Eye-level with a huge and ancient mother-dragon whilst maintaining levitation is a strain on the spiritual muscles. Magpie’s gave up. She did manage to hold enough energy to come down fairly slowly, her arse was injured enough without crashing it into the rock. Landing with only a slight bump, the raven escaped from the crook of her arm and scuttled ungainly-fashion over to Owen and Corbie.
‘Sheesh!’ he muttered to them out of the side of his beak. ‘Live wire, that one! Lots of good intentions but doesn’t think it through.’
Owen chuckled, dismounted, crouched down and held out an arm so the new raven could hop aboard.
‘Ta mate,’ the raven thanked him. ‘Name’s Cadfan, by the way,’ he added as he settled on Owen’s spare shoulder. ‘Think I’ll stop with you for a bit and let her get settled down afore I goes back.’
‘That’s fine with me,’ Owen told him, putting up a hand to stroke the silky feathers.
‘Seen any good battles lately?’ Corbie asked, peering politely round Owen’s nose to see the other bird.
‘Not really. Not unless you call the contretemps I had with that Capri a battle. Bloody half-baked wizards!’
‘Ha! They never stay in the athenor long enough to cook properly,’ Corbie agreed. ‘What about her?’ His beak indicated Magpie.
‘Loads of spunk and a very good brain, good mind too. Needs sorting …’
‘And …’ Corbie prompted.
‘And I drew the short straw!’ Cadfan growled. ‘Too many shots of Bruichladdich,’ he added. ‘That bloody Ent has one helluva stock of single malts. Fatal! Gets you so well-oiled you agree to anything.’
‘Hmmm!’ Corbie muttered. ‘Thanks for the tip. I’ll remember that if I ever get to calling in there again.’
Magpie, meanwhile, was again sat crouched on the rock before the mother-dragon, desperately trying to remember the calming breathing regime she’d learned at the Fferylt School and not doing too good a job of it. Soft, warm dragon-breath wafted over her from the slightly open jaws, it smelled of frankincense and burnt charcoal, her heart-rate slowed down immediately, lungs lost their tightness and she realised she could now see beyond the end of her nose.
‘Err … thanks …’ she said.
The dragon grinned slightly, it was impressive.
‘Now then, young lady, what is it you be wanting then,’ the dragon asked her as she sat up right out of the water and folded her forelimbs neatly across her enormous silvery-blue chest.
‘Erm … well … it’s complicated …’ Magpie began.
‘Just start at the beginning,’ the dragon advised her in a motherly way, ‘go on until you reach the end and then stop.’
Ha! Magpie thought, her face grimacing and eyes bugging slightly. That was easier said than done. Where, for a start, was the beginning? She decided just to dive in and hope for the best, her usual modus operandi.
The dragon’s head jerked back and up, her arms spread out and she unsheathed her claws. Magpie sat as still as death.
‘Please don’t eat me!’ she managed in a suffocated squeak. ‘I’m only the messenger!’
The dragon – who, of course, already knew all this – was a very good actress as well as one of the best trickster-teachers on Yardoz. She allowed a slight trickle of flame to slide between her lips, just enough to make Magpie’s long black hair stand on end, and hissed like a boiling kettle. That made even the elf-horse jump fractionally. Billy hid his head in Seabhag’s shoulder while Seabhag patted him gently, whispering cooing and calming noises to him. Everyone else sat to attention, wondering what would come next.
‘We want to rescue the little dragon,’ Magpie managed to add.
‘Goooooooooooood … goooooooooooood …’
The dragon settled herself back down amongst the huge waves that now whipped back and forth across the river, swamping the enormous bridge-stones and making rainbows over the dragon’s back.
‘The White Stag will help you but you will have to go a circuitous route to find him, there are others who need your help, injured by those wizards. Will you do this?’
‘We will.’ Magpie took on answering for the whole group. Sheer madness, the other part of her brain told her. Too bad, she told it back.
‘The stupid fools were driving about all over my land in that wretched car,’ the dragon explained. ‘As well as Cadfan they damaged Mole’s Chamber. Will you go and rescue him? He was buried alive when the tunnels fell in after the car stalled in the mud they’d churned up right above his home and caused a cave-in.’
Magpie gulped. So, further off, did Seabhag. He was not at all keen on tunnels or caves.
‘Yes,’ Magpie tried visualising a blue-steel thread stiffening her backbone which otherwise felt as though it was about to cave in too. It worked. She was always surprised when thread-work actually worked, her own experiences with it had not been good while she was at the School.
‘Then go first to Mole’s Chamber. Mole has more directions for you when you find him. Owen!’ The dragon’s eye fixed on him, he felt his own spine stiffen in an effort to look intelligent. ‘Owen, you know the way. The luck of the little folk be with you.’
The dragon seemed to sink, shrink and become transparent. She was actually shifting and blending and merging with the stones of the bridge.
Billy’s head had come out of the folds of Seabhag’s cloak by now, he watched. ‘Coo-ool!’ he whispered. ‘I wish I had a bridge like that to care for.’
‘One day,’ Seabhag told him, smiling, ‘I expect you will.’