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But it was well that I kept honest lockout instead of trying to puzzle out how she sat up that charmed circle, as she was attacked by the only rat we met that had no sense. He came straight at her, my arrow past her ear warned her, and she finished him off by sword. It was a very old male, missing teeth and white whiskers and likely weak in his mind. He was as large as a wolf, and with two death wounds still a red-eyed, mangy fury.

Once the last ward was placed Star told me that I could stop worrying about the sky; the wards roofed as well as fenced the circle. As Rufo says, if She says it, that settles it. Rufo had partly unfolded the foldbox while he watched; I got out her surgical case, more arrows for all of us, and food. No nonsense about manservant and gentlefolk, we ate together, sitting or sprawling and with Rufo lying flat to give his leg a chance while Star served him, sometimes popping food into his mouth in Nevian hospitality. She had worked a long time on his leg while I held a light and handed her things. She packed the wound with a pale jelly before sealing a dressing over it. If it hurt, Rufo didn't mention it.

While we ate it grew dark and the invisible fence began to be lined with eyes, glowing back at us with the light we ate by, and almost as numerous as the crowd the morning Igli ate himself. Most of them I judged to be rats. One group kept to themselves with a break in the circle on each side; I decided these must be hogs; the eyes were higher off the ground.

"Milady love," I said, "will those wards hold all night?"

"Yes, milord husband."

"They had better. It is too dark for arrows and I can't see us hacking our way through that mob. I'm afraid you must revise your schedule again."

"I can't, milord Hero. But forget those beasts. Now we fly."

Rufo groaned. "I was afraid so. You know it makes me seasick."

"Poor Rufo," Star said softly. "Never fear, old friend I have a surprise for you. Again such chance as this, I bought Dramamine in Cannes—you know, the drug that saved the Normandy invasion back on Earth. Or perhaps you don't know."

Rufo answered, " ‘Know'? I was in that invasion, milady—and I'm allergic to Dramamine; I fed fish all the way to Omaha Beach. Worst night I've ever had—why, I'd rather be here!"

"Rufo," I asked, "were you really at Omaha Beach?"

"Hell, yes, Boss. I did all of Eisenhower's thinking."

"But why? It wasn't your fight."

"You might ask yourself why you're in this fight, Boss. In my case it was French babes. Earthy and uninhibited and always cheerful about it and willing to learn. I remember one little mademoiselle from Armentieres"—he pronounced it correctly—"who hadn't been—"

Star interrupted. "While you two pursue your bachelor reminiscences, I'll get the flight gear ready." She got up and went to the foldbox.

"Go ahead, Rufo," I said, wondering how far he would stretch this one.

"No," he said sullenly. "She wouldn't like it. I can tell. Boss, you've had the damnedest effect on Her. More ladylike by the minute and that isn't like Her at all. First thing you know She will subscribe to Vogue and then there's no telling how far it will go. I don't understand it, it can't be your looks. No offense meant."

"And none taken. Well, tell me another time. If you can remember it."

"I'll never forget her. But, Boss, seasickness isn't the half of it. You think these woods are infested. Well, the ones we are coming to—wobbly in the knees, at least I will be—those woods have dragons."

"I know."

"So She told you? But you have to see it to believe it. The woods are full of ‘em. More than there are Doyles in Boston. Big ones, little ones, and the two-ton teen-age size, hungry all the time. You may fancy being eaten by a dragon; I don't. It's humiliating. And final. They ought to spray the place with dragonbane, that's what they ought to do. There ought to be a law."

Star had returned. "No, there should not be a law," she said firmly. "Rufo, don't sound off about things you don't understand. Disturbing the ecological balance is the worst mistake any government can make."

Rufo shut up, muttering. I said, "My true love, what use is a dragon? Riddle me that."

"I've never cast a balance sheet on Nevia, it's not my responsibility. But I can suggest the imbalances that might follow any attempt to get rid of dragons—which the Nevians could do; you've seen that their technology is not to be sneered at. These rats and hogs destroy crops. Rats help to keep the hogs down by eating piglets. But rats are even worse than hogs, on food crops. The dragons graze through these very woods in the daytime—dragons are diurnal, rats are nocturnal and go into their holes in the heat of the day. The dragons and hogs keep the underbrush cropped back and the dragons keep the lower limbs trimmed off. But dragons also enjoy a tasty rat, so whenever one locates a rat hole, it gives it a shot of flame, not always killing adults as they dig two holes for each nest, but certainly killing any babies—and then the dragon digs in and has his favorite snack. There is a long-standing agreement, amounting to a treaty, that as long as the dragons stay in their own territory and keep the rats in check, humans will not bother them."

"But why not kill the rats, and then clean up the dragons?"

"And let the hogs run wild? Please, milord husband, I don't know all the answers in this case; I simply know that disturbing a natural balance is a matter to be approached with fear and trembling—and a very versatile computer. The Nevians seem content not to bother the dragons."

"Apparently we're going to bother them. Will that break the treaty?"

"It's not really a treaty, it's folk wisdom with the Nevians, and a conditioned reflex—or possibly instinct—with the dragons. And we aren't going to bother dragons if we can help it. Have you discussed tactics with Rufo? There won't be time when we get there."

So I discussed how to loll dragons with Rufo, while Star listened and finished her preparations. "All right," Rufo said glumly, "it beats sitting tight, like an oyster on the half shell waiting to be eaten. More dignified. I'm a better archer than you are—or at least as good—so I'll take the hind end, as I'm not as agile tonight as I should be."

"Be ready to switch jobs fast if he swings around."

"You be ready, Boss. I'll be ready for the best of reasons—my favorite skin."

Star was ready and Rufo had packed and reslung the foldbox while we conferred. She placed round garters above each knee of each of us, then had us sit on the rock facing our destination. "That oak arrow, Rufo."

"Star, isn't this out of the Albertus Magnus book?"

"Similar," she said. "My formula is more reliable and the ingredients I use on the garters don't spoil. If you please, milord husband, I must concentrate on my witchery. Place the arrow so that it points at the cave."

I did so. "Is that precise?" she asked.

"If the map you showed me is correct, it is. That's aimed just the way I've been aiming since we left the road."

"How far away is the Forest of Dragons?"

"Uh, look, my love, as long as we're going by air why don't we go straight to the cave and skip the dragons?"

She said patiently, "I wish we could. But that forest is so dense at the top that we can't drop straight down at the cave, no elbow room. And the things that live in those trees, high up, are worse than dragons. They grow—"