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Scrobscyr Dragon Saga - Chapter 6


Cerneric and Fritha debate whose turn it is to retrieve Athelswyth this time.

Cerneric flew steadily through the cool night air, Fritha beside him. His thoughts, however were much less ordered than his wing beats. He knew that other dragons saw him as Steady Old Cerneric. Never gets excited, always calm and logical. A safe pair of hands, but not really Wing-Leader material. No flair, no dash, not an exciting dragon. They had no idea of the battles he fought every day, just to get through the day. They didn’t know about his anxiety, his lack of self-confidence and his certainty that he would inevitable do or say the wrong thing in every situation, especially socially. Of course they also didn’t know about his romantic nature, his soft heart or the fiercely protective streak when his mate and family were threatened. Or his clan for that matter.

Fritha was the only one who really knew him and understood what went on in his head. She knew how hard it was for him to go to meetings. He would far rather be in a dragon fight with the enemy than in a meeting or at a party. Ridiculous for a dragon of his age who was, moreover a member of the council of Elders. Fritha was always telling him that his was the best type of courage, the type that was afraid and still did what was necessary. She could always make him feel better. He didn’t really know how he had ended up with such a beautiful, strong, brave female as his mate, but he loved her deeply and fiercely, and in spite of his self doubt, he knew that she felt the same about him.

As the fire that was kept burning day and night in front of HQ came into view he felt the familiar cold running down his spine and settling in his belly, the shaking, the nausea and the racing heart beginning. Fritha looked over.

“Deep breaths. You are an Elder and a warrior. Whatever you say will be received with respect, because you will not say anything daft. Ok?” Cerneric took some deep breaths as instructed and felt the panic recede.

“Thanks Sweetheart. You know me so well!”

“I just hope that old bore Canute isn’t there, banging on about what he said to Montgomery in the last war and how they were bosom pals. I doubt Montgomery would let his bosom anywhere near Canute”

Fritha’s tone made him laugh and he felt better at once. Canute was very old and had certainly been around during the last major war, about 900 years ago, but it was highly unlikely that he had actually spoken to the Council Leader of the day. Montgomery had been a highly celebrated warrior, while Canute had been a very young and unimportant member of a fighting wing. Canute was not on the Council, but had an unwelcome habit of turning up when a meeting was about to be held and it generally took the combined efforts of several of the more diplomatic Elders to get rid of him. In spite of her words, Fritha was always very patient and courteous with Canute, which made the old warrior even more fond of her.

Cerneric and Fritha landed and joined the other Elders at the fire outside the entrance to Headquarters, otherwise known as Randolf’s and Hilde’s cave. Randolf greeted the new arrivals and told them that Hilde had asked if Fritha would pop into the cave for a quick chat before the meeting.

“I think she’s concerned about Gareth’s hatchlings” he said vaguely. Fritha hurried into the cave where Hilde lost no time in taking her to look at the very young hatchlings resting in the hot sands with their mother. They seemed in good health, although very small, and Fritha gave Hilde a sidelong look.

“What’s up?” she asked her friend on a very private level. Hilde gave her a sly smile and ushered her into a smaller cavern behind the hot pool.

“You know we felt sure there was a traitor on the council?” Hilde said hurriedly. Fritha shook her head. “Well there was and we’ve found out that it was Bryni.”

“Never!” Fritha’s mental voice went up an octave, before she added “Mind you I couldn’t stand him. I’m sort of glad it was him and not one of the others.”

“I know you couldn’t and neither could I, so I know what you mean. However, he can’t have been working alone, and the trap we laid for him – I’ll tell you all about it when we get time. Don’t want to delay the meeting or make anyone suspicious – didn’t help us find out who was his accomplice. We’re going to tell the others about the traitor today and we need you to help us keep a watch on the rest of the council and see if anyone looks guilty.” Fritha was a bit sceptical about this idea.

“Do you really think that a spy is going to show any emotion during a meeting like this?”

“No, not really, but its worth a try, and we aren’t going to mention the accomplice. Hopefully if he or she thinks we don’t know about them, they’ll get careless. Anyway we just wanted to give you a heads-up before the meeting. You’ll tell Cerneric when you get the chance.” It was a statement not a question, but Fritha nodded.

“You set a trap for the rest of the council? Didn’t you think it would be a good idea to include me and Cerneric?” She asked ungrammatically.

“Don’t be daft!” said Hilde simply as they moved out to join the council. Fritha thought that she had seldom had a better compliment.

The meeting began with Randolf dramatically revealing that they had uncovered a traitor in the Council of Elders and that Bryni had been arrested, though he did not explain how this had been achieved. Fritha kept a careful eye on the rest of the Elders when the news was announced, but no-one showed anything other than the expected shock. Surprisingly, none of the Elders asked how they had found out or if they were sure. Randolf’s words were simply accepted. Cerneric sent her a shrewd glance and she knew he realised she know something more. She winked at him. Cerneric nodded. She would tell him later. Randolf informed the Council that, as War Leader, he had decided that a special War Council was required to deal with decisions that related purely to the war.

