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The dragon was weaving its head back and forth and I was trying to weave the other way, so as not to be lined up if it turned on the flame—when suddenly I got my first blast of methane, whiffing it before it lighted, and retreated so fast that I backed into that baby I had stepped on before, went clear over it, landed on my shoulders and rolled, and that saved me. Those flames shoot out about twenty feet. The grown-up dragon had reared up and still could have fried me, but the baby was in the way. It chopped off the flame—but Rufo yelled, "Bull's-eye!"

The reason that I backed away in time was halitosis. It says here that "pure methane is a colorless, odorless gas." The GI tract methane wasn't pure; it was so loaded with homemade ketones and aldehydes that it made an unlimed outhouse smell like Shalimar.

I figure that Stars giving me that salve to open up my nose saved my life. When my nose clamps down I can't even smell my upper lip.

The action didn't stop while I figured this out; I did all my thinking either before or after, not during. Shortly after Rufo shot it in the bull's-eye, the beast got a look of utter indignation, opened its mouth again without flaming and tried to reach its fanny with both hands. It couldn't—forelegs too short—but it tried. I had returned sword in a hurry once I saw the length of that flame jet and had grabbed my bow. I had time to get one arrow into its mouth, left tonsil maybe.

This message got through faster. With a scream of rage that shook the ground it started for me, belching flame—and Rufo yelled, "A wart seven!"

I was too busy to congratulate him; those critters are fast for their size. But I'm fast, too, and had more incentive. A thing that big can't change course very fast, but it can swing its head and with it the flame. I got my pants scorched and moved still faster, trying to cut around it.

Star carefully put an arrow into the other tonsil, right where the flame came out, while I was dodging. Then the poor thing tried so hard to turn both ways at both of us that it got tangled in its feet and fell over, a small earthquake. Rufo sank another arrow in its tender behind, and Star loosed one that passed through its tongue and stuck on the fletching, not damaging it but annoying it dreadfully.

It pulled itself into a ball, got to its feet, reared up and tried to flame me again. I could tell it didn't like me.

And the flame went out.

This was something I had hoped for. A proper dragon, with castles and captive princesses, has as much fire as it needs, like six-shooters in TV oaters. But these creatures fermented their own methane and couldn't have too big a reserve tank nor under too high pressure—I hoped. If we could nag one into using all its ammo fast, there was bound to be a lag before it recharged.

Meanwhile Rufo and Star were giving it no peace with the pincushion routine. It made a real effort to light up again while I was traversing rapidly, trying to keep that squealing baby dragon between me and the big one, and it behaved like an almost dry Ronson; the flame flickered and caught, shot out a pitiful six feet and went out. But it tried so hard to get me with that last flicker that it fell over again.

I took a chance that it would be sluggy for a second or two like a man who's been tackled nard, ran in and stuck my sword in its right eye.

It gave one mighty convulsion and quit.

(A lucky poke. They say dinosaurs that big have brains the size of chestnuts. Let's credit this beast with one the size of a cantaloupe—but it's still luck if you thrust through an eye socket and get the brain right off. Nothing we had done up to then was more than mosquito bites. But it died from that one poke. St. Michael and St. George guided my blade.)

And Rufo yelled, "Boss! Git fer home!"

A drag race of dragons was closing on us. It felt like that drill in basic where you have to dig a foxhole, then let a tank pass over you.

"This way!" I yelled. "Rufo! This way, not that! Star!" Rufo skidded to a stop, we got headed the same way and I saw the mouth of the cave, black as sin and inviting as a mother's arms. Star hung back; I shoved her in and Rufo stumbled after her and I turned to face more dragons for my lady love.

But she was yelling, "Milord! Oscar! Inside, you idiot! I must set the wards!"

So I got inside fast and she did, and I never did chew her out for calling her husband an idiot.

Chapter 13

The littlest dragon followed us to the cave, not belligerently (although I don't trust anything with teeth that size) out more, I think, the way a baby duck follows anyone who leads. It tried to come in after us, drew back suddenly as its snout touched the invisible curtain, like a kitten hit by a static spark. Then it hung around outside, making wheepling noises.

I began to wonder whether or not Stars wards could stop flame. I found out as an old dragon arrived right after that, shoved his head into the opening, jerked it back indignantly just as the kid had, then eyed us and switched on his flame-thrower.

No, the wards don't stop flame.

We were far enough inside that we didn't get singed but the smoke and stink and heat were ghastly and just as deadly if it went on long.

An arrow whoofed past my ear and that dragon gave up interest in us. He was replaced by another who wasn't convinced. Rufo, or possibly Star, convinced him before he had time to light his blowtorch. The air cleared; from somewhere inside there was an outward draft.

Meanwhile Star had made a light and the dragons were holding an indignation meeting. I glanced behind me—a narrow, low passage that dropped and turned. I stopped paying attention to Star and Rufo and the inside of the cave; another committee was calling.

I got the chairman in his soft palate before he could belch. The vice-chairman took over and got in a brief remark about fifteen feet long before he, too, changed his mind. The committee backed off and bellowed bad advice at each other.

The baby dragon hung around all during this. When the adults withdrew he again came to the door, just short of where he had burned his nose. "Koo-werp?" he said plaintively. "Koo-werp? Keet!" Plainly he wanted to come in.

Star touched my arm. "If milord husband pleases, we are ready."


"Right away," I agreed, then yelled, "Beat it, kid! Back to your mama."

Rufo stuck his head alongside mine. "Probably can't," he commented. "Likely that was its mama we ruined."

I didn't answer as it made sense; the adult dragon we had finished off had come awake instantly when I stepped on the kid's tail. This sounds like mother love, if dragons go in for mother love—I wouldn't know.

But it's a hell of a note when you can't even kill a dragon and feel lighthearted afterwards.

We meandered back into that hill, ducking stalactites and stepping around stalagmites while Rufo led with a torch. We arrived in a domed chamber with a floor glazed smooth by unknown years of calcified deposit. It had stalactites in soft pastel shades near the walls and a lovely, almost symmetrical chandelier from the center but no stalagmite under it. Star and Rufo had stuck lumps of the luminescent putty, which is the common night light in Nevia at a dozen points around the room; it bathed the room in a soft light and pointed up the stalactites.

Among them Rufo showed me webs. "Those spinners are harmless," he said. "Just big and ugly. They don't even bite like a spider. But—mind your step!" He pulled me back. "These things are poisonous even to touch. Blindworms. That's what took us so long. Had to be sure the place was clean before warding it. But now that She is setting wards at the entrances I'll give it one more check."

The so-called blindworms were translucent, iridescent things the size of large rattlesnakes and slimy-soft like angleworms; I was glad they were dead. Rufo speared them on his sword, a grisly shishkebab, and carried them out through the entrance we had come in.