Bloody Dirt by CC Hogan by CC Hogan - Read Online

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Summary

It would have been so easy to forget everything that had happened, find a quiet, out of the way place to go and live and enjoy life just as it was, but for Pree and Farthing that is simply not an option.

As they return to The Prelates, idealism flowing through their veins, they find themselves embroiled in a war that will span a continent.

In the sequel to Dirt, the truth behind the ambitions of Tekkinmod and the people in the far west are revealed and Johnson Farthing will rely on the knowledge and friendship of incredible people, humans and dragons, as he and Pree build an army.

Through the blood and terror of war, this is still a tale of the heart; a story of passion, love, and the strength found in bonds of friendship.

"I don't know what you are up to, magician, but I take exception to my island being used as the base for one of your wild political missions." Bren-Diath sat in one of the small sunken seating areas of the Catre Sarad, halfway up Taken Mountain in front of the Neuath.
"It is not strictly speaking your island, Bren-Diath; actually not your island at all! The mountain is claimed by just about everyone and dragons don't even go down to the town."
"It is too small and quaint; I wouldn't fit."
"That is not the reason, old man!"
"Last I checked you were older than me, and I am not a man, Eafa of Tepid Lakes."
"Well, you look your age." Weasel frowned. This conversation had been repeated in one way or another for a week, though on the upside, at least the huge ice dragon had stopped referring to Weasel in any dietary context, not that dragons actually ate humans. Bren-Diath stretched and looked around the vast Cartre Sarad, the Place of Speech that was cut into the side of the mountain. It was busier than it had been for centuries, mostly because of an influx of Sea Dragons from Bind in the last couple of months looking for new places to live.

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The Dirt Saga
Series One

Dirt
Bloody Dirt
The Fight for Dirt

Hope, the sequel to series one
(Includes the story Mistry, a prequel to Series Two)
Yona - Standalone Short Story

Series Two - Coming winter 2015/16

Girls of Dirt
Dragons of Dirt
People of Dirt

Series Three

TBA

Look out for updates to the Dirt Saga

Published: CC Hogan on
ISBN: 9781311906052
List price: $2.99
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Bloody Dirt - CC Hogan

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Prologue

As entrances go, this was pretty spectacular. The red sun pushed its feeble way over the Iron Mountains of Peys, spreading its early rays across the Yonder Sea. Two large dragons swooped down from where they had been floating in the high winds, and rushed towards the Melina, picking its way through the unpredictable currents of the ocean that lies between the continent of Bind and that of The Prelates to the far west.

Sebbon! Jipperson, the master of the former whaler, yelled for his first mate who was taking his breakfast below. Jipperson himself always ate on deck.

Mr Jipperson, sir!

"Heave to, Mr Sebbon, we have visitors. And you might want to get the jolly boat launched with a couple of the lads.

Out here, Mr Jipperson?

They had had a fair wind behind them since leaving the port of Tool, and they were several leagues out from the shore. Visitors were a little unexpected, but then Sebbon was still trying to get his head around the events of the night before.

Yes, Mr Sebbon. Out here and now.

Sebbon threw his hands into the air and yelled to his crew to lash the helm and bring the Melina to a stop. Franks and Miller lowered the small jolly boat off the side and dropped down into her to await orders. The door of the aft cabin squeaked open and a young rather pretty girl with dark-brown eyes wandered out into the sun, clambered up onto the forecastle, and leant against the horse-sized dragon who was looking out to sea.

What’s going on, Mab-Tok? Mistry yawned and shivered, remembering she was only wearing a shirt and light trousers.

Look. He pointed north at two rapidly growing, birdlike shapes, flying low and fast over the gently rolling sea.

What? Mistry squinted. Oh! She turned on her heel and rushed back down to the main deck, nearly knocking Mr Sebbon flying, and shoved her head into the aft cabin. They’re back! she yelled at the top of her voice. With a shout, two red-headed girls and one beautiful, small, white, wingless dragon, rushed out onto deck, knocking the bemused Sebbon back out of the way, and crowded around Mab-Tok.

Weasel, I’m not a bloody gull! You know I can’t just hover in this light breeze in front of the ship!

Mab-Tok can do it.

Mab-Tok is a different species, and quite a bit smaller than me!

Well, at least slow down a touch. Water can feel like stone if you hit it too fast.

