Stunned, Neve and Kazla looked at each other – then again at the collapsed trench where Rat had been working. Neve’s head refused to see; her heart, her feet, everything of her, suddenly numbed. It took Kazla’s shout of “Dig!” as she jumped into the sand-filled trench, her light a chaotic strobe, to release her.
Neve found the shovel Rat had been using. Her hands were shaking, she hardly could use it. Frantic, she dug into the loose gravel-specked sand. He wasn’t entirely buried; she could see the toe of his big biker boots, the right foot, showing through.
“Like-to-like,” she told Kazla. That’s what Raesan had said of the Bellinn. That’s why Rat and Kazla had been the diggers. “He’s a Crystal Fold, this burial won’t kill him.” Yet she couldn’t stop thinking as she scrabbed at the sand, that while the burial wouldn’t kill him the lack of air could – that, and the weight of the muckle-hill pressing down on him.
They’d no time to throw the soil clear. They fast-shovelled it away, adding it to the precarious landfall. Then, look, there was his leg! Neve’s and Kazla’s lights swelled and combined; a most odd sensation, as if they’d become of one mind. They abandoned shovels and used their hands. As they cleared the sand around the leg, they discovered another.
Kazla pulled back. This wasn’t Rat’s. It was thick and scaly. Neve nodded; no need of words. Rat was trapped beneath the dragon.
Despite the desperate plight, care replaced haste. They dared not wake the scaly beast. With fingers, now, and the blades of their hands they scraped away the sand. Yet even as they cleared it more was showering down from the hill above them. Were they, too, to be buried?
“How big is this beast?” Kazla asked.
“Imagine the helicopter. Then give it a thirty foot tail.”
“But its leg . . . I’ve seen bigger in a bucket of KFC.”
“Perceptive,” Neve said, too busy to explain the chicken reference. With eager fingers, she was searching beneath the sand for Rat, his leg or his other parts. But it wasn’t him that she touched. “He’s beneath the dragon’s coils, all but this leg.”
How were they to free him without disturbing the beast? Would they all three be a breakfast for her? They cleared the sand to reveal her tail.
Neve had seen Skimaskall in Raesan’s memory, but to see the reality . . . She thought of all the movies she’d seen with CGI dragons. They all fell short. A snake’s tail; she’d thought of a python. Yet this was not. And it wasn’t only the difference in size, though the looped and stacked coils, the barbed tip hanging over, would have topped Neve by several hands. It was the scales – like oyster shells.
“Poor Skima,” Neve murmured. “No more pretty in pink.” Those shell-like scales were now a muddy green-brown. The musky smell, too, was gone. Instead, she stunk of the sewers.
“We’ll have to move her,” Kazla said. “No other way to get him out.”
But that would be a daunting task, involving what. Yet Neve was rapidly thinking. A Silver Fold, a water-type, stronger than steel if she used it right. “I think, if I can squeeze myself between him and her . . .”
“Friggy’s Jam-Sheets and I thought I’d used some excuses for getting in close.”
Neve laughed – but, oh, it sounded so jagged with fear. Not for herself, but for what might happen to Rat. And she didn’t know if her plan would work. That dragon was a colossal weight, with a sand hill above it. To use her body to lever the dragon . . . Yet how else were they to get him out. To use anything made of cold iron surely would wake her.
“If you’re sure you’ve the strength . . .” Kazla said. “You raise the dragon, I’ll ease him out.”
It took her some moments to decide the best place to start. But if she started at the back and from there work forward, at least Kazla should be able to free Rat’s legs and once freed, Rat would be able to help with the rest – assuming he was conscious, of course. He was alive, his light revealed that. She took her position, face down in the sand-scooped pit.
She had inched her way under the dragon’s coiled tail before starting the process to still her light and turn it to ice. It wasn’t as easy as she’d imagined, infinitely tiring, frustratingly slow. And how was she to know when the freezing was done. She knew it only by Kazla’s gasp.
And the next stage was no easier done.
Slowly, she began to arch her back. But was she really able to raise such a weight – the dragon and the muckle-hill above. What was she, Superman? She almost collapsed in giggles at that. Yet her plan was working. She felt movement beneath her. Kazla was pulling at her brother’s legs. He murmured something of eating sand. With his hinder-parts free, she then could begin the slow inch forward. No doubt beyond the pit the day was passing but Neve’s only thought was to be as strong and solid ice.
~ ~ ~
“You could win trophies for that,” Rat said with a twinkling grin when he was finally freed.
