avrik woke shivering in the cold cave. The silence from the cave mouth told him that the blizzards of High Winter had abated for a while. He stretched himself like a cat and yawned, then winced as the bone in his right wing gave him a twinge; just a little reminder of the time he argued with a ballista.|
He made his way to the entrance and stopped in surprise at the sight of a large drift completely blocking the mouth. He would have to dig his way out.
"Oh, that's just great," he muttered to himself. He scowled at the snow in distaste, climbed as high as he could then began digging. Soon the exertion had him panting. He paused, then resumed digging. Without warning he felt faint, lost his footing and rolled to the floor. He lay where he fell and blinked at the fuzzy ceiling. Something was very wrong.
He took a deep breath through his nose and could smell instantly what it was: the air had gone bad. He had to dig his way out or he would die, and no one would find his body until the spring thaw. The thought of dying alone forced him to his feet. He climbed slowly to the top of the drift and carefully dug his way into what felt like the thinnest place near the stone roof.
Twice more he had to stop and rest before resuming. During the fourth session he collapsed wearily. He pushed his hand forward for one more scoop, but instead of snow it reached into air. He had dug through but hadn't realised it.
The dragon thrust his long snout through the hole and breathed the freezing air. Great waves of relief washed over him. As he revived he found that he had left the cave and was tunnelling through snow. He braced his legs on the floor and pushed upwards. The thick snow above gave way, leaving him sitting in a snow hole near the top of the drift and blinking into the twilight world. The year was deep into winter. It would be another month before the sun even showed over the horizon. Until then this part of the world would get little more than a few hours of dim light from the North.
Flexing his fingers and shaking his hands didn't bring the feeling back, so he breathed a small flame on them briefly. This was a risky business because the light could attract unwanted attention. He rubbed his hands together and looked around at the deeply frozen world. "What am I doing here?" he wondered to himself. Flying North for the winter seemed much more attractive than it had before. If it was High Winter here then the North would be in Low Summer, a cooler, wetter season than High Summer. Perfect.
He leapt high, his wing sails bit into the air and he was climbing above the trees. Soon he was soaring in a long, lazy glide toward the ground. There were no thermals to catch so he repeated this often; a strenuous climb followed by a long glide.
He passed silently over a thick forest of black cypress. The blue-grey needles of the scrubby pines had vanished under the snow so now the forest top stretched in all directions in a series of white pillows, unbroken except for the gash made by the Dwarvish canal. He glanced down as he glided over the canal and saw the still waters had frozen solid and caught some narrow boats. Half a mile to his left was an inn, "The Forest Lock," from which he could hear the noise of laughter. The bargemen had retreated there to escape the cold. He caught a whiff of roasting meat and suddenly felt very hungry.
Turning to follow the canal, Mavrik kept an eye on the snow for telltale tracks. It wasn't long before he saw the marks of a mob of kangaroos crossing from one side of the canal to the other. He flapped hard to gain height then turned to follow the trail. The pines opened here and there to allow him a glimpse of the animal trail through the forest. Looking forward he spied a huge hole in the canopy where some ancient tree had fallen. If it was a kurrajong then the kangaroos may be eating the leaves, since it would be the only green feed available.
Mavrik turned back and gained a lot of height, performed stall turn and plummeted toward the ground. At the last instant he spread his wings and pulled out to do a high speed glide just above the tree tops, the rush of his passage knocking the snow from the pines and whipping it up into two spiralling vortices that streamed behind him. He passed over the edge of the clearing, dropped onto the first kangaroo he saw and killed it in an instant. The others scattered into the forest.
As the silence fell once more, Mavrik looked at the young buck and felt guilty. He had promised the wizard that he wouldn't do this any more. Maybe Pen would understand it was life-and-death. Mavrik checked the kangaroo for markings that might indicate it was owned by someone but was relieved to find none. He bit into the carcass and chewed noisily.
He stopped chewing and listened. Something had made a noise. Ever since his run-in with the ballista two years ago Mavrik had jumped at every slight noise on the edge of hearing. The other dragons said he was just being jumpy, but the reaction had saved his life twice. He swallowed the meat, carefully took another mouthful and chewed silently. He heard it again, choked down the meat and braced ready to fly in an instant.
