So this was the Wash. Glistening grey mud as far as the eye could see. But that, Neve acknowledged, was a paltry description that said nothing at all of the air. It was more than the wash and the polish of last night’s storm. It was alive with potential as if this were the first dawn, the world being born from out of the retreating waters. And if that were so, then the first creatures born were the birds. From the first retreat of the tide they had flocked, wheeling in from the north and the west, silver-black clouds that shimmered as they turned, awaiting the mud that provided their food. But now, as they snapped up the worms, shrimps and fish, their calls compounded, flock upon flock, species and species and species, to rent the stillness.
Those calls would have been unbearable, slap in their midst as the Asars were, were it not that they avoided the dragon. For that Neve was grateful.
“Can you not get in closer?” Kerrid urged.
“Can you not go faster, can you not get closer,” Lirabien mimicked. “No, Grandma. And didn’t this little bobbing boat out-race those Stoats, eh? We were here as the tide retreated, were we not. But, no, I can’t get in closer. You want for the mud to hold us solid?” His boat now bobbed upon the retreating tide, far into the mud on the knee-deep waters of a meandering channel. Fashioned after an Irish curragh, rather than a Viking longboat – and that had surprised Neve – his boat had fair-skimmed the storm-tattered waves, directed by Lirabien, powered by Kerrid, Ypsi and Raesan. That last had been yet another surprise, that he had joined in. “I’ve brought you here, Grandma, now you’ll have to flap wings.”
“Lirabien . . .” Jiar warned.
Lirabien grinned and held up his hands. He nodded to the shadowed hold, in truth no more than the boat’s hide-covered prow. “Coracle. Flat bottomed. It’ll take you across, two at a time.”
“Well best we’re quick,” Hawk said. “See what the tide’s now uncovering?”
And that was time delayed, as everyone stared at the worm. It seemed smaller now, though still impossibly grown, a terrible puce-coloured form. It was burrowing, but slowly, into the mud to escape from the sun. If it succeeded in that it would take Guy down with it. He wouldn’t be then long alive.
The whump and sigh of Skimaskall’s wings drew Hawk’s attention. Neve reeled. She’d not intended to join thoughts with him. And those thoughts now raced as he saw what was to happen. Neve was aware of his aching fear that he’d not be able to rescue Guy and it would be too late. For there he was, numbed to inaction, watching, just watching, as the dragon, her wings now unfurled, arched them high in preparation. Then with a rattle and hiss of scale scraping scale, her tail uncoiled and up she rose, though she wasn’t away.
Zrone acted the ferryman. From boat to mud, again and again. Hawk slipped in his haste, his attention on Skimaskall instead of his footing.
“Ney, not so close,” Alan held him back. But he wanted to cut Guy from the worm before Skima could act. But he couldn’t move fast, the mud swallowed him up to mid-calf. Helpless, he watched.
Even while the men were elbowing each other to be first into the coracle – Raesan excepted – Skima was circling the worm from above. These past three weeks Ypsi had kept her away from her usual fare by Asaric coercion – for to eat was to mate. Hawk understood this. And now, with this over-grown worm before her, and released from those fetters, what would she do? Treat it as much-needed meat, or as a last moment bid to mate. Either could prove fatal for Guy, trapped inside.
The dragon lowered her head, jaws opened wide, tongue curled aside.
Toli’s muffled scream sounded close behind Hawk. He didn’t want to turn from the scene yet felt compelled to look back, to offer the squire some word of comfort. He found little Toli had covered his eyes. Wise boy. Then Hawk could think of no word to give him. At the sound of a tooth-jarring shriek he turned back to the dragon and worm.
Its body still wet from the sea, the fire had caught at the worm’s legs only. Charred and shrivelled and numbered in hundreds, their smoking remains oozed a sickening reek.
“She again has her fire.” Hawk observed. But was that to the better or worse for Guy? At least, now lacking its legs, the worm no longer could burrow.
“Thank the gods her fire is still weak,” Toli said, taking a step to be beside Hawk.
“He is alive, though in there.” Kerrid’s observation might have been intended for all, yet her voice, calm and soothing, was directed at Hawk and Toli.
If what Raesan had idly told Neve one evening was true, then the Asars had eyes that could see even into molecular structure. They must have been able to see into that worm. Neve wanted to ask: Alive in that worm, yet in what condition? But who could she ask except for Raesan, and that meant breaking contact with Hawk. She wanted to see what was happening, there with the worm, not cower in Lirabien’s boat. Her imagination filled in the details. Inside the worm’s digestive tract, Guy must be bathed in hydrochloric acid. And how could he breathe? There must be air trapped in there. Good! She hoped the worm had a real bad case of indigestion. But what of the heat? Especially now Skimaskall was intent on barbecuing the beast.
The dragon again had circled the worm. Was that to allow her to recharge her furnace? Now, again, her huge horned horse’s head came down. She opened her sabre-toothed jaws. She rolled aside her serpent’s tongue. And blasted the worm with blue-tinged fire.
The puce skin of the worm darkened, blistered and steamed as the dragon’s fire dried the last drop of moisture. No longer burrowing, it curled. Hawk cursed in frustration. How in Odin’s name were they to reach Guy now, imprisoned inside that impossibly tight whorl?
