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Scrobscyr Dragon Saga - Chapter 5

Updated: Sep 28, 2023


War! It was a word Randolf had hoped never to hear again in his lifetime. Its true that a dragon’s lifetime is so long that almost anything can be expected to happen more than once, but this particular thing he could live without. He vividly remembered the last time the Scrobscyr clan had been in a genuine state of war, as opposed to the sporadic raiding across the border, that had prevailed for the past nine hundred or so summers. The raiding had been mostly from the Snotingaham side, since the Scrobscyr territory was well able to support its population. In the last war he had been a young dragon, recently graduated to a fighting wing and keen to prove himself. The last major battle of that war had been momentous and terrible. The Snotingaham Clan had formed an alliance with the Lunenwyc and Exancaestor Clans. Scrobscyr allies had been the Witancaestor and the Oxnaford dragons and the two armies ran to thousands of fighters. There had been appalling carnage on both sides. Deaths and injuries without number, and to no conclusive end. Neither side had gained the victory, all the clans had been devastated and the conflict had droned on and on for all these years as local hatred and guerrilla actions without ever becoming outright war. It had taken all these nine hundred summers to rebuild the population to a healthy level, and still, with every able-bodied dragon fighting, at least part of the time, they were stretched too thin to effectively guard the borders of their territory.

Between the dark and the dawn, Randolf was taking advantage of a lull in the constant stream of messengers to be answered, decisions to be taken and patrols to be reorganised, to just sit and think. He knew that they would have to try to revive the old alliances. As Leader of the council it fell to him to do it, but the Scrobscyrs had lost touch with the Oxnaford Clan over time. There were still occasional contacts with the Witancaestors, so it would hopefully be easier to enlist their help. If the Snotingaham Clan had allied with the Lunenwycs and Exancaestors as before, it was vital that the Scrobscyr Clan had allies too. It would mean flying very near the Snotingaham lands to reach the Oxnafords. Well he would ask no dragon to do what he was afraid to do. He would go himself. The first thing was to prepare the Clan as well as possible for war and make sure that a new leader was ready in case he didn’t return. Then he would go. It would have to be alone, because any attempt to cross enemy territory with a fighting wing escort would be disastrous. One dragon could slip through their defences more easily.

As his mate came out of the cave and crossed to him where he sat by the fire they had built last night, Randolf came out of his thoughts and held out his arm to her. She snuggled in beside him and he put his arm and wing around her.

“How are you?” she asked. Hilde too remembered the last war and understood what it would mean to him to be in a position of leadership in a new one.

“Sad and anxious” he replied. Their relationship was too old for polite fictions. “I don’t want to have to do this again. The pain, the devastation and the pointless losses. Most of all I don’t want to be the one sending dragons out to suffer and die. Why do those Snotingahams have to be so stupid? Can’t they be content with what they have? I know their land isn’t as rich as ours, or they wouldn’t have kept raiding for grazers all these years. Or perhaps its just natural cussedness….” He sighed and Hilde stroked his face lovingly.

“We’ll have to revive the old alliances won’t we?” she remarked. He nodded, smiling at how closely she echoed his own thoughts. They really had been paired a long time.

“Well, when you go, I’m going with you.” He looked at her speechless for a moment. He shouldn’t really be surprised at how quickly she leapt from her first question to his conclusion, apparently skipping several steps along the way. Randolf had long known that Hilde was more intelligent than him. Than almost any other dragon he knew, to be honest.

“No, you’re not!” he said, knowing it was pointless even as he spoke. Nothing he said would change her mind once she had made it up, and if he left without her, he had a feeling she would just follow him.

“Yes. I am.” She said quietly. She never raised her voice or lost her temper, but he said no more. It was settled. He admitted that it was no more reasonable to expect her to wait anxiously at home while he went into danger than to expect him to wait while she went. He remembered his sire saying that nine tenths of the law of chivalry is a desire to have all the fun, and Hilde was a Fighting Dragon, like most other females in the Clan. Before he had been elected Chief Elder, Hilde had been a Wing Leader, but she had resigned the position to support him in the onerous task of guiding the clan. He didn’t know how he would have managed without her quiet good sense and insightful advice, as well as her care for his wellbeing and that of all their many guests.

As well as all his other concerns, Randolf had an uncomfortable feeling that he was missing something. He had thought of something important when the raid was first reported, but had forgotten it again. He was just about to mention it to Hilde, when a trainee appeared round the shoulder of the mountain and landed at the edge of the grassy space. With a sigh, Randolf got up to attend the messenger, the first of many this day, he thought.

A little later in a busy day he heard that Blaedswith and the other two younglings had made it back safely. With immense relief he agreed that Fritha and Ceneric should answer her summons to look after their own and Blaedswith’s hatchlings while she went to find her mate Oswin, who was apparently injured on patrol. Fritha and Cerneric promised to return for a council meeting as soon as possible and Randolf went back to consulting with Hilde and Canute, one of the oldest dragons in the Scrobscyr clan, who no longer fought or flew patrols. Canute had been a wing leader in the previous war and had travelled to both the Witancaestor and the Oxnaford clan during the war and during the period afterwards, when relations between the allies were still close and dragons often visited their friends.