You don’t seem to have that problem with beer, muttered Fren-Eirol, the beautiful sea dragon. She looked over to Be-Elin, the large but slim desert dragon. Stall? she suggested.

I can hover, pointed out the Draig yr Anialr. But I am happy to follow your lead, dear!

Gentlemen, called out the sea dragon. It will be quite a drop!

Precious Hearting bit her lip and grabbed hold of her lover’s sister, Rusty.

How are they going to get off? Do dragons float?

We’re not ducks, Pree, Mab-Tok admonished her. We can swim, but I’m not very sure how they are going to do this… Oh, that is how.

As he spoke, the two dragons stretched out their massive wings, dropped their tails and lifted their heads for the barest moment. From their backs fell the two men followed by some quite interesting language. The dragons snapped their wings back in and flew straight up high into the sky, turned, and headed north-west, fast.

The four girls, Mab-Tok, Mr Jipperson the younger, Sebbon, Franks, Miller and the entire remaining crew, watched in stunned silence as the two men, arms flapping wildly, dropped through the air, and splashed into the waves. A few moments passed, and two tiny heads popped up above the water and waved. Just about everyone cheered in relief, and Mab-Tok leapt into the air, flying off to the men and sending the sorely tried Sebbon sprawling with an accidental flick of his tail.

Mr Sebbon, send the boat out, ordered Jipperson, leaning out over the rail.

Aye, aye, Mr Jipperson, replied Sebbon with a sigh.

After the dramatic rescue from the pier the previous night, Jipperson had caught the tide as fast as he could out of the harbour at Tool, the largest port in Peys on the continent of Bind. The two men, rescued at the last minute by the dragons, had been flown away from the town as quickly as possible in case someone started chucking spears or arrows, and no one had been certain whether they would return to the boat, or head straight to Taken, the small, mountainous island in the middle of the vast Yonder Sea. In the end, the dragons had not wanted to drop the men in the water at night, so had camped on a deserted stretch of shore, and flown out to find the boat at dawn.

When Johnson Farthing clambered up the rope ladder onto the deck, his sister Rusty and newly adopted sister Mistry, threw themselves around his neck and buried their heads in his wet hair. Rusty wanted to tell him all the terrible things she had imagined would happen to him as he had been chased by Tekkinmod’s men along the harbour, but she couldn’t speak. Slowly, she pulled herself away, wiped away a tear, and the two young women made room for the young woman waiting behind them, and went to hug Weasel, who had just made it up the ladder.

Pree leant against Farthing and looked up into his eyes as he looked into hers.

Are we safe now? she asked.

Farthing pulled her close. Yes, safe now. The young woman closed her eyes and held him tightly.

So, how do we do this, Mr Weasel? Jipperson had poured out two tin cups of rum and was sitting on a storage box next to the magician who was, for this trip, his wave talker.

Well, I haven’t done this for centuries, to be honest, Mr Jipperson, but it’s not as complicated as it might seem. All I do is sit in the bows, close my eyes, and feel for currents. I then tell you what I have found, and you plot your course. You have to make subtle adjustments as we go and sometimes those are tricky and are better ignored, but it seems to work out. Where it gets really complicated is where you also have a wind talker. Then you have two sets of information to work through. But find the right air current and the right water current at the same time, and you can really increase your speed over the day and reduce your tacking.

My goodness, Mr Weasel! Jipperson was being unusually polite since Mistry was sitting against the mast just a few feet away with her eyes closed, looking relaxed and happy. She was sixteen, and her mouth could do her justice, but she looked younger, and Jipperson found he just could not swear when she was within earshot. So, what speed should we make?

I don’t know till we try. I was never that good at this and the Melina is not exactly the sleekest of vessels; there will be a limit.

Well, she is more designed for hauling in big fish, to be honest, Mr Weasel, but she is a good girl, and she will get us home. Shall we get started? Even with your help, we have many days ahead of us. Weasel pulled himself to his feet.

Let’s make to the bow then, Mr Jipperson, and see what we can see!

Rusty slid down the short ladder from the quarter deck and sat down next to Mistry. The sun, reflecting off the large white sails down onto the sheltered deck stacked with boxes, was surprisingly warm, and the boat swayed gently as Sebbon, one of the better first mates on the Yonder Sea, took full advantage of a brisk breeze and Weasel’s directions as to the best currents.

