Friday, December 29, 2017
"Dusty! Dusty!" a little voice shouted at her ear. "Wake up! They're here!"
Dusty sat up, grabbing at anything she could use as a weapon. How had the orcs gotten so close? Where were they? Where was she?
Blue stood on her pillow leaping up and down. She looked around in fear --
"Mama! I can hear mama!"
Well, that woke her from her rest. Mama. Big dragon and she would be looking for her lost son. Dusty threw herself out of bed, almost tangling in the blankets and began looking frantically around. A knock on the door startled her, but her grandmother's servant, Mistress Paulina rushed into the room with clothing in hand.
"Oh good, you are awake. We just got a signal --"
"Dragons are coming. Oh dear. I don't have time --"
Mistress Paulina was expert at getting people ready for events. With the help of two other maids, she had Dusty dressed and her hair fixed as quickly as possible. By then, Blue could see the dragons -- three of them -- in the window. He jumped so much that Dusty had trouble getting hold of him. He laughed and giggled and bounced more as they hurried down the stairs and out into the courtyard.
The guards had cleared everything they could out of the way, but Dusty could tell that still didn't leave enough room for the three enormous dragons who were circling lower in the sky. Fox stood to the right of the door and smiled brightly. She wanted to grab and hug him but now was not the time. Dusty had beat grandmother and her guards out to the grand stairs leading into the building, but the Queen arrived only moments later.
"Oh my," the queen said. "I do hope --"
"Mama!" Blue shouted.
One of the dragons swept out of the formation and straight down at them. Dusty gasped but hadn't even time to back away before the vast, aqua-colored creature landed with a thump against the courtyard -- she saw stones crack -- and everything trembled.
Blue squealed and leapt from Dusty and to his mother's long snout as the dragon's head came closer. Dusty bowed her head while Blue talked so fast that even she couldn't follow him, though every time Blue said 'orcs' his mother growled.
Then the larger dragon's head turned and focused unerringly on Dusty. "Where are the orcs?" she growled, the angry sound sending the ground trembling.
"They're running back for their lairs," Dusty said, fighting to keep her voice steady while she looked into the enormous eyes -- and tried very hard not to see the big teeth.
"You let them go?" she answered, her eyes narrowing.
"I thought it most important to get Blue to safety," Dusty replied. "I didn't have the ability to fight the orcs --"
"Blue?" She blinked and then her lips curled back in what was not a smile. "You have named my son?"
"I -- Just to call him. Not a real name, of course. It hardly seemed proper for me to call such a fine creature baby."
Blue, who had settled on her leg, preened. Dusty saw the mama dragon's eyes turn back to her son and blink. The anger that had been there a moment before seemed to melt away.
"You did quite well, Princess of the humans. And may I say you seem quite accomplished in understanding dragons for one so young. Even those born with the gift are usually not so adept until far later in life, which is a shame for such a short-lived race."
"Thank you, Lady Dragon," she said and hoped that title worked.
The dragon had looked at her son again and gave a little nod. "Blue is a good name. We shall keep it."
"Oh, thank you, thank you, mama! I so wanted a name. And I will be wiser now! I'll do much better. I won't be a problem again!"
"Somehow, I find that rather doubtful."
Dusty smiled, but she was trying not to sniff. She could tell by the way the older dragon moved that she was preparing to leave and Dusty would not see Blue again. She had been trying to prepare herself for this moment, but it was all she could do to keep from crying aloud.
Lady Dragon turned her head and gave an unexpected nod to Queen Olivia. "This one has done well. I apologize for the misunderstanding about where my young one -- where Blue had gone. I will send funds to help rebuild and replace livestock."
"That is most generous," Queen Olivia answered and barely concealed her surprise. Dusty couldn't remember a time when dragons had paid humans for the trouble they created. This marked a considerable change in their relationship.
"You will not, I hope, mind if we chase the orcs back to their caves?" Lady Dragon asked.
"Not at all."
Both of them grinned, which was a rather odd sight.
"Also, I think it time we have an ambassador," Lady Dragon said and gave a sideways nod to Dusty.
"I thought the same thing," Queen Olivia agreed, and Dusty felt her heart do a double thump. "We shall give her some training and send her to visit with you -- and Blue -- in a few months if that suits you and her."
"Yes, that will work well," Lady Dragon said, and both of them looked entirely at Dusty this time.
"I would be honored," she said, despite her fear at the idea of such responsibility. On the other hand, she would see Blue again.
"I think, then, that my granddaughter has found her choosing and her future."
Dusty grinned agreement, watching as Lady Dragon backed away and then lifted into the air with a few flaps of her wings and a lot of magic. She soon couldn't see Blue as they sailed up so high, but it didn't matter. In a few months, they would meet again.
And she had the feeling that it was going to be an adventure.
Thursday, December 21, 2017
They pressed in as close to the gate as they could manage while the soldiers fought the orcs. The orcs had seen her, though. After that, the power of their yells and the pounding of their feet and hands unsettled the horses, and she couldn't get control of her frightened mount. Fox grabbed her and pulled her off one horse to his, but it was no better. He got them both down to the ground and with their backs to the gate. Fox pushed Dusty behind and put himself in front of her --
The gate opened. They both fell inside, Fox landing on her and apologizing as he stood and helped her up. Then he saw that the orcs had shoved themselves right up to the gate and were trying to get inside while the guards fought to hold them back. Fox leapt to help them.
"Go Dusty! Get to the Queen!"
Dusty spun and ran, her heart pounding with fear for those she had left behind. More soldiers were arriving, though. She saw Kratis with them, but he didn't notice her, the somewhat ragged girl darting away from the trouble.
Guards stood at the main doors and tried to stop her from going inside the building.
"I'm Destiny!" she shouted in frustration. "Princess Destiny! Let me get in. I have news for my grandmother!"
They looked at her in shock. Then one shoved a door open, and she darted past them. Servants and even cousins tried to stop her and ask where she'd been. She had to shake them off, and they probably thought she'd gone mad.
"Blue!" she shouted as she ran. "Blue!"
Dusty found no sign of him. She ran, frantic and yelling, her voice going hoarse. The Queen was in the Great Hall as Dusty had hoped. She ran past guards. People began to shout, and the guards caught her.
"No! Grandma -- I have news about the orcs!"
"Let her go," Master Stuart ordered. "Princess --"
"He has to be here! Blue!"
She thought heard a little voice somewhere above her, but it was soon drowned out in the shouts of the others. All the people seemed frantic, and they were growing louder.
"Everyone be quiet!" she shouted.
Dusty wasn't certain why they all obeyed her, but everyone fell silent, except for movement -- and a voice --
"Dusty! Dusty! I'm here!"
The sound had come from above her, probably along one of the columns that braced the ceiling. She couldn't see in the shadows though. "Come to me Blue."
"So many angry people. Afraid!"
"They won't hurt you. Come to me. You can trust me."
He scurried straight down the column to her right and leapt to her shoulder and then wrapped his little hands around her neck. She felt almost faint with relief.
"That --" Grandmother began. She left the throne and came to stand before Dusty, her eyes wide. "That is not a lizard."
"He is a baby blue dragon, Your Highness. He was stolen by the orcs and his mother will be looking for him."
Silence for a heartbeat or two -- and then the Queen spun to the person standing by Dusty.
"Master Stuart! To the mages. Tell them to get a message to the dragons immediately!"
Master Stuart left the room at a run. Dusty had never seen him run before. For a moment she could only stare in wonder. Then she thought she ought to sit down. Queen Olivia called for chairs, and the two of them sat right there in the middle of the Great Hall. Dusty did her best to tell the story of her adventure while Blue crawled up on her shoulder and surveyed everything.
After a little while, she became aware of the silence, not only in the room but outside the building as well. The quiet worried her, especially when Master Stuart hurried back into the room, looking a little red-faced and defiantly winded.
"The mages have sent the word, Majesty," he said with a bow to the queen followed by an unexpectedly bright smile. "And then the mages stood on the walls and told the orcs what they'd done. It worked better than any other defense we've tried against them. They are retreating in haste. I suspect they'll run all the way back to their mountain caves and hope the dragons can't find them if they burrow in deep enough there."
"Now all we can do is wait for the dragons to come to us," Queen Olivia said. She sounded, rightfully so, worried about that prospect. "Destiny, you and your friend will have the Green Suite until Blue can go home to his mother. I think you could both use some rest."