“For matters relating to peace-time Clan policies and laws, the full council will, of course, be called upon to legislate” Randolf announced in his most pompous voice, making Cerneric conceal a smile. Randolf was many things, but he was never pompous. “But I feel that for issues pertaining to the waging of such a war as we are now engaged upon, a smaller body will allow more agile decision making. I propose that Fritha and Cerneric, Hilde and myself should make up this War Council, with the power to co-opt others as we feel necessary. Does anyone dissent from this proposal?” Cerneric noted that most of the other Council members were nodding gravely, and more than a few looked relieved. Randolf waited a few beats then said “May I record the proposal as passed unanimously?” There was ripple of murmured agreement round the circle of Elders.

While Cerneric was more than a little shocked at unexpectedly finding himself part of the War Council, he was also mildly amused at the ease with which Randolf had effected the bloodless coup, and at the wish to abrogate responsibility for difficult decisions that had made the Council place almost unlimited power in the hands of four dragons. It was a good job that those four were warriors of integrity, courage and unswerving loyalty to the clan, he thought. And humility, he added with a wry internal smile.

Cerneric was somewhat surprised to find himself part of the War Council, at Randolf's request.

Among other business at the meeting, Randolf asked if anyone would like to work with the trainees to develop the new skills they were discovering. Most of the elders declined, but Cerneric and Fritha were keen to learn. Randolf invited them to remain behind to arrange the training and closed the meeting. When the other Elders had left, Randolf took Cerneric and Fritha into the cave for a meal, during which he and Hilde explained how the traitor had been caught.

“Have you spoken to him?” asked Cerneric.

“Yes, but he’s not saying anything useful. He doesn’t deny it, but all he can do is spout hatred for the council and the Clan.”

“Wasn’t his mother the one who was killed during training, about 300 years ago? I seem to remember she was Trainee Master and one of the trainees flew into her and knocked her into the path of another trainee’s flame. She was so badly burned about the face and head that she fell onto rocks and died of her injuries.” Cerneric vividly remembered the shock and grief that had gripped the community after the accident.

“That’s the one. He blames us all for it, though he was a mature dragon at the time and must have known it was a pure accident. He must be 700 years old. He’s never mated though and was still living in his parent’s cavern. Still is, if it comes to that. There’s something obsessive in his nature if you ask me. I was very surprised when he was elected as an Elder a few years ago, and not too pleased actually, but he could be charming when he wanted, so I suppose he made an effort to please the dragons in his settlement so that they would elect him.” Randolf never spoke ill of another dragon, except perhaps to Hilde in private so, coming from him, this was a damning assessment of the traitor’s character.

“What are we going to do with him?” asked Fritha thoughtfully.

“That’s one of the things I wanted to discuss with you. I haven’t the faintest idea how to deal with him. We can’t let him go because he’ll run straight to the Snotingahams with all the details of our strength, resources and patrol patterns. It’s no good exiling him because he will just fly back. I don’t want to use vital fighting dragons to keep him imprisoned, and we don’t have anywhere suitable to keep him. We’re just not set up for this sort of thing. Prisoners of war we can deal with. We just keep them somewhere safe until we can exchange them or they give their parole, but I wouldn’t trust Bryni’s parole if he carved it on his chest with a blunt talon!”

“Execution?” Cerneric’s quiet tone and serious expression gave no doubt that he was in earnest.

“I really believe that death is the appropriate punishment for his offences. But I’m not sure that I could do it, and I certainly won’t ask any other dragon to carry it in their heart. If he is to die, it must be by my hand.” Randolf was too honourable a dragon to delegate a task like this, nor had any of them expected anything different from him.

“We would need to get approval from the council” said Cerneric gravely. “If we can do that, I am willing to stand with you and join in the execution.”

“And I” said Fritha firmly.

“And if you think I’m going to let you do this without me, you really are an old fool!” was Hilde’s acerbic contribution.

“Thank you my friends” Randolf took Hilde’s hand and looked round the little circle. “Strictly speaking there is no need to consult the full council, given the decision made today. We are empowered to deal with the matter ourselves. However, for such a momentous matter I think it’d be good to include everyone. We will talk to Bryni again, but if he remains obdurate we will convene the Council. We also need to think about how to execute him, if we have to do it. God, I wish we didn’t!”

The talk turned to how to find the traitor’s accomplice but they were at a loss to know how to proceed. If they started asking questions it would certainly alert the traitor that they knew he or she existed. When they were laying the trap, they had wanted to follow the elders after each had been given the false information to see whom they met, but it would have been impossible to keep such a task secret. Bryni had not been the only Elder to leave HQ that evening, but it was not unusual for them to come and go during the course of a day. There was so much bustle and activity at HQ that it was difficult to keep track of a particular dragon, even if you tried, and they had not wanted to alert any of the suspected Elders to the fact that they were being watched. They could only hope that the accomplice would be rendered useless without his high level associate.

“The first task facing us as a War Council is to try to find out more what has prompted the Snotingahams to escalate the conflict. We’ve rubbed along with no more than desultory raiding on their part for the past 900 years. Why now?”