He heard it a third time and frowned to himself. It sounded like a muffled moan. He looked in the direction it came from. He had almost decided he was mistaken when there was a brief glare of reflected orange light through the trees. Mavrik sniffed at the air and picked up the faint scent of another dragon, and the tingle of a magic user. He walked to the edge of the clearing and peered into the dim air between the pine trees. "Hello?" he called but his voice fell dead on the damp needles.
He thought he heard someone shout, "help" but he couldn't be sure. He sprang into the air and circled the clearing. Fifty yards away he spied a much smaller clearing filled by a deep drift. He landed in the powdery snow and sank to his belly. "Hello?" At the far side of the clearing a jet of flame burst from the snow. He made his way toward the spot in a series of small jumps that sent the snow flying. He found a hole and quickly scratched away the snow. Soon he had uncovered the smooth black snout of the other dragon. "Are you all right?"
: "By the One who makes small furry animals!" she said. "Kid! You have no idea how good it is to hear your voice."
Mavrik uncovered her face. "What do you mean 'Kid'? I got my scales ages ago." Eighteen months ago, he added to himself as he set to work uncovering the rest of her head.
She looked him over. "So you did! I hear shedding the juvenile skin is unpleasant."
"It's very itchy." Mavrik paused and looked at her. "You haven't shed your skin?"
"I had no need to," she said as she shook the snow from her head.
"Of course you do. Everyone has..." With the snow gone he could see the thick brown fur of her neck. He sat back in surprise and stared at her. "Fur!"
She smiled slightly at the reaction of the young dragon. "Not everyone has fur," she said quietly. "Keep digging."
Mavrik resumed his digging. "Why can't you get yourself out?" he wondered aloud as he climbed over her.
"I'm chained to the ground."
"Oh," said Mavrik quietly. He dug in silence for a short while, then asked, "Why don't you magic your way out?"
She lifted her head to look at him. "How do you know I'm a magic user?"
"I can smell it," said Mavrik simply.
"You're Mavrik!" she exclaimed. "You're Pen Mithdae's friend!"
Mavrik sighed. "Yes. Everyone knows my name now."
"My name is Paveway."
Mavrik jumped away from the drift. "Pa- Pa-" he stammered. "Oh, Ma'am! I didn't recognize you! Sorry." He returned to the digging enthusiastically. "But you should be able to blast your way out of here in a second," he said as he uncovered her back.
"The chains were made to hold magic users," explained Paveway. She heaved to her feet and shook the snow away from the thick brown fur that covered her body and stretched her wings of naked, black skin. Mavrik could see that she was slightly smaller than he was. He knew the furred dragons were smaller than the great dragons, but hadn't realised how small.
Mavrik could see the chains now. In each manacle was an emerald-like gem. He reached for the one on her left hand. "I'll get that off in a-"
"NO!" shouted Paveway. She flamed at him and he jumped back in alarm. "Don't touch! That would be fatal."
"Sorry! I didn't want to harm you."
"It wouldn't harm me." She watched his face fall. "If you had something sharp you could prise them off."
Mavrik thought for a second and flew off. He returned in minutes with the carcass of the kangaroo, dropped it near her and tore off a leg. Paveway watched him strip the meat off and became annoyed. "This is no time to eat!"
"There is always time to eat. However-" He held up the bare thigh bone. "Watch this." He bit the bone in half and held up the half with a jagged point.
Paveway smiled and held out her hands. It only took Mavrik a few seconds to remove the gems. They fell into the snow and steamed. He removed the gems from the rear manacles. The instant they were out Paveway shrugged and the iron shattered. She used the bone to gather the gems together, then held her hands over them. "Let's see how you buggers cope with this," she muttered. There was a bright white flash. When she removed her hands the gems looked like perfectly ordinary diamonds. She picked them up and tossed them to Mavrik. He jumped back in alarm.
"They're safe now. Put them in your hoard." She noticed Mavrik's look. "You do have a hoard, don't you?"
Mavrik looked embarrassed. "Um. Well, to tell the truth... I- uh. I never really saw the need." He picked them up and offered them to her.
Paveway laughed. "Mav, You really are a strange one. Thanks, but I don't need them." She looked into his eyes and said quietly, "Thanks for your help."