Randolf was trying to get Canute to give him a mental picture of the territories of their allies and to find out what Canute knew of their social structure and personalities. It was likely that at least some of the fighters Canute had known were still alive and part of the leadership, dragon lives being so long and vigour being retained so far into old age. Canute had been alive for more than two thousand summers and looked forward to at least another thousand. It was this longevity that made the death of a young dragon so tragic and of an old one so poignant. Canute, though mentally as vigorous as he was physically, was garrulous and given to rambling, and Randolf’s patience was running thin at present. He remembered now that this verbal diarrhoea was why he had avoided the old dragon for so long. It wasn’t due to age, he’d always been the same.

“So can you give me an idea of what it looks like from the air? Where the mountains are and so forth? And any centres of population?” Randolf ruthlessly interrupted a long story about a grazer hunt Canute and his friends had taken part in, over Oxnaford territory. Canute spluttered a bit and Hilde laid a calming hand on Randolf’s arm.

“Perhaps you could draw the territory for us” she said, smiling with a hint of flirtation at Canute, as though she found him irresistible.

“Certainly!” Flattered, Canute extended a talon and began to draw an ariel representation of the Oxnaford territory in the fine sand of the cave floor. Unseen by him, Hilde winked at Randolf.

“One to you my love.” Said Randolf, very privately to Hilde, his eyes twinkling at her. Canute was explaining his drawing and Randolf paid attention. His excellent dragon memory and inbuilt sense of direction would allow him to remember it when he needed it.

By the time he had extracted all the information he could from Canute and sent the dragon away with enough expressions of gratitude to keep him happy for a long time, it was late in the night and Randolf was exhausted, having had no sleep the night before. Hilde brought him food and when he had eaten, he curled up where he lay, by the fire in the cave and slept. Hilde made sure no-one disturbed him until just before dawn, when a message arrived that she knew he needed to hear immediately. Sending the messenger to the outdoor fire and detailing a trainee to take food to her, Hilde reluctantly woke her mate.

“I’m sorry love, but you need to hear this.” Randolf stretched and yawned. After a quick splash in the pool and a drink of water he went outside with her. Hilde fetched the messenger to him, not wanting the news to be overheard by the dragons around the fire.

The messenger gave her name as Edwina, a member of Fighting Wing 5. She was singed, dirty, bruised and smelled of dragon-smoke. A cut on her shoulder and some scratches on her neck added to the evidence that she had been in a fight.

“Not a fight Elder Randolf, a battle.” The weary messenger went on to relate the happenings of the previous night. How FW5 had gone to retrieve the body of the dragon injured the previous afternoon in the rescue of the younglings, and had been ambushed by a gang of Snotingahams.

“Although we beat them off, many of us were injured, more or less seriously. I regret to report that one of our comrades, Hungife, was killed in the fight. We also killed three of theirs. The dragon we went to find was still alive and has been taken to Patrol Post 10.”

Randolf and Hilde were silent a moment in shock. Although casualties were to be expected in a war, this was the first death of a dragon by violence in many years. The only deaths, and they were few, had been of natural causes, mainly of aged dragons and a few hatchlings who didn’t make it through the first few months, for various reasons. At last Randolf found his voice.

“Hungife. I remember her. I flew with her more than once when I joined FW5 for a patrol cycle.” The Leader of the Council of Elders was not normally assigned a patrol schedule, but Randolf tried to fly with as many of the Fighting Wings as possible, taking a tour of duty with each one in turn, whenever he had time. It helped him to get to know his comrades and to keep in touch with events, and with the feeling of the clan.

“She was a bonny fighter and a lovely dragon. Seemed popular with the others in her Wing, which is always telling. She will be missed.” He turned back to the messenger.

“Is there anything else to report?”

“Only that her burning will be tonight. The Wing Leader invites you to take part if you wish. After that he will disperse the Wing off duty for two days to recover from their injuries. He will agree cover with the leaders of Wings 3 and 7.”

“Thank you Edwina. Please feel free to use our hot pool and to sleep before returning to your Wing, if you wish.”

“You are very kind Elder, but I would prefer to return to my Wing straight away, if you have no further need of me. We are preparing for the burning, and will be holding vigil for Hungife this afternoon and evening. I would like to be with my comrades.”

“Of course, I understand. Would you please tell the Wing Leader that I will attend the burning and would like to speak, briefly, if that is acceptable to him and the Wing?”

“Certainly Elder.” With a courteous salute Edwina turned away and took off with out further ado.

Randolfe looked at Hilde. She wiped her eyes on her forearm and laid her hand on his arm.