Are they still locked in back there? asked Mistry, keeping her eyes closed. Rusty nestled in next to her.

They are going to be in there for hours, I reckon. Pree really thought she had lost him last night. So did I, to be honest. I thought we had lost both of them.

Are you alright? Mistry opened her eyes and took Rusty’s hand.

Not sure, but I think so. Confused, I think.

In what way?

For the last two months, except for those bandits and nearly losing the wagon at the mines, it was like we had never been captured. I mean, I had bad nights and some bad days, but mostly it was, I don’t know, fun?

Mistry giggled. It was bloody hard work driving that team, girl! But yes, a lot of it was fun. Strange.

What are you going to do, Mis? asked Rusty, closing her own eyes and enjoying the sun. I mean, Farthing and Pree have set themselves up with a mission, but I don’t know where I fit into their plans or even if I can. I still want to go home, but I can’t. Rusty, the former maid, and Pree, had been sold into slavery by Pree’s father, the Prelate of Redust. They might have escaped and were now free, but they risked recapture if they returned to Wead-Wodder. Mistry opened her eyes and pulled at Rusty’s dyed, black hair.

You might get away with it.

This black stuff is getting washed out as soon as I can find somewhere halfway private! said Rusty with feeling. I want my lovely red locks back!

I don’t know what I am going to do, to be honest, said Mistry. There is nothing left for me on Bind, and without you and Farthing in Wead, there is nothing for me there either. Mr Jipperson says I can stay down at the pub with him and his brother, help out in return for board. Perhaps I will do that.

That’s true, said Rusty. I keep forgetting there’s a small town on this Isle of Taken. Has Jipperson got any land there or anything?

Why?

Well, you’re a cheesemaker, girl. Maybe you and I can get ourselves some goats!

Mistry smiled warmly, but then remembered her father, killed by the slavers, and her goats, now taken from her by her estranged brothers more than four hundred leagues away. She suddenly felt empty and leant against her friend. Rusty put her arm around the smaller girl, feeling her shake. What could she say? None of them had come out of this without scars.

Chapter 1 - A Simple Choice

I don’t know what you are up to, magician, but I take exception to my island being used as the base for one of your wild political missions. Bren-Diath sat in one of the sunken seating areas of the Cartre Sarad, halfway up Taken Mountain in front of the Neuath.

It’s not, strictly speaking, your island, Bren-Diath; actually, not your island at all! The mountain is claimed by just about everyone, and dragons don’t even go down to the town.

It is too small and quaint; I wouldn’t fit.

That is not the reason, old man!

Last I checked you were older than me, and I am not a man, Eafa of Tepid Lakes.

Well, you look your age. Weasel frowned. This conversation had been repeated in one way or another for a week, though, on the upside, the big ice dragon had stopped referring to Weasel in any dietary context, not that dragons ate humans. Bren-Diath stretched and looked around the vast Cartre Sarad, the Place of Speech that was cut into the side of the mountain. It was busier than it had been for centuries, mostly because of an influx of sea dragons from Bind in the last couple of months looking for new places to live.

What do I do about all this, Eafa? I have never been into this close relationship rubbish that you and Bren-Aneirin promoted for all those years, but I now have several hundred homeless dragons beating on my door.

Dragons had a complicated politics, mostly notable for being almost non-existent. They had no sense of territory and did not understand the ideas of nations or borders, but they did like to live somewhere, preferably in some half decent, dragon-sized village. Now, some felt unwelcome by their human neighbours, or at least by their extreme nationalistic leadership. One way or another, this had been happening for two thousand years, but in the last few months, there had been a gear change, over in Bind at least.

How long since you were in Bind, Bren-Diath? asked Weasel.

Three hundred years?

Did you know that most people over there have never even seen a dragon, let alone a calliston, and know nothing about them? In some places, they are very definitely unwelcome.

Well, I am not entirely surprised. There has always been some conflict of interest plus they breed so damn fast!

They are not rabbits, Diath; they are people like you and me! The big ice dragon shrugged. He was feeling meaner than he knew he should. Weasel tried a different tact. What If I theorised that Bren-Aneirin and I had won that argument all those centuries ago and we had fostered better relationships between the species. Would it be different now?

I argued back then that it was a waste of time, Eafa, but I did not see this coming. Maybe the two of you had a point.

Then you would have been wrong, and so would we.

