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Scrobscyr Dragon Saga - Chapter 4


The afternoon sun slanting into the cave of the training barracks woke Aelflede where she lay snuggled in her hollow in the warm sand. She sat up, yawning and stretching, scratching the sand out of her hide-fuzz. There seemed to be butterflies with clogs on dancing about in her stomach and it took her a moment to remember why she was nervous. She was due to be assigned to a training patrol with one of the Fighting Wings later today and she really hoped it would be FW5. She liked the Wing Leader and Wing Second who were both kind and patient with the trainees assigned to them. Also Daegel was in FW5, but she wasn’t going to think about him. She really wasn’t. Daegel had been friendly when she had flown with them before, and she liked his gorgeous deep violet eyes, and his wings were so wide, and the muscles in his legs rippled so beautifully when he leapt into take off. Perhaps he would speak to her again if she flew near him. If she was sent with FW5. But she wasn’t thinking about him.

“Hey Aelf, are you dead?” The sharp comment brought Aelflede suddenly back to reality, and she looked across the cave at her best friend Mildryth.

“Yes. It’s the only way I could get away from you!” she replied. Mildryth chuckled as she came across to Aelfede and they started out of the cave together.

“Which wings do you reckon we’ll be flying with tonight?” Mildryth bumped Aelflede with her hip as they came out into the late afternoon light. “Hope I’m with FW2. That Bearn is scrumptious!”

“Mildryth! he’s the Wing Leader, and he’s mated.” Aelflede was genuinely shocked for a moment.

“So what? I can look can’t I? Anyway I like older dragons. They have so much more – experience…” Mildryth waggled her eye-ridges at Aelflede and both dragons burst into giggles.

After they had eaten and bathed in the hot pools, the friends reported to the Training Master who was preparing to gather the young trainees for evening parade. The older trainees who had reached the stage of night training flights with fighting wings were usually given their assignments before parade, because they often had quite a way to fly to meet their wing in time for evening patrol. The Training Master greeted them and gave them an appraising glance. He was expert at spotting a less than perfect hide or slovenly fold of wing. Both young females automatically straightened their spines and held their wings tightly to their backs under his scrutiny.

“Trainee Mildryth, you are assigned to FW2 tonight. They are to rendezvous at Randolf’s cave at moonrise. You will be flying with them to the west and undertaking a coastal patrol for several days. Return here when you are dispersed off duty.” Mildryth laid her hand over her heart in salute, but couldn’t resist an excited little bounce as she turned away to take off. Very privately she said “Yay!” in Aelflede’s mind as she went.

“Fly safe” Aelflede replied in the same private mode.

“When you’re with me Trainee Aelflede…” The TM said dryly, and Aelflede hastily turned her attention back to him. “You are to join FW5 on their patrol of the Eastern border. You are to rendezvous at Patrol Post 10 as soon as possible. They have been resting there all day and won’t take off on patrol until full dark, so you’ll have plenty of time to get there.”

“Thank you Training Master” said Aelflede respectfully. She restrained herself from bouncing, though she was just as excited as Mildryth.

“And trainee…” the TM said as she was about to leave. “You won’t be coming back. You are permanently assigned to FW5. Congratulations, you have completed your training.”

It took Aelflede a moment to take in what he had said. As she gaped foolishly at him, he chuckled.

“You have done exceptionally well and shown a great sense of responsibility and good leadership qualities. I’ve been observing how you lead your squad and how hard you’ve worked at your flying and combat skills. Your early posting to a Fighting Wing is well deserved. Fly safe, Fighting Dragon Aelflede!”

At this point Aelflede disgraced herself by flinging her arms round the TM and giving him a hard hug. He seemed a little taken aback, but also pleased. As she took off she not only shouted “Yay” but gave several loud whoops. As she gained height she heard cheers from all the trainees and Masters at the barracks, and she circled once to wave to them before heading east towards Post 10.