“We were talking about this on the flight here” rejoined Cerneric. “Something must have changed in their clan. It may be just a more ambitious or aggressive Supreme Leader, but that doesn’t ring true for me.”

“According to the debriefings we’ve had with Gareth and Aewyn, the health of the clan has been deteriorating for some time.” Interjected Hilde. “The fertility and fecundity of the adults are reduced, and you’ve only got to look at their hatchlings to see how much smaller they are than any of ours. Also, Aewyn and Gareth have only managed to rear two other hatchlings to maturity in their 400 or so years of being paired. Several of their broods didn’t survive hatching, some didn’t even get as far as hatching, and others died before they reached the youngling stage. I would certainly not believe that is due to any lack of care by the parents. They are a loving, responsible and hard working couple.” It was clear that Hilde had taken the refugee family under her capacious wing.

“It needs someone to go into Snotingaham territory and scout out the land” said Fritha thoughtfully. “I’m convinced its something in the environment that’s poisoning them.”

“Don’t even think about it!” The look Cerneric turned on his mate left no doubt of his feelings. “You are not going. At least until the brood have reached youngling stage.”

“And do you think you’re more expendable than me? They need you just as much!” No one, including Cerneric, expected Fritha to accede without argument.

“I daresay they do, but someone has to go. Randolf and Hilde are too busy and too valuable at the moment. Randolf can’t delegate being War Leader to anyone until we are sure whom we can trust. Hilde is indispensable. And we must leave one other member of the War Council here with them. I’m the logical one to go.”

“Old friend” Randolf’s mental tone was full of feeling “this is something I can’t ask you to do. I wouldn’t ask any other dragon to do it. It could be suicidal.”

“You haven’t asked me. I’ve volunteered. You three have all had your moments of heroism in this war already. Don’t deny me mine.” Randolf and Hilde both made the gesture of laying a hand on the heart and inclining the head respectfully. The gesture of one accepting a great gift, or saluting a leader. Fritha’s expression suggested that he had not heard the last of this. He resigned himself to a heated marital exchange when they got home.

After prolonged discussion it was agreed that Cerneric should not go alone. In spite of Fritha’s strong representations, none of the others agreed that she could be part of the expedition. The risk was too great, and the chance that their latest brood might be orphaned was not to be thought of. At last they settled on a party of three, led by Cerneric. His companions would be Aeva and Oswin, if they were both willing. There was no question of ordering any dragon to undertake such a task, they would have to volunteer.

“I’d like to send Thunerulf” murmured Randolf “but he’s still on sick leave, and anyway I can’t ask him to leave Aethling so soon after their pairing.”

“Aeva and Oswin are both brave and resourceful dragons” Hilde reminded him “and both are loyal.”

“Yes, I know” Randolf sighed. “I just hate not going myself. Its such a nasty job, it feels entirely wrong to let someone else do it!”

“That’s why you’re the Council Leader. You don’t want to delegate the dirty work to others. If you did, you wouldn’t be fit for the task.” Fritha’s quiet statement effectively ended the discussion and Hilde called in one of the trainees, who were acting as runners, and asked her to summon Aeva and Oswin. Not that she put it like that.

“Would you be kind enough to ask Oswin and Aeva to come to Headquarters as soon as is convenient for them?” was her courteous request. The trainee blushed a bit with pleasure at being addressed as an equal, and scurried off to make the contact.

Aeva and Cerneric discuss their mission with Randolf while waiting for Oswin to arrive.

It was late afternoon when the party set out for Snotingaham territory. They aimed to arrive at the border by full dark and would take their time on the journey so as not to arrive exhausted. To confuse any watchers they set out northward, as though they were heading for Witancaestor lands, veering off to the east when out of sight. They intended to hit the border in the mountains, north of Patrol Post 10. Cerneric and Fritha’s cave was not far north and west of the Post, and the temptation to call in to see his hatchlings was very strong, even though Fritha was still at HQ. Cerneric didn’t want to get them all excited only to leave almost immediately, and he also knew that he would have trouble forcing himself to go, once he was at home with his babies. So they ploughed steadfastly through the skies towards enemy territory, from which they were all well aware that they might not return.

The plan was to cross the border in the dark and find somewhere high on the edge of the mountains, where they could see patrols approaching from a good distance. They would then begin to scout the territory in the daylight, keeping a high altitude and looking for anything untoward. It seemed a hopeless task, but Blaedswith had mentioned that there had seemed to be a faint tang in the air when she was taken to the cave where she was imprisoned, and that it had been more noticeable as they went deeper into the territory.