"I always try to help strangers. Someone helped me once, and I can't repay them. This is sort of my way of sort of paying the debt." Mavrik looked around the clearing and frowned. "Er, didn't you have a mate?"
"He was captured by pirates in an ice-cutter," growled Paveway. "They're the ones who tied me here because they couldn't handle my magic. Mach is not as adept as me, so they took him."
"Well then, we'll have to get him back," said Mavrik. He looked at the diamonds. "What will I do with these?"
Paveway shrugged. "Throw them away," she said casually. "Someone will find them."
"No." A smile crept its way across his face. "No, I have a better idea." Paveway gave him a puzzled look.
A few minutes later they were on the ground outside the canal-side inn. "What are we doing here?" asked Paveway.
"Shh." Mavrik knocked on the door. The innkeeper opened it and stood there dumbfounded. "I have these spare, and was wondering if you wanted them." Mavrik held the four diamonds so the keeper and patrons behind him could see them glinting in the lamp light, then he tossed them over their heads and into the room. A dozen pairs of eyes followed the stones.
As the two dragons flew off and the sounds of the brawl receded, Paveway said, "You could have bought royal favours with those."
"Yeah, but where's the fun in that?" After flying in silence for a while Mavrik asked, "Are we following the pirates?"
"How can you tell?"
Paveway looked at him oddly. "You could use magic too. I can train you."
"We Greater Dragons don't use magic. That's for you Furries."
"And you Greater Dragons can't smell magic either."
"But I can..." Mavrik brought himself up in a panic, stalled and dropped two hundred feet before recovering. Paveway glided down to join him. "You mean I could do all that with the hand waves and stuff?"
"Sure, kid. It's as easy as making smoke." They glided in silence once more. The edge of the pine forest passed below and the frozen canal now took an almost straight line across the button-grass highlands. Paveway was looking at the ground for signs of her enemy when Mavrik blew a little tongue of fire. He did this a few more times before she asked what he was doing.
"Smoke isn't that easy to blow."
"It takes a lot of control," laughed Paveway. Suddenly she gasped and went into a steep glide.
"Paveway!" Mavrik dived after her in a panic. He saw she had her eyes closed. "What's wrong?"
"I think..." she muttered, then her wings folded and she fell.
Mavrik went into a power dive to bring himself level with her falling body, edged closer until she was on his back, then pulled out in a long curve. As he levelled out something scraped against the tip of his tail. He glanced down and saw snow a scant few feet below. His stomach turned: he had almost misjudged their height in the dark. Her extra weight would make landing difficult at best. He looked forward and saw lamplights rapidly approaching. A Nomad snow slider! Desperately he pulled up and somehow flew between the two middle masts without hitting any ropes. Shouts of alarm receded rapidly.
A puff of air on the upper surface of his left wing was all the warning he got that a stall was imminent. He barley had time to recognize the signs of turbulence before the airflow vanished. The two dragons dropped the dozen yards and slammed into a drift.
Silence fell. "That hurt," thought Mavrik, then he passed out.
s he regained consciousness he became aware of voices, then smells. Men surrounded him. He could also smell herd animals. The footsteps of the Men echoed oddly. He puzzled over that until he realised he was lying on a wooden floor. He opened one eye and looked around. The room was long and filled with cold-weather clothes. The ceiling was hung with ropes and pulleys and curious glass globes that gave off a blue-green light.
"It's awake!" said a woman.
"What's awake?" muttered Mavrik.
"You are," she said. "How do you feel?"
"Fine. Nothing a week in the sun won't fix." Mavrik's eyes snapped open. "Paveway!" He jumped to his feet and gasped as every muscle protested.
"Your mate is all right!" said the woman quickly. "But she is very weak."
Mavrik blinked at the woman. She had the black hair and dark skin of her people, and wore loose fitting clothes of red, black and yellow yarn. "She's not my mate."
"If she isn't your mate then she should be. That was one hell of a mating flight."
"What?" Mavrik frowned at her, then realised what she was talking about. He explained what had happened. The woman nodded her head as he finished.
"I'm not surprised she passed out," she said. "I don't think she's eaten for days."
"Pirates had chained her-"
"Pirates?" interrupted the woman. "We've been here four days and there has been no sign of pirates."