"Yes, thank you," Dusty said. She could hardly force herself to stand again, and Blue, who must have fallen asleep, tumbled into her arms and curled up again without much notice. Even Queen Olivia smiled at the sight.
Master Stuart walked with her out of the hall and toward the stairs. People stared where she passed, and a whisper of words followed her. There would be some who didn't approve of what she'd done, but that was a part of life at the court.
A few servants had rushed on ahead of them.
"Sir, there was a soldier who helped me, and I want to know if he's all right --"
"This Fox you mentioned? Don't worry, I'll see to him. You've had quite an adventure young lady!"
She took the next two steps in silence. "I always wanted an adventure, you know," she finally said. "But it was scary, and so much depended on me. I'd never tried to use my ability with animals like I did."
"And you did well," he said. They'd reached the door to find a servant who usually served the queen, an honor Dusty had not expected.
She was so tired, though, that she barely remembered sitting down on the bed, just to rest....
Thursday, December 14, 2017
Where was Fox? She suspected he was still trying to lead the orcs away, but then she saw another two join the rest of them and thought those might be the ones who had been following them. Dusty feared that they had hurt Fox and she didn't know how to find him. The best idea seemed to go back to where she'd last seen him, so she grabbed the bag back up and hurried away from the square.
A shame she couldn't scurry across the shadows and up the walls as readily as Blue had and be safely inside the walls, though that shelter might be an illusion from the way the ground shook.
Dusty slid around the corner of the building --
And ran right into someone. They both yelped.
Fox. He looked a bit more disheveled, and there was dust in his hair, but he caught hold of her arm and grinned.
"You're all right," she said, though she wasn't entirely sure. He looked shaky and pale.
"Well enough," he answered. "Sorry you couldn't get into the castle. I saw the other orcs arrived. Soldiers are coming, too, but I don't know what they're going to do. We have to find another way --"
"I sent Blue in. He climbed the wall and went over the other side. So he's safe for now."
"Good work!" His hand tightened on her arm.
"I just fear that he'll come back out and look for me," she admitted. "I told him to go to the mages or the Queen if I don't arrive, but I don't think he will trust them."
"We need to get you inside. Let's get to the soldiers. They might be our best chance."
She gave a weary nod. There was no telling what they were going to do now, but she supposed it wouldn't take long. That was her best hope now -- well that and the idea she could soon take a bath and sleep in her own bed.
Fox kept hold of her arm. She had been a little woozy there, and maybe a bit lost. However, before too long Dusty got her senses back and helped to make certain they did not run into any other orcs -- because there seemed to be even more orcs out searching now.
There were also soldiers, and the one on the horse in the lead was her brother, Donid.
"Dusty!" he cried out before she could even greet him. He leapt from the horse and threw the reins to one of the soldiers. He grabbed her into a surprising hug. "Where have you been? We thought the orcs had you --"
"They did, sort of. We've been running from them for days. I have to get inside, Donid. I have things grandmother needs to know."
"Fox," Donid said to her companion and gave him a slap on the shoulder -- luckily not the injured one. "You're with her? Good. We'd just gotten orders to charge and scatter the orcs at the gate so more of the soldiers could get out. I suspect that will be your best chance to get in -- if we can get you close enough without the orcs realizing it."
"Just charge through," Fox said. "Get Dusty on the horse --"
"I want you with me," she said and surprised them both. "Fox has been smart and gotten us through the orcs so far."
"Then up you both go. Don't argue, Fox. Just get her inside."
There was no time to say anything more. The orcs were bound to figure out the soldiers were coming up behind them. Dusty let Donid help her up and then Fox got up behind her. She had already whispered some calming words to the horse who stopped fidgeting.
"We're going to go in a wedge up to the orcs and see if we can't break a path through. I think, Dusty, that you should stay back until we get to the gate and it opens. There's no use coming with us if we can't get that far."
"He's right," Fox agreed. "I need a spear or something else I can use to shove them back. Dusty, you just lean over the horse's neck and keep him going straight."
"Yes. Yes to all of it. Be careful, everyone."
Donid gave her a distracted nod. He was directing the soldiers, and before she could say more, they formed up and began to jog forward. One had given Fox a spear and drawn his sword instead. They had shields, but she thought those wouldn't be strong enough to hold back the blows of orcs.
Where were the mages? They had to be preparing to attack -- and with that thought, she realized that moving fast before the mages struck was the best idea. No time to think. No time to worry about anything except getting in, finding Blue, and sending word to his mother.
The soldiers were already up to the orcs and were doing an excellent job of knocking them back and knocking them down. The opening appeared all the way to the gate, but it wasn't open yet.
Then she heard a worse sound still.
"More orcs are coming behind us!" she warned.
Fox turned to look back, and she heard him mutter a curse. The gate was still not open.
"No choice. We have to go now and hope the gate is opened by the time we get there," Fox said. "We don't dare get caught here with orcs at our backs and in front of us."
"Yes," Dusty agreed.
She leaned forward and urged the horse to be calm one more time as they headed out into the mass of fighting men and orcs. The gate had not opened. Donid, his cheek bleeding, darted toward them with a look of worry.
"More orcs!" she called out as soon as he was close enough to hear. "More orcs coming behind us! We couldn't stay!"
"Get to the gate!"
And the battle closed in around them.
Thursday, December 07, 2017
Frantic birds had begun to gather in the tree above her. Several dogs and even a few cats came at a run. Dusty thought she saw rats and mice scurrying along the edge of the buildings. They had all come to help her, but she feared they could do nothing more than the humans were doing.
"Go," she told them. "Go and be safe!"
They didn't want to scatter. As Dusty started away, a few of the braver one stayed with her. Fox looked at them with a nod of appreciation, but he didn't suggest that she send them against the enemy.
The two of them had slowed; they could not help it. Fox held a hand to his wounded arm which he must have bounced and tested a few too many times in the last hour. Dusty limped along at a sort of jog. They'd abandoned the main road. Without saying so, they'd both realized the orcs would have no trouble on that broad expanse. Instead, they went through back alleys, warning people away when they saw them. The narrow paths would at least slow the orcs --
But not stop them. Dusty had begun to hear the sound of buildings coming down. Oh, there would be so much destruction! She only hoped that no one was hurt.
The orcs came closer. Dusty could hear their grunts and growls. Shivers ran through her body, and she feared she would fall.
Fox caught her arm and pointed to a tiny crevice between buildings. "Beyond -- beyond that another row of buildings and then you'll be at the square outside the castle gates. Not far Dusty. Go."
She nodded as she gasped and started for the opening -- and then stopped when she realized that he was not coming with her.
"Go. I'll just slow them down a little by making them think you went a different way. I'll see you in the castle." He even smiled and waved her on.
She couldn't stand there and argue, but tears came to her eyes now as she slid sideways through the opening and into the shadows. Blue made a soft, worried sound, still hidden there in his bag. She held him close and tried not to sniff. She didn't want him to know how scared she was for him, Fox, and herself.
By the time she got out of the little crevice, she could hear the orcs in the area she had left behind. Fox had seemed to lead them elsewhere, and she needed to take advantage of the extra time he gave her. Not far to the castle. Not far to home and safety. The orcs would not get into the castle. They had magic there, and he imagined that the mages were preparing to deal with the orcs even now. That gave her strength. The castle really did mean safety.
But she still had to get there, and as she finally reached the edge of the square, Dusty found she had more trouble than she thought. The two orcs who had been following them were not the only ones to break through into the city. A dozen more stood outside the gate, their enormous hands starting to pound the ground so that everything trembled.
She'd never get Blue in that way.
Dusty slid back into the shadows again, and this time she opened the bag. Blue looked up at her, his eyes huge. She feared he trembled as she pulled him out.
"You are a brave dragon," she said. "And now you must show me how wise you are."
"Mama says I need to learn wisdom," he whispered. "I don't know how to be wise."
"Oh, I think you learned a lot of it on this journey," Dusty replied. She knelt there in the shadows and feared she would have trouble getting back up. "Do you see where the shadow of the castle crosses the square?"
"Y-yes," he whispered.
"I want you to run through that shadow, up the wall, and into the castle grounds. Then get to the building and wait for me. If I don't get there in an hour -- or if the orcs do break through -- find the queen or the mages. They'll likely be together."
"I don't want to leave you!" he cried and wrapped his little legs around her three of her fingers. "I don't want to be alone again!"
"If you do this for me, we'll be able to call for your mother all the sooner. Imagine how happy she'll be to see you! You are going to help me by getting inside so that if I have trouble, you can warn the others."