She followed her shadow, huge and elongated across the mountains, enjoying the way it rose up to meet her and fell away again as she crossed valleys, veered round the shoulders of mountains and swooped through the high passes until she reached the stretch of plain that was crossed by the border. At that point Aelflede turned south and flew along the eastern edge of the mountains through the weird light of dusk. An early night bird hooted in one of the scattered copses below and she could see a few grazers moving slowly over the plain, their juicy scent rising up to tickle her nostrils. Everything seemed exciting and unusual, though she had made this flight many times before. But before she had been a mere trainee. Now she was a Fighting Dragon. Happiness rose up through her and she did a couple of celebratory loops and dives before sideslipping to lose height and landing at the patrol post.

The Wing Leader met her as she paced buoyantly into the cave.

“Was that you doing aerobatics in a combat zone Trainee Aelflede?” he asked sternly. Aelflede gulped. This wasn’t the welcome she had expected.

“Er…yes sir” she said in a small voice.

“I’ll ask you again – that wasn’t you doing aerobatics in a combat zone, was it Trainee?” He fixed her with a gimlet stare, but now she caught the twinkle in his violet eyes. She noticed the rest of the wing were watching with glee and realised this was a standard way of teasing a new wing-member.

“Who me sir? No sir. Certainly not sir!”

“I was sure it wasn’t. Welcome to Fighting Wing 5, Fighting Dragon Aelflede!” The Wing Leader clapped her on the shoulder and the rest of the wing cheered.

“You can call me Thunerulf now that you’re a full member of the wing, or Wing Leader if civilians are present” he told her kindly. He turned to beckon and Daegal came forward. “You’ll be Daegal’s patrol partner. The two of you will work together at all times and watch each other’s backs in combat situations. You know how it works, you’ve done enough patrols with us and other wings. Fly safe Fighting Dragon Aelflede.” Thunerulf gave her a last friendly thump and then turned away to consult with his two Wing Seconds. Aelflede could feel her colour deepening as she looked at Daegal. He was watching her gravely, as though trying to judge her reaction to the Wing Leader’s orders.

“Welcome to the wing Aelflede” he said quietly.

“Thank you” Aelflede tried desperately to think of something funny, clever or just appropriate to say. She was always tongue-tied around Daegal and things didn’t seem to be improving. He must be thinking she was so pathetic.

“We’ll be taking off on patrol in a few minutes, so stand by for the briefing.” Aelflede followed him over to where the rest of the wing was gathering round the Wing Leader, mentally kicking herself. Many of the other wing members slapped her on the shoulder as she passed, or gripped her forearm in the greeting used between equals, muttering words of welcome. She felt her confidence rising again.

The Wing fell silent as the Thunerulf rose onto his haunches to address them.

“We’ve been tasked with finding and capturing, or retrieving the body of, a Snotingaham dragon who was involved in a skirmish with some of our people today. It should be near the border, south of here. But its on their side, so we go in strength and we go ready. Be aware, we are engaging in an act of aggression in crossing the border for this purpose. It could be said to be a mission of mercy if the dragon is lying there wounded, but I doubt the Snotingaham Clan would accept that as a reason. However, I am informed by Elder Randolf that the Snotingahams committed the first offence when they attempted to capture some of our younglings yesterday. The Elders have declared that we are at war. “

A murmur of surprise and consternation went through the listeners. Though most were seasoned fighting dragons, the conflict with the Snotingaham Clan had manifested as no more than raids and skirmishes for many generations now. Only the oldest dragons in the wing remembered the last time there had been open war between them. Aelflede looked round at her fellow wing members, feeling the atmosphere in the cave change from preparation for a routine patrol to something much more vibrant. She could almost smell the adrenaline in the air. Excitement flowed through her. What a moment to join a fighting wing!

“We have a patrol to do as well, dragons” the Wing Leader’s voice cut through the muttering without effort. “So half the Wing will go on patrol, the other half to secure the prisoner. Or corpse.” An appreciative chuckle from the Wing members. Aelflede wondered which task her section would be assigned to. Even a patrol would be more exciting now that they were properly at war.

“Wulstan’s section will carry on with normal patrol, Baldric’s section will cross the border. I will be with Baldric’s section. Be on your guard, all of you. We are at war!” The Wing Leader turned away and began speaking privately to his Wing Seconds, while the crowd of dragons dispersed into two groups among a great deal of noisy banter, bragging and ragging.

