The plan fell apart before it even got started.
Early in the morning, Corec had tracked down some of the fishermen who worked the local lakes, and found one that was willing to sell him a large net. Then he’d bought a heavy crossbow, wishing he hadn’t sold the last one.
While he was doing that, someone at the Three Orders chapter house helped Treya find a local farmer who knew where the drake was nesting, and could take them to it.
Bren, the guide, led them north up the Farm Road for an hour, then onto a series of trails to the west that passed farm after farm. They’d walked, not wanting to risk their horses panicking if they came upon the drake suddenly.
“It’s just up ahead,” Bren said, nearly two hours after they’d left the main road. “See that meadow there? The drake comes after anyone who goes into it. It spends most of its time in the trees on the far side.”
The group was hiding behind a large mass of blackberry bushes, peering over them to stare out across the meadow.
“I don’t see it,” Corec said. The trees weren’t dense enough to block the view, and there wasn’t any movement.
Bren spat on the ground, and pointed his pitchfork up at the sky. “Probably out hunting. It got two of my chickens yesterday and scattered the rest, then took one of my neighbor’s sheep and killed his dog. Or it might be sleeping—it hunkers down over there behind those rocks.”
“What should we do?” Bobo asked. Corec wasn’t sure why he’d insisted on coming, but at least Katrin had remained behind.
“Well, if it’s sleeping, that’ll make it easier to surprise it with the crossbow,” Corec said. “We should go around the meadow, though, if it—”
That was all he had time to say before a deafening shriek pierced the air. A shadow passed above, and then the drake was on them, landing with its rear legs striking Corec and Bobo. As Corec fell, he felt his mind shift twice, like it had during the fight with the red-eyed men. This time, it wasn’t as disorienting, and he recognized the second shift as another spell. He hit the ground hard, and his barrier shield flared and died, but the second spell remained in place. He heard his companions shouting, but with the drake’s continued shrieking, he couldn’t tell what they were saying.
With his heavy armor weighing him down, Corec felt like a turtle on its back, but he managed to roll to his side and brace himself on one arm. On the ground in front of him was the crossbow, the limb snapped in two, making it worthless. He hadn’t had a chance to cock it, anyway. The net was still tied up in a bundle, and Treya had dropped it to the ground to help Bren pull Bobo out of the way of the drake’s claws. There was a small cut on Bobo’s head, and a large blood stain spreading across his upper chest. Corec couldn’t see Shavala anywhere.
With the other targets moving away, the drake focused its attention on Corec, slashing at his armor. He hadn’t managed to stand up yet, and fell back to the ground instead, crossing his arms in front of him to block the talons. Now that the creature was standing on its rear legs, it was using its smaller forelegs to attack. Corec was able to fend it off with his gauntlets and vambraces, hoping the claws didn’t find a gap between them.
Then, something distracted the drake and it pulled back, scanning the tree line. Corec took the chance to roll over onto his stomach so he could push himself up to his knees. He caught a glimpse of Treya pressing her glowing hands to the wound on Bobo’s chest, but couldn’t spare any time to worry about them. As he got to his feet, the drake turned back to him, ignoring whatever had drawn its attention. Corec drew his sword and tossed two mage lights to float around the beast’s head, hoping to distract it again. It worked—the drake tried to attack the lights, its claws passing through them harmlessly.
Corec cast the spell that let him move faster in his armor, figuring he would need the extra speed to dodge. He was finally able to get a good look at the drake. It had dark brown scales and stood ten feet tall on its hind legs—nearly full grown, and much larger than he’d expected. Its shrieking mouth showed sharp teeth, but it hadn’t tried to bite them. As Corec charged at the creature, he made a mighty overhand swing against the nearest foreleg. It connected, and he felt the force reverberate up his arms. He’d cracked the scales, but that was the only damage he’d done.
