the village, but Bohr had a hand on his chest and said, “Slowly. Stay behind me.” Blackstone looked, affronted, at this pipsqueak who was ordering him about – but then he recalled the boy’s name. Hunter. If his surmises were correct, he was in the presence of a dragon-hunter, someone far more experienced with the beasts than he. Resigning himself, he nodded and followed.
They broke through the treeline, and saw…
He saw Caldir. She ran around the dragon, circling it, insignificant as a fly to an ox. Its steps still shook the very earth, and it turned to keep her in view, a large tail sweeping in vicious arcs behind it.
At the sight, something seized Blackstone’s chest and pressed tightly. She was so very small in comparison, her life a flame that could be so easily snuffed out. One would have to just press a finger to the candle…
The dragon raised a foot – or paw, or claw – suddenly stopping, and brought it down to crush –
Caldir had already moved, almost dancing away, a frightening sort of grace in the movement. He was close enough to see her grin with bloody teeth, moving again, always moving…
The near-crushing had distracted her enough. That scaly tail whipped around, catching her in the stomach and sending her flying several feet. She hit the ground with an awful heavy thud and clanks of metal that made Blackstone wince. Her sword left her grip and skittered to a halt a few yards away.
The dragon made a sound terrifyingly like a laugh, a low rumble from its chest, and moved towards her.
Blackstone extrapolated. He saw like pictures in a fire what would happen next, how the fight would turn.
She rolled away as the dragon raised a foot to crush her again, but that still left her unarmed, and even while she reached down to her boot, lifting her leg and bringing out a dagger, he saw panic cross her face. She kept her eyes on the dragon, but her entire body leant towards it. Her mind was still with it.
Blackstone extrapolated, and then he was running.