“I’ll come to the burning too, of course Randolf. But for the moment we need to organise our trip to Witaencestor and Oxnaford. Also the trainees you sent for with the special abilities, I mean the trainees with the special abilities you sent for, will be here tomorrow and we need a plan for how best to employ them. Also we need to go to the Patrol Post early enough to talk to Thunerulf and get a full report of the battle, and to talk to the injured fighters. And you’ll want to talk to the Snotingaham dragon they captured. Also –“ she looked up at him until he raised an eyebrow at her. “You must eat! You may be the Leader of the Elders, but you’re still my mate and I intend to feed you whether you like it or not. Now come on or I’ll tell your mother!” She was pleased to hear him chuckle as she took him by the ear and led him a few steps towards the cave.

“Anything but that!” he said, taking her hand and going with her willingly.

The rest of the day passed in a blur of meetings, messengers and planning, culminating in Randolf, Hilde and most of the other dragons who had been working at Randolf and Hilde’s cave, which was now being called Headquarters, flying to Patrol Post 10 for Hungife’s burning. That was a moving and sobering occasion. Hungife had been a relatively young and a well loved dragon, and her Wing were clearly deeply affected by her death. Fighters from other wings with whom she had flown over the years had gathered and were clearly grieving. Even those who had never met her had come to pay their respects, and clearly found the ceremony emotional. Randolf hoped that the few words he spoke were appropriate and effective. After the burning, when FW5 processed solemnly to the edge of the plateau and flew off in tight formation there was scarcely a face without tears. Randolf gathered up Hilde and they took off for home, leaving the Wings in peace to deal with their loss. The dragon that FW5 had taken prisoner, or rescued according to your point of view, was not well enough to be questioned, so that was one thing less to do. Randolf and Hilde had visited and chatted with each of the injured fighters from FW5 before the burning.

In the early hours of the morning Randolf was called from the short sleep he had managed to catch by the arrival of a family from the Snotingaham clan seeking refuge. He came, rather blearily, out of the cave and went over to the fire, where he found Fritha and Grendel warming themselves. Both Elders had flown in recently in preparation for dealing with the trainees soon to arrive. After a few minutes Broga, Leader of FW3, brought the refugee family over. The parents were young as dragons count the seasons, scarcely more than a few hundred summers, and they each carried a hatchling. A moment’s scrutiny showed that the hatchlings were extremely young, not more than two days old and far too young to be away from the warmth of their hatching cave. Neither one looked well, indeed they appeared to be at death’s door. Under the circumstances Randolf didn’t attempt to question the adults about why they had come and from where. He simply bid them welcome, offered them hospitality and handed them over to Hilde, who he could feel was itching to get her hands on the hatchlings, with a promise to talk later in the morning. Resigning himself to not going back to bed, he mentally added another item to his ‘to do’ list for the day ahead.

About mid-morning a motley squad of trainees arrived. Of various ages, from those who had not long moved up from the Youngling Wings to those who were nearly ready for the Fighting Wings, they were rather subdued and presumably awed at being sent for by the Leader of the Council of Elders. Randolf and Fritha sat them down in a group and began chatting to them, trying to put them at ease. Fortunately, with the buoyancy typical of youngsters everywhere, this didn’t take long, and they were soon volunteering information about their own and each other’s abilities.

“Please sir, I can talk to my brother too, and he’s in a Fighting Wing.”

“Really? Well, when we’ve finished talking, will you please give his name to Mestra Fritha? And any other people that any of you can talk to at a distance, understand?” A chorus of “yes sir”.

“Please Mester Randolf, Brogan can move things for miles without touching them!”

“Not for miles, you idiot” the youngster next to him muttered, blushing.

“I’ll tell you what, Trainees, the best thing would be for you and Mestra Fritha to get together, when we’ve finished here, and for her to make a list of who can do what, who else you know that can do things, and how strong your abilities are.” He raised an eyebrow at Fritha, who nodded and smiled. She was exceptionally good with young dragons and, like all the clan, had an amazing memory. She would soon have the trainees sorted out.

“How did you all find out that you could do these things?” Randolf asked. A confused racket of answers resolved itself mostly into “We didn’t know we weren’t supposed to, we just did it.”

“Oh you are supposed to. You’re very much supposed to, but I wonder why you lot can do these things and we older ones can’t?” The question was largely rhetorical, but a bold youngster near the front piped up

“How did you know you couldn’t do it? I mean when you were younglings?”

“Well, we just knew. Our parents taught us….”

“Exactly, Master Randolf” interrupted Fritha crisply. “We were given to understand, from our hatching, that we could only talk to anyone we were physically close to, or to our mates, once we were paired. I for one, never tried to talk to another dragon from a distance, until the day before yesterday, when Blaedswith contacted me from my cave to here to ask me to come home. I managed to reply to her, though it was hard work.” Randolf’s eyes widened.

“You’ve done it yourself?” he asked in astonishment. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Fritha grinned at him.

“You didn’t ask” she couldn’t resist saying. Randolf gave her a mock scowl and the trainees giggled at this byplay between the two respected Elders.

“You think its just a matter of overcoming the blocks caused by being told that we can’t do it?” Randolf said thoughtfully.

