Half Blood Part XIX--The Flight of Friends
The clouds drifted over the rolling hills, providing first a patch of dark shadow, then a patch of intensely bright sunshine. Varian struggled to rein in his attention, but his eyes always returned to scanning the hills, or to the great spire that was Mount Arborn.
Two days had passed since Archflame had told him the story of the Crown of Ages. Two days of intense training had followed, which Jokk ran his pupil through the toughest war-training he'd been in yet. Varian could feel his sore muscles complaining that he'd been still too long.
He forced his eyes to the front of the mall crowd, where Jokk stood speaking. The more he'd listened today, the more he'd realized how dear Kerrin was to the entire village. Kearah was right—there was something about the fierceness of the Highlands that made people cling together, fight together. The whole village had turned out for Kerrin's memorial service. Varian knew that, unless it was a tiny village, that it wouldn't have been the same in the Lowlands. Relatively fertile, easy living had made everyone less dependent on others.
He felt someone press his arm, and he looked down to see Lia. She smiled, but her eyes were dim with unshed tears.
"Thank ye for standin' with the family," she said.
"Thank ye for invitin' me."
"We've all taken a shine to ye, Varian. Even Solar, though he willnae admit it."
"And I thank ye for yer kindness."
Lia turned as a small group of villagers came up to her. Varian drifted away from her, wandering about the crowd. The dragons had formed a group slightly removed from the villagers and were all lying down or sitting, apparently lost in their own thoughts. Varian walked to Fleet and stroked his neck. The dragon seemed to realize his mood and gently nudged him with his snout.
Varian sat down between Fleet's paws and leaned his back against Fleet's chest. They sat quietly, watching the villagers move to and fro. Varian caught sight of Kearah, dressed in a bright orange skirt and white peasant blouse, moving her hands as she talked. In the Lowlands, colors other than black at a funeral would have been considered sacrilegious. But here, there wasn't a black spot in the crowd to be seen. No one was shouting with laughter, but there were quiet ripples of it, and while tears were shed, there seemed to be a general air of joy and thanksgiving. Every now and then someone would begin to sing.
Then, suddenly, a dragon darted over the village. Varian looked up, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Solvar do the same. The dragon landed and his rider tumbled off, then hurried to the cluster of dragons. Jokk and Solvar both came out of the crowd to met him.
"What is it?" Jokk demanded in a low voice.
"Two travelers, a boy and a girl. Entered the Highlands a day ago. I kept track of 'em thinkin' maybe they'd done it by mistake, but they kept comin'."
Varian pushed his way from under Fleet's chin. "How old were they? What did they look like?"
The scout hesitated, saw Jokk's nod, and hurried on. "Blond, both of 'em. Boy looked the younger but not by much, had a short sword with him. Bright blue dress the girl was wearin', and the boy a gray tunic and brown pants. Couldn't get close enough to see their features without them seein' me."
"I bet that's Mel and Tikah," Varian said. "Two of my friends from the castle."
"Why would they be comin' here?" Jokk demanded. "They didnae know ye were comin' to the Highlands, did they?"
"Mel did. Dinnae worry, they wouldnae be lookin' to betray us. I almost bet that Onna sent them."
Jokk grunted. "Well, ye and Solvar fly out there and intercept them. Bring 'em back here I suppose, if ye can vouch for 'em."
"Aye." Varian and Solvar both skirted the crowd and ran for the training fields, the dragons not far behind in the air. They hustled the saddles onto the dragons and mounted. Over the past couple of days Varian had gotten much more adept at riding his dragonmount, and he no longer felt the sickening plunge of his stomach as Fleet bounded into the air. They arched high into the air, then the dragons soared on updrafts as the riders scanned the ground.
"Any bright blue should show up like a target against the hills!" Solvar yelled to Varian. "We'll stay high, spot them first, then swoop low to watch them and find a good place to land."
Varian nodded and bent low over Fleet's neck. "They may be harder to spot than ye think."
"I taught Mel soldiery. He knows how to stay low. Och, and how to fight. Ye'd best let me meet them first—he'll be a mite jumpy, if I know Mel."
Solvar laughed and nodded.
"There!" Solvar's mount twisted and spiked a claw downward. "The hollow between those hills."
"What hills? There are hills and hollows everywhere!" Fleet grumbled as he followed the other dragon into a spiral.
As they soared, Varian leaned against Fleet's neck, a trick he'd learned to fight against vertigo. He'd gotten used to dragon riding, but seeing the ground whirl around and around as Fleet spiraled was still too much for him.
"I see them," Solvar said.