From their secluded viewpoint they scoped out what they could see of the Snotingaham lands, which was a fair bit, given the powerful vision of a dragon. There seemed to be very little movement in while the darkness lasted, but during the following day they spotted numerous groups of up to a dozen dragons flying around the area. They didn’t seem to be following regular patrol patterns, or coming and going from one particular point, such as a headquarters. Some seemed to be hunting over the plain immediately below, with less than optimum success, and on a couple of occasions the watchers saw a fight break out over a grazer carcass. There didn’t seem to be much understanding of sharing or comradeship. At one point Cerneric caught himself muttering “disgraceful behaviour. Should be ashamed…” He chuckled privately finding himself fulfilling the stereotypical old soldier role, bemoaning the shortcomings of the younger generation, and thought that he must tell Fritha about it when he got home. It was clear, however, that not all the dragons were young, and Cerneric sobered when he saw one who appeared to be older than himself snarling at a youngster to keep him away from the kill. The worst part about it was that the youngster had killed the beast in the first place. Among the Scrobscyr clan the young were so valued that an adult was more likely to give up their own kill to a young dragon than to take one away.

As the day moved on it became clear to the watchers that they could not hope to leave their hiding place in the daylight. There was too much movement. In the late morning Cerneric said to his companions

“Get some sleep. I’ll take first watch. We’re going to have to move by night. No good going out in the daytime with all this lot messing about in the area.”

“I didn’t think the Snotingaham population was this big” remarked Aeva. “They must be overcrowded to have this many out and about, just in this area.”

“They must have been busy. We haven’t managed to repopulate our land to this extent since the last war, and Scrobscyr isn’t that much bigger than Snotingaham. Is it?” Oswin didn’t sound sure, but Cerneric hadn’t a clue how far the enemy territory extended to the East, so didn’t comment. The northern and southern borders were known because of the shared border with Scrobscyr, but if there was intelligence about the ultimate size of the lands, Randolf hadn’t seen fit to share it with Cerneric.

When the mountain upon which they were perched stretched its shadow far across the plain Aeva, who had the last watch, woke Cerneric and Oswin. The three friends watched the shadow lengthen and lengthen until it merged into the falling dusk. There was no activity on the plain now, but just before dusk became darkness, they spotted quite a large group of the enemy flying purposefully westwards.

“Thunerulf’s Wing will have an interesting night” remarked Aeva, dispassionately.

“Or Cedric’s” agreed Oswin, referring to the Wing patrolling the southern part of the east border of Scrobscyr.

“Depending on where they cross” finished Cerneric. The three grinned at each other. It went against the grain to let the enemy gang pass unmolested, but they had no doubt that the border patrols would intercept and deal with them. Truthfully, they would all rather have been flying in an honest to goodness patrol than “sneaking about this godforsaken land” as Oswin put it.

When the enemy were out of site, the fact finding expedition at last got underway. Although they could see quite well in the dark, it was more difficult to make out details of the land, but when they had crossed the plain and were passing over the next mountain range, they could see by the glimpses of firelight in many caves that they were passing over a centre of population, much larger than any in Scrobscyr. Pressing on, they passed over a large area of forest at the foot of the mountains and over another plain and another mountain range. In these mountains there appeared to be no dwellings. They didn’t see a single cave fire. Cerneric was pleased they had stopped to hunt and had eaten well before leaving Scrobscyr. He was quite hungry by now, but didn’t fancy eating any of the scrawny and ill-favoured grazers they had seen that day.

All three of them were now aware of the ‘tang’ that Blaedswith had mentioned in the air. They had first noticed it after crossing the first plain, but it was getting stronger.

“Smells a bit like sulphur” Oswin sniffed tentatively.

“Yes, but there’s something else in it” Aeva probably had the most sensitive nose among them.

“Something toxic, that’s for sure.” Cerneric grimaced in distaste. The three flew on.

Following the scent, they turned south along the mountain spine they were crossing and kept going until, sometime just before dawn, the smell became so strong they could hardly breathe.

“No good, must land” Oswin coughed convulsively, and the three friends circled downwards, looking for a good landing site.

“On that ledge” Cerneric pointed to a small area on the north face of a mountain. “That peak should shelter us from the smell a bit since the wind’s coming from the south.”

Behind the wall of rock the air was indeed a little less stifling and they crouched in the lee of it and breathed carefully.

“We must be getting near to whatever it is, but it’s no good us all poisoning ourselves trying to find it” gasped Cerneric. “You two stay here and I’ll fly on a bit and see if I can find the source”

“I know you’re leading this expedition Cerneric, but try not to be more of a fool than you can help!” snapped Oswin. “You’ll never survive it. How long do you expect us to sit here waiting for you? A day? A month? A year? We all go or none.”

“At least we know now why all the population is crowded into that one area.” Aeva sprawled against the cliff, looking pale and sick.

“And why the grazers as well as the dragons in this part of the world are doing so poorly. Are you going to contact Randolf to report? It must be convenient to be able to do all this long distance stuff. Quite beyond me.” admitted Oswin.

“Not sure if I can reach him, but I can probably contact Frith. You’re right, that should be our next move.” Cerneric sat down and closed his eyes. Okay, he knew the trainees said it wasn’t necessary and he could talk to Fritha just as well with his eyes open, but it felt like the right thing to do, and he was jolly well going to do it.

“Fritha! Are you there dear?”

“I’m here Cerneric. Are you alright?” The answer came back so clearly he had to open his eyes to check she wasn’t standing next to him.