Neve couldn’t answer, all thought given to settling the dragon’s tail as lightly as thistledown while also she wriggled out from beneath. Then she slumped on the sand, all strength depleted.
“Come on,” Rat urged, offering a hand. “Weather’s changing, stirring a storm; let’s get out of here, quick.”
“A moment,” she begged. “I’m flattened.”
“Neve needs our help,” Rat called up to Kazla where she stood on the rim of the pit. “You did this for me?” He squatted beside her. She managed to raise her head. He kissed her forehead. Then, with a foot braced to either side of her, he hooked his hands under her arms and lifted. How embarrassing that she needed this help.
She was still slumped against him, unable properly to stand, when she heard that same grate and rumble that had sounded before.
“What’s that?” Rat looked sharply around.
“The soil sinking,” Neve said with unconcern.
“Nej! But she’s already sunk to the depth we dug. Lubschinka, gotta move. Now!”
Move? Did he mean climb? She looked up at the top. She’d not realised how deep they had dug. They had a scramble-net fixed to enable access, but with her arms and legs weak she couldn’t climb it. She wanted a proper, rigid, ladder. But now Kazla had joined Rat and they each took a side of her.
“Why don’t you just fetch a rope and haul me out?”
“Ne-ne-ne-ne-nej. Your Skima’s stirring. We’ve gotta get out.”
“But Raesan’s holding her.”
Rat looked at her.
Neve’s mouth dropped. “No. He wouldn’t.”
Anger was the best propellant. She was up that scramble-net without any aid. But then at the top her strength again failed her and she couldn’t haul herself over the edge. She held there waiting for Kazla and Rat to clear the rim, turn back and help her. And that’s when the sand-made muckle knoll rose.
She yelled for Raesan. But he was out of hearing, warm and cosy inside the cockpit, out of the icy wind that now was blowing. He was supposed to be holding the beast, or was that too much for him, dragon and pilot both. She couldn’t believe he’d deliberately not. The implications . . . She tried again, Asarically – and met a solid wall of resistance. The bastard!
And now everything happened fast.
Rat and Kazla, knelt on the rim, reached down with their hands. Yet before they could grab her, she was falling. But how was she falling, why was she falling? And why did she hurt like a metal bar had slammed into her belly? Her balance was gone; where had it gone? She flailed; why was there nothing to grasp? She was falling, spinning. She must be spinning else why this rapid blur of pit, sky and turbines? Sand showered around her. She hit jagged granite in an explosion of pain. Granite? But here was only shingly sand. But at least now the world had stopped spinning.
She was taking a breath, remembering how, when – thwack! A massive iron girder landed atop her, blocking the light and forcing the breath from her. She knew what it was: not a turbine thrown down by the wind but Skima, in moving, had looped her tail over her. There came the crunch-and-whump sounds of soil crashing around her. She groaned. So now she was trapped.
Slowly – it seemed an eternity – the disturbance around her settled. Now, in utter darkness, the only sound was the beat of two hearts. She knew which was hers, could feel its rapid thud in her chest. The other, that slow gurgle-glug, belonged to Skima.
She bit her lip while she tried to think. She needed to consider her options of how to escape. But that phrase, like-to-like, repeated over, filling available thinking-space.
Space – now everything had settled she was breathing with ease, though the air was dragon-tainted. Although it was dark in here, it was pleasantly warm. Moreover, if she pressed to one side she found a slight ‘give’ not found with sand. Yet, oddly, that side seemed composed of sharp shells. Above her, as she trailed explorative fingers over, she found it a wondrously silken spread. Well at least she knew where she was: trapped between Skimaskall’s body and tail, with the wing wrapped over. Now how was she to escape that?
If she could get the dragon to move . . . She lowered the shield she’d long since raised to keep unwanted thoughts at bay. If Raesan and Ypsi could join thoughts with the dragon, why not her. It wasn’t as if the dragon was some high-nocked Bellinn.
The beast was in semi-slumberous state, her thoughts filled with the smells of the scampering sheep she would chase once out of this dream. The dream was of gold caressing her belly. Such contentment . . . if someone had not called her she’d never have woken. Oh, to resume, to resume . . .
Skima. Skima? You remember your name? It was a shame to interrupt her, though Neve didn’t want fully to wake her.
The dragon responded by tightening her coils, clasping Neve closer to her warm belly. That was not what Neve had intended. She tried again.