The drake immediately turned its attention back to him, no longer distracted by the lights. It attacked him, and Corec fell into a steady rhythm. The creature was stronger than him, but its patterns were predictable and it didn’t attack as quickly as the knights Corec had trained against. As long as he braced himself, he could block the attacks and keep himself from being knocked over. But it was difficult to counter-attack, and when he did, it didn’t have much of an effect. The scales on the drake’s underside seemed softer than the ones on its back and legs, but Corec still wasn’t able to do enough damage to stop it.
He had his own advantage, though. Any time the beast’s claws struck his armor, there was a dull thump, and Corec once again felt like he had an extra layer of armor that couldn’t be seen. It could only have come from the new spell, but he wasn’t sure how long it would last. He needed to finish the fight quickly, but he wasn’t able to gain any ground, and he didn’t know how well his armor would hold up against the claws after the spell faded.
Then, one of Shavala’s arrows pierced the drake’s wing, and it pulled back from the fight, its shriek higher in pitch than before.
“I’m out of arrows!” she shouted from somewhere back behind the tree line. She must have been firing all along.
Corec took advantage of the creature’s distraction and thrust forward against its chest, but his sword skittered against the scales over the ribcage at the wrong angle, and the impact jarred the blade out of his hands. It fell to the ground as the creature renewed its attack with fury.
As Corec tried to recover his sword while dodging the drake’s slashing talons, he saw a blur of gray. Treya had run up close and struck at its back, her hands glowing white. She didn’t appear to have hurt it, but it spun around and tried to attack her, its tail barely missing Corec as it swung past him.
With the beast facing the other direction, Corec kneeled down to grab his sword. Treya ducked under one of the creature’s forelegs, then sidestepped the other, seemingly knowing where it was going to strike. Then her luck ran out as she tripped against the blackberry bushes and the drake caught her. Its claws overshot her, but its foreleg bashed her to the side and she fell to the ground.
Shavala shouted again. “Get it close to the bushes!”
Corec wasn’t sure why she wanted that, but figuring she’d seen something that he hadn’t, Corec charged. The drake was moving away from the bushes to go after Treya, who was trying to push herself up. Corec was behind it, and he hacked hard against one of the wings. The sword bit deep, and the drake’s shrieks turned into cries of pain. It spun back to come after him.
He stepped backwards carefully, leading the creature in a line along the edge of the blackberry bushes.
Suddenly, the vines reached out, wrapping themselves in coils around the drake’s legs and wings. Corec almost dropped his sword again, this time in surprise, until he remembered the time he’d seen Meritia regrow some damaged plants.
The drake was already starting to break free, so Corec rushed at it. This time, he aimed at the stomach. His sword pierced the skin between two scales, and he pushed hard, getting a foot of the blade into the creature’s gut. Bren appeared out of nowhere and stabbed his pitchfork in, the farmer’s strong shoulders pushing hard enough to break the scales.
Shavala ran up nearby and grabbed an arrow from the ground, but after glancing at the tip, she tossed it to the side and peered around for another.
“Hold him there!” Corec shouted to Bren, as the drake freed one of its forelegs and hit Corec’s chest with its talons. He pushed the sword farther in, then yanked it back out, getting it up in time to block the beast’s next attack, cracking more scales on the leg. Then, he stabbed up, piercing the drake’s neck. It jerked its head away, and Corec stabbed again and again.
When the drake crouched down in pain, Corec stabbed harder, pushing farther through the neck and into the head.
“Back away!” he said to Bren, not wanting the unarmored man to be injured as the creature thrashed around.
Bren dashed back, leaving his pitchfork in the drake’s gut. Corec pulled his sword back, bracing himself and ignoring the whacks against his armor as he thrust into the head again, then back into the stomach. The drake slowly stopped moving as its cries faded.
Shavala and Bren stood nearby, while Treya limped over to them, one hand glowing as she pressed it to her ribs. Bobo stayed seated on the ground, leaning against a tree, but he was awake and moving.