“I’m fine, but we think we’ve found the problem. Something is making a terrific stink and the air smells of sulphur and stuff. There seems to be a lot of dust and ash in the air. Reckon a volcano is erupting somewhere near. We are struggling to fly any further because of the bad air. What do the Council want us to do next?” He felt he should say something like “over to you” to signify the end of his contribution, but that seemed silly.

“I’ll talk to Randolf and Hilde and get back to you. Stand by.” Although Fritha’s tone was crisp and business-like he felt her concern and her love through the bond. He had to stop and think whether that was something he had felt before or if it was peculiar to this new form of communication. He came to the conclusion that it had always been there, but that concentrating harder to make the connection had made him more aware of the texture of it. He resolved to take more notice when talking normally and see if he could discern anything more than he usually did.

The three tired dragons waited on the ledge, huddling close for warmth, for the high altitude and a cold wind from the south seemed to suck out their remaining energy and with it the very heat of their bodies. In the almost unbearable stench borne by the wind, the time seemed to stretch out interminably. Suddenly Cerneric sat up.

“Wait. I am an old fool! We can circle round and approach this from upwind. Why didn’t I think of that before. It feels as though my head’s full of fog.” The other two looked up, comprehension blooming in their eyes.

“I think it’s the effect of the fumes. I have a splitting headache, and can’t seem to think at all” confessed Aeva.

“Let’s go!” Cerneric didn’t wait for their assent, he leapt off the ledge, swooping downwards before the strong beats of his great wings bore him up again. He turned east, feeling that it would be foolhardy to try to go far enough back west to get round the toxic fumes. They would reach inhabited land before they got out of the invisible cloud. The problem was that he didn’t know how far east they would have to go before they would be able to turn south again without being poisoned. It could be a long trip. As they flew he sent a quick message to Fritha saying what they were doing.

The land below was desolate. There was no sign of habitation in the mountains and the plains seemed to have little vegetation. The trees that were still standing were leafless and when they passed over what had been a forest, many of the trees had fallen. There seemed to be no wildlife, no grazers. The rivers seemed clean enough, but they could see no sign of fish or other life in the clear waters. They flew steadily for several hours before green grass and living trees began to appear. Cerneric was dead tired and so hungry that he was starting to wobble a bit. He knew they all needed food, water and rest very soon, but not until they reached a clean, safe place. There had been little conversation on the flight. Idle chit chat seemed irrelevant in the face of the devastation below them.

By the time they reached a place where the grass was green, the trees in full leaf and the grazers were plentiful, all three were on the verge of collapse. At Cerneric’s word they banked round and glided down to approach a herd of gazers upwind. One of the herd saw them and barked an alarm, but when the three dragons rose into the air, each bore a grazer in their claws. It was good manners in the Scrobscyr clan not to eat in the same area that you had caught your grazer, so as not to upset the herd with the smell of blood thereby causing them to seek other pastures, so the three flew to a nearby area of rocky ground before landing. There were no manners at all in the way that they fell upon their prey, and by the time they paused for breath there was nothing left but a few bits of bone and some mane hair.

Feeling much more the thing, they moved, by mutual consent, under a small copse of large trees before curling up to sleep, hoping the foliage would conceal them from any aerial patrols. All being seasoned soldiers, they had no trouble in waking at the time they had agreed, after three hours of profound sleep. Cerneric was conscious that it would have been more provident to have set a watch before they slept, but none of them had been in a condition to stay alert, and doing so would have extended the time they had spent resting. Anyway, it was done now, and they had not been discovered, so it was no use worrying about it. They had, Cerneric thought, quite enough to worry about.

“I say you two” Cerneric remarked as they stretched and scratched and prepared to take off again “I feel a bit confounded about how to find our way back to the source of the fumes. I wasn’t expecting the effects to have spread so far east and its going to be the very devil to decide how far south to go to get upwind of the source. Looking back, we should probably not have come right to the clean lands before turning south. What do you reckon?”

“I see what you mean old chap” Oswin’s tone was thoughtful. “But I don’t see what we could have done differently. There’s nothing safe to eat or drink in that mess and we needed food. I wouldn’t have cared to rest there either. Don’t beat yourself up about that side of it.”

“That’s right Oswin. We needed fresh food and water, but we do need to find our way back to somewhere south of where we were. And as we don’t really know where we were, that could be a bit tricky.” Aeva was as matter-of-fact as always.

“I reckon we should fly south west and change course according to the state of the fumes we find along the way. As we’re all fed and rested now, we should be able to cover the distance we need to, even if we have to zig-zag a bit.” Cerneric felt more confident since his companions didn’t seem to blame him for his decisions.

“You zig and we’ll zag, and see if we meet at the mountain.” said Oswin humorously, misquoting a song popular in some circles.

“The old ones are the best” Cerneric heard Aeva murmur, in a resigned tone as they took off.

After close to four hours steady flying on a heading that had altered over time to south, south west, the air reeking in their nostrils and stinging their eyes more and more as they travelled, they felt a slight improvement in the air quality. When it was certain that the air was getting fresher they turned due west for a short time, then began tacking back and forth across the range they were crossing, seeking any clue to the source of the fumes. On the fourth tack, listening to Aeva and Oswin wrangling amicably about whether it was a zig or a zag, Cerneric spotted a tall spire of smoke or steam slightly to the north. He called the others to order and they changed course directly towards it.