“Possibly, but I don’t think it’s a matter of ‘just’ anything. How long have you believed that you couldn’t contact anyone except your mate at a distance?” Randolf huffed a bit. “Exactly. I think overcoming that sort of block may be beyond many of us at this point in our lives. And from what these dragons were saying not all of them can do everything. Some of them can heal, some can move objects, some can sense things that are beyond normal senses. Can you all do the distance communication thing?” she appealed to the trainees. All were sitting up a little straighter, proud to have been referred to as ‘dragons’ like full adults. They looked at each other and then nodded in unison.

Randolf rubbed a hand over his muzzle as he contemplated the trainees.

“Well it gives us a lot to think over. I want you all to try to teach some of the other dragons, both trainees and adults, how to do what you all do.” He turned to Fritha “Mestra Fritha, may I ask you to find some adults who are open minded enough to try this and sort out which trainees are to teach which adult? I’d like to try it on some trainees who haven’t learned to do this yet and see if they can learn it too. It may be that its only possible in extreme emergency once past a certain age, but I certainly hope it isn’t! When I return I’ll be in line for a lesson myself.” He had told Fritha of his forthcoming diplomatic mission. Fritha nodded her agreement and as he walked away he heard her beginning to organise the trainees.

Randolf interviewed Gareth

Randolf’s next task was to interview Gareth. Hilde had established in conversation with Gareth and Aewynn after their arrival, that Aewynn had been brooding and only knew what Gareth had told her, so Randolf did not propose to disturb her with questions when she should be enjoying her new hatchlings. To be fair, Gareth should be enjoying them as well, but the interview would not take long, Randolf hoped.

Indeed it didn’t and was not as productive as Randolf had hoped. Gareth was as open as the day, but it seemed he had not been in the confidence of the Supreme Leader of the Snotingaham Clan. Randolf mentally rolled his eyes at this grandiose title.

“I knew nothing of the purpose of the raid until I reached the cave where the gang used to hang out. When the leader of the gang told me what they were doing I was horrified, but I thought they were acting alone. It wasn’t until the Supreme Leader received my report so strangely that I realised he had ordered the raid. That was the moment I decided that we should leave Snotingaham.”

“In what way strangely?” asked Randolf, gently. He could see that the younger dragon was distressed by what the raiders had done.

“Well, I thought he’d be angry about them taking the younglings and also about trapping Blaedswith in the cave and leaving her to die, but he wasn’t. He wanted to know if we’d succeeded in bringing any of the younglings back, and when I told him about Blaedswith he just said the enemy must be crushed.” Gareth met Randolf’s eyes frankly. “I’m sure he is insane, Leader.” Randolf winced.

“Please, don’t call me that. I’m just one of the Elders who happens to have responsibility for guiding the Clan at the moment. I don’t have the sort of power that your Supreme Leader seems to wield. Don’t want it either. Just call me Randolf.” Gareth bowed his head in acquiescence.

“Do you have any idea what they were going to do with the younglings?”

“None at all. I assume they want them to increase our population and to replace some of the hatchlings that have died over the past few hundred years. Not all of the eggs the females lay are fertile, and the hatchlings are often not strong enough to survive hatching. Even the ones who do hatch don’t always make it to maturity. All but two of my own offspring have died, until this hatching.” His voice shook a little with remembered pain.

“What about the adult dragons? Is their health affected?”

“Very much so, Randolf.” Gareth’s use of the name was tentative, but Randolf’s smile encouraged him. “There seems to be a high incidence of illnesses of all types, and many dragons seem exhausted and lethargic. Also some of them don’t seem to be as bright a they used to be. And there’s a lot more aggression and general nastiness about. I’ve heard rumours that the land to the east is uninhabitable, and its certain that the population has crowded into the western region recently, so that the land can hardly support us.”

“How did you escape the effects then? You seem to me to be bright enough, and healthy enough?”

“My cave was away from the main centre of population, and high on a mountain. I don’t think I’ve escaped entirely. I often feel more tired than I should, and so does Aewynn. Her appetite has been poor lately too. Neither of us thought that this brood would survive, and there were only the two eggs.” Gareth sounded a bit defensive and Randolf laid a hand on his shoulder in support.

“I’m so sorry about your previous hatchlings. Hilde tells me that these two seem to be perfectly healthy, and with good food should grow up normally.” He felt Gareth relax a bit under his hand.

The two talked a little longer and Gareth explained that the clan had no structure to its fighting units as the Scrobscyrs did. It was up to parents to teach their younglings to fight, and when they were old enough the younglings would join or be recruited to one of the gangs that carried out raids on their enemies. Gareth thought that the Leader had formed an alliance with the Lunenwyc lot, but he hadn’t been privy to that part of the strategy. He reiterated that the Supreme Leader was determined to crush the Scrobscyr clan and take their lands for himself and his people, and explained that it was fear for the lives of his mate and hatchlings, as well as his abhorrence of the sort of behaviour that he had been seeing increasingly in the Leader and the gangs, that had made him decide to seek refuge with the Scrobscyrs.