Corec panted, trying to catch his breath. His new armor spell had faded, and he glanced down, finding scratches all up and down his cuirass and vambraces. It was only luck that the claws hadn’t found a gap in the armor.
“You did the thing with the vines?” he asked Shavala.
She nodded wordlessly.
“Thanks.” Then he looked around at Bren and his companions, everyone staring at him, wide-eyed. “That was almost full grown!” he exclaimed. “I thought it was supposed to be small!”
There was another shriek above them.
It was late afternoon when they finally made it back to Four Roads. It had taken nearly an hour for Bren to retrieve his wagon from his farm, and then over three hours for them to get back to town with it, but Treya and Bobo weren’t in any shape to walk the full distance. Treya had healed them well enough that they’d be able to recover on their own, but they were both still in a lot of pain.
Corec and Bren had loaded the body of the small drake onto the wagon. There was no way they could lift the big one up, but Bren had brought an axe back with him. They used that to hack the beast’s head off so they could bring it, too.
Not wanting to parade the wagon through the streets, they stopped at the Three Orders chapter house, since it was near the northern edge of town. Bren led his horses into the courtyard and brought them to a halt. A young girl in a dress stared at them in surprise before running into the building.
Corec took his helmet off and set it on a nearby bench, then stopped at Treya’s side of the wagon. “Would you like help down?”
“Yes,” she said, wincing. “I need to stand. I can’t sit anymore.”
“Sorry about that,” Bren said. “The springs under the seat board aren’t very good.”
Treya gasped in pain when Corec placed his hands under her arms and lifted, bringing her carefully down to the ground.
She stood for a moment breathing heavily, then looked up at him with her blue eyes. “Thank you.”
“Here, put your arm around me,” Shavala said to her, and helped lead her away from the wagon.
Corec went around to the other side of the wagon and looked up at Bobo. “Do you need help?”
“I think I can get down, but could you stand there just in case?”
Bobo had been the more seriously injured of the two, but he was in less pain. Treya had had better luck healing his lacerations than she’d had in healing her own cracked ribs.
Bobo managed to climb out of the wagon on his own, but he swayed unsteadily once he was down. Corec and Bren helped him over to one of the benches.
“Where do you think the mayor will be?” Corec asked the farmer.
“If he hasn’t closed up his shop for the day, he’ll be there. I can go find him if you’d like.”
A few more more girls and young women had come out of the building to watch them curiously, but hadn’t approached. Then an elderly woman came over to them.
“Treya?” she said, looking over their rough state. Corec’s armor was scratched and Bobo’s clothing was bloody. Treya’s face and tunic were smudged with dirt and there was swelling around her cheek and eye, starting to darken into bruises. Shavala was the only one who didn’t appear much the worse for wear. “Do you need a healer? I can send a runner to the temples of The Lady or Demesis.”
“If you can send someone, I’d be grateful,” Treya said. “I did what I could, but Bobo and I are in a lot of pain still. We need to send word to our friend Katrin at the Eagle’s Roost, too.”
The old woman turned to one of the girls who’d come out of the building to see the commotion. “Cara, go to the temples, please, and find a healer or two, then let their friend know they’re here.”
The girl left by the front gate, headed in the direction of The Lady’s temple.
“Mother Yewen, these are the people I told you about,” Treya said, then introduced everyone.
After greeting each of them, Mother Yewen faced Treya with a sigh. “I see you ignored my advice. This is why I didn’t want to send a new mystic after a drake, even a small one. It takes time to strengthen your abilities—time and practice.”
“It wasn’t small,” Treya said. “It was big. The second one was small.”
“Two?” The woman glanced into the wagon, her eyes widening when she saw the large one’s head piled next to the small one’s body. “You fought two drakes? You fought a big one?”
“It wasn’t an adult, but it was close,” Corec said. “Treya was a big help.”
Treya shot him a look, but didn’t contradict him.
“We’d better let the mayor know,” Yewen said. “Were there any others?”