As they approached it became clear that it was a vent in the crater of a semi-dormant volcano. It was a relatively small opening, only some five dragon lengths across, but it was throwing out fumes and steam at a surprising rate. For safety, they landed a little way down the steep side of the volcano. The wind was firmly set from the south and blowing the column of steam away from them, and Cerneric reckoned that he could climb up to it and have a look to see how far down it went. When he broached the subject, Aeva and Oswin were understandably unimpressed with the idea.

“Nonsense! What am I going to say to Fritha if you get poisoned by those pesky fumes?” Cerneric knew that Oswin’s habitual joviality and mock bluster was a cover for a sharp mind, a courageous spirit and a fierce loyalty, and he smiled at his old friend.

“The same thing I would have to say to Blaedswith if you go instead, which I know you’re about to suggest, so just forget it!”

“Well I don’t have a mate, so just let me go and we’ll get it over with” interjected Aeva, decisively.

“Mates are not the issue here. I am, as Oswin so kindly reminded us earlier, in charge of this expedition, and I’m not going to ask someone else to take the risks. I will however, expect you both to risk your lives selflessly to pull me back from the edge if I am overcome. Clear?”

“Fair enough” Oswin knew when he was wasting his time. “Try not to fall down the hole though. I’m blowed if I’m climbing down there to get you.” Cerneric looked at Aeva. After a moment she nodded curtly.

“We’ll come up to the lip so we can see if you fall in.” She had always been a dragon of few words.

Cerneric and Aeva climbed the volcano

Cerneric couldn’t deny that he was apprehensive. Ok, downright scared if he was honest, but he set off up the volcano with a mixture of determination and caution, closely followed by his comrades. The rocks were a combination of rough porous lava and sharp, slippery volcanic glass. In places there were walls of solid rock, in others a loose, treacherous shale, with razor sharp edges that could cut even a dragon’s tough feet. Cerneric couldn’t think of a more unpleasant place to climb or, should he be overcome by fumes, a more dangerous place to fall down. Eventually he reached the lip of the crater and made his way cautiously over the top. There was a fairly wide area of bare lava rock around the edge of the crater, with the surprisingly round hole in the middle. On the east of the crater lava had piled up to form a high, curving cliff, like a wave about to break. The fumes seemed to curl up under the peak and hang about in that area, while the main column of smoke or steam or whatever it was, was blown fairly cleanly away from where Cerneric stood.

With great caution Cerneric climbed over the lip and let his weight down gently onto the floor of rock. He knew just how brittle lava can be and was afraid the crater floor would break away and drop him into the throat of the volcano. It seemed stable however, and he began to make his way towards the edge of the hole. He caught himself tiptoeing in an effort to tread more lightly. From the lip behind him Oswin remarked quietly

“It doesn’t matter how much you tiptoe, you’ll still weigh the same, yer know.”

“And there’s no need for you to whisper. I doubt you’ll make any difference to the crater if you shout” he retorted. Treading with care he made his way cautiously to the edge of the hole. In spite of the wind at his back, the fumes rose up around him and the stench of them made him feel sick. His head was beginning to ache and he felt dizzy, but he lowered to his belly and crawled on until he could look into the depths.

The shaft plunged into the earth’s crust far beyond the range of his vision. He picked up a loose fragment of lava and cast it into the darkness. For a long time he could hear it bouncing and crashing off the walls of the shaft, but he never heard it land. His lungs were burning and his vision was going blurred. He knew he had to get out of there, but he took a last, long look, trying to take in every detail of the chasm below. At last he began to crawl backward from the edge. He didn’t trust himself to rise to all four legs, or to try and turn round, until he was well away from the danger of falling into the hole. When he did try to rise he was surprised to find his legs wobbling under him and his balance completely upset. He staggered and weaved towards where he hoped the lip of the crater was. His head ached so violently that he couldn’t really see at all. Just as he collapsed in a boneless sort of heap, he felt his arms grabbed and he was hauled up willy-nilly onto his hind legs. With his arms firmly held by Aeva and Oswin, the three of them waddled awkwardly, but hastily, to the lip of the crater and over the edge. Losing their combined footing they slipped and slithered a little way down the slope, before they somehow got wedged behind a boulder and their slide stopped.

Once they had sorted out whose limb was which and disentangled tails, Cerneric limped a few dragon lengths away and was thoroughly and horribly sick. Emptied out and feeling cold and weak, he stumbled back to the others and sank onto the ground.

“Give me a minute.” He gasped, in response to their anxious questions. “Head’s aching something awful.”

“Breathe deeply” advised Aeva “get some clean air into your body. That should help with the sickness and the headache.” Cerneric felt that nothing would help with either the sickness or the headache, and that he would take both of them to the grave that he hoped waited in his immediate future. At the moment he just wanted everything to stop, and considered death a small price to pay for the end of his suffering. However, knowing the tenacity of a female in nursing mode, he did his best to obey and drew great breaths of the relatively clean air into his burning, lungs. After a bit of coughing he found to his surprise that he began to feel better straight away. It was only a few minutes before he was able to sit up and speak coherently.