Varian peeked over Fleet's neck and caught a glimpse of blue against the green grass and white granite. Mel and Tikah were moving slowly in the hollows, taking care to never ascend the hills by more than a few feet.
"Going down," Fleet said. "I will land a few hills away from them, if you think that would be wise."
"Aye. I dinnae wanted ye gutted."
Fleet dove down, his wings stiff and spread as he guided himself through the drafts. Varian grinned as they ducked behind hills and Fleet suddenly folded his wings. They dropped to earth, Fleet's strong legs absorbing the shock, and Varian swung off.
He crept around the hills, one hand on his sword. He could hear Tikah talking worriedly, and he rolled out between the hills to confront them. Mel had his sword drawn in an instant, and he was pushing Tikah back as Varian spoke.
"Donnae ye remember an old friend?"
Tikah's eyes went wide, and Mel almost dropped his sword. "Varian?"
"Varian! Thank God we've seen someone we know!" Tikah ran forward and hugged him. "I've never been so glad to see someone in my life!"
Mel joined his sister in the hug, though he pulled away quickly and seemed embarrassed. "Don't be so dramatic, Tikah. It wasn't a hard journey, really. No one guessed that we'd gone."
"Still, I'll be glad to know that we're through journeying for a while. I'm sick and tired of Mel being jumpy and me being jumpy because he's jumpy."
Both of them started as Solvar whooshed overhead. Mel tightened his hand around his sword.
"Relax," Varian said. "He's the one who helped me find ye."
"How did you know we were coming?" Mel asked.
Fleet popped his head around the hill. "A scout came in and reported your presence."
Tikah jumped and screeched, then saw Fleet rest his head on Varian's head. "Oh my goodness! What is that?"
" 'That'?" Fleet sniffed, careful not to expel anything more than smoke. "I am a dragon, missy."
"A good dragon?" Mel eyed Fleet suspiciously.
"My dragonmount, in fact," Varian said.
"You're a dragonrider?"
"Barely so," Fleet said. "After yesterday he stopped hanging on me like a sack of potatoes, so yes, we are making progress."
Varian smacked him in the snout. "Jokk told me ye were mouthy but I've never had it directed at me til now."
"Ah, it was bound to happen sometime."
"Are ye goin' to stand there yappin', or do ye want to get back to the village for a hot meal tonight?" Solvar appeared at the top of the hill. "Varian?"
"Just a moment." Varian turned back to Mel. "Why did ye leave the castle?"
"Onna sent us." Mel's eyes dropped to the ground and he chewed his lip. "Jevran's disappeared."
"What?" Varian winced. "Is Danilos behind it?"
"Onna seemed to think so," Tikah said.
Varian groaned. "Great. Just wonderful." Then his heart seized. His blood pounded into his fingertips. "Do ye know what happened to him? Is he alive?"
"I don't know. Danilos had sent his soldiers for us, but we—Tikah, Onna, and I—attacked them and knocked them all out." Mel's chin jutted a bit. "Onna told us to run. Toym was supposed to come with us, but he stayed back to help his family. They'll be coming in a couple of days."
"She was going to stay behind to find out what happened to Jevran and Beno, I guess."
"Beno was gone too?"
"No one had seen him for several hours."
Varian clenched his hands and turned to Solvar. "My brother's missin'."
"So I gathered."
"How many can yer dragon take?"
"I could take one, maybe both, but ye're comin', so we'll have plenty of room."
Varian scrambled onto Fleet's back. "I'm goin' to the Lowlands."
Mel grabbed his leg. "You can't! Onna said she'd come as soon as she had news. You can't go back—Danilos would kill you!"
"And what do you think he's goin' to do—maybe has done—to Jevran?" Varian growled. "C'mon, Fleet."
Fleet shook his head. "Varian, I do not think—"
"I didn't ask ye to think, I asked ye to fly!"
Suddenly a heavy weight smashed into Varian's right side. He pitched off Fleet and jumped on his back. With Solvar on top of him.
"Ye dinnae knw what ye're thinkin'. Mel's right, ye cannae go back, and if I have to, I'll bring ye back to the village trussed to Fleet's saddle!"
Varian blinked up at him, stunned. "But—but my brother—my brother!"
"Sounds like Onna's doin' the best she can. Ye'll have to live with that. Now am I goin' to have to tie you up or are ye goin' back to the village of yer own free will?"
Varian sighed and tried to reason with himself. He's right, ye know he is. Ye cannae do anythin' for Jevran now. Dinnae will do anyone good if ye loose yer sense now. "All right. I'll go back."
"Good. Now get up on yer dragon and let's head home."