And again Skima blasted – no dragon had ever worked so hard for a meal. Yet she spiralled down, coming to land close by the charred mound.
“Now how?” Hawk growled. “Who’ll hold off the dragon while I cut him free?”
Jiar plunged through the mud to be beside Hawk, each step a release of foul fumes. He patted warmly upon Hawk’s shoulder, and rested his hand there. “Hawk, you would take on the world . . . But no matter your oaths and your bonds, you act not alone. We Asars, you must know, want him out.”
“But how?” Hawk repeated, anger rising in his despair. “Look at her, even now straining towards her feast. Can Ypsi not hold her away?” He knew the answer, for had Ypsi been able, he’d have already done it. He drew his seax. But, though it always had been a worthy weapon, he knew against a dragon it could achieve nothing.
Meanwhile Skimaskall was preparing to eat, her huge mouth opening, her reptilian jaws now unlocking. Hawk looked from the worm, now shrivelled and smaller, and back to those jaws, wide enough now to swallow a house. If he didn’t act soon there’d be no hope. Somehow he must stop that dragon from eating. And from behind him, he could hear the others approaching with slow-caution applied by the mud.
Neve was afraid to watch. Yet she knew the outcome. Guy had yet to lay the dragon, and yet to speak out on behalf of the Asars. Therefore, unlikely, yet Guy must live. She just couldn’t see how. She imagined the Asars behind her, behind Hawk – Kerrid and Jiar, Ypsi and Zrone – must even now be frantically devising some means to rescue the brave devoured knight. She found herself praying, but to Kerrid and Jiar as if, a thousand years on, her prayers could help them find the solution.
Skimaskall paused, with her mouth hanging open, her sabre-like teeth thick with saliva that sizzled as it dripped and formed pits in the mud. With serpent-like tongue, she licked and prodded the tightly wound worm.
“You think she knows?” Jiar asked – leaving the others to complete the sentence: did she know that Guy was trapped within?
It was Ypsi who answered, “Of course she knobbing-well knows. What, with that lolloping tongue? She’s sensing for him.”
Now Ypsi had said it, it did indeed look as if with her probing she was trying to find the knight within. Was she still hoping to procreate, though no longer in skima-mode? In the mix of animals that made her body, humans must have contributed some part in the past. How else her ability to converse with Ypsi.
She looked up from the roasted sea-worm. How could such a conglomeration of features look puzzled. Yet she did. And Hawk, too, saw it: what Skima had seen. A flash, a brightness. A glint of sun on something metallic there, in the midst of the coils of worm.
But it could not be! Hawk wanted to holler his joy. Yet it was. It was! And more. Look! That worm carcase was rocking, though gently. Hawk glanced back at the others. Only Jiar had yet seen it.
The dragon watched, mouth agape in a most undragonly pose.
“She believes the worm is having babies,” Jiar explained. “It was doleful to do but we had to tell her what would happen should she succumb to the skima-drive. Her babies would eat their way out of her body. They would feast upon her, taking the food to help them grow. Their life thus would be her death.”
“But the worm isn’t . . .”
“Indeed, the worm’s not,” Jiar agreed. “Rather I’d say Guy is hacking his way out.”
“But . . . “Alan’s astonishment dammed his words. Not so Zrone’s.
“I’d merrily agree, it does seem to be that. Yet, astonishing, did we any see a flourishing sword upon him?”
“Ney, I saw it.” Toli said. “He’d laid upon his mail while shovelling.”
“His sword, ay, I saw it too. Yet my sister did give him a knife. Protection, she told him, on entering Eldsland.”
Jiar laughed. “That young Guy carried a knife into Regin-yorl’s hall? And Cesar’s sons missed it?”
Neve remembered the knife. It wouldn’t even rate as a carver for a Sunday roast. Yet it was true, Guy had no other blade with him. And as they watched they all saw the flashes, rhythmic now, as Guy worked from within. Back and forth, minutely sawing with the small blade. It was incredible that a man in his fix could do so. Surely the angels—Neve halted her thought. No, it wasn’t the angels looking after him.
Unexpectedly, Skima forsook the worm and rose into the air. Perhaps she was horror-struck at what was happening, her feast bearing babies. Perhaps it was Ypsi, now able to effect some control. Whichever, with her out of the way Guy’s companions could belatedly launch their rescue. Jiar was the first in. And though Hawk claimed this as his deed, yet Alan elbowed him out of the way. He admitted their right: they had good swords. But it pained him to idly stand aside. He wrapped his arm around Toli’s shoulders. At least he could comfort to the shivering lad.
Jiar tested his footing on the gently-yielding cooked meat, then braced both feet. What was his intent, he’d not yet drawn his sword. Instead, he reached for the blade that protruded a tip through the skin, and grasped it.
“Why doesn’t he use his sword?” Toli asked. “It’d be quicker. He’ll never pull it apart with his hands.”
“He’s alerting Guy, that help is at hand,” Hawk explained. And there was more than that touch of Blide’s blade; Neve could sense the Asaric talk that was taking place there.
. _____ .
Next episode, 3rd September: A Mortal Untainted