"They can't understand me."
"The mages can," she replied.
"Oh." He blinked and looked at the shadow and the wall. "What if they see me?"
He gave a little giggle. Dusty just hoped that this was the right choice. Getting Blue into the castle seemed the wisest decision just now. She couldn't fight orcs, but she could -- like Fox -- lead them away from the baby dragon.
"Are you ready?"
"Yes." He leaned up and forward until his little tongue gave her a kiss on the nose. "I'll be brave."
Dusty put him down on the ground. He gave a little stretch, and then, without any more urging, Blue darted out along the edge of the building and then into the darkest part of the shadow.
Dusty watched him, glanced at the orcs, and then back to him. She thought it took too long for him to reach the wall. The orcs began to yell louder, but they did not seem to be looking his way.
Up the wall -- he climbed it so swiftly that for a moment she lost track of him. Then she saw the shape of him, tiny and distant, on the upper wall.
Blue would be safe.
Now she had only to worry about herself and Fox.
Thursday, November 30, 2017
Dusty believed this was the best answer, but she found it challenging to ride forward in the mass of men and hope they reached the boat before the orcs saw her. She held tight to the bag with Blue and hoped she got him into the craft, even if she didn't make it. Fox would still see him to safety.
Dusty looked up at the castle and felt a wave of desperation that almost made her break down and cry. She just wanted to get home!
"Ready?" Fox asked. He dared to touch her arm, winning a look of shock from the oh-so-proper commander. "You can do this, Dusty. You're almost home."
They reached the edge of the bridge. There seemed to have been some problem with the owner of the boat and Dusty watched one soldier escort him off while the man complained. Dusty didn't like to see the craft taken from him, but they needed the boat. She could almost hear his shouts even over the orcs as they tried to move up on the bridge.
Rolad ordered his men to move. Dusty looked frantically at the canal. If they didn't have the person who owned the boat, how could they --
But the two soldiers were rowing it toward the bridge, and in a moment it would be in place. She had no more time to worry about it.
Fox went over the edge and dropped into the boat. Then he held up his hands. "Quick, Dusty!"
The orcs were getting frantic. They'd break through at any moment. Dusty wanted to let Blue down first, but instead, Rolad lifted her up and over the edge in one quick move, dropping her into Fox's waiting arms. It must have hurt him, but he caught her and put her down. By then the others were rowing as fast and hard as they could.
Fox and Dusty sat down.
The orcs were trying to shove their way through the line of soldiers and Dusty had to look away. People were going to die. It was her fault! She should have come up with a better answer. She should have --
She held Blue close and fought to get control again. Her mind went over everything she'd done. Dusty knew that she had done the best she could. Could anyone else have taken Blue from the Orcs? They wouldn't have even understood him!
"We're almost there, Blue," she told him through the opening. He looked up at her, frightened, probably by the sound of the orcs not far away. "We have good soldiers to protect us. We'll be to the castle soon!"
Telling him so made her feel better, too. She finally looked up at Fox. He'd been watching behind them with a scowl, but he focused on her and gave a nod.
"A couple orcs have broken through," he said. Dusty glanced back and felt a quick beat of her heart. "We'll get you as close to the Royal Road as possible and then you must run straight for the castle. Really run."
"Why don't they quit?" Dusty asked as she put the strap to Dusty's bag over her head and shoulder. "They must know --"
"They are beyond rational thought," Fox replied. "If they are thinking anything at all, it's that they'll need Blue for protection from the dragons. I don't think they've even worked that out. They just know they're losing and they've worked themselves up into a rage."
One of the soldiers who were rowing grunted agreement. They were both panting by now, and any pause in their work let the boat drift back toward the orcs again. Fox volunteered to take over for one of them, but they both shook their heads.
"Get her to the castle," the one on the right gasped, and they began rowing all the harder.
They made it all the way to the warehouse district -- a circle, Dusty thought. This was where everything had begun in that little square where another caravan had started to load up. It was not quite as far as she would have liked to be, but she let Fox swing her out onto the dock.
"Thank you," Dusty said to the two exhausted men. "I won't forget."
Then she and Fox darted up into the crowd of people who were already agitated, hearing the sound of the orc battle far too close.
"Clear out!" Fox yelled. "Get to cover! Spread the word!"
"Orcs!" a woman cried in dismay.
Dusty looked back to see three orcs had made it all the way to the dock. One didn't make it any farther, though. The two men who had rowed up the canal caught his legs in a net and pulled him into the water. He sank so fast he almost pulled the boat down with him.
"Two left," she said and began to sprint up the clear path.
At first, people cleared out of the way, but as they moved higher up the incline, it was apparent that people didn't know what was happening and began to come out to see. Neither she nor Fox had the breath left to warn them away, so she had to hope that they got wise as soon as they saw the real trouble.
Someone tried to stop her, but Fox, still in uniform, dissuaded the man. Dusty feared that if Fox hadn't been with her, she would not have made it this far.
The castle was no more than a mile away, but her legs had grown heavy, and she finally had to grab hold of a tall, thin tree before she fell. Fox had gone two steps more before he looked back and gave her a nod.
"I'm sorry," she gasped. "I need --"
"Rest. The soldiers are holding them back. We can't stay long, though."
She could hear the sound of enraged orcs and far too close. If she didn't move, they might still be caught!
Saturday, November 25, 2017
"Well, it could be worse," Rolad said. He didn't slow but he didn't race headlong into the situation, either. "The orcs are on the far side of the bridge so we won't have to fight our way through them and then cross the bridge. On the other hand, as soon as they see Princess Destiny there will likely be a brawl."
"There might be another way," Fox said. He stood in the saddle and seemed to be looking at something other than the mass of soldiers and orcs. "Sir, if we can get Dusty and Blue onto one of the heading up the canal to the river, they'll be safe at least that far. The orcs will not go into the water to get her."
"Then we hold the orcs here," Commander Rodal said with a slight nod. "Or at least harass them and hope we can get more soldiers gathered to fight them when she gets to the city. You, of course, will go with her, Fox. We'll try to keep the orcs back far enough that they cannot do any harm from the banks."
Fox gave a solemn nod and looked to Dusty. "Do you agree?"
"I like this much better than trying to just rush past them," she said with a nod. "Can we get a boat across the river and to this side?"
"That might be difficult," Rodal said and slowed. "Better if a craft need only come up close to the bridge and we lower you down to it. Stay out into the water as much as possible."
Fox and Dusty both nodded agreement. Rodal sent two of the soldiers on ahead and told them to get one of the boats in the area.
"Well compensate the owner. Just get the boat and get their quickly."
The two men nodded and rode on ahead. It probably looked only that they were going to find out what the trouble might be. Dusty had not been spotted yet, she thought. Fox had moved in close beside her, too. He looked worried again.
The idea of using the boat was a good one, though. Anything that would keep them out of the reach of the orcs for a little longer. From the canal docks to the castle was along way and most of it uphill, though. She feared it would slow her, but not Blue.
They moved closer. The soldiers, she saw, had already chosen a small boat, and were dealing with the owner. Dusty hoped that the man didn't argue much. Any moment now --
And it happened. An orc gave a different sort of shout and began to frantically wave his arms toward where she and the others rode.
"This is it," Fox warned. "Get to the edge of the bridge, Dusty. The rest of us will protect you."
Friday, November 17, 2017
Commander Rodal asked questions as they rode along the path. Dusty explained how she'd come to rescue Blue. "I had thought we'd just run straight for the castle," she said with a sigh. "Nothing has worked that simply."
Fox took over the tale. The commander was pleased with all the details Fox gave about the number of orcs, their equipment, and other things the military would be happy to know. Dusty listened as well and was even able to give a few more facts. In all, the first part of the journey went well enough.
They stopped by the oasis and Dusty gladly slipped from the horse to stretch. She also took Blue to the little pond and let him roll about in the water a bit.
"I don't like the heat much," he admitted.
"I'll wet the cloth in your basket and that will help."
"You really do understand him, don't you?" Commander Rodal said. He stood over them like a guard and she thought he looked amazed.
"Yes. That's why I heard him crying when no one else did," she said and gathered him up. He sat on her shoulder, a cool trickle of water running down her neck as she started to wet the cloth. "I didn't realize I could understand dragons until now. I have always done well with animals, though, so it must be related."
Commander Rodal nodded. Dusty got the basket ready for Blue with nice damp cloth. Then she went to where Captain Yend had dumped out the bag. The bits of food were all gone and even some of the cloth had been torn to pieces. She picked them up and put it all back into the mostly intact bag, then dropped it into the water as well.