Skima. Skima? You remember Ypsi? Perhaps if the dragon’s thoughts were full of Ypsi she then would stretch out in sensual contentment.
It worked – or at least the pressure lessened. There was a rustle of scales.
Skima. Remember, you wanted to spend your life with Ypsi. Neve poured images into Skimaskall’s head.
It was again the year 1086, and Raesan stood on the edge of the pit. A musky odour wafted from it, the scent of the resin the dragon exuded. Ypsi’s buckskins were thickly smeared with it from where he’d been riding her. She cooed in contentment, a slight adjustment to the thick loops of her tail to cover the treasure. Asaric talk passed twixt her and Ypsi. Skima fluttered her lashes. Ypsi’s face flushed, poppy-red.
“Come on, share. What’s she saying?” Jiar joked with Ypsi. (Neve noticed – was this the first time? – how Kerrid and Jiar stood together, their hands entwined, as if made of one piece.)
In answer, Ypsi made it so all could hear, the dragon’s voice silken: “Please, Ypsi, please, I promise not eat you. Come lay with me now; spend eternity together. I rather would have you than have that Guy.”
Jiar laughed that hard he hardly could speak.
“Fine for you, it is, fine for you” Ypsi complained. “But she’s been like this since I banefully mounted her back. So now can we just get this squirming deed done.”
“Too much protestation,” Jiar managed between gasps. “Admit it, Ypsi, you’re enjoying it.”
“You should choose your women with more care, Uncle Yips,” Lirabien joined in the mocking of him.
It seemed only stern-faced Guy wasn’t laughing. “If you could just get her to keep head down, we could get on with the filling.”
Ypsi said something to Skima. She obliged by resting her head on her high-coiled tail, her sea-green wings folded over. But before Guy, Toli and Hawk had quarter-way covered her, her head came up, snake-like and swaying.
Neve cut the memory there, for thereafter came horror – besides, her ploy already had worked. In wallowing in her memories of Ypsi, Skimaskall’s coils had opened. She sighed and stretched, disturbing the loosened sand around her. Neve was quick. She slipped through the gap created – and landed on the hard knobs and ridges that was the treasure.
Again she filled Skima’s head with memories of Ypsi – this time his shock of red hair, his tiny mouth, his quirky humour, his always laughing, his use of the most unconventional adverbs, his particular way of swearing. And again, above her, Skima eased in contentment, relaxing more of the coils while slumping her body.
If only Neve hadn’t used all her strength to rescue Rat; she could have lifted that tail. Instead, she imagined herself as water, thinning and spreading, and thus managed to squeeze and squirm her way through. She almost chuckled – had her situation not been so dire: it had taken this misadventure for her to realise what ‘water-type’ meant: more than the way her aura rippled. It was more, too, than her character and personality: she was the water. And water wouldn’t bruise as it purled over treasures: the golden plates, the goblets, the crosses and bosses and who knew what else lay buried there. And just like water, her thoughts wouldn’t be still.
She turned again to the memory she’d given to Skima, turning it over, more sensing than seeing what she’d missed before. And why should she have noticed when her attention had been full on the dragon. But she’d ample time to see it now as she flowed beneath the dragon’s tail, so slowly it would likely take her full Bellinn life to escape from here. Buried forever with Skima. No! She slammed back her head in despair – and hit against something neither stone nor gold. It was as pliant as Skima’s belly.
There was a smell something musty. It made her think of fabric, maybe linen. There was maybe the smell of leather as well.
Realisation trickled of what this was. The greatest treasure the dragon protected – it was Kerrid’s book! Not boarded and bound, but parchment rolled and kept in a bag. And that bag wasn‘t of linen as she’d thought, but was woven from the Bellinn’s Elds-spin. She gasped. Bad move, as something vile-tasting dripped into her mouth. Stale resin? Then she grinned. Stale resin dripping onto the Elds-spin: that’s what had preserved the fabric throughout the centuries.
What a find! This was ten times greater than Sutton Hoo, a million times that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This parchment roll beneath her head contained – in Old English – the true Story of Creation, as told by the Prime amongst angels. It was as if it were written by the hand of God.
The book couldn’t remain here with the dragon. However difficult, she must take the book with her.
She eased it from beneath her head. If she tucked it into the waist of her jeans, it would be secure there. But even that small manoeuvre seemed to take five eternities. Still, book secured, she resumed her escape with more vigour. Yet even once she’d escaped the dragon’s foul-smelling tail there still was no light. There was sand.