Mavrik rubbed his chin and considered this. Paveway had been chained under snow for at least four days. She must have been starving yet she still flew after her enemy. Her desperation for her mate must have been great. He could have bought her good food at the inn, but he didn't. "Take me to her."
The woman led the way deeper into the snow slider. The room they were in ran the entire 120 feet of the vessel, and was thirty feet wide. Unfortunately the ceiling was only fifteen feet above them and was festooned with looping lengths of rope, so Mavrik had to crawl on his belly like a lizard to avoid getting tangled. From the deck above came the noise of herd animals stamping nervously. They found Paveway curled up near an iron stove being stoked by a man. There was a large pot of beef stew simmering on the hot plate. He looked up.
"This one is in a bad way," he said. "She has to wake soon or she won't ever wake." The woman sighed and ran her fingers through the thick fur. "Careful, Mop."
Mavrik put his mouth near Paveway's ear and said, "Wake up, Paveway. Mach needs you."
Paveway stirred. "Mach?" she sighed and opened an eye. "Mach? No! You're Mavrik." The two humans exchanged a glance. She sighed again and smiled. "Thanks for saving my life again, kid."
The woman ladled some of the stew into a wide bowl and placed it near Paveway's head. "This will warm you." Paveway struggled to lift the bowl so the woman held it for her.
Mavrik's mouth watered. "I don't suppose..." He gestured at the pot.
"So, you're Mavrik?" said the man as he handed over a steaming bowl. "We've heard of you."
Mavrik sighed. "I suppose there is a remote tribe living on the salt deserts of Torrens who haven't heard my name." He sipped at the hot stew and felt better.
"My name is Mop," said the woman. "And he is my husband Kerry. There! Now we all know each other's names. Welcome to the our home."
Paveway chuckled then coughed. "Where is the rest of your clan?"
"They're on the top deck repairing the fore-mast," said Kerry. "We had to stop and the blizzard froze the runners to the snow." He looked at Mavrik. "You're lucky to find us here."
"Yes, lucky for both of us." Mavrik frowned at Paveway, but she was busy with another bowl of stew. That's twice you've been lucky, he thought. She looked at him over the rim and winked. He finished his own stew with a gulp and said "Maybe I can help with your mast."
"You certainly can!" said Kerry. "Follow me." He started up a ladder fixed to the wall. Mavrik looked up at the tiny hatch in the ceiling.
Kerry dropped to the floor. "Follow me." He lead Mavrik to the rear of the room, where he heaved on a lever then spun a spoked wheel. A series of ropes and pullies lowered the wall until it was a ramp leading down to the snow.
"I wondered how you got us inside." The dragon walked down the ramp into the snow. He turned and waited for the man.
"It wasn't easy, but we couldn't leave you there" said Kerry. "Could you wait here until I call? You'll frighten the others if you just appear up there."
Mavrik agreed and watched as the ramp was raised and locked. He waited patiently as the cold started to seep into him, and wondered if Kerry had lied to get him outside. He looked left and right, noticing the huge out-riggers that kept the ship upright during the worst storms. The vessel was only wood so if he had to... A shout from above interrupted his thoughts and he looked up. The stern of the slider towered forty-five feet above him, and there was a man was leaning over the edge with a lamp. He waved to Mavrik and motioned to him. Mavrik jumped and flapped to the top deck and landed carefully. It was barely ten feet wide and crowded with people. They stared at him.
Kerry stepped forward and patted Mavrik on the shoulder "This is Mavrik," he said. There was the murmur of voices and Mavrik sighed. "He is here to help us."
"Well, actually..." began Mavrik but he was drowned out in the wild cheering. The people crowded around him, shouting their names and thanking him.
The young dragon and the people worked by lamplight. Soon they had the mast up and ready to be bound to the deck. Mavrik balanced on his hind legs and tail, and held the mast steady while the clan Chief stood on his shoulders and tied the last of a dozen guy ropes. Everyone cheered as the last rope was tied, including Mavrik, then they settled down and waited. "Now what happens?" he asked the Chief.
"We wait for the smith to make new staples and spikes to hold the mast fast." The Chief pulled at his beard impatiently.
"Why doesn't he make them?"
"He can't get the forge hot enough..." His voice trailed off and he looked at Mavrik.