“Come on, we’re in Baldric’s section.” Daegal’s attempt to keep his voice level wasn’t entirely successful, and Aelflede felt better because he was clearly as excited as she was. And probably nearly as apprehensive. To be sent on such a dangerous mission on her first night as a Fighting Dragon! She didn’t know whether to swell with pride or shiver with nerves. Her stomach rolled and she was glad her last meal had been some hours ago. She didn’t want to disgrace herself by throwing up on her first flight with her new comrades.

Thunerulf gathered his section with a glance and led the way out of the cave. The Wing Leader said shortly

“V formation till we hit the border, then a sweep line.” He didn’t bother to say who should fly where. His comrades knew what to do. The section gave a simultaneous salute, Aelflede following the movement just a moment late, then they leapt into the air as one. As the fifteen pairs of wings beat strongly in unison and her magnificent, gleaming, copper coloured comrades rose away from the patrol post, Aelflede was not the only one to experience a fierce, piercing joy from the excitement of setting out to war as one of this band of courageous fighting dragons.

The section flew steadily in a neat V until the border was in sight, then they peeled off in pairs, to left and right, Aelflede following Daegal, and spread out across the landscape. Fifteen heads pointed downwards, long necks turning from side to side, jewelled eyes searching for the dead or injured enemy dragon. Daegal was two dragon-lengths away on her right and Lynet five dragon-lengths on her left. Lynet’s partner Goda was two lengths on Lynet’s left. Aelflede knew the two females quite well and liked them both. They were paired in life as well as partners in the Wing. Life pairings within wings were not only permitted, but encouraged on the grounds that mated pairs would fight harder, both to protect each other and because each would wish to avoid dishonour in the eyes of the other.

Aelflede was pulled sharply out of these reflections by a sudden call from someone on the far right of the line. As one, the line wheeled round and the section formed a circle round the spot. A dragon lay on the ground, curled up and very still. His colour had faded from a healthy copper to a dreary greenish brown. The section circled above for a few minutes while Thunerulf checked out the area for enemy patrols. Seeing nothing suspicious he signalled half the section to land and form a circle round the fallen enemy, while the rest, under Baldric’s charge, continued to fly a wider circle, keeping watch for danger from sky and ground. Aelflede and Daegal were among those told off to land and join the circle, and before she turned outward to watch the area, she could see that the enemy was still breathing, and that he had a terrible burn on his underbelly. Her sensitive nose detected a faint smell of scorched flesh and she felt slightly sick.

Thunerulf and Daegal approached the injured dragon and tried to rouse him. There was no response, so they inspected his wound, which they thought would probably be fatal. After a little while his eye opened a crack. His mental voice, so faint that it only reached Thunerulf, gasped out

“They left me…. Bait…trap…said I would die anyway” Thunerulf didn’t hesitate, he snapped out

“Alert! Incoming likely, this is a trap.” He left the moribund enemy and leapt into the air. Signalling Daegal to stay with the injured one and calling some of the ones on the ground to join him in the air he started to gain height, looking in all directions for the expected attack.

Daegal called Aelflede to help him make the enemy flyer more comfortable.

“What’s your name?” he asked gently. The dull eyes looked at him without interest, but the dragon whispered “Cena.” Daegal asked Aelflede to bring water, so she glided to a handy stream and plucked one of the cup shaped leaves that grew on its bank. Waddling awkwardly back with the water because she doubted her ability to take off without spilling it, she and Daegal between them gave Cena a drink. He swallowed eagerly. Aelflede saw how gentle and careful Daegal was with Cena, how tenderly he cradled the weary head and lowered Cena down when the cup was empty, and wondered how anyone could not fall in love with him. He looked up from his task and their eyes met for a long, long moment. Aelflede broke the look first, feeling her colour rising. Daegal laid a hand on her shoulder for a moment, then took off to collect some mud from a particular place on the bank of the stream. They spread it over the terrible burn on Cena’s belly. He seemed to relax a little as the healing clay soothed the terrible pain. He opened his eyes again.

“Why?” he asked.

“Why are we helping you? You are in pain. We would never leave any creature in pain if we can help it. Dragon or anything else. You are our prisoner now, but you will be well treated. We aren’t barbarians.” Daegal finished on a note of slight indignation.