When the interview had run its course Randolf went off to deal with a few more messages before the meeting of the Council of Elders, at which they would discuss strategy and he would arrange for someone to look after things while he and Hilde went on their diplomatic mission to the other clans. Pretty much any of the Elders could deputise for him. They were, in his mind, very much a council of equals, and the others knew everything that Randolf knew about the day to day affairs of the clan, as well as the current crisis.

It was late in the night before Randolf and Hilde finally extracted themselves and took off for the Witancaestor territory. They were accompanied by Chad, a trainee who could talk freely with other trainees at a distance, and Aeva, a Fighting Dragon whose main task was to protect Chad, though this had not been divulged to the Trainee, for the sake of his pride. Both Randolf and Hilde had been against the idea of taking the other dragons, arguing that the larger the group the greater the threat they presented and the less cordial their reception was likely to be, but they had to admit that this was overshadowed by the convenience of immediate communication with headquarters. Chad of course, was wildly excited by the prospect of such an important, and potentially dangerous mission, one which a trainee would never normally have the chance of joining. However, he was maintaining a solemn expression and keeping his thoughts disciplined. Randolf was favourably impressed with him. Aeva he had known for a long time and had fought with in more than one border skirmish. She was a calm and quiet dragon with a dry sense of humour, but a fierce fighter when the chips were down. Randolf could think of few dragons he would rather have at his side on a diplomatic mission that had the potential for disaster that this one had.

The four of them flew steadily northwards through the darkness. It had been agreed that they should first tackle the Witancaester dragons and try to persuade their leaders into a joint visit to the Oxnaford clan. Since the Oxnaford territory did not march directly with that of the Scrobscyrs, there was no easy way to get to them. The Oxnaford Clan lands were between the Witancaestors and the Snotningahams, and a triangular area came southwards to almost touch a corner onto Scrobscyrs land. The Scrobscyr territory being vast it was several hours flight from Randolf’s cave - Headquarters, he reminded himself - which was in the central range of mountains, to the northern border. They stopped for a short rest by a stream in the mountains towards the northern part of the territory, mainly for the benefit of the trainee, who had not yet reached his full strength and endurance. Though none of them would have admitted it, the adults were glad of the respite too. To avoid Chad feeling that he was slowing them down, they all said how much they needed a rest. Chad fell asleep almost immediately and the adults sat chatting among themselves until Randolf heaved himself to his feet. They woke Chad and, after drinking deeply at the stream, the party took off again.

Randolf decided to include Chad in the expedition to Witancaestor Clan

Dawn was thinking of breaking as they reached the border, which at this point was marked by a high pass in the mountain range that extended into both territories. It would have been easier to cross further west, where the border ran for a very short distance through the plains, but they had chosen the pass because it enabled them to build a fire to signal their presence. This would serve the double purpose of attracting the attention of a Witancaestor patrol, assuming they still maintained border patrols, and of making it clear that they were not attempting to cross the border secretly.

Below the timber line all four of them collected bundles of wood, which they carried in their talons as they flew up to the high pass. Chad could not carry as much as the others because his talons were smaller, but he amused them by carrying loads in all four sets of claws. After a couple of trips they had a good pile of wood, which they allowed Chad the pleasure of lighting for them. Since the light was not yet full their signal fire blazed out nicely and they sat round it enjoying the warmth. After a few minutes Aeva rose without a word and went higher up the mountainside where she could look out into the Witancaestor lands without being dazzled by the firelight. The fire was beginning to sink when she glided down again and landed in the pass beside the fire.

“Patrol headed this way.” She remarked laconically, taking up a position between the rest of the party and the incoming patrol. Chad immediately stepped up beside her and imitated her alert stance. With a secret smile at each other Randolf and Hilde joined the other two.

“A little less warlike, if you please Warriors” said Randolf mildly. “We are here to enlist their help, so we need to be fairly conciliatory.” Aeva threw him a very dry look, but relaxed her posture and tried to look casual. Chad copied her, self-consciously, and they waited for the patrol to arrive.

The twenty dragons of the Witancaester patrol did not look in the mood to be conciliated. The group came roaring up to the Scrobscyr dragons and flew in a decreasing circle around them, every head turned to look at them, a rainbow of eyes flashing in the firelight. After a few minutes the circle halted as one and hovered, muzzles trained on the four strangers, clearly waiting the command to turn them into small piles of ash. It appeared the Wing Leader was keeping his orders to his patrol on a private level. The one that Randolf had thought might be the Wing Leader spoke, abruptly.

“Who are you who dare to light a fire on our land?” Not the most auspicious beginning, thought Randolf. He made the split second decision not to let this piece of insolence pass.