"Is that all?" said Mavrik. The Chief chuckled and led the way to the bow deck.
he sun peeked over the Northern horizon, only to vanish after a few minutes. Mavrik sighed and looked at the far mountains, their tops blushing red in the brief day. Their feet were still as deeply shadowed as ever and wouldn't see sunlight for many weeks. He turned his attention to the ground a thousand feet below and looked for game. The bundle of ropes around his shoulder was distracting, but he needed them to drag the meat back to Paveway. Something below caught his attention, a pair of kine standing together. As he studied the wild cattle he could see a way of killing both in one hit. That would give him enough meat for himself, Paveway and the entire clan for half a week. He felt that looking after two dragons was causing the humans hardship, and this would help them greatly.
He licked his lips then attacked silently. Both animals went down with little more than a startled moo and a bloody gurgle. He turned them over to look for marks of ownership, then stared at the cooling bodies. Cold meat was not as nice as warm meat, and he wondered is anyone would mind if he had a bite now. Paveway wouldn't mind, would she? In the back of his mind he could almost hear her: "You're thinking with your stomach again, kid." He sighed and shrugged off the ropes.
A few minutes later he was struggling through the snow as he dragged the two carcasses back to the snow slider. He was only a five-minute flight from the vessel, but it took him an exhausting hour to get back. As the slider came into sight the day had turned dark and he was cold, tired and starved. He blew a flame into the air to announce his return and waited. Soon a familiar shape came flying out to meet him.
Paveway landed in a flurry of snow and examined the beasts. "Well done, Mav!" she said. "The people will enjoy this."
"I hope they don't belong to anyone," muttered Mavrik.
She gave him a curious look as she took hold of the rope and together they dragged the carcasses to the slider. "Why do you say that?"
"I'll tell you as we eat."
They struggled in silence for a while, then as they drew near the ship Paveway said, "I think we should help them free their ship."
"They seem happy to stay here."
"I said, I think we should help them free their ship." Her tone indicated that there would be no discussion.
"All right," sighed Mavrik. "Can we eat first?"
"Of course!" she laughed, but Mavrik noticed a worried edge to her voice.
At that moment there was a shout from above and people swarmed down the rope netting which covered the out-rigger frame. They cheered and hauled the two carcasses to the rear.
Three hours later the dragons were finishing their meal and relaxing. The Chief, Kerry and Mop joined them while they waited for their own meal to be cooked. The other humans felt uneasy watching the dragons eat and left them alone. Mavrik told them about his fight with the ballista and spread his right wing so they could see the healed tear in the sail.
"Impressive battle scar, lad," said the Chief.
"He may have the chance to get another," said Paveway suddenly. They looked at her in silence. "Which clan uses snow sliders about a third the size of this one?"
"'Clan'?" spat the Chief. "Pirates you mean." He frowned at her. "Why do you ask?"
Paveway stared into space. "They'll be here in two days."
"We'll be an easy target if we're still sitting here," said Mop.
"Well!" exclaimed the Chief as he stood. "We'd better eat, then." The three humans disappeared up the ladder. Paveway gaped at them then turned to Mavrik, astounded.
"I told you there was always time to eat," he said.
t was almost midnight. Mavrik sat back on his haunches and had a rest from digging. "I've done this three times since I decided to fly north for the winter," he muttered.
Paveway raised her head to look at him over the portside out-rigger. "Why would you want to fly North? You'd miss all of this." She gestured at the vast white expanse on all sides that disappeared into the night. "We're half done here. Get digging and we can do the other side."
Mavrik watched the army of people in warm clothes digging at the drifts piled against the sides of the vessel, then turned back to his own task.
The faint light of dawn showed before the exhausted people let out a ragged cheer. The ship was clear of the snows and ready to sail. They scrambled up the nets to the deck and disappeared below, leaving just the deck hands and Mavrik up top. He had ordered Paveway inside hours before when she showed signs of passing out. She still was not fully recovered.
The Chief ordered the sails up. Men and women swarmed up rope ladders, untied the sheets and let the sails fall into place. Soon all four masts were hung with their vast white sails that flapped in the light breeze.
"There's not enough wind," said Mavrik with a sigh. He stood at the bow with the Chief and the helmsman who was struggling to turn the wheel.
"There will be," said the Chief. He pointed to the South where a black cloud was eating up the stars.