“Snotingahams are.” whispered Cena. “Would have just left me here to die, even without the trap”

Even as he spoke a cry of “Enemy in sight” came from one of the Wing in the air. The rest of the section on the ground leapt into the air as a gang of enemy flyers dived out of the sun towards them. Within seconds an ariel battle was under way. Dragons diving, flaming, screaming, falling, climbing. It was a murderous and bloody chaos. Daegal and Aelflede, guarding the prisoner, watched in horror as their comrades fought, but they were not spectators for long. Within a few minutes a dragon dived towards them, clearly intending to hover and flame all three of them. Without pausing to think or wait for Daegal’s word, Aelflede leapt to meet him, flaming as she went. She couldn’t get enough lift to take off properly but her flame caused the oncoming enemy to veer away, crashing to the floor as he failed to stop his dive in time. Aelflede managed to direct herself so that her inelegant landing was more or less on top of the enemy dragon. In a thrashing of biting, clawing, ripping and tearing they rolled over and over. Aelflede was aware of nothing but the necessity of keeping the wicked teeth and talons of her opponent from her jugular vein and her tender belly, while trying to inflict as much damage as possible on him. It was nothing like the training fights she had joined in many times, where talons were sheathed and the fight ended at first blood. This was to the death and there was no mistaking it for anything else.

At last she felt something rip under her hind talons and the dragon gave a great bellow of pain. His teeth fastened convulsively into her upper arm for a few moments, then he spat her out, gave a lightening wriggle that threw her onto the ground and took off. She had a glimpse of him flying unsteadily away from the battle, blue/green blood leaking down his belly, before she looked towards Daegal and found him locked in a cinch with another enemy dragon. Cena had tried to crawl away from the fight a little, and was curled up a few feet away. The enemy seemed to be ignoring him. Aelflede got shakily to her feet and staggered over to see if she could help Daegal. The two were twisted together in the position that kept their bellies from each others hind talons to avoid disembowelment. The enemy was uppermost as she approached, but they were thrashing about so much that it wasn’t easy to tell which was which. After a few moments they rolled again and the enemy got Daegel under him and began trying to bite into his neck. Aelflede saw his hind legs still for a moment as he concentrated, and she dived in and sank her teeth into the muscles of his thigh and held on with all her strength.

With a cry the enemy kicked out and Aelflede lost her hold and rolled on her back. Before she could collect herself Daegal had surged up and grabbed the enemy by the neck. His teeth closed over the vital blood vessels and he shook the dragon like a terrier with a rat. The enemy fell to the ground, his throat a mass of blood and torn flesh. It took only a few moments before his convulsive twitching faded and the immense green flow slowed and stopped. Aelflede had to turn away and breathe hard through her nose. She staggered over to Daegal who was dragging himself off the ground. Almost without volition they fell into each other’s arms and held on as though the outcome of the battle depended on the strength of their hold. After a few moments they broke apart and, not really looking at each other they went to check on the prisoner. If either had heard incoherent phrases of thankfulness from the other, neither mentioned it. Thankfully none of the flame had reached Cena, but he seemed to be comatose again.

They looked around to see that the battle had resolved itself into several small fights, both on the ground and in the air. Within a few minutes these died out as the combatants disengaged and the enemy gang limped away. Few of them seemed unscathed, but Thunerulf’s section were not in any better case. Most of them were bitten, clawed or scorched to a greater or lesser degree. There were three dragons lying dead apart from the one Daegal had killed. Aelflede was horrified to see that one of them was Hungife, a female with whom she had been friendly, and who had spoken to Aelflede and congratulated her earlier that evening. Hungife’s body was lacerated in several places and her throat was torn out. Aelflede looked around for Lynet and Goda. Lynet was lying on the ground, clearly injured, and Goda, looking very battered was bending over her. Aelflede was relieved to see that Lynet’s injuries didn’t seem to be mortal. She was shaking her head at something Goda was asking her, and after a few moments she sat up, clutching one limp arm across her body with the other. Baldric was also injured, but not severely.

Looking at the carnage round her, Aelflede remembered the pure, fierce joy they had all felt as they set out on this mission. This wasn’t pure, and there was no elation in it. It was filthy, squalid and unspeakably cruel. One of the enemy had been disembowelled in the fight, his guts spilling from the huge lacerations in his belly, and the stink of them added to the smells of blood, smoke, burned hide and other things that Aelflede tried not to identify. For a moment she felt ashamed that she had been part of this degrading struggle and a wrenching grief, both for the long dragon lives cut short and for the death of her dream of purity and joy.