"If I have to run, carrying Blue in the bag is easier -- and less noticeable -- than the basket," she explained as she pushed the bag into the basket as well.
"That's very wise," Rodal said and looked as though he took her more seriously now. "In fact, if things look troubling, give me the basket and I'll go one way while you take the dragon and go the other."
"Yes sir, that would be helpful," she agreed. They were getting ready to leave and after another long ride they would be at the river and the bridge. "I don't want anything to happen to any of us."
"We'll do our best to bluster our way through," Commander Rodal said. "And there will be more soldiers at the river, so we should have a good number if things get out of hand. You and Fox are to get through as best you can and ride as fast as you dare to the castle. Do not stop to find out how the rest of us do."
"I -- yes sir," she said knowing he as being wise. "I just don't want anyone to think I'm a coward --"
Rolad unexpectedly put a hand on her shoulder. Few people ever did that since she was a princess and she looked up, startled.
"No one would ever think you a coward, Princess Destiny," the man said and sounded far too serious. "Not after all you've done already and how you kept a clear head even through that mess with Yend. I will deal with him when everything else is cleared up."
"Oh, do let grandmother have a part in that." Dusty grinned. "I did warn him that my grandmother was going to be unhappy with him and he rather didn't take it seriously. I'm sure she'll want to have a few words with him about his rudeness to strangers."
Rodal laughed. "Oh, that sounds like a joyful end to this mess, doesn't it? Up you go, then. We'll be to the bridge at sunset. If we are very lucky, the orcs will have been pushed back and we'll be able to go straight through."
"Nothing as been that easy so far," Dusty admitted.
"I would like to hope for better," he said. "I don't look forward to fighting orcs."
"Shove them into the river if you can," Fox said. "That seems the only way to stop them."
In a few moments they were riding again. Even though the desert seemed endless, Dusty knew that soon they would be to the river and the canal, and from there she would be able to see home. The thought of it made her heart beat a little faster, but the fear of that last battle -- she hoped the last! -- filled her with dread.
Dusty was certain she never wanted another adventure --
Oh, but if she could go to see the dragons in the mountains and talk to them? Wouldn't that be an adventure as well? She didn't want to be tied forever to the castle, did she?
This wasn't the time to be thinking about that far into the future. Right now she need only think about getting Blue to the safety of the castle.
And then to sleep in her own bed tonight in quiet peace while others guarded and worked on how to get Blue back home. Oh, the idea of her own bed almost made her push the horse out ahead of the others, but she got her impatience in hand.
They ate some dried fruit and cheese. Fox pointed out where they had reached the path from the desert.
"Not far now," Rolad said. He paused his horse and the others all stopped with him. "You all know your duty. We must protect the Princess and her charge and make certain they reach the castle. Starkin, you ride ahead and warn the palace guard that she is heading their way. Say nothing of the dragon. We don't want anyone to get anxious to see him."
"Or to want to take him," Dusty added and won a nod. "I'll be careful."
They rode on. Soon she could see the green of the trees and the sparkling water.
And the orcs.
Friday, November 10, 2017
The captain yowled, the guards yelled, and Fox did his best to keep between them and Dusty while she worked recovered Blue who had leapt off the man and darted under the desk. At least the baby dragon didn't try to run from her and scurried to her hand.
By the time she'd crawled back out from under the desk another man had come into the room and looked rather startled at the scene.
"Captain Yend, what in the name of all the hells is going on here?" the newcomer demanded.
"Sir," the Captain said, his voice muffled. He had one hand to his nose, but it didn't appear to be bleeding. "This hussy has some sort of trained lizard. It bit me! Dangerous beast --"
"Do get up, young lady -- oh. Princess Destiny!"
Dusty hadn't been prepared to be recognized in this particular situation, and the man's sudden bow flustered her. A glance at Fox and his bright smile gave her back some courage, though. She stood up, holding blue in one hand as she nodded to the man.
"I assume that you are the Commander here? I am glad you came when you did. I'm afraid Captain Yend has been a great deal of trouble."
"People are looking everywhere for you! There's been some worry that the orcs took you, especially since they're acting so oddly -- that is not a lizard."
"No, sir. This is what the orcs really want back. I helped Blue escape, and with Fox's help we were trying to get back to the castle where I could talk to my grandmother -- to the Queen --"
Yend made a little sound of distress. He sat down. Dusty ignored him.
"Sir, after I was injured, I thought it wiser to head for the outpost and get more help so that Dusty -- Princess Destiny -- and Blue would have a good chance of getting past the orcs who would be stationed at the bridge, waiting for us," Fox explained. "They won't want the baby dragon returned to his mother where he can tell the tale of what happened. I suspect the orcs are panicked, sir."
"So they are," the man replied and still looked rather shocked. "What have you got to say for yourself, Captain Yend?"
"I didn't know Commander Radol," he said and sat up straighter. He had his hand away from his face. His nose was bright red but didn't look so bad. "They said they were runaways --"
"We said no such thing," Fox said, cutting short whatever tale the man meant to weave. "You decided what we were and forbade us to say anything at all. You threw us in cells -- put a princess of the line in one of those dark, dank cells --"
"I didn't know! She didn't say!"
"He's right about that," Dusty said. "I could tell I couldn't trust him, so I kept my name to myself and certainly didn't tell him about Blue. But let's not worry so much about what's happened. We need to get back to the castle. Blue's mother and the other dragons will be hunting him. There was already trouble in the north the day I disappeared. We need to let the dragons know that he is safe."
"Yes," Commander Radol agreed. "Gods, yes -- we must get moving immediately. Are you fit to ride, Princess Destiny?"
"Yes, sir," she said. "Fox -- if you are well enough -- I would like you with us. Blue trusts you."
He smiled brightly again. "I made it this far. I would be honored to go the rest of the way."
"Well then," Commander Radol said. He didn't look like a man who flustered easily. "I'll have the horses readied."
"I would like to clean up a little," she admitted. "And if you have a small basket with a handle so that I can carry Blue?"
"Yes, of course."
When Fox held out his arms, one of the guards quickly untied him. Then Fox went with them and acted every inch her guard, standing at the door to the guest quarters -- oh how nice that bed looked! -- while she cleaned up. Commander Rodal even sent her a lovely cotton dress and a pair of pants for underneath, knowing Dusty was going to be riding and not side-saddled. She also had a hat to block out some of the sunlight. There must have been some women here. Probably servants? Or perhaps the wife or daughter of Commander Rodal. The clothing was well made.
They brought Fox a clean uniform, and he changed with some help from one of the men. The entire attitude of people had changed, and Dusty was almost tempted to tell Fox he should remain behind. Except....
Dusty felt safer with someone she knew at her side. She could hand Blue over to him if she needed to, while the little dragon might not go willingly with others.
And besides, with Captain Yend back in charge, it was better that he go with her and Commander Rodal.
When they rode out of the gate, Dusty had a place beside Commander Rodal and with Fox riding to her right. Blue sat in a small basket before her, peeking his head out for a moment but then dropping back into the shadows. Dusty couldn't blame him once she saw the vast expanse of golden sand again.
"Well, at least I've gotten some sleep," she said as they headed out into the hot day.
"I thought about delaying until late tonight or early tomorrow," Commander Rodal said. He didn't look particularly happy about heading back out since he'd only gotten to the outpost a few hours before. "However, the trouble I saw at the Miru River Bridge makes me think the sooner we get back, the better. The sun will be mostly down by the time we reach that spot."
"Faster than walking," Dusty said and patted the horse on the neck. She tried not to think about the trouble they still faced.
Thursday, November 02, 2017
Late in the morning she heard noises out in the fortress and hoped that meant the commander had returned. There were a lot of shouts, but nothing that sounded dangerous. She even let Blue go up to the slit and look out.
"A lot of horses and men arrived," he said. "They just got in through the gate."
"That's good!" she said. He darted back down to her.
"They didn't look very happy."
"Those people just rode from the city to here. Maybe longer," she replied. "They can't have liked it any more than we did."
"I don't like the desert," Blue admitted. "I want to go back to the mountains and the snow. I want to go home!"
This was the first time Blue had admitted to being homesick. She gathered him up to her chest and held him like she'd held baby kittens. After a little bit, he sighed and relaxed.
"I want to go home, too, Blue," Dusty admitted. "And we're both going to go home and everyone will be happy to see us. We are going to stop a war, Blue. You'll be famous."