“We didn’t see any,” Treya replied. “Bren, the guide you found for us, has already gone looking for the mayor. Can we wait here for him? We weren’t sure where to take the…wagon.”
The old woman considered that. “Yes, but let’s hope he comes soon, so the girls aren’t distracted for too long.” She faced the audience and raised her voice. “All right, everyone! You all have chores before the evening meal, so get back to them! Let’s go!” She herded them all back inside, except for two girls who were apparently supposed to be weeding the courtyard, but spent most of their time trying to sneak a peek into the wagon.
Corec said, “If there are any more drakes, let the mercenaries go after them. I think we’ve done our share.”
“How badly were they hurt?” Katrin asked as she and Cara hurried to the Three Orders chapter house.
“I don’t know, miss.”
“But they all made it back?”
“Yes, miss, four, like you said. Sister Treya, the man in the armor, the woman with the glowing thing on her head, and the man with the beard and the robe.”
Cara must not have noticed Shavala’s ears—perhaps she’d never seen an elf before. The girl hadn’t seen Katrin’s own rune, since she was wearing her straw cloche hat.
They reached the courtyard and went up the walk, where Katrin found her friends waiting near a wagon. Treya and Bobo were sitting on benches as they were attended by healers. Shavala stood casually with her back against a tree trunk, and gave Katrin a smile and a nod. Corec was standing nearby, his helmet resting on Bobo’s bench. His armor was scratched in several places.
She rushed over to him. “Is everyone all right?”
He put an arm around her and pulled her in against him. With the armor in the way, it wasn’t comfortable, but she figured it was the best he could do until later.
“They’ll be fine,” he said. “Bobo got the worst of it, but Treya healed him enough for us to get back.”
The healer examining Treya—a priestess of Demesis by the look of her blue and green robe—leaned back and looked over her clothing. “You’re a healer? I thought something about your injuries looked funny. They’ve been partly healed already, haven’t they? Who do you follow?”
Treya grimaced. “I’m sorry—I’m not a very good healer yet. And…uh, I don’t really follow anyone. I don’t know who chose me as a priestess.”
The woman raised her eyebrows in surprise. “That’s unusual. Have you been tested by the temples yet?”
“I’ve visited the temples of The Lady, Allosur, and Arodisis in Tyrsall, but none were able to say where I belong.”
“Be sure to visit we who follow Demesis. The goddess of bounty and the harvest helps bring life to all things. Perhaps you’ll find your place among us.”
“I will when I can.” At the woman’s skeptical look, Treya added, “I promise.”
Katrin and Corec spoke quietly while they waited. “Are there two heads in there?” she asked, pointing to the wagon as she tried to make sense of the mess she was seeing.
“Yes. It turns out there were two drakes. The smaller head is still attached to the body.”
“Two? Why didn’t anyone tell us that?”
“Maybe they only ever saw one at a time, or maybe one of them was new to the area. Anyway, the second one must have been the small one they told us about. It wasn’t much of a problem. The first one surprised us, though. It clawed Bobo and knocked me down before we even knew it was there. Bobo wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the fighting.”
“I’m just glad you’re all safe. I wish you had let me come with you. I spent all day worrying.”
“I’m glad you didn’t come. What if it had gotten you like it got Bobo?”
She shivered and changed the subject. “If everyone’s all right, are we going to leave tomorrow?”
“If the mayor pays us the bounty tonight, yes, but I’d like to find another pack mule before we leave. I’m bringing my tent and some extra blankets, and with food for five people, we’ll have too much to carry with just…Boy and our own saddlebags.”
She smiled when he used her name for the mule. “One tent?”
“We’ll buy more when we reach Tyrsall. Mine’s only big enough for, well, two people, if you want to share. It’s you or Bobo, and I’d rather share with you.” He’d lowered his voice, so nobody would overhear.
Katrin felt herself blushing and decided to get back at him for being so forward. “Yes, I’d like that. At least on nights we’re able to bathe. You stink after wearing your armor all day.”