Bren-Diath opened his eyes wide. Are you saying that you were both completely wrong, magician, because that is a big change and I just wouldn’t believe it.

No, not completely. If things had been now as they were then, I still think it would have worked, but they are not. Something else has changed, something none of us could have predicted.

What?

I don’t know. I could imagine fights over territory, fights over trading rights, fights over coin and resources, all those things that humans do and dragons don’t. But all those are points of negotiation as long as there is no war going on.

All the things I thought would be insurmountable barriers, pointed out Bren-Diath.

Perhaps. But what I did not imagine was this idea of being simply not wanted, as if dragons are in the way, or meddling or something. Look at all these Draig Morglas, Diath. They are not here because someone threw a spear at them, they are here because they no longer felt comfortable.

Bren-Diath watched the various small groups of dragons gathered around the vast plaza. Officially he was the caretaker of the mountain, a strange honorary position that just meant he kept things vaguely organised. But before, years before, he had been an important debater, and, in the absence of any proper political hierarchy, was seen as a champion by some factions, just as Bren-Aneirin and Weasel had been seen as champions by others. Now, he was being asked once again to stand up and speak and to make his opinions known and felt, but inside he was just weary and old.

Eafa, I am eight hundred and seventy years old. That makes me much older than was your friend Aneirin when he passed up the mountain. I creek, I can barely fly around the island to fish, and my brain is so full of years of arguments that I hardly know where to start any longer. And I lost my Fren. That took more out of me than I could have possibly guessed. Made me think of Fren-Eirol in a different way, perhaps, and maybe understand the closeness between the two of you a bit more.

Weasel looked up into the dark grey face of the dragon, his political nemesis all those years ago, with his strong white streaks running from his crown down to his nose. Bren-Diath had mellowed and become more thoughtful, but Weasel found himself wishing for the fighter. He needed to stir the dragon up with something, get him thinking.

I met my mother a few months back, Diath.

The dragon blinked. Weasel’s history was well known on the isle and his mother had died when he was young, or so it was thought.

I had thought she had passed a thousand years back, Eafa.

So did I! Weasel laughed, but with little humour. Can I tell you something without getting eaten? Now it was the dragon’s turn to laugh.

I ate yesterday, little man; you are safe.

Weasel smiled at the joke. My father, my real father, was not who I thought.

I am not sure your family tree is of much relevance here, but do carry on, said Bren-Diath, raising an eyebrow.

My real father was Dierren.

Bren-Diath’s jaw dropped. On the other hand, it might be of enormous relevance! The dragon’s eyes narrowed, and he stared at the small man who was sitting before him looking very uncertain; something he had never seen in the irritating fellow ever. Dierren was a figure of near folklore, a great magician who had lived thousands of years until he disappeared, and of whom many and completely impossible tales were told. And, have you taken after him? There was no joy in the question.

Apparently, but it’s not what I thought, or what you thought, or what any of the dragons here thought. Or any of the human bards, the callistons or anyone else.

Bren-Diath leant down, his large head right in front of the magician’s face. Explain, before I tread on you.

I can’t, because I do not understand myself. Not yet, anyway. But I can give you an example.

Example away, magician. Bren-Diath’s voice was flat and cold.

The enmity and distrust between dragons and magicians had a long, tense history, although the truth of it was lost beneath many unlikely stories. Old tales would tell of great times, many thousands of years ago, when dragons and magicians were friends and allies, but that trust had long since broken down along with relations between humans and dragons. Dragons now were inclined to see magicians as mind-readers, meddlers, and even as a threat.

I healed Mab-Tok when he was a heartbeat from death.

Bren-Diath’s head snapped back in surprise and he blinked. Human healers can’t heal dragons. Magicians cannot heal dragons. Great Magicians can’t even heal dragons. For the gods, even dragons find it hard healing dragons, apart from those little Draig Wen! Bren-Diath was near spluttering.

I did it anyway. You can ask him.

What are you, Weasel? It was rare for the ice dragon to use Weasel’s common name.

I don’t know, Diath, but somehow I am stuck between everybody. I don’t know how or why, but I am. It doesn’t make me some great wizard of the old children’s stories.

They are myths.

And they will remain so. I am not suddenly powerful or cleverer or anything else. I am completely different in some way that I do not understand, that has somehow been forgotten. I think I am a link. I suppose that is why I am here.