“It is not your land, Witancaester Clan. This is the border between your land and ours. We are Scrobscyr dragons and we come to consult with your council. Be pleased to escort us to them Mester.” He saw Aeva glance sideways at him and Hilde said, on a private level

“Conciliatory. Good word that. Useful.” He didn’t have the spare mental capacity to respond, but promised himself he would get her back for that little dig. If they survived the next five minutes. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a trickle of flame come from the muzzle of one of the dragons in the circle, and more than one was steaming gently. Randolf took a step forward and without consultation the other two adults moved unobtrusively sideways so that they formed a protective triangle round Chad.

For a long, long moment there was silence, then the Wing Leader spoke again.

“Why should we not flame you here and be done with you, strangers?”

“If you flame us it would just be the beginning of your problems. It would be an act of war against the Scrobscyr clan. Do you want to be responsible for that Ealdwine?” The dragon’s head swung up in surprise.

“How do you know that name? Who are you?”

“I am Randolf. We fought together against the Snotingahams in the last war. Your Wing and mine were stationed next to each other on the border where the three territories meet.” The other dragon took a step forward and swung his head round to look more closely at Randolf.

“Randolf, yes I remember you. We shared a grazer one night when our Wings were resting. It was long ago….” He seemed to be reflecting for a few moments. “What do you here, old friend?”

“We need to speak with your Council of Elders. With respect, our business should not be discussed in this place.” Ealdwine regarded him a moment longer then gave a decisive nod.

“Let’s go then” he said. This time Randolf heard his command to the patrol to escort them, and the whole group, patrol and strangers, took off. The growing light showed country similar to that of the Scrobscyr territory, with a range of impressive mountains stretching away to the west and north, with grazing lands on the high plateaux. When they had left the northern edge of the border range, there was an area of grassland dotted with grazer herds and a large river running west towards the coast. Woodlands marked its passing and on the north bank stretched as far as even dragon eyes could see on either side for a couple of hours flight from the river. The forest gave way to grasslands with sparse tree coverage and Randolf could see another great mountain range looming ahead. The group had been flying for hours by this point, and Randolf was keeping a slightly anxious eye on Chad. He did not want the trainee to strain his muscles, but before he had become concerned enough to speak to Ealdwine, the Wing Leader gave the signal to land and brought them down beside a small river some distance before the foothills began.

“We will rest here. Feel free to drink and bathe if you wish.” At Randolf’s nod Chad paced eagerly towards the river and had a long drink before diving in. Randolf was pleased to note that he had the good manners to move downstream of where the other dragons were drinking for his swim. Aeva followed him, watchful as ever. Randolf turned to Ealdwine.

“Thank you Ealdwine. The young one has already flown far this night.” He said formally.

“I would not like so brave a youngling to be overstrained. Is he yours?”

“No, though I would be happy to own to him. He’s done well so far. He’s one of our trainees and there are reasons for bringing him but, forgive me my friend, I should discuss them first with the Elders”

“That’s fine Randolf. I appreciate your discretion. And I’m one of the council anyway, so I’ll hear them soon enough.” With a chuckle the Wing Leader made for the river himself. Randolf joined Hilde and enjoyed a refreshing drink and swim.

After resting, the group and their escort continued their journey into the north east of the territory and in mid-afternoon arrived at the cave of the Leader of the Council of Elders. Ealdwine introduced him as Oswald. He was relatively young to be Leader, but he had a presence and a gravity that inspired respect. His facetted eyes seemed to sparkle with many colours. For some reason this unusual colouring made Randolf feel vaguely uneasy for the first few minutes, but he forgot about it as the conversation moved from the formal diplomatic greetings into the reason for this visit. Oswald was suitably shocked at the capture of younglings by the Snotingaham clan and agreed that it was an act of outright war. He seemed less forthcoming about reviving the old alliance between the Scrobscyrs and the Witancaester dragons.

“I agree that this heinous act cannot be allowed to pass without punishment, but I am reluctant to commit my clan to a war that is not of our making. We have had no trouble, apart from border raids, for many summers and if we help you take your revenge on the Snotingaham clan, we will be inviting reprisals on our own territory.”

“You misunderstand us, Mester Oswald” Randolf deliberately used the title to underline his respect for the younger dragon. “we have no thought of punishment or of revenge. This will be no tit-for-tat cycle of raiding. We do not believe that this is a single, unplanned raid. We feel that it heralds a war of aggression. We also have intelligence that all is not well with the Snotingaham clan. Their hatchlings are few and many eggs are infertile or the hatchling not strong enough to emerge. Many of those that do hatch do not live to maturity and the adult dragons are not in good health. Something is wrong in that territory and we would like to find out what the problem is and if anything can be done to help the Snotingahams. If we are to negotiate with them to avoid outright conflict we need to make alliances with your clan and the Oxnaford clan. If we can ally with any other clans as well, it may be possible to force the Snotingaham clan to come to terms and let us help them.”