The sand didn’t budge, no matter she pushed.
She picked at the grains with nails already broken from rescuing Rat. The abrasive particles cut the cuticles down to the quick. That was pain, her fingertips screaming for an end. Yet still she scrabbed at the sand. What else could she do? But where was she to shovel the sand she’d hand-by-handful removed? She packed it into the spaces beneath the coiled tail, those through which she had passed. But it all took so long. And how much must she move? Has the entire muckle hill slumped into the trench? It surely was more than a moderate dusting else Rat and Kazla would have reached her by now. She couldn’t even hear them.
That thought sparked a panic. What if they’d left her for dead? She didn’t even know how long she’d been trapped here. Was the weekend gone, had their mission failed? Would work begin on the turbine again? Yikes! And Skima would wake, hungry and angry, and who’d be the first morsel in sight. She thought of all the things she’d now not do, and slumped back on the sand in the tiny cavity beneath the tail-overhang.
How apt had been her mother’s name for her. Nineve. Only it was supposed to be the other way round. It wasn’t Nineve trapped in the earth, but Nineve who had trapped the wizard there. Wizard-Uissid; how apt, the bastard. She spat.
That sand-slip wasn’t an accident. Raesan had purposely caused the dragon to stir – though she hadn’t been the intended victim. That had been Rat. And Raesan’s intent hadn’t been to kill him, for Rat was a Crystal Fold. He’d intended only to bury him forever. Neve fumed, now everything was slipping into place.
We must find your grandfather, yeh, we must stop him begetting.
And when she’d found Regin-yorl what did he say? Na, na, na, na, it cannot be Regin. It’s Edmund, yeh, it’s Edmund I tell you. But Edmund had flaming red hair.
And, oh, how Raesan had panicked when he feared she’d call off her Eldsland quest, sidling up closer to her instead.
But his jealousy of Rat revealed it all. He had tried to kill him, the evil bastard! Now she understood why he’d been so quiet that last part of the journey home from Yorkshire. And why, at Yalesham, he’d hurried ahead, leaving her to wait for Rat and Kazla. He’d been using his Asaric tricks to rid the harbour of boats. She couldn’t believe it: the scheming, calculating . . . this wasn’t done in the heat of the moment. He must have called those weekend sailors from wherever they were, tempted them to beyond whatever their resistance, just to ensure the harbour was empty. And why? Because Neve wouldn’t fly. Thus he’d get Rat on his own to do with him as he pleased. And when that didn’t work, he caused Skima to stir and, hey la, here’s a sand-slip to bury Rat for all of eternity.
And why? Friggle Jacks, but she’d known the answer – or at least she ought to have known when she saw Kerrid in Eldsland.
She had Kerrid’s nose, her mouth, the same swarthy Asian-type skin. She even wore her burnt umber hair cut short like Kerrid. She smiled like Kerrid, moved like Kerrid, had restless hands the same as Kerrid. She could have been Kerrid were it not for the colour of eyes. And Raesan had carried a torch for Kerrid – for 13,000 years.
Kerrid had rejected him. How could it be otherwise when Kerrid and Jiar were complete together. Jiar was Kerrid’s saucer, Kerrid was his cup. But Raesan couldn’t accept it. He’d thought if he killed Jiar, then Kerrid would be his. That’s what she’d sensed in his memory when they stood around that pit waiting for Ypsi to settle the dragon so that Guy, Toli and Hawk could shovel in sand.
Then, one thousand years later, when Raesan saw Neve . . . and she, the fool, had thought him only after a roof and a friend. Oh, the number of times he’d almost called her . . . Lady, Lady, Lady. And that talk of her not remembering. He’d thought her Kerrid reborn. What, had Kerrid come back to be with him?
All these weeks she’d been holding her anger – held because she needed his memories if she ever were to find her grandpa, and she’d become hooked on Cesars’ puzzle when he could have easily told her. But she could hold her anger no more. She felt the heat of it, rising. She was water and that water now was boiling. It was changing to steam, and that steam was finding a way through the sand that lay above her.
It was not intentionally done – not at first. It was only once she realised, when she felt rather than saw what was happening: a lessening of pressure above her; a thinning of sand. Then she loosed her anger, allowed every part of her to boil till she steamed. That steam loosened the sand, parted the grains, and there – there! – was the daylight. The steam had blasted a hole, wide above her.
~ ~ ~
Next episode: Arthurs Sleep