Then Daegal’s voice recalled her to her duty and she seemed to see another side of it. Surely this was where the beauty lay – in carrying on with what had to be done, in the face of squalor and misery and loss. She could take on this horror and thereby keep it from others of her clan, the hatchlings, younglings and those who were unable to fight. Daegal called again, sharply, and she hurried to where he bent over Cena, her moment of insight lost in the reality of work. The enemy dragon’s eyes were open and he seemed more conscious than previously, but Aelflede doubted that he would be able to fly.

After Thunerulf had checked all the injured, he came across and regarded the prisoner dispassionately.

“We need to get him back to the patrol post,” he remarked, “but he certainly won’t be flying on his own. Perhaps we can rig something up with some vines to carry him.”

“Can all our people fly?” asked Aelflede. He regarded her with approval.

“Yes, don’t worry, they can all get back to the patrol post, even if they have to stop for rests on the way. I doubt we’ll be troubled by the Snotingaham gangs again tonight, but I’ve called in the other half of the Wing to fly escort. Will you go and collect some of the vines out of that forest over there?” He waved vaguely at a thick woodland visible in the distance. Aelflede observed that Thunerulf had several deep lacerations on his flanks and legs, and a nasty bite wound where his neck joined his shoulder. Clearly he’d been in the thick of the fight and he was feeling the after-effects. She and Daegal saluted and took off for the woodland. They flew in silence, but when they landed at the edge of the trees, he laid a hand on her arm before she could enter the wood.

“Are you really ok Aelflede? That dragon gave you a nasty bite and it looks like you have some good bruises too.” She smiled at him.

“I’m fine Daegal. You’re in a worse state than I am. Can I do anything for you? We could bathe your wounds before we go back.”

“No need. I’ll have a bathe in the hot pool when we get home. You did really well today. You were a credit to the wing!” Aelflede looked at him shyly, blushing a deeper copper.

“I’m glad Thunerulf decided to partner me with you Daegal” she said.

“I asked for you” he murmured quietly as he turned away and began pulling at the nearest vine. Aelflede stared at him, mouth half open for several minutes. Then, grinning like a fool, she knew, she began tugging vines down beside him.

They knotted the vines into a sort of crude net and, with help from their comrades, they rolled the still semi-conscious prisoner on to it. At Thunerulf’s word Daegal, Aelflede and the other two dragons, Hengist and Hatha, another mated pair, took the four corners of the net and lifted carefully off the ground, as gently and evenly as possible. They heard a faint squawk from the mind of the prisoner and saw his eyes rolling furiously as they gained altitude. Flying as low as possible they set out for the patrol post. Tired and battered as they all were, it was no easy task to fly steadily while carrying the weight of a substantial dragon. The vines bit into their hands and their arms trembled with the effort after a time. The escort from the other half of the wing surrounded them and Thunerulf flew alongside, keeping a careful eye on them and on the prisoner, whose greenish colour did not improve with the swaying of the net.

After a while Thunerulf asked if they were all able to keep going. He had planned to change carriers half way to the post, but was reluctant to put them or the prisoner through the stress of setting down and taking off again if they could manage. The reply was a unanimous affirmative. After what seemed like a long flight the patrol post came in sight. Clearly the news had gone ahead of them, because Aelflede could see more dragons gathered in front of the post than would normally be there. Some of their wounded had arrived already and were being tended by those with skill in caring for wounds and illnesses. A large fire had been built outside the cave to provide warmth and illumination, and the cave was lit by another fire within.

The patrol carefully landed with their burden and some of the healers came over to attend the sick prisoner. Thunerulf dismissed the four who had carried the net to eat, rest and get their injuries dressed. As they made their way towards the fire they heard him instructing the uninjured fighters from the other half of the Wing on where to continue their patrol, and while one of the healers was looking at Aelflede’s bite wound she saw him take off with a small group and head back towards the scene of the fight.

“Doesn’t he ever rest?” she asked Daegal, who was being examined by another healer.