“Of course” said Oswald, eyeing Randolf with a shade of cynicism, to which Randolf took instant exception “you have no intention of keeping any of their territory for your own clan, which I hear has a healthy hatching rate…”

“Certainly not.” Randolf allowed a little of his indignation to colour his response but kept his temper firmly under control. “We didn’t seek this war and we don’t want it. However, I doubt that the Snotingahams have gone this far without intending to follow it up, and their intentions regarding territory cannot be in any doubt. I want to protect my clan, our territory and our younglings. Are you with us?” It was not good diplomatic practice to force a decision so early in the negotiations, but Randolf would be the first to admit that he was no diplomat. He was a fighting dragon and proud of it, but he was also plagued by a vague sense of urgency, which made him more than usually impatient with the pussy-footing around into which these meetings usually descended.

The change in Oswald at this bit of straight talking was surprising. He rubbed his hands together, his eyes sparkling even more than usual. His grin was decidedly predatory.

“Now you’re talking Mester Randolf! I’ll have to consult the council of Elders, of course, but for myself I’m with you, even if I come alone. I do like a good fight and no clan can be allowed to start stealing another one’s younglings. However” he added, more soberly “ I do agree that this cannot be a war of aggression with the intention of taking any part of their territory. If they have been driven to this because of problems in their environment or health, we must try to help them, if only for the sake of our own future.”

The two dragons gripped forearms in token of agreement and Oswald repeated the gesture with all his visitors. Young Chad turned a deeper shade of copper and his eyes gleamed in delight at being accorded this adult courtesy. Oswald then invited the Scrobscyr dragons to share a meal and to bathe and sleep in his cave while he consulted the other Elders. He promised that if they agreed to the alliance, he would accompany the Scrobscyr dragons to visit the Oxnaford Clan Elders the following day. Thankfully the four Scrobscyr dragons accepted his generous hospitality, enjoyed a good meal, a luxurious soak in Oswald’s large hot water pool and, aches and stiffness eased, curled up in the warm sands to sleep. Aeva did ask Randolf if she should stand guard, but he saw the relief in her eyes when he reassured her that they were safe enough and she should sleep. It would be another long and strenuous day tomorrow, and even the fact that it was not yet dark could not keep the dragons awake.

Oswald woke his guests before dawn with the news that the Council of Elders had unanimously agreed to re-form the alliance with the Scrobscyr Clan and that he and another Elder were ready to set out for the Oxnaford territory as soon as all had eaten. Breakfast was a brisk meal and the light was only just full when the enlarged group took off. They flew south east towards the border, stopping at Oswald’s suggestion to catch a large grazer each to take as gifts to the Oxnaford Elders. Randolf wished he had thought to do that before entering Witancaestor territory, but he would know next time. Apparently diplomatic relations had been maintained between Witancaestor and Oxnaford dragons since the last war, so there was no real danger in passing between territories. Unfortunately Randolf’s predecessor had had a much narrower world view and had chosen to cut the Scrobscyrs off completely from their former allies.

The meeting with the Oxnaford Elders went well and the three leaders parted on excellent terms. Randolf and his party set off homeward. Chad had been keeping the Scrobscyr Elders updated with what was happening, via his colleague back at headquarters, and now he reported as they flew that his group were on their way home. By arrangement, and to save distance, they flew diagonally across the Oxnaford land, to their junction with Witancaestor territory, just north of the border between Witancaestor and Scrobscyr lands. The leader of the Oxnafords had sent a couple of dragons with them to be sure that they were not molested by a patrol that had not yet had news of the alliance, and Oswald assured them they would be safe crossing the small area of Witancaestor land before reaching their own border. However shortly after parting from the other dragons and crossing into Scrobscyr territory, a cry from Chad made them all look to the west, squinting against the light. Out of the setting sun a large group of dragons was bearing down on them at speed. There must have been twenty of them and their demeanour knocked any thoughts that it might be a friendly patrol straight out of the ground. There was no chance that they could fight so many and Randolf only had time to send out a desperate mental bellow for help, not even thinking about the fact that he didn’t know how to contact other dragons than Hilde at a distance. In the nanosecond that he had to think about it, Randolf hoped that Chad had also had sense to send out a call for help.

“Land! Land!” he yelled “now, now, now!”

To their eternal credit, all three dragons complied without hesitation, even the trainee performing a neat sideslip in formation and landing at the edge of a large tract of woodland that extended to the border with Snotingaham lands on the west and Witancaestor lands to the north. The four of them scuttled, in a far from dignified manner, into the shelter of the trees. The sudden manoeuvre had caused the Snotingaham dragons to overshoot them and given them a few minutes to take cover while their attackers regrouped and circled back. Randolf was all too well aware of the flaw in his plan. A forest is not the best place to take hide from an enemy whose main weapon is fire.

“Now what?” asked Hilde, with understandable asperity.

“I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go along!” he answered rather testily.

“Well make it up quicker then. They’ll set this wood on fire in a minute, and the singed look isn’t in fashion this season.” He cast her a quick, approving glance, as Chad and Aeva chuckled, even while hurrying between the trees. Once away from the clutter of small shrubs and undergrowth that created a flimsy barrier at the edge of the wood, the trees were so tall that the dragons could fly between the massive trunks at a good height above the ground. Even then they were nowhere near the canopy.

