Dawn broke with a searing orange incandescence which set the clouds aflame and painted the world with fire. I feared that I was too far away and too slow to complete my mission. We’d ridden through the night, my steed and I. If I thought I was weary I could hardly imagine her – Salyan’s – tiredness, hours of pounding down the old dusk road. It was well-maintained but still, I was bruised and battered from so many hours in the saddle. True sunrise was my deadline, when the vital news I carried in a leather case strapped to my chest and chained to my wrist would lose its value and make our journey wasted. Except for the constant drumbeat of iron-shod hooves on stone, which had risked lulling me to sleep on several occasions, it had been an uneventful chase across the land. With the arrival of light once more, that was about to change.
The old dusk road led straight through the mountain pass held by our people, but the craggy plains we needed to travel across next were disputed territory, with raiding parties, assassins and mercenaries jostling for space with the few famers and prospectors who had remained. What agreements they’d come to with the predators that also roamed these parts, I had no idea, but I was confident I’d never want to spend more than this headlong flight through them. Salyan smelled them before I did, picking up speed as we drew near an ancient withered tree. With the case chained to one wrist I’d be limited to just one sword rather than my preferred double, but Salyan herself took care of the first raiding group we encountered. As we drew level with the tree, we were assailed by three figures, wrapped head to foot in blood-red fabric. The first was at ground level – a terrible mistake – as Salyan simply stepped into him, barely breaking her stride, but those viciously sharp hooves trampled him into the earth with an awful crunch. The second and third came from above, leaping on Salyan even as she dispatched their comrade. One fell across her long neck, misjudging the distance and I slew him with a single slice of my blade. The third was more successful, landing astride Salyan’s back, behind my saddle. Their knives were at my throat in an instant, but Salyan bucked and jerked, dislodging the raider enough for me to twist and bury my sword in their side. We left their bleeding bodies in the road behind.
The burning clouds bore witness to our race, and I urged Salyan on, knowing that she was as conscious of our deadline as I was and in truth was the only one out of the two of us who could make a difference to our speed. A growled snort from her dissuaded me from further encouragement, so I just crouched low in the saddle and hoped. We’d been dispatched before night fell from the Mountain Palace, bundled with urgency out into the failing light. The war had reached a crucial stage – King Evanith was due to take flight with his legion the very next morning and lay waste to our enemies. If we missed their departure, there would be no catching up with them. They were mustered on the far side of the mountains, beyond the plains. It would be possible, but barely so. In the king’s absence, Vizier Paulanine had pursued the aggressive espionage which had kept us ahead and alive in this long running conflict between ourselves and the butchers. King Evanith’s mission would annihilate their capital, raze it and its armies to ash. But he could only do that if the butcher city was where it was supposed to be. Unlike our cities, embedded in rock, part of the landscape, the butchers’ was a vast clanking engine which roamed its lands, encircled by its armies. And Paulanine had received word that the butchers had deceived us with their location. Far from being in the path of King Evanith’s force, they had circled around and were mere hours from pressing their attack deep into our homelands, perhaps even to lay siege to Mountain Palace. Only King Evanith could save us, and only I and Salyan could reach him in time.
We drank and ate on the move, Salyan’s long serpentine neck rolling back over her shoulders to be fed, confident in the hammering tread of her hooves to keep us straight. Bloodmeal for her, a sandwich for me. Reenergised, she picked up speed once more, thwarting another ambush who we simply flew past. I almost laughed at their shocked faces, until I noted their bows and ducked low to avoid the arrows that followed us. Salyan hissed and snatched one contemptuously out of the air. We rode on.
Up ahead we at last saw the King’s muster point – fields of banners and tents emerged as we crested yet another crag. And there, barely distinguishable from the land itself, the King’s mount, Meniklass. Its tail wound around the encampment, near abandoned as we rode through it, bellowing passphrases to the guards who remained to protect the military infrastructure. I roared, waving the case with the king’s emblem and the vizier’s seal as Salyan leapt, scattering the sentinels, racing for the very end of the dragon’s tail. Almost the whole army had taken their places along the dragon’s spine, the vast horned protrusions from its back offering space and shelter for the thousands of soldiers Evanith had gathered for this last ditch hope to crush the butchers. Thunder rolled as the sun finally breached the horizon, golden light soaking every last thing it touched. The thunder was the dragon’s enormous wings unfurling, battering the ground beneath as it launched itself impossibly into the sky. We were so close. Salyan changed course, seeing we’d not reach the embarkation ramps, and instead ran up the side of the hill alongside the dragon’s tail. I could do nothing but cling to her saddle with all my strength as she leaped into the air.
And landed, her iron shoes skidding across the vast scales. We’d landed halfway up the tail, nearly slid off the other side. Salyan got her feet back under her and I caught a little of the breath that the landing had punched out of me. We raced on, now running up the dragon’s tail on onto its broad back. It was said to be a full mile long from the base of its tail to its mighty head and it took an age for us to even canter up the tail. It undulated gently beneath us, flexing as the beast took flight and in moments we were hundreds of feet in the air, and about to go in the wrong direction. Salyan’s hooves struck sparks off the plated iron road that had been laid all along the beast’s back, textured for grip and easy access. This was not the first time that Evanith had led our people in war, and it was not the first time that Meniklass had been used as both war machine and transport for our armies. Soldiers and their steeds lined the iron road as we continued, fighting both the ascent up Meniklass’ shoulders and being buffeted by the air as he rose into the sky.
As we neared Meniklass’ neck we were joined by three of the King’s Guard, also mounted who had spotted us coming and heeding our reckless pace were prepared to clear the way and guide us to the king. Had we been enemies I’d no doubt we’d have been torn apart and tossed out into the air beneath us, but my wild eyes and waving the seals once more ensured our survival. Up, up the long winding neck, the iron road twisting around the spikes that erupted along Meniklass’ vertebrae. At last we reached the head, drawing to a halt with our guards. I fell from the saddle as Salyan collapsed, exhausted. The guards hauled me to my feet and half-carried me to the king. A glance behind showed groomsmen moving immediately to Salyan’s aid. I fell once more at the king’s feet, half bowing, but mostly unable to make my legs work. The king knelt too, and with the key that only he and his vizier possessed, unlocked the chains to the case and gently drew it from me. He laid a firm hand on my shoulder and turned with his advisors to explore the case’s contents.
“Hold!” the bellow was passed from king to guardsman to soldier and I heard the cry rippling away down the dragon’s back. I grabbed onto the plates beneath me as Meniklass rolled, twisting and reversing direction. My legs rose up in the air as Meniklass changed course. I stared over the side of the dragon’s neck as we covered in minutes what had taken us hours to ride, flashed above the mountains and soared across our homelands. In the distance I could barely make out the spiky shapes of the butchers on the move.
A hand fell upon my shoulder once more – the king – and I scrabbled to stand but found I could not. “You have done your part, and done it well. Now, watch as we cleanse our lands of the butchers once and for all.” We had arrived in time, completed our mission, and now I’d see the world burn.