He laughed. “It won’t be as bad once the weather cools down, but I’ll keep that in mind.”
After the healers were gone, Bobo groaned and stood up, pulling his robe away from his chest to give himself a better view of the holes and bloodstains. “Remind me why I came with you today?”
“I don’t remember you giving a reason,” Corec replied.
“Oh. That’s right. I wanted to see a drake for real. Well, now I have.”
Corec laughed. “I take it you’re feeling like yourself again?”
“As good as I can, I suppose. I’ll need to find some new clothing.”
“We’ll do some shopping tomorrow before we leave.”
Treya came over to them, too. “Why did you tell Mother Yewen I helped?” she asked Corec. “I didn’t do any good against either of them, and we didn’t use the net at all.”
“You distracted them. Especially that first one—if you hadn’t pulled its attention away, I don’t think I could have gotten my sword back. And the net was a good idea. It wasn’t your fault the drake ended up standing right over it. We’re lucky Shavala was able to use your idea with the vines.”
Shavala said, “We’re lucky the blackberry bush was right there. I couldn’t have done it otherwise.”
“Blackberry bush?” Katrin asked.
They took turns describing the battle and the magic that Shavala had used.
“I didn’t know you could do that,” Katrin said to her.
Shavala grinned at her and winked.
Talking about the fight didn’t help Treya’s mood. “I was completely helpless. I don’t know how Shana managed to fight one of those things alone.”
“Shana?” Katrin asked.
“One of my teachers.”
Corec shrugged. “When we get back to Tyrsall, you can ask her.”
“She’s not usually in Tyrsall, but I’ll check.”
The farmer that had accompanied Katrin’s friends that morning came into the courtyard then, along with a large, middle-aged man dressed like a successful shopkeeper—a suit with matching brown breeches and long coat, with a vest over a white shirt.
“Corec,” the farmer said, “this is the mayor, Mr. Sammel.”
“Welcome to Four Roads!” Sammel boomed. “I hear you’ve taken care of our little drake problem.”
“Not so little,” Corec said.
“Yes,” the man said soberly. “Bren here told me about that. Nobody had ever seen anything but the small one. Still, it looks like you all came through it safely?”
“I paid the healers twenty silver.”
“Ahh, yes. I might be able to help with that.” Sammel stared at the mess in the wagon. “I’m afraid we only raised money for a single bounty, though. I can’t pay you for both.”
“And who are your friends?” the man asked with a broad smile as he looked Katrin up and down. She didn’t like the way he stared at her, but she smiled back anyway.
Corec introduced her as a bard, then named the others and mentioned the role they’d played in the fight, though he didn’t mention any of the magic they’d used.
Sammel seemed most impressed by Shavala, his eyes drawn to her rune. “Welcome to Four Roads, Lady Elf. You honor us with your presence.”
Shavala didn’t seem to know how to respond, finally settling on, “Thank you.”
He turned back to the wagon. “Where’s the rest of the big one?”
“Up the north road,” Bren said, “off the second trail to the west, just past Halsey’s farm.”
“I don’t know the area,” Sammel said. “It won’t attract more of them if we leave it there, will it?”
Corec shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Sammel shook his head. “Anyway, I’ve got the bounty here.” He pulled a coin pouch from a pocket inside his coat and handed it over. “We’ll need to go back to my shop to get the silver for the healers.”
Corec said, “I can come with you.” He opened the pouch and pulled out five of the gold coins, handing them to Bren. “Here. Your share.”
“My share?” the farmer asked, confused.
“You fought the drakes, you helped us find them, and you helped us get back here. We couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Oh, uh, thank you.”
After Bren had left, taking his wagon and the drakes’ remains away from the chapter house, Corec grabbed his helmet and strode over to the mayor.
Katrin followed him. “I’m coming with you. I’m sure the others can figure out the way back to the inn.”