“I think they’ll find it harder to set this wood alight than they expect.” Aeva remarked. “If I remember rightly, the leaves flare up easily but the wood is really hard to burn. We tried to build a fire of it once when we were on patrol near here. We didn’t succeed.”

“Well that’s good news, but if they burn off the leaves, they’ll be able to see us anyway. Keep going!” After a while Randolf landed his group and they sat quietly for a few minutes, trying to hear or see, through the thick canopy, if there was any sign of the Snotinaham dragons searching from above. For a moment there was silence, apart from the birdsong, which seemed nearly deafening to Randolf’s straining ears. Suddenly Chad gave a cry.

“They’re in the woods, they’ve followed us in!” The four of them leapt into the air and by common consent ascended to just beneath the canopy, but any idea they might have had about escaping through it was quickly squashed. The interlacing branches, twigs and leaves formed a dense barrier. Even if they had time to land on one of the massive limbs, they would never work their way out through the vegetation before the enemy came in sight of them. Their forest shelter had turned into a trap.

There was nothing they could do but carry on, weaving hazardously between the trunks, just below the canopy, hoping desperately for a break in the maze of twigs and branches. The Snotingaham dragons were in view now, spread out across the wood and flying slowly at mid height. They appeared to be searching the ground and Randolf silently urged his party onwards, hoping none of the searchers would think to look up. They strained to fly faster, thankful now for the birdsong and the slight breeze moving the leaves above and hiding the soft ‘whuff’ of their wings. A sudden shout from below and behind them, and their time was up. They had been spotted.

“Go, go!” shouted Randolf, a singularly pointless remark he realised, since they were already flying as hard as they could. The Snotingahams were gaining on them. Weaving frantically round a giant tree-trunk that seemed to leap into his path, Randolf tried desperately to see a way out. Just as he heard the dragon behind him take a breath to flame, Aeva shouted something incoherent and veered to her right and upwards. Following blindly, Randolf felt a burst of heat skim the end of his tail, even as he changed direction. Suddenly they passed out of the deep, shadowed green of the woods into sunlight and, climbing steeply, they burst through a narrow gap in the canopy and into the open sky. The chasing dragons overshot the opening and could be heard fumbling about in the woods below, as the Scrobscyrs turned south and west and headed for home as fast as their very tired wings would carry them.

As they passed over the edge of the forest into the plains Randolf heard a familiar hail and was beyond relieved to see a patrol of Scrobscyr dragons looming up in the gathering dusk, led by his friend Thunerulf. As they passed in mid-air, Randolf gasped out

“Snotingahams, in the forest.” Thunerulf replied, briefly “Understood. See you back at HQ.”

Randolf felt not a qualm of guilt at leaving the fresh, enthusiastic patrol, eager to avenge the death of one of their Wing, to deal with the enemy gang. He and his party flew steadily, wearily back towards Randolf’s cave. It was a long flight for already exhausted dragons and, more than once, Randolf considered landing to rest and refresh Chad. But each time he suggested it the young dragon stoutly declared his willingness to continue. It occurred to Randolf that if they landed he wasn’t at all sure that he would be able to take off again without a long sleep and a large meal, and the trainee probably felt the same. All wanted to get the flight over with and be able to relax and enjoy their rest.

As they flew Hilde said privately to Randolf

“How did the Snotingahams know where to find us?”

“That’s it!” Randolf exclaimed “that’s the thing I’ve been trying to remember these last few days. How did they know the Youngling’s Wing would be visiting the Training Wing, just at that time? We must have a spy somewhere in the clan. It’s the only explanation.”

At last, just when they felt that at their next wingbeat their muscles would seize solid and they would crash to the ground, they rounded the shoulder of a familiar mountain and saw the light of the fire that always seemed to burn outside the cave these days. With profound thankfulness they glided in and all four of them landed with more regard for speed than dignity. Hilde immediately began to coax Chad towards the cave. Exchanging glances with Randolf she gathered up Aeva with a jerk of her head, and the three passed slowly into the cavern.

Quite suddenly the strain of the past few days, the long hours of flying, the careful diplomacy, the sudden adrenaline rush of the attack caught up with Randolf and he felt what little strength he had left drain out of him. He went to the fire and spoke to the Elders who were on duty there. Afterwards he had no idea who they were or what he had said to them, and very little memory of going into the cave himself. He vaguely remembered Hilde ordering him to eat, and then chivvying him into the bathing pool. He lay in the hot water, feeling the aches sliding away from his wing-muscles, until he was nearly asleep. Rousing a little he was aware of Hilde splashing softly beside him as she washed her wings. As he gave her his hand to help her out of the pool he said sleepily

“I’m quite glad we’re not dead Sweetie.” Hilde looked at him sharply then, keeping hold of his hand, led him gently over to the double hollow in the sand where they had slept for the past 800 years.

“So am I my dear. We need to get at least as old and boring as Canute before that happens.” She spoke softly. He was already asleep. Hilde curled up beside him and spread her wing protectively over him before sinking into welcome slumber.

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