“Not much,” he replied, glancing after the departing Wing Leader. “He’s the best Wing Leader I’ve ever served with. Works himself to the bone looking after his fighters and is always the first up and last to rest. He leads from the front too. No standing back and throwing out orders from a safe distance.”

“Yes, I saw that he had injuries himself, but he didn’t even take time to have them looked at.”

“He won’t until every member of the Wing is safe, fed and comfortable. Even then it will probably take one of the healers chasing him down to get him to submit to treatment. I think he’ll have gone to retrieve Hungife’s body. They took the net with them.” Daegal saw that Aelflede was looking after the now distant group with hero-worship in her eyes. He smiled. How could he be jealous, even if he had any right to be, which he didn’t, when he felt exactly the same way?

After a long bathe in the hot pools, a meal and a short sleep, they felt restored to something like health, though both were stiff, sore and bruised. They made their way out of the cave together in the light of early morning, to find Thunerulf by the fire making short work of a chunk of grazer. They wandered over and greeted him, enquiring courteously after his wounds. He looked tired and there was a sadness in his eyes that mirrored the grief felt by every member of the Wing this morning.

“How’s Cena this morning?” asked Aelflede.

“He’s making progress. The healers think he’ll live and may make a good recovery eventually. Randolf and some of the Elders are coming to question him later today and as soon as he can fly he’ll be taken to Headquarters for interrogation.”

“Headquarters?” Daegal said curiously, not having known that they had a headquarters.

“Randolf’s cave to you” grinned Thunerulf. “Henceforth its to be known as Headquarters and the war will be run from there. To be fair, we do need somewhere that everything can be coordinated from, and the Chief Elder is also the War-Leader. In normal times it’s the first place everyone goes to when something happens. Now its official.”

“What about Hungife?” Daegal’s tone was more subdued.

“We brought her back just before dawn. Her burning will be tonight at full dark. If you want to help build her pyre its on the plateau of Elveyn.”

Aelflede and Daegal flew up to the high plateau of the mountain behind the patrol post and helped the rest of the Wing bring up wood from the forest on the lower slopes. When the pyre was built Hungife’s comrades kept vigil by her body until dusk began to fall. Hungife had been single, but her parents, siblings and friends would arrive by dark. Since she was the first casualty of the war, a great many dragons would come out of respect or just to feel part of what was happening to their clan. The Wing, including Thunerulf when he could get away from his duties, sat near Hungife’s body where it lay on a bed of dry bracken, exchanging memories and anecdotes about their dead comrade. For many it was the first time they had kept such a vigil and there were many who held hands or exchanged comforting hugs, as well as many stories that made them all laugh, even if it was a laughter that was not far from tears.

As the dusk deepened and the plateau filled up with silent dragons, the Wing took up positions around the body, facing outward, sitting upright on their haunches with their wings folded in front of their faces, a traditional pose of respect and mourning for a fallen comrade. At last, as the darkness was complete and the stream of mourners arriving ceased, Thunerulf, who had been standing between the body and the pyre, took his wings from his face and folded them at his back. The slight sound alerted the rest of the wing and at his short word of command their wings folded back as one. Another word and six of them stepped forward and took hold of branches which had been carefully woven into the bed of foliage on which Hungife lay. In perfect unity their powerful wings opened and beat, and they and the body rose slowly and serenely into the air. A moment later the body settled on top of the pyre and the dragons sank gently back to earth. The rest of the Wing had moved to surround the pyre, along with Hungife’s parents. Randolf paced slowly forward and faced the crowd.

“Hungife is the first to fall in this war that has just begun. She will not be the last. We honour her and all her comrades who have fought in this first battle. We honour all our Fighting Dragons who guard our borders and protect our homes. We honour all who will die in this war, which we did not choose and do not want. We have fought for many generations and we will continue to fight to protect our families and friends. We thank all who have fought, all who fight now and all who will fight. Now we say farewell to Hungife and bid her Fly Safe into the next world.” With head bowed Randolf stepped away and Thunerulf stepped forward.