Another blizzard was due. Mavrik cast a look around the exposed deck and could see there was no shelter for him up here. "I'd better get below."
Before the Chief could answer the helmsman swore. "The bloody steering gear is still frozen to the ground!"
"Is that bad?" asked Mavrik. The Chief nodded and began to issue orders. "Where is this steering gear?"
"Under the ship directly below us," said the helmsman.
"How long till the storm-?" A blast of icy wind snapped the sails taut. Mavrik leaned toward the Chief and said, "I'll get it! Order your people back." He jumped over the side without waiting for an answer. The piled snow around the vessel cushioned his fall He made his way to the frozen runners. Above him the wooden ship creaked and groaned. He took a deep breath; the cold air stung his throat, and blew a few seconds of flame over the entire ski assembly. When he finished the wooden runners steamed and smoked slightly. He wondered if he should risk another blast when there was a low rumble, and the entire ship moved toward him.
Mavrik scrambled backwards to avoid being run over. He rolled to one side and lay on his back in the snow as the frame of the starboard out-rigger passed overhead at a slow walking pace. The snow slider was free.
Someone called his name. He jumped to his feet and saw Paveway standing in the open stern waving at him. He ran after the ship and jumped onto the ramp. Paveway dragged him in, then Kerry and the blacksmith closed the door. The two dragons clung to the floor, unaccustomed to the motion of the slider. A deep rumble sounded through the wooden hull as the ship made its way across the frozen land.
Paveway moved close to his side and rubbed her hands together. "If you keep this up you'll have humans thinking dragons are nice people," she said as she lay her hands on his back. Warmth spread out from the spot and soon he was asleep. She lay against him and listened to his deep breathing.
"You look exhausted," said Kerry.
"We all are, Healer. You'd best see to your people." She turned to the smith. "And you'd better see to your weapons. The pirates are riding this storm too, and they're faster than your ship."
"We'll not be taken easily," said the smith.
Paveway patted Mavrik's head. "They'll find out this ship is armed a little better than most."
The blizzard passed at midnight, but a strong wind remained which pushed the vessel along at the same speed as a horse in a slow canter. The highlands they were passing across were so wind-swept that snow could not settle. The ship bumped and swayed its way through the night. As the brief day started brightening the northern horizon, the lookout gave a shout.
The Chief stared at the white triangle and swore, then he turned to the helmsman. "They're close! How far are we from the mountains, Joffa?"
"A good fifty leagues. We have plenty of room to manoeuvre," he added.
"Good. Steer us for maximum speed. I'll get the others ready."
Down below, Paveway and Mavrik heard the commotion. They had spent a miserable night feeling ill from the motion of the vessel, so they welcomed the distraction. The clan Chief practically ran down the ladder. "Pirates!" he said when he was half way down. "They're about half an hour away."
"Let us out," said Paveway. "We'll have to surprise them. If they see us too early they'll kill Mach."
"Is he with them?" wondered Mavrik.
"I don't know. He was wearing the same manacles as I."
"You could wait on the leeward out-rigger," said the Chief. "They'll try to luff us before they attack."
Paveway saw Mavrik's look. "They'll use their sails to block the wind in our sails," she explained.
The cold wind blasted into the hold as the Chief lowered the ramp. The two dragons leapt onto the snow and ran around to the port out-rigger. They scrambled onto the carved tree trunk that served as a runner, then climbed onto the rope net and waited. The bulk of the ship kept most of the wind off them but blocked their view. The shouts of alarm coming from the ship fell to silence as the clan made ready to battle for their lives.
Soon the noise of the other ship could be heard. The sails above them flapped as they lost the wind.
"Can you smell his magic?" whispered Paveway.
"No, you're too close and whiffy," whispered Mavrik. Paveway smacked him on the side of the head. "Hey!"
"That's for making jokes."
"You're lucky I'm not really frightened. I make puns, then."
"Shh!" The two dragons crept to the top of the net and peeked over the deck. The other ship had drawn level and matched their speed. Its deck was lined by men more heavily armed than any of their friends.
A voice they did not recognize called "Heave to!"
"Up yours!" shouted the Chief.
At the moment the pirate vessel gave off an acrid, foul smelling white smoke. The clansmen coughed and gasped. The two dragons looked at each other in surprise.
