The Councillor, drawing upon all his power, began to weave another spell. The magic rumbled in the distance, runes crackled. The tremendous, confusing storm of possibilities was coming down, full force, upon Alfred.
He began to feel faint.
Haplo’s only goal was to rescue the mensch. Once he had them, however, he had no idea what to do, no plan of attack. Why bother? he demanded of himself bitterly. The battle was hopeless from the start. It was taking all his concentration to rid himself of the fear that threatened to lay hold of him, wring him inside out, drop him, retching up his guts, in the sand. The dog had outdistanced him, reached the mensch already. The three were nearly finished, exhaustion and terror had drained them of their strength. Ignoring the serpents, the dog dashed around the mensch, herded them together, urged them on when it seemed they might lag.
One of the snakes came too close. The dog dashed toward it, growling a warning.
The dragon-snake slid back.
Devon collapsed onto the ground. Grundle grasped him by the shoulder, shook him.
“Get up, Devon!” she pleaded. “Get up!” Alake, with a courage born of despair, stood over her fallen friend and turned to face the dragon-snakes. She raised a hand that trembled, but did not loose its firm grip on the object it held—a wooden stick. She presented it boldly, and began to cast her spell, taking time to speak the words clearly and distinctly, as her mother had taught her.
The stick burst into magical flame. Alake waved the firebrand in the eyes of the dragon-snakes, as she would have waved it in the eyes of some predator cat, stalking her chickens.
The dragon-snakes hesitated, drew back. Haplo saw their game, forgot his fear in his rage. Devon, with Grundle’s assistance, was regaining his feet. The dog barked and jumped, trying to draw the serpent’s attention to itself, away from the mensch.
Alake, proud, beautiful, exultant, thrust the firebrand at the snakes. “Leave this place! Leave us!” she cried.
“Alake, get down!” Haplo shouted.
The snake struck with incredible swiftness, head darting forward faster than the eye could follow, the brain could comprehend. It was a blur, nothing more. A blur that darted out and darted back.
Alake screamed, fell, writhing in pain, to the ground.
Grundle and Devon knelt down beside her. Haplo almost stumbled over them. He grasped the dwarf by the shoulder, jerked her to her feet.
“Run ahead!” he shouted. “Get help!”
Help. What help? Alfred? What am I thinking? Haplo asked himself angrily. It had been a reflexive response. But, at least, it would get the dwarf out of the way.
Grundle blinked, understood, and, after a wild, despairing look at Alake, the dwarf turned and took off for the water’s edge.
The dragon-snake’s head hovered in the air, loomed over its victim, over Haplo. Its eyes were on the Patryn, on the blue-flaring, rune-lit daggers in his hands. The snake was confident, but wary. It had little respect for the Patryn, but was smart enough not to underestimate its enemy.
“Devon,” said Haplo, keeping his voice deliberately calm, “how’s Alake?” The elf’s choked sob answered him. He could hear the girl’s screams. She wasn’t dead, more was the pity. Poisoned, he guessed, her flesh torn by the dragon’s bone-hard mouth.
He risked a quick glance back. Devon gathered Alake in his arms, and held her close, soothing her. The dog was by his side, growling menacingly at any snakes that looked their direction.
Haplo placed his body between the serpent and the mensch. “Dog, stay with them.”
He faced the dragon-snake, daggers raised.
“Take him,” ordered the king.
The dragon-snake’s head dove down. Jaws gaped wide, venom dripped. Haplo dodged it, as best he could, but several drops fell on him, burned through the wet shirt and into the skin.
He was aware of searing pain, but it wasn’t important now. He kept his gaze and his attention fixed on his target.
The serpent lunged for him.
Haplo leapt backward, brought both hands together, drove both daggers into the dragon’s skull, between the slit red eyes.
The rune-enhanced blades bit deep. Blood spurted. The dragon-snake roared in pain, reared its head up and back, carrying Haplo, trying to hang onto the daggers, with it.
His arms were nearly ripped from their sockets. He was forced to let go and dropped to the ground. Crouching low, he waited.
The wounded dragon-snake flailed and thrashed about blindly in its death throes. At last, with a shudder, it lay still. The slit-eyes were open, but the fire was gone. The tongue lolled from the toothless mouth. The daggers remained firmly entrenched in the bloody head.
“Go for your weapons, Patryn,” said the king dragon-snake, red-green eyes gleaming with pleasure. “Seize them! Fight on! You’ve killed one of us. Don’t give up now!”
It was his only chance. Haplo lunged, hand outstretched, made a desperate grab.
A snake’s head swooped down. Pain exploded in his arm. Bone shattered, blood burned with the poison. His right hand fell useless. Haplo kept going, made another try with his left.
The serpent started for him again. A hissed command from its king halted it.
“No, no! Don’t end it yet! The Patryn is strong. Who knows? He might be able to reach his ship.”
If I could make it to my ship . . .
Haplo laughed at the thought. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? You want to see me turn and run. And you’ll let me get—how far? Within arm’s reach? Maybe even set my foot on it. And then what? Snatch me away. Take me into that cave?”
“Your terror will feed us a long, long time, Patryn,” whispered the dragon-snake.
“I’m not going to play. You’ll have to find your fun somewhere else.” Deliberately, Haplo turned his back on the snakes, crouched down beside the two young people. The dog posted guard behind its master, growling at any serpent that came too close.
Alake was quiet now, she no longer moaned. Her eyes were closed, her breathing ragged and shallow.
“I ... I think she’s better,” said Devon, swallowing hard.
“Yes,” Haplo said quietly. “She’s going to be well soon.” He heard, behind him, the huge bodies slide close. The dog’s growl intensified. Alake opened her eyes, smiled up at him.
“I am better,” she breathed. “It . . . doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“Haplo!” Devon said warningly.
Haplo glanced behind him. The snakes had begun to circle around, some moving to the left, others moving to the right. Their bodies slid over the ground, curving, coiling, flat heads always facing his direction. Slowly, inexorably, they were surrounding him. The dragon-snakes began to hiss—soft, sibilant whispers of death. The dog ceased to growl, crept back to be near its master.
“What’s the matter?” Alake whispered. “You killed the dragon-snake. I saw you. They’re gone now, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” said Haplo, taking her hands in his. “They’re gone. The danger’s over. Rest easy, now.”
“I will rest easy. You will watch over me? . . .”
“I will watch over you.”
She smiled, closed her eyes. Her body shuddered, then lay still. Samah spoke the first rune, started to speak the second. The magic was gathering around him in a light-spangled cloud.
A small person, howling at the top of her lungs, sprang on him, clutched at him, her momentum nearly carrying them both over.
His spell disrupted, Samah stared down at a young female dwarf. Her grimy hands tugged at his robes, practically dragged them off him.
“Rescue . . . Alake fell . . . Haplo alone . . . dragons ... he needs . . . help!” The dwarf panted, pulled on Samah’s robes. “You . . . come!” Saman thrust the mensch aside. “Another trick.”
“Come! Please!” the dwarf begged, and burst into tears.
“I will help,” said Alfred.