Eventually we made it across which was good, for now we were only a few miles from Slinsil. The bad news was that a small blue dragon greeted us as we disembarked.
“I eats dwarfs.” Smoke streamed from the dragon’s nostrils. Its long, spiked tail wagged back and forth like a cat’s. “Gives me the dwarf as toll.”
Athor stepped forward. He put on a display of some rather fancy swordplay that usually made grown men cower in fear. “No dwarf, no toll.”
A jet of fire erupted from the dragon’s mouth. Waves of heat washed over me, causing me to break into a goodly sized sweat.
“Gives me the dwarf or you don’t passes.”
Athor flexed his muscled arms. “It’s me you want, right, Dragon?”
“Yeses,” he hissed. “Do I knows you?” The dragon’s eyes narrowed and its head lowered even with Athor’s.
“Yes, Pineki,” Athor said as he pounded his chest with his closed fist and then splayed his fingers in a salute. “When I saw you last, you were running into the forest with scales missing from your belly.”
“You were the ones.” Pineki hissed, creating a fog around her head. “You will die, dwarf. This time Pineki wins.”
Athor charged, sword pointed at Pineki’s belly. Little John and Doughty ran alongside, leaving me in charge of four nervous horses.
The fight was intense even though it was remarkably slow. Athor missed the dragon’s belly when she sidestepped to the right. Little John aimed for her talons and caught the nail on one, causing blood to drip. This angered Pineki so she blew fire at Doughty as he moved toward her neck, confusing him enough that he missed.
For a little thing, Pineki had amazing skills. She leapt at just the right time, spun and danced like a King’s maiden, and spat balls of fire at each of the fighters. She was full of energy while we were weary from our travels and it soon became obvious that the dragon would win.
Just as Athor ran in for one last swipe at the dragon’s belly, Pineki bent her head and blew a stream of orange fire. The dwarf’s body became entrenched and the stench of burning flesh caused me to lose what little lunch I had eaten.
Doughty and Little John watched helplessly as Pineki grabbed the charred Athor in her talons and flew off. “I’ve gots me a dwarf, so you can passes,” she called.
Saddened to lose another friend, we didn’t feel like moving on so we built a primitive shelter out of branches gathered along a line of trees, tied our horses amongst tasty grasses, and sheltered for the night. I employed my invisibility spell, but Doughty, not trusting its effectiveness, refused to build a fire which meant we had to eat the crocodile raw.
It was disgusting and chewy, but I ate anyway. I needed nourishment and that was all we had. Afterward I wrote in my journal until it got too dark. Little John gathered leaves for bedding, and Doughty stood guard for the first watch. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep, but my mind would not let go of the image of a charred Athor being carried off.
Because Slinsil was not far away and Kraznir’s invasion plans had to be made known, after a breakfast more raw croc we moved into the forest with heads drooped. Two friends lost. How many more might we lose?
We rode as quickly as possible into Slinsil, fortunately without further excitement. I had never thought the city to be beautiful, but that morning, with the sun glinting off the metal roofs offering a degree of safely and comfort, it seemed like the most beautiful city in the known world.
As we rode past shops and houses townsfolk greeted us with a cheer as they would any returning soldiers. It felt good to be what had been my home since I was enlisted into the army, but my heart still ached for our dead companions.
We rode up to the gates of the palace, where, once announced, King Taden’s emissary invited us in for a bath and an audience with the king himself. After a good soaking in the private bath offered me, a servant presented me with a clean gown of sapphire-colored silk. It fit perfectly, almost as if it was made for me.
I met my remaining companions, equally cleaned up and outfitted in bright white tunics, black leggings and leather belts. We were ushered into the King’s throne room. Taden stood when we entered, complicating things a bit.
According to protocol, if the King stands, we must also but our heads cannot be higher than his. For Little John this was no problem since he’s short of stature, but for Doughty and I, well, we had to stoop our shoulders and shrink into ourselves in order to keep our eyes below Taden’s chin.