"That comes from a dragon!" exclaimed Mavrik
"Should we att-?" He sighed and leapt into the air to follow Paveway.
Both dragons rose above the smoke. The pirates shouted and pointed. Instantly arrows streaked through the air at them. Paveway roared and the arrows flared to ash leaving behind an ineffectual rain of iron tips. Both dragons gave out an ear-shattering roar and dived at the small ship. They landed heavily on the deck. Mavrik yelped as the wooden planks gave way and he plunged into the cabin below. Another dragon was there, staring in surprise. Apart from being slightly larger than Paveway, he looked almost identical to her. From above came the noise of fighting as the clansmen swarmed across to press the attack.
"Who...?" He moved and Mavrik saw he was wearing the same sort of manacles which had bound Paveway. At that moment she looked through the hole.
"MACH!" she shouted happily as she dropped into the room. Mach ran at her. "I never..." she gasped as he thrust her to the ground. He punched at the air and hit the green gem that had been thrown at his mate into a corner of the room. The touch was brief, yet he roared in agony and fell motionless to the deck.
Mavrik stared, appalled. He turned to see who had thrown the vile gem. A man stood in the door. Mavrik saw the chain-mail glove and realised that let him handle the gems. Paveway crawled from under Mach and drew a deep breath.
On the deck the fighting faltered as a howl of anguish ripped from below. Pirate and clansman edged away from the hole. None of them wanted to meet the creature that had made that noise. They abandoned ship as one. The pirates were faced with a hedge of swords on the clan's vessel; those who did not get off willingly were thrown. They watched as their former home slewed wildly into the wind and skidded to a stop. The clan vessel pressed on into the twilight.
As Paveway tore her way through the thin bulkheads in pursuit of the man, Mavrik examined Mach. He thought he could hear a faint heartbeat but the noise of rending wood and screams made it hard to be sure. He retrieved a sword and prised off the hated gems, then snapped the manacles. Mach sighed and stirred. Mavrik put the gems in a sack and threw them to the other end of the room. He looked up and saw Paveway running at him. She was covered in blood and there was murder in her eyes.
"Your mate is still-" He flinched as Paveway breathed fire into his face. The wooden planking overhead burst into flame. His own flame was much hotter, but this was still uncomfortable. He lifted his right hand and hit her on the end of the snout, hard. She jumped back and blinked at him. "Stop that!"
"Sorry," she whispered.
"He's alive," he said irritably. Paveway gaped at him, her mouth moving but no sound came out. Mavrik nodded. "He's alive," he repeated softly. "We have to get him out of here."
Together the lifted the unconscious dragon to the deck, then lowered him to the ice. Paveway collapsed in exhaustion beside her mate. Mavrik wondered how he would get the pair to shelter now that the pirate vessel was burning. He saw the surviving pirates had gathered in a group and were watching them. He crouched on all fours, spread his wings, glared at them and licked his lips. The men screamed and ran. There was a low chuckle from behind.
"Didn't your mother tell you not to play with your food?" said Mach.
Paveway sprang to her feet. "I thought I'd lost you!" She cradled his head in her lap.
"I knew you'd find me, but I didn't know you'd bring young Mavrik along."
Mavrik sighed. "Why don't I just paint my name on my wings or something."
Mach struggled to his feet, and stood by leaning on Paveway. "Mav, knowing your name will not give anyone power over you. It never has with furred dragons."
"But I'm not a furred dragon."
"You have a furry heart," said Paveway.
"Thanks," said Mavrik with a frown. "I think."
Mach looked up at the brightly burning vessel. "Well, now that my former prison is burning, I suppose we should look for shelter or transport."
As he spoke Mavrik could feel a familiar vibration in the ice. "I think I can arrange both," he said. At the moment the snow slider of the clan ground its way around the stern of the ruined ship. The sails were furled and it had slowed to a crawl. They could see it was festooned with lamps, the deck and rigging were crowded with people who broke into cheers at the sight of the dragons. The stern ramp had been lowered and Kerry, Mop and the Chief were standing there.
The three dragons walked wearily to the ship. "You know," said Mach, "I'm sick of snow and darkness. Let's go North."
"Yes, my love," said Paveway. "I hear it's nice up there at this time of year."