“Hungife was our comrade. She was brave, funny, fierce and caring. We loved her. Fly Safe Hungife.” He could say no more, but turned away towards the pyre and took his place in the circle of dragons ringing its base. He nodded to Hungife’s parents and they both sent forth a stream of flame into the pyre. A second later every dragon in the circle joined in and the pyre went up with a roar. The wood they had used had been chosen because it burned hot and fast, and it was not long before the ring of dragons had to move back. They stepped backwards in graceful unison, keeping their gaze on the body of their friend until it was hidden by the virtually smokeless flames. Many faces showed the dark tracks of tears through the copper hair as they watched Hungife consumed by the fire. The dragons of Fighting Wing 5 proudly maintained their upright posture and kept their eyes on the pyre until it crumbled into ash and the fire died down to a glow. Then, leaving four dragons to guard it, the rest of the wing turned from the pyre, paced solemnly two by two to the edge of the plateau and took off in a neat V formation. At Thunerulf’s word they banked down towards the patrol post and circled once over the area before landing. When all were down, Thunerulf gathered them round and dispersed them on leave. Warning them to be back two days hence at dusk for night patrol.

Hungife’s ashes, according to custom, would be left on the high plateau until the wind dispersed them. The spot would not be marked. Hungife was not there and her soul did not need to be bound to this world by markers and memorials. She would live in the memories of all who had known her, and when none lived who remembered her, her ashes would remain part of the ecosystem.

Aelflede felt elated and saddened in equal measure, a mixture of emotions that lifted her out of herself and made her more aware of everything. She looked with a new maturity at her comrades as they exchanged subdued farewells and prepared to take off for their homes. Daegal was talking to Thunerulf, and she went over to bid them both goodbye. As she and Daegal turned away from the Wing Leader she was suddenly aware of how very short life could be, especially during a war. With a boldness she would never have aspired to even a day before she took Daegal’s hand as they walked. He looked down at her with surprise, but his hand tightened around hers.

“Will you fly with me Daegal?” she asked, feeling slightly surprised at her own composure.

“Of course!” Loosing hands they took off together into the dark.

“Are you going home?” Daegal enquired tentatively.

“Unless you can think of somewhere better?” She was being a little flirtatious now. Something she had never done and wasn’t sure she knew how to do.

“Follow me!” They seemed to have cast off the sadness of loss, as fighters must, and as Daegal banked north and Aelflede followed, he looked over his shoulder, and seeing her following in his wake, he playfully executed a series of rolls, turns and banks, laughing back at her over his shoulder. With mock defiance she followed his course exactly until he dropped back to fly at her wingtip.

“Where are you taking me?” Aelflede enquired.

“Somewhere I can have my wicked way with you fair dragon!”

“Yeah right! What about my wicked way, Buster? I’m a fighting dragon and don’t you forget it.”

“No chance of that. I saw you fight and injure that enemy dragon. You rock, Aelflede!”

After a short flight Daegal landed by a small, clear lake, nestled in a high valley.

“I thought we could swim off the smoke” he said. A shadow of sadness passed briefly over them both, before they shook it off. They leapt into the air in unison and dived deep into the still water. Aelflede was braced for an icy plunge, and nearly breathed in a lungful of water when she realised it was warm. She surfaced, spluttering and coughing, doing the sort of doggy-paddle that is a dragon’s swimming method. When Daegal surfaced beside her she splashed him, laughing.

“You idiot! Why didn’t you warn me it was warm?” For answer he took her hand and pulled her towards him. Dragon lips not being adapted to kissing, he flickered his tongue gently over her face, nuzzled her and stroked her neck with his free hand. Aelflede returned the caress, letting her talons emerge just enough for him to feel them.

“You know I love you Aelflede. I’ve loved you since you first came to the wing as a young trainee on an orientation trip.”

“I didn’t know then, but I do now. I’ve loved you nearly as long Daegal.”

“I was going to wait until you’ve been with the wing a bit longer, and give us the chance to spend more time together, but today has reminded me that life is too uncertain for waiting. We may have aeons together, but then we may not. With all we’ve been through in the last few months, and especially today, we know each other well enough. Will you pair with me Aelflede?”

“I will pair with you Daegal” She deliberately gave the formal response that formed part of the pairing ceremony. The ceremony would come later, after they had talked to their parents and got permission from the Wing Leader to pair while on active duty, but Aelflede counted their pairing from that moment.

Daegal’s arms came round her, their long, sinuous necks twined together, and anything that might have happened after that…..was no-one else’s business.


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