"Oh and you, too!" he said and grabbed hold of her arm. "But -- but if we go home, we won't see each other again!"
Dusty had not expected the little guy to admit that he'd miss her. She knew that she'd miss him.
"I'm sure we'll get a chance to visit each other," she replied and tried to make herself believe it. "My grandmother sends a group to visit with the dragons twice a year. I bet she'll let me go along!"
And there, finally, might be a job for her, as well. Dusty felt better at the idea and even Blue seemed to like it -- probably because he would be back home in the mountains and not doing the traveling.
A little later someone brought her food again. This man was surly though, and only grunted at her questions about the Commander. He did stop at the door though and looked back at her.
"Commander Radol got more important things to do than bother with a girl what led a good soldier astray. You be happy he bothers to feed you."
Then he slammed the door shut and the bolt went back into place.
"They don't sound very polite sometimes," Blue said as he came out of hiding in the blankets. "I don't know that I trust them much at all to help us."
"We'll see what Commander Radol is like," Dusty replied. "Well, at least we have some bread and cheese. Let's have a little picnic."
"I wish Fox was here," Blue admitted. "I want him to be safe, too."
"Me, too," she said.
They had a nice little meal and then Blue napped again. Dusty waited, but she soon realized that the man would have other things to handle before seeing prisoners.
Dusty napped as well, forcing herself to sleep because it helped to pass the time. She wished she could talk to Fox and find out what he thought she should do. They had done well together despite this last trouble. She trusted his good sense.
They hadn't fallen into the hands of the orcs yet. That thought lulled her back to sleep once more.
The door moved. Blue, wise little dragon that he was, leapt from her lap up to her shoulder and into her hair before the door fully opened. Two men stood there.
"You're to come with us now, miss," one said. She couldn't tell them apart there in the shadows, but she got quickly to her feet, glad the wait was finally over. "Come quick now. The Captain don't like to be kept waiting."
"Captain?" she said, faltering. "But I thought the Commander was to see me."
"He got better things to do then see the likes of you," the second man snarled.
Not someone she could trust, then. She was glad when they stopped and brought Fox out. He looked as though he hadn't slept nearly as well as Dusty and Blue and she felt badly for him then. He did look relieved to see her, though. Since he said nothing, neither did she.
The outpost wasn't very large and the high walls blocked off any view, making it seem smaller still. A few lizards darted here and there and startling her so that she almost patted at her hair to make certain Blue was still there.
They went into the one large building and into a small office where the Captain sat behind his desk. He still glared which meant there was no hope of this going better than the first meeting.
So Dusty decided she might as well be brave and strong.
"I demand to see the commander," she said, her head up as she faced the man. "I demand to see him right now."
She'd flustered him, if nothing else. She caught a hint of a smile on Fox's face though he made certain the Captain did not see that look.
"I don't know who you think you are, missy, but we don't take orders from runaway servants --"
"I am not --"
"Silence!" He got to his feet. Clearly the man was not used to anyone talking back to him.
Fox made a little sound of warning and Dusty would have backed down. Unfortunately, the Captain came around the desk, the better to intimidate her.
"I will have none of that behavior, young lady!" His voice grew louder with each word and his face turned a darker shade of red. "You and the deserter --"
"He is not a deserter!"
The captain reached out and caught her by the shoulder with a vicious shake --
Fox and Blue both took exception to that move. Fox, even with his hands tied, knocked the man back while Blue leapt from her hair -- taking a few strands with him -- and landed atop the captain's head.
Then he bent over and bit the man on the nose.
Friday, October 27, 2017
Dusty dared not move for a moment, afraid that her legs would give out and she would fall. Of all the things that might have happened, this was not something she had contemplated. The Captain should have been on her side! He wouldn't even listen --
"Can I come out now? Your hair tickles," Blue whispered.
Dusty smiled despite the situation. "Come out. I'm afraid this isn't a very nice room, though. And be ready to hide if you hear anyone at the door."
"I wish I weren't too young to grow my wings," he mumbled as he slid out of her hair and down to her shoulder. "I'd fly up and bite a nose or two!"
Dusty fought not to laugh since the little guy sounded so serious. He climbed down, and she did her best to keep track of him, not knowing what else might be in the room. There was a covered bucket with a drain through the floor. She used it and made certain the lid was on tight so that he couldn't slip in there and disappear. A bed of old straw and a ragged blanket sat on the opposite wall, and she settled with her head against the stone wall.
As angry as Dusty felt, she realized this was not the worst thing that could have happened. They were not out in the sunlight. They were not anywhere near the orcs, and while the Captain was a rude man with no good sense (which might be why he was out here away from everyone), she could still hope that the commander would be a wiser person.
Someone came to the door. Blue scurried into the straw as the door opened. Two men stood there, one with a tray. Food?
"Dinner, miss," he said and held the tray out. The other handed her a water skin and a blanket. "That'll get you through the night. The commander will be back before noon tomorrow if all is well."
"Thank you," she said and took the tray. The other man sat the additional material by the door.
"Blanket will help," he mumbled. Embarrassed, Dusty realized. They probably didn't often throw young ladies into cells here. And oh, if he found out she was a princess of the line -- but she said nothing. They were being kind.
Dusty was glad to see there was another tray outside on a rolling stand, and a blanket as well. Fox wouldn't suffer any worse than her, though she suspected his shoulder would keep him awake.
The guards closed and locked her door before they opened the one across the way. She tried to listen and thought she heard Fox say something -- but it was no use standing there while the food went cold. She took the tray back to the bedding and sat down, sharing with Blue. He was such a little thing that he really didn't eat much and afterward he curled up in her lap and napped.
Dusty slept off and on as well. Twice she awoke from nightmares about orcs, but she could hear nothing out of place outside the cell. The little sliver of light had disappeared, but there was a slight flickering around the door which meant a torch out in the hall. She found that reassuring as she gathered the second blanket and the water. Then she and Blue curled up to sleep through the night.
Now that it had gone dark, though, she began to feel more than a little restless. The stone walls creaking as they cooled sounded ominous, even though it was no different sound than she'd heard back at the castle. An occasional shout by the guards -- no doubt a common occurrence during the night watch, woke her with a start. By the first light of morning, she was growing bad-tempered and knew that would not help her case.
Dusty began to worry about when the commander might make it back, though. Hadn't the man said 'if all goes well?' If the commander was anywhere near the gathering orcs, it might not go well at all, and he might be forced to stay wherever he happened to be.
And the dragons -- they might be on the move by now as well, and it was unlikely anyone would know why. That thought got her up and pacing for a while. Blue stayed on her shoulder.
"Oh how I do hate waiting," she finally confessed when she realized that Blue had started to worry. "There is nothing worse wrong, you know. I just want to get somewhere we can do good. The Captain is going to have much to answer for by the time I'm done."
That made Dusty feel better, though she usually would not have been such a vindictive person. His behavior had been unreasonable, though.
They shared a few scraps of bread left over from the meal from the night before. Dusty tried not to think about the bag the Captain had emptied out, and the pieces of fruit and cheese left there in the sand. Mostly she tried not to feel sorry for herself.
So she paced a little more in the small room before she settled on the blankets to wait out the time. It couldn't be much longer, could it?
Blue played a bit with some straw, climbed up the walls --
"Oh please don't go out!" Dusty cried, startled to see his shadow fall across the floor. He stood in the slit of a window high up on the wall where she could not reach.
"I promise I won't go out. I just wanted to sit in the sun for a little while," he said and came back down. "It won't be much longer, will it? I don't think these are very nice people to keep you and Fox locked up like this. No nicer than the orcs!"
"It will be all right," she promised. "We just have to be patient."
But she hoped something happened soon.
Friday, October 20, 2017
I have not done a regular blog post in a couple of months. I have kept up on the Flash Fiction serial -- can't miss a week of that one! -- but I just couldn't think of anything else to write here. I got busy, I got ill, I got both busy and ill sometimes ... and I just ran out of energy. And now....
Now we are only days away from NaNoWriMo! The picture today is the cover for my main NaNo Novel. I am not entirely ready. The outline for the first novel (since I usually do more than one) is not done. I can see the end, finally, but I have this blank spot between a significant scene and how it all turns out. I can't even say how much is going to happen between the two spots. Nor can I say WHAT will happen.
But I have a great set of characters and an excellent plot up to that point. I know what my people are about to find and once I work out the implications, I will see where it goes. I might not 'see' that part until I'm actually writing the novel. Not a problem -- I have an outline to get me that far and I've never had a problem ending a story.