Varian obeyed, mounting Fleet and pulling Tikah up behind him. They took off. He smiled faintly at Tikah' gasp behind him. But his attention drifted southward, and he sat rigid, staring into the humid mist that hung around the hills, obscuring the border. His brother was back there, and who knew what was happening to him.
God, protect Jevran, Varian thought. Keep him safe and from harm.
Fleet yelped and dove to the right.
"What—" Varian yelled, as a black dragon streaked past them. He reached down, grabbed the arms that Tikah had clamped tight around his stomach, as Fleet jerked and awkwardly flapped away.
Solvar blew past them in pursuit. "Watch your back!" he shouted.
Fleet turned and rose back on his haunches. Another dragon was coming at them, not a hundred yards away. Varian leaned forward, jerked his sword from the sheath strapped to the saddle. Fleet's muscles flexed, and he spit a thin stream of fire.
"Hang on," he said.
Fleet plummeted. Tikah shrieked and Varian felt her head burrowing between his shoulder blades. The brown dragon roared over their heads, did a quick spiral, and came after them again. Fleet lashed his tail from side to side, jerking them in sharp turns. Varian could feel each turn almost taking Tikah off the saddle.
"Let me off this thing!" Tikah screeched in his ear.
"Fleet, we've got a passenger and I'm not that good of a rider myself yet!" he yelled.
"Drop her off when we get close to the ground. She can run for the village."
"I'm not doing that!" Tikah protested.
"It's that or hang on," Varian said.
"I already hate flying!"
"Women." Fleet snorted in disgust, dodging a fire stream.
He tucked his legs and dropped close to the ground, skimming the grass as he dodged between hills. They came upon a small clearing and Fleet hovered, twisting his neck around to blast at their enemy.
Solvar had already dropped his passenger. Mel came running and helped Tikah down from Fleet's back.
"Go for the village. We'll cover ye," Varian instructed.
He crouched low in the saddle as Fleet dashed upward, whooshing past the brown dragon, who screamed and gave pursuit. Varian scanned the sky for Solvar. He was to their left, the two dragons circling in the air. Solvar's dragon pounced, both of his claws darting out to slash at his opponent.
"Varian, pay attention!"
Varian clutched the saddle as Fleet turned to the left. "What are ye plannin'?"
"I am going to dive in a moment, and when we pass the dragon-traitor, plunge your sword to his heart!"
Varian looked over his shoulder. The brown dragon was panting streams of fire and gaining on them. "It better be soon."
"Now!" Fleet curled and plunged toward the earth.
Varian drew his sword and, as they passed the brown dragon, swept it at the dragon's wing. It sliced deep into the membrane. The dragon bellowed in pain and jerked upward. Varian's sword wrenched out of his hand.
"Well done!" Fleet shouted, spreading his wings with a loud whoosh.
They hovered and watched the brown dragon struggling to keep himself in the air. He succeeded, but barely, and with an ear-piercing cry, he turned for the mountains. Varian kept an eye on him until he'd shrunk in the distance. Then they whirled to help Solvar.
The two dragons were grappling and beating at each other with their wings. It was a miracle they were staying in the air at all. Solvar clung to his mount's saddle, rocking back and forth with the dragons' blows. As his opponent's wing came around, he stabbed at it with his sword.
Varian and Fleet could already see blood dripping from numerous wounds that Solvar had made in his opponent's wings. The black dragon twisted and shrieked, pulling away to reveal a long, jagged tear in its side that Solver's dragon had just inflicted. It twisted its head, saw Varian and Fleet coming at him. The black dragon flapped away, spewing fire from its nostrils that they easily dodged.
Varian and Solvar hovered side by side, watching the black dragon follow its friend. Finally Solvar cleared his throat.
"They were young and inexperienced. Good thing too."
"Where did they come from?" Varian asked.
"Dinnae ask me. Maybe they'd been on the ground, watchin' for someone to help Tikah and Mel. We didn't check the area as thoroughly as we should've." Solvar sounded disgusted with himself. "They must've been the Lowland Dragons."
"Do ye think that they were involved with Danilos?"
"I donnae ken.
Solvar squeezed his legs gently, and his dragon flew forward. Fleet followed. They picked up Mel and Tikah not far away, and flew with them to the village. The crowd from the memorial service had dispersed, or the most part. Jokk met them at the training grounds and listened with a frown to Solvar and Varian's story.
"Well, let's get these two settled." He glanced at Mel and Tikah. "Is Onna comin'?"
"Soon, sir," Mel said.
"Hmph. Hope so. Can't know what to do unless I know what my enemy's up to. Solvar, Varian, ye two get some rest. We'll discuss this further tomorrow."