When he had explained the topography of the chasm to his team, they sat for a few minutes in brooding silence. As his head cleared, however, a further detail came back to him. The sides of the hole tapered inwards, until, at a point just within his range of vision, he would have sworn it became an opening no more than half a dragon length across. He told them what he had seen.

“It gives me an idea.” He said thoughtfully. “If we could block that opening, we could perhaps stop the flow of the fumes altogether.”

“Wouldn’t the top just blow off again though?” asked Oswin.

“I think we’d have to try and fill in the whole thing, down as far as the smallest part of the opening. Not sure how, it would take some planning, but it’s a possibility. Let’s get somewhere a bit more salubrious and report, then go home.”

The three dragons flew directly west, now that they were south of the desolate lands, knowing that the approaching darkness would cover the last part of their journey over habitable areas, and prevent them being accosted by a patrol. If indeed the Snotingahams ever mounted something as structured as a patrol. The day waned rapidly as they flew and the land below them was wrapped in shadows before they lost sight of the sun. Night was full as they approached the border, having seen no other dragons. Just before they reached it, however, Aeva spotted something, low down, heading for the border. It was a pair of dragons, flying with such focus, or such carelessness, that they were oblivious to the danger above. With a quiet word on the private level, Aeva alerted Cerneric and Oswin. Cerneric nodded and the three side-slipped silently down to the same level as the other pair. Suddenly dropping the last few lengths to match flight path with the enemy, the three dragons took up formation on either side of and behind the pair. It took a moment for the Snotingaham dragons to spot their escort. When they did, they shied wildly towards each other, colliding in a tangle of wings and falling several lengths before they sorted themselves out. When they had, they were so close to the ground that Cerneric used his command voice to order them to land. Although they had spotted the escort on either side of them they hadn’t noticed Cerneric behind them. He saw the whites of their frightened eyes as they dropped immediately to the ground.

Once landed, Cerneric, Aeva and Oswin took up positions around the two dishevelled Snotingahams.

“Wh-where did you come from?” stammered one, rolling his eyes in an effort to see them all without moving his head.

“More to the point – where are you going?” asked Cerneric sternly. He hadn’t really expected an answer, but the other was so discombobulated that he blurted out

“Into Scrobscyr to find some younglings” before he had time to think about it.

“What’s this obsession with our younglings?” Asked Oswin testily. “I can’t believe you have so many barren and bereft females pining for young ones to nurse!”

The enemy dragons looked so surprised that the three exchanged glances. Clearly that theory was not correct.

“I think you need to talk to our Elders. We’re taking you to them, so take off when I say, fly where I say and land when and where I say. And if you so much as twitch a whisker in a way I don’t like, I’ll flame you out of the sky. Now get!” Cerneric tried to sound as menacing as possible, and let a little spurt of flame leak out of his muzzle with the last words. The Snotingaham dragons leapt into the air with startled squeaks as their escort took off, and the motley formation set off towards the border. As they flew Cerneric sent out a hasty call to Fritha for reinforcements. He doubted that the three of them could keep the two prisoners under control all the way to HQ, given how tired they now were.

The journey to HQ proved uneventful. The weary trio and their prisoners were met by half a Wing of dragons from the nearest patrol post before moonrise and, their responsibility ended, they followed the patrol, almost in a daze. Cerneric reckoned he’d been flying in his sleep, since he was taken by surprise when the patrol began to lose altitude to land at HQ, and he nearly overshot them. He woke up fully though when Fritha came to wrap her arms and wings around him in a hard hug.

“Thank goodness you’re safe. You mopsy!” she scolded lovingly. “Whatever were you thinking? Come and have a drink and some food. How could you risk yourself like that? You look tired, have you slept? I’ll never let you go off on your own again!” Moved and amused in equal measure by seeing his imperturbable Fritha so flustered, Cerneric made no attempt to answer any of her questions. The words flowed soothingly over his jaded and weary spirit and he followed her meekly into the cave, where he drank from the cold spring and sat with his two comrades while Hilde brought food, while Fritha went out to help Randolf.

“Where are my hatchlings?” he roused himself to ask.

“They’re here. A bunch of the trainees are looking after them, and they’re having a whale of a time, hatchlings and trainees both. Blaedswith is on her way with your hatchlings” she added to Oswin. “Since you are all needed here it seemed best to bring both broods, and I expect there’ll be others before we’re done. I think we may just have invented a hatchling wing!”

“I’ll go and see them when I’ve eaten.” Cerneric had missed his hatchlings and was very glad they were here where he could keep in touch with them and not miss their growing up.

Before they had finished however, Randolf came into the cave looking exceptionally grave, with Fritha following. They had been interrogating the prisoners, and Cerneric’s heart sank at Randolf’s expression. The group waited courteously for the Council Leader to speak.

“We have found out why the Snotingahams wanted our younglings. It is worse than we supposed.” Hilde went to her mate and laid a hand on his arm.