I realize that I have inadvertently borrowed the attitude of one character (a historical person) from one of C. J. Cherryh's stories. That made me laugh because it seemed so logical. I think she'll be amused.
It is amazing how many things affect our writing, and we don't always realize it. Just a little hint of this, a memory of that -- and suddenly there it is in a story. You might not even realize it. This one was just obvious when I thought about the character.
So, I have most of one outline ready for NaNo. I have a second outline all done, but it will be my second book since I already wrote about 2500 words on it. Once I get at least one complete (50k plus) novel written, then I can go to it if I have time. I'm not sure that I will. My goal is only 100k this year. I might do better, but I am not aiming at the 250k or so that I sometimes do. 100k is a calm NaNo for me. Since I've been ill, I don't want to push too hard.
But I do want to have fun! That's part of why I am less concerned with totals this year. Last year was kind of tricky because I was trying to hit an overall total for all the NaNo's I'd done through the years. I wanted 3,000,000 words -- and I made it. This is year 17 for me, and I have always won. I love the joy of finding all these writers in one place, and a good many of them having fun. (If you are not having fun, don't do it. Drop out. NaNo isn't for everyone, and it will not affect your career as a writer one way or another unless you learn something from it. NaNo is a good time to experiment, have fun -- and realize that you are not the only writer out there in the world who are dealing with one problem or another.
Have fun, NaNo or not!
Thursday, October 19, 2017
Some of the soldiers stopped at the oasis but four rode on, the man in the lead red-faced and looking annoyed. Dusty and Fox still walked forward, but the feeling of hope that she'd held only moments already disappeared.
"What's this then?" the man demanded as he leaned down from his horse to look at them.
He did not offer water. In fact, for the moment, he blocked the way to the oasis which annoyed Dusty.
"Captain," Fox said with a proper salute. "We were heading for the outpost. I'm glad to see you here so we don't have so far to walk."
"What's your company? You've deserted, haven't you? Taken this pretty little thing and thought you'd head out into the wilderness? Well by the Gods, you won't get help from us."
"That's not --" Fox began, appalled by the accusation
"I have not given you leave to speak. I suggest you keep your words to yourself and think up really good ones for the commander."
Dusty had been growing increasingly angry, but those last words calmed her again. This man was not fully in charge, then. Good. She stood straighter and met his narrow-eyed stare. For a moment she hoped he might recognize her, or maybe one of the others would.
He led them to the oasis rather than even putting her on a horse with one of her men. Fox was livid by the time they reached the water and had to wait until even the horses had been given their share. She thought some of the men looked upset, but it was clear that this Captain kept a firm hand on everything.
Dusty hoped he enjoyed the moment because when she got back to her grandmother, he was not going to be a Captain any longer. There had been no reason for this behavior.
Dusty sipped gratefully of the water Fox brought her and managed to get some in her hand and down to Blue. She did not bring him out. The fool would probably think Blue was a pet lizard and toss him away. TOh why did this fool have to make more trouble?
"Should I go to him?" she whispered when Fox brought her another cup of water.
He shook his head. So they were agreed on this one.
"What's that you are planning?" the Captain demanded. He stalked over to them -- a small man carrying too much weight and with the fire of anger in his eyes. "Give me that bag! What did you steal?"
"This is mine!" she said, panicked because Blue still hid inside. "How dare you --"
"Keep quiet, girl. You're in enough trouble already."
She stood and darted behind Fox as though for protection, but she huddled down and grabbed Blue out. "Hide in my hair! Pull your tail up!"
He scrambled up her arm and into her frizzy hair, his little claws like needles into her skin. The officer still yelled and she finally stepped out and threw the bag at his feet.
"There. Take it then. When my grandmother hears about this --"
"Oh, your old granny will come after me, will she?" He picked up the bag, turned it out into the dirt and kicked everything around. Then he caught Dusty by the arm and shook her.
Thursday, October 12, 2017
They hurried even though that wasn't wise in the desert. However, both knew they needed to put at least one rise between them and the flatter ground around the river. Dusty regretted leaving the water and the green behind, but she said nothing and only looked back once.
Fox moved steadily forward. He looked better now that they were walking. She suspected that the worry over what would happen if they had stayed by the river had been almost worse than his injury.
As soon as Fox could look back and no longer see the river, he began to slow.
"If this gets to be too much, we'll find a bit of shade somewhere and hold up until the sun starts to go down," Fox said. He sounded assured. "We might even get lucky and run into a patrol. I can't guarantee that one, but I hope for one."
"That would be nice," she said, already feeling the heat and the ache in her legs. "I'm sorry -- I'm just not up to this kind of travel."
"You have done wonderfully," Fox insisted. "This isn't a situation where I would have wanted to be with many of the people I know, even those in the army." He stopped to sip some water and had her and Blue do the same. "We don't have to rush."
"Unless the orcs figure out we went this way or take the path to make certain," she answered with a worried look over her shoulder.
"Even if they do, we couldn't get to the outpost any faster," he said. The calm finality in his voice made Dusty feel more assured. Calm also helped her consider what she could do if the orcs did arrive. She'd have to find some way to hide Blue.
Or would it be wiser to let the orcs have Blue rather than leaving him alone in the desert? They'd feed him, at least. She didn't like to think about the little guy lost in the sands and dying.
Dusty shivered despite the heat.
She and Fox spoke little as they walked on. Dusty found the feel of the stone path beneath her feet reassuring and far better than traveling across the unmarked sands. As long as she could see the track, she had no fear of getting lost. They were going somewhere, and each step without the orcs pounding up behind them was a gift.
"Look! Trees!" Fox said, startling Dusty.
She had been watching her feet and refraining from looking at the bright sand around them. Dusty looked up and saw a spot of darkness a few miles away. She could not make out what it was at first, but as her eyes adjusted, she saw a few palms -- a sure sign of water.
"That will help," Dusty said softly. She hadn't realized how dizzy she felt until then. How could she feel so cold --
And when had she sat down?
"Here now," Fox said. He rested on his heels and held out a water skin. "Drink some. Not a lot at first. Just drink it. We're almost to the water."
"Are we? It seemed so far."
"I can go ahead and get more water if I need to," Fox replied. He looked worried. "Rest."
He had placed himself so that his shadow fell over her. That helped. She sipped the water, made sure Blue had some -- he splashed a bit in her hand and made her smile again. She could not imagine the little guy growing more massive than most buildings she'd seen. He was happy to go back into his bag. Dusty was glad since she feared he might fall off her shoulder and she wouldn't notice.
So many things to fear.
"I'm sorry," she said when she looked back at Fox. "Let's see if we can get to the oasis. I think we'd all feel better resting there."
"Only if you feel well enough to walk," he said. "And you don't have to apologize. This has been unpleasant and difficult for all three of us. But we are getting there, Princess Dusty. We'll see Blue to safety."
She took courage and strength from his steadfast belief in their ability to handle even this unrelenting desert. She stood once more, sipped the water, and they started out again. Compared to how far they'd already traveled, this stretch to those lovely green trees did not seem so distant.
"I'd never been assigned to this outpost," Fox said. "But I thought I remembered some of the soldiers talking about a resting spot a little more than halfway to the outpost," he admitted. "I wanted to tell you, but I feared that I might be wrong and I didn't want to disappoint you."
"I'm glad you were right," Dusty answered. Part of her wanted to race toward that green, but she knew that even walking at this steady pace might wear her down again. She still felt lightheaded, but she tried to keep that from Fox. Nevertheless, the soldier stayed close by her. He even talked more. She suspected he wanted to be certain she wasn't going to faint again.
"I've some salt. We'll take it when we reach the water," Fox said. "That should help, too. Do you think Blue needs some?"
"I'll ask when we get there. I hope there is someplace I can soak my feet for a little while. I've never fully appreciated the wonder of water before, you know."
He laughed, and so did she. The Oasis was close enough that she could clearly see the palm fronds and even some fig trees. She wondered who had brought the trees to plant here years ago. This could not be natural.
And then something even better. When they were no more than a quarter mile from the welcoming shade, a group of a dozen soldiers appeared riding from the other direction.
Neither Dusty nor Fox expected the soldiers to cause more trouble.
Friday, October 06, 2017
Fox took care of the horses. Dusty curled up on the ground, Blue close to her, and closed her eyes. She slept and didn't care what happened.
When she woke, Dusty remembered the trouble and she sat up with a start.
It hurt to move. She moaned and looked around. Fox sat with his back against a tree and his eyes closed, but the moment she started to stand, he looked at her. They'd both needed the rest, and there wouldn't be another chance soon, she feared.
"Are you okay?" Fox asked and looked worried.
"Sore," she admitted. Her voice sounded hoarse, and her throat hurt. Fox looked in worse shape. He'd managed to make a sling for his injured arm and from the wince that came with a little movement, she could tell he'd been badly injured. "Will you be okay?"
"I think the shoulder bone is cracked," he admitted. "Not broken, though. We can't stay much longer, Princess --"
"Dusty," she corrected as she let Blue out of his bag. "Don't wander too far."
"I won't," he promised. "I learned that lesson."
Dusty watched him head to the tree and scamper up into the leaves. He didn't climb far. By then Fox had gotten to his feet. She would have helped. He looked unsteady.
"What can I do?" she asked.
"We have to make a decision," Fox replied and leaned against the tree. "I listened. Some of the orcs headed to the city, Dusty. The others must have gone in the opposite direction. I don't think we should go back to the capital. Not yet."
"Cross the river again?" She looked toward the turbulent water and shivered despite herself.
"No. I don't want to risk that again," Fox replied.
That relieved Dusty until she noticed that Fox stared off into the desert on their side of the river. She shook her head, unable to speak. It would be madness to head into that wasteland now that they were safe by the water!
But they weren't safe.
"There is an army outpost half a day away," Fox said when he finally looked back at her. "If we can get there before the orcs realize which direction we took, you'll have all the guards you need to get safely back to the castle and the queen. I've gotten you this far, but with my arm injured, I won't be much help if we run into trouble. The orcs have headed for the bridges we need to cross. None of our friends may have gotten through to tell the others about the baby dragon. Soldiers will be watching the orcs, but they're not going to be ready to help us. That would put Blue in danger."
"Oh." Dusty didn't want to go into the desert, but what he said made sense. Another half a day sounded like more torture than she could stand. She wanted to go home and never wish for an adventure again!
Fox was right, of course. They had to take the best way to save Blue. Running straight toward where they would find the orcs would not help if they still couldn't stand up to them.
"Do you think the horses can make it that far across the desert?" she asked. Both mounts looked worn.
"I thought we might walk," he said. "That is if you can send the horses home without us."
Dusty frowned and then considered his idea. "So that when the orcs get this far from the other bridge, they'll follow the horses," she said. "We'll need to make certain we leave no obvious prints, though."
"That will be difficult --"
"Maybe not. I think I can get the birds to help." She still wasn't fond of the idea, but it might be their best chance of surviving. "Let's get the horses ready to go."
"I'm sorry, Dusty," he said. "Maybe if I hadn't hurt my arm I'd feel differently --"
"I doubt it," she said and finally forced a smile. Her lips felt dry and cracked. "There's just the two of us to get Blue to safety. You would have realized we can't simply charge through a line of orcs waiting for us. Let's find your soldiers. How long on foot?"
"Half a day for marching men," he said. "I suspect it won't take us much longer than that to get there, especially since the sun will go down and we'll have cooler weather."
Fox went to get supplies from the horses. Dusty helped and wouldn't let him carry more than some extra water. Soon she found herself whispering to the horses and telling them to go the city -- to go home. They seemed reluctant to leave her, but eventually, she sent them hurrying away. Dusty regretted it immediately. Now there would be no choice but to walk.
First, they drenched themselves in river water and made certain their water skins were full. "Where is this trail to the outpost?" Dusty asked as she got Blue to settle on her shoulder.
"About three miles from here. It parallels the river for a while and then heads inland. We'll cut across the desert and intersect with it." He sounded more assured though his face looked pale despite his tanned skin. "It's easy to find since the mages laid it out with stone. The outpost is at the edge of the Griffin Lands. Lucky for us that it hasn't been abandoned yet."
There hadn't been trouble with the griffins for over a century. Dusty hadn't realized there was even still an outpost there. She looked at the desert with a hardly concealed sigh. "I guess we better go."
They walked away from the little camp they'd made. She stopped a few yards out and called to the birds. Soon they swept up and down across the sands and buried their footprints. Dusty bade them farewell and headed into the desert once more.
Thursday, September 28, 2017
They didn't have to urge the horses to move faster. Between the fear of the orcs and the longing for the water they could clearly see, the horses proved more than willing to run.
Dusty feared they wouldn't reach that safety, though. The orcs found more energy and their own horses were flagging. Hers stumbled, regained footing, and stumbled again. They were going down.
Fox leapt from his own horse and grabbed her out of the saddle while she held tight to the bag. Somehow he pulled her free of the floundering horse and all but tossed her up on his own. She barely caught hold and didn't fall off the other side. He slapped the horse hard on the rump, and it took off again.
She didn't want to go on alone!
The river couldn't be more than a quarter of a mile away, and the orcs were no more than half a mile back. Dusty had feared Fox was going to try to hold them off, but instead, he'd gotten her mount back to his feet and leapt into the saddle. The horse moved, though with a slight limp that she feared would get worse very fast.
Just get to the river!
The water had been higher recently, and the edge of the slope came to her suddenly -- and was slick. The horse gave a cry of surprise and fear as the animal started to slide, and in a moment they were in the current, the horses flailing. Blue gave a cry of fear in the bag, but she held him up and tried to direct the horse to the far bank though that seemed too far away. The icy water spraying over her was such a shock that she feared she would be ill and pass out. Everything seemed out of place, and the horse could not be doing much better.
The sounds of the orcs grew too loud, and she looked back in fear, expecting them to be coming for her --
No. They would not climb into the water. In fact, even as Dusty watched, one got caught on the slippery edge just as she and the horse had and slid down into the water with a scream of fear and dismay. Fox had been not too far ahead of the doomed orc, and the horse made a frantic dash farther into the water to escape the clutching hands.
The orc went underwater. It hadn't been that deep, she thought -- but there had probably been a lot of mud, and the orc was very heavy. She felt sorry that it would die there but glad that no others would leap into the water as well.
"To the far side!" Fox yelled.
And for a good reason. The orcs were drawing out their weapons, including slings and they had plenty of rocks on hand.
"To the far shore," she told her mount, gently brushing a hand over his right ear. "Go, my friend. We must get clear. We can rest when we are out of range. Are you all right, Blue?"
"Y-yes," he said. He sounded more frightened than injured, and this was not the time to bring him out. Dusty had a good hold of the bag, and the horse was trying to reach the other bank, though they seemed to be going more downstream than across. The orcs were trying to pace them, but they were staying back from the edge of the water now. More shrubs and even a few short trees were growing in the area, too and they helped to keep the orcs back.
Fox somehow caught up with her. He took hold of the bridle, though he moved with a wince of pain and his face had gone white. He must have been hit by one of the rocks. Many of them were falling around them in the water. One hit her horse, and she almost fell.
And then birds flew up from the bushes, screaming in protest -- and swarming the orcs so suddenly that some of them dropped their weapons to protect their faces and eyes.
"Good birds!" Dusty cried out. "Be careful, little friends!"
"Curve -- ahead," Fox gasped. "Head straight if you can."
The river curved to the right but if she went straight, she'd be on the far bank. Fox unexpectedly let go, but only to move to her right and help keep the horse heading for the dry land. The animal was well tired of the water by now, so it didn't take much of a push to keep going where they wanted.
And by slow steps, with the orcs yelling and screaming, they made their way up out of the water and onto the land beyond -- more desert, but a line of green close by the water. Grass of some sort. She hoped it was good for the horses. She hoped....
One step. Another.
They were out of the water. The horse stopped and stood there shivering while rocks flew into the river, splashing close by, though none seemed able to send the rocks all the way across. Just the same, Fox dismounted, took hold of both horses, and headed toward a small stand of trees no more than a few hundred yards away.
It could have been miles. By the time the leaf-covered limbs covered her in shade, she could barely still sit up.
"Down now," Fox said. He only lifted his left hand to help her. "Come down and rest. There is nowhere for them to cross for fifty miles on either side of us, you know. We're safe for now. We need to rest and then head toward the capital as fast as we dare."
"Yes." She handed the bag over, and he took it carefully in hand. She slid down mostly on her own, but her legs didn't want to hold her. She went to her knees and hoped he was right about the orcs. She couldn't go on.