“Tell us, Love.” He looked at her compassionate face as though he couldn’t remember quite who she was.

“They are going to use them to create soldiers to fight against us. They plan to torture them and deprive them of everything they need until they are too weak to resist, then start to build them up again, teaching them that we are the enemy and that all good things come from their captors. They call it ‘brain-cleaning’.” He fell silent imagining the horrors that would have been perpetrated on innocent younglings. The others were too stunned to speak. None of them had imagined this level of sheer depravity. After a short silence Hilde was the first to find her voice.

“It was bad enough when we thought they were stealing them to foster them with their own females because of their falling birth-rate, but this….”

“How could they ever have expected to succeed? They must have known we wouldn’t let it happen.” Fritha was furious enough to spit feathers. Cerneric spoke slowly, as though thinking aloud.

“I don’t think they are thinking rationally at all. Having experienced, briefly, the effect of those terrible fumes, I can only imagine what the effect would be if you breathed them, even in a diluted form, for a prolonged period. All of us who have had contact with the Snotingahams have noticed that they don’t appear to be the sharpest talons on the foot at the moment. Their physical health is bad too. I doubt they really thought through this plan at all, or understood how long it would take to come to fruition.”

Randolf looked at Cerneric sharply and seemed to snap out of his daze.

“I think you’ve hit it, Cerneric. It could never have been a useful plan, and just shows how desperate they have become. We have to think of a way to help them.” Cerneric heard Aeva mutter “Or destroy them!” but the comment was clearly not meant to be heard generally.

The three comrades settled down with the Leader, Hilde and Fritha to discuss what they had found and what it might mean for the war.

“If we could somehow block that vent so that the fumes can’t escape….” mused Randolf. Cerneric, Aeva and Oswin exchanged glances.

“The hole does taper down to quite a small opening at the bottom.” Remarked Cerneric. “I was thinking that if we could somehow find and transport a big enough slab of rock to cover the entrance, it might stop the fumes.”

“That rock is rough and irregular. There’d be bound to be gaps round the edge. Unless you found one exactly the right shape and size, the fumes would still seep out of the nooks and crannies.” Said Aeva.

“We could bring up loads and loads of rocks and gravel, all different sizes to pile on top of it and completely fill the hole.” Oswin was as enthusiastic as ever.

“Yes, and finish it off with loads of volcanic mud!” Hilde was getting into the spirit of the thing now. “It would set hard in the heat seeping up from the volcano and nothing would get through it.”

“Until the next time the volcano erupts.” Muttered Aeva, to Cerneric’s secret amusement. He found his comrade’s ability to find something negative in any situation endlessly entertaining. Unfortunately for Aeva, Randolf heard her comment and he was not at all amused.

“Well I’m afraid we can’t do anything about that Aeva.” He said, testily. “Any of the volcanos could erupt at any moment and cause the end of the world as we know it, but that’s not going to stop us from trying to deal with current challenges!” Aeva bowed her head in submission and apology. “The thing we need to think about first,” went on Randolf more calmly, “is how to get the Snotingahams on board. We can’t even contemplate an undertaking like this under conditions of hostility. It will be an operation that takes every able-bodied dragon in the population, from the younglings up.”

“Surely you won’t include the younglings, Randolf?” asked Hilde, startled.

“Yes, yes,” Fritha was excited. “we need to include everyone, and everyone in the Snotingaham clan too, if we are to succeed. If we can convince them to have a truce, working together like that, to solve a problem that affects us all will create bonds between the clans, and forge stronger bonds within the clans. It will remind us all that we have to help each other if we are to survive all the problems that life throws at us. It could be the best thing that has happened for centuries, to all the clans!” Randolf looked at Fritha with respect.

“You’re right, Fritha. We need to try to negotiate a peace of some sort with them so that we can explain the plan. It’s the only way we’re going to survive this war. And its clear that the effects of these fumes could come this way if the wind changes, and they are bound to get to us eventually. Let’s get some rest, and tomorrow we’ll talk to the rest of the council and work out a strategy for beating some sense into those Snotingahams.”

As Hilde began helping her guests to choose a bedspace, Fritha and Cerneric headed out to see their hatchlings, and Randolf to sort out some issues that needed the Leaders hand. Cerneric fell in beside Randolf as they paced towards the entrance.

“You know, Randolf, that if we do manage to seal that chimney, it won’t be a permanent solution?” Remarked Cerneric quietly.

“Yes, I know Cerneric.” Randolf’s tone was heavy and Cerneric could see his weariness. “Eventually the pressure from underneath will blow the top off, or it will burst like an abscess out of some other weak spot. And when it does, its unlikely that we will be able to put a lid on it again.” Cerneric had already followed this thought to its logical conclusion.

“We’re going to have to leave our home and find a territory somewhere else.”

“Yes, we are.” Randolf narrowed his eyes and looked to the west. “Have you ever wondered what lies beyond the sea, Cerneric?”

“Of course I have. Who hasn’t?”

“Well my friend. I think we are going to be the ones to find out.”

Cerneric was glad to be reunited with Fritha and their hatchlings.


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