Thursday, September 21, 2017
Riding for so long in the desert heat left Dusty half-ill by mid-morning. Fox made her stop and poured water over her -- a shock of cold across her face and hair, but she felt better afterward.
"Oh, but we might have needed that water!" she protested once her thoughts cleared.
"We'll be fine. We aren't that far from the river," Fox assured her and sounded so confident that she decided to trust his words. The water was drying on her too fast, though. She knew that she'd be just as miserable as she had been before too long.
When Dusty looked back, she could see a broad line of billowing sand.
"We've gained about ten miles on them," Fox said as he looked, too. "They can make that up pretty fast if we don't work at staying ahead."
"I don't mean to slow us down," she said. "I've just never ridden like this before."
"You haven't slowed us down at all!" Fox protested and sounded sincere. "We can't run the horses much harder, you know. I only noticed you were not doing well after we slowed. But that's alright. You have done far better than I would have expected from someone raised at court."
"I only spend part of the year there, you know. And I never did fit in well."
"Not being like all the others isn't such a bad thing, is it?" Fox asked. He sounded sincerely concerned and interested.
"Before all of this stated, I should have told Grandmother -- The Queen -- what path I wanted to take in my life. All my cousins knew what they wanted, but I couldn't come up with anything," she admitted and felt that wave of dejection retake her.
"Oh, I know what you should be," he said and smiled brightly when she looked his way. "Mistress of the Horse and Keeper of All Things Wild."
He made her laugh -- though maybe there was something to what he said.
At least he gave her something to think about while the cool water evaporated from her face and clothing. She focused on what such a job might be like, and in that way let her mind wander away from the heat and the trouble following behind them. Dusty trusted Fox.
"We've gone over halfway," Fox said sometime later. "I fear we are going to have to ride hard again, Dusty. They're gaining ground."
She looked back with a start and saw that he was right. All thoughts about caring for horses and walking the woods disappeared, though she found that the images had refreshed her. She could see something for the future, and even if it wasn't true, it gave her hope.
When she looked back, she could see that the orcs were moving faster again and were far closer than she liked. She checked on Blue, but he was asleep and didn't seem to be any worse for the heat. He'd ate part of the apple slice, which at least gave him some liquid. He was also not in the direct sunlight, but it still could not be comfortable for him. Blue did not complain, just blinked sleepily at her, stretched a little, and then curled up in a ball.
"We have to ride faster again," she said. They were already starting to gain speed, her horse matching pace with Fox's mount. "Be careful in there."
"I will," Blue muttered, but she suspected he was mostly asleep. She hoped he stayed that way and didn't suffer too much.
She could suddenly hear the grunts of the orcs behind them. So did the horses and they'd rested just enough that they were eager to run again and get ahead of the enemy again, though they could not run far. The land looked flat here, and she hoped to see the river -- but the glare of light on the sand made looking too far ahead painful.
They rode faster and then slower, and then faster again, though not for long. The orcs did fall behind once more, though not by very far.
Dusty considered giving Blue over to Fox and telling him to ride on without her. She trusted that he would do his best to get the baby dragon back to the castle if he was able -- but then she realized that no one there would understand Blue anyway. Oh, they would figure things out, but she could help settle everything faster. Besides, if something did happen to Fox, Blue would have no one to turn to.
She held the bag more protectively, leaning forward a little --
"Is that -- is that green ahead of us?" she whispered, her throat almost too dry to speak.
Fox stood up in his saddle as though he could see better that way. Then he turned a dusty faced smile to her. "It is! And I think the horses smell the water of the river. They're starting to move faster. There should be a dock at the end of the trail. There might be a boat, and maybe even a small fishing village, though it moves."
"Moves?' she asked, squeaking out the one word.
"The river changes with the seasons. The villages along the edge shift to the better places for fishing. Right now, early in the spring, they'll likely be upriver closer to the mountains where they can get the most fish coming down from the mountain thaw."
"I didn't realize," she said, surprised by the lack of knowledge. She tried to learn everything she could about the people around her. "I knew they went fishing upstream, but I didn't realize the whole village --"
A sudden roar of sound from behind startled her, Fox, and the horses. She thought Blue even moved in his bag.
"They know the water's there now as well," Fox said. They could both see the orcs starting to move faster. "Hold on tight again, Dusty. This is it."
Friday, September 15, 2017
Dusty looked back and slowed -- the orcs looked confused. That would not help.
"I need you to be brave again, Blue," she said and reached her hand into the bag.
Blue grabbed hold, scurried up her arm and to her shoulder. She stopped, Fox beside her, though he looked worried.
"You will never have the baby dragon again!" she shouted. "And you had better hope his mother never catches you!"
The orcs shouted in dismay and maybe fear. With no doubt that they had their attention, Dusty turned her anxious horse and started away again. However, before they had gone more than a yard, the horse Dusty was riding became frightened by the growing roar of sound behind them. Blue gave a cry of dismay and darted back into the bag. Dusty feared she would be thrown, and wrapped one arm tight around the bag with Blue while she held tight to the reins with the other.
"Calm, my friend!" she shouted over the roar of angry orcs, the yells of people, the cries of dozens of birds, and the barks of every dog in the town. "Calm! We will get away!"
The horse calmed, took on a long-legged gait, and ran steadily toward the end of town. Fox's horse did the same.
"Well done!" Fox yelled. He'd probably thought she was going to end up on the ground, bones broken.
Dusty gave him only a nod and held tight still. The horse would sense her own fears, and she needed to get control or else this would end badly. It helped that the sounds of the village were already less loud. She dared to look back. Two soldiers rode with them, but behind that group, she could see the turmoil the others had created. The orcs had not yet gotten past them.
She hoped no one was hurt.
They sped past the edge of town where crumbling old buildings were slowly crumbling back into the sand from which they'd been born. Fox still rode close beside her, the horses almost neck and neck as though they raced for fun. Dusty wished to make the ride a game, but she knew that a long, hard journey stood between her and the dubious safety of the river.
Fox pointed out the trail just ahead, and she prepared to turn, daring one look back. Somehow, the townspeople were still holding the orcs at bay, though she didn't think they could do so much longer. As soon as they took the turn, she and Fox both let the horses run full out down the road, around a curve, and down a hillside covered with fig trees and small plots of crops. Before Dusty stretched nothing but desert hills now, golden in the growing light.
How far to the river? She couldn't see it from here, but the land rose and fell in low lying hills. She could see no line of green, which would be a sure sign of water. Would they dare ride through the heat of the day? It wasn't bad now, but soon the sand would reflect as much heat as the sun beat down on it.
Daring one glance back, she knew they had no choice. The orcs had gotten free of the townspeople, but now the few troops they left behind had started to slow them.
"Hold on and ride fast!" Fox shouted.
Fox clearly did not intend to ride off without her, and the idea that he might put himself into danger on her account worried her enough that she stopped looking behind and pressed the horse forward again.
The shouts and yells behind began to fade as they went down one hill and then up again. Fox looked back, so she did as well. The soldiers, though few in number, had held the orcs. One of the massive creatures might even be dead.
"Down fast and then slow on the next incline," Fox said.
Her horse panted badly, but he liked the down hill rush. He didn't mind slowing on the next hill, which had been a little steeper and higher. At the top, Fox stopped finally.
"Rest for a little while," he said. "We need to be careful of the horses, and I think the orcs will have trouble on the hills. We're going to hit the flatlands soon, though. We'll want to keep a good distance as long as we can."
"Yes," she said, barely catching her own breath. "Are you all right, Blue?"
"It was kind of fun to bounce up and down on the fluffy stuff in here. And I landed on a piece of apple."
She laughed and related what he said to Fox. The soldier looked at her with a touch of wonder on her face. They started away again, though not very fast. The orcs hadn't even made it to the first hill yet, but she knew they dared not go too slow.
"What will we do at the river?" she asked.
"I hope to find some sort of craft. The current is with us so we can float down stream to the canal. We're sure to find some help to reach the capital from there. The orcs are found to follow the river bank. We have to hope that it doesn't narrow too much that they might be able to reach us."
"I always wanted an adventure," Dusty admitted. "This is not what I thought it would be like, though."
"Adventures are always better when you can tell about them after they're done," Fox replied.
"I suppose so. They do make good reading. Have you had adventures?"
"Oh, a few," he replied and pressed to go a little faster. Dusty stayed with him, grateful that she did not need to make this journey alone. "We'll have to sit down and talk about adventures sometime."
"I would like that very much," she said.
He looked startled, but she smiled. And then they moved faster once more.