What, to join everyone together in some happy band? Bren-Diath barked out a derisory laugh.

No, Diath. To stop everyone from ripping one another apart.

Rusty looked down at the four fluffy white things challenging her with hungry eyes. Are you sure you used to get cheese out of these? she asked Mistry, suspiciously. They’re very small.

They are only kids, Rusty. They will grow, you know. Or will if you feed them.

The two young women had moved out of Mab-Tok’s house the previous month, and taken lodgings in the hamlet where the Jipperson brothers ran the Pub by the Waters Inn and their small blacksmith business. Neither had any idea what the future held for them, but sitting around had been depressing, and Rusty and Pree had started suffering nightmares again. Mistry had decided that getting Rusty out and busy was the solution, and Farthing could worry about Pree. They had realised that between them they had enough useful skills to earn the coins they needed. Rusty was helping in the pub because the forge was getting busier, and Mistry was running a small cart pulled by an old horse ferrying goods up and down between the harbour and the villages. They were now helping out a farmer with his goat herd for a couple of weeks while his wife was laid up after giving birth to twins. For the moment, it gave Mistry a purpose, and Rusty was sleeping better.

Come on, Rusty, let’s get these sorted. I promised Biggerman I would take a load of coal from his yard up to Bentole’s farm in the hills.

When did Biggerman start selling coal?

He isn’t, but Booby the coal merchant had more shipped in than he was expecting and ran out of storage space. Biggerman said he could use his yard, but now he wants it shifted.

Rusty laughed out loud. You can’t call him Booby! His name is Bobbit!

You seen his chest? asked Mistry, a wicked grin on her face.

Well, yes, but you still can’t call him that, girl.

I calls ‘ems as I sees ems, Miss Farthings! Mistry did a passable imitation of Biggerman, the man with far too many plurals in his conversation. One of the goats put out a foot and gave Rusty a poke.

Okay, little girl,

Boy, corrected Mistry.

How can you tell? asked Rusty. Mistry looked at Rusty with a blank expression. Apart from … oh, right, completely by … right. Rusty smiled and blushed.

Are you sure you kicked around with boys back in Wead-Wodder, Rusty?

Well, yes, sort of. Not as much as others.

Why?

They were all scared of my brother.

What, he threatened them or something? Mistry knew Farthing was protective of his sister, but he was not extreme about it.

No, I don’t think he even noticed half the time, but you’ve seen the size of his muscles and how big he is. Mistry grinned lustily and Rusty punched her in the arm. Well anyway, none of them was going to risk it, and it was sometimes useful. There were a couple of older blokes who were a bit scarier, and Farthing did make it plain to them how things stood. Neither of them had seen Farthing nor Pree for the last month, although they had seen Fren-Eirol a few times when she picked up supplies from the port for Mab-Tok’s house. The goat bleated impatiently and Rusty sighed. How much?

About quarter of that sack for these, then take the rest out and put it in the trough with that other sack for the grown-ups.

Don’t they just eat grass?

If you have a big enough field, but this one is a bit small for all the goats he has, and the grass is pathetic. He really should move the goats somewhere else and give the field time to recover. They would be happier up in hills, to be honest. Still, not our problem.

Prelate’s Problem is what we used to say back in Wead for anything that didn’t concern us, Rusty told Mistry. Who runs Taken? I mean the town?

I have no idea, answered Mistry. I’m not sure if it’s anything formal. Probably whoever turns up at the Admiral on Saturday nights, she said, grinning. Talking of which…

You are getting far too keen on the Jipperson’s stout, Mis.

So what?

You are going to end up like the name; stout! Mistry looked down at her slim figure. Well, eventually, added Rusty.

Pree, we have to get out of here. Farthing looked up at the young woman who was sitting on the edge of the small dining table. Mab-Tok’s home, or the empty building he had claimed for himself, was huge and initially designed for a calliston some centuries before. Like all dragon and calliston houses, it was open-plan, but it had a smaller storeroom to one side that Farthing and Pree had claimed for themselves, and had converted into something a little more fitting for their own size.

And do what? I’m stuck, Johnson. I don’t know what the hell is going on, and Weasel is spending all of his time up on the mountain having yelling matches with Bren-Diath.

That’s calmed down a bit now, I think, but I know what you mean.

I need to be in Wead, but Fren-Eirol keeps avoiding the issue, and you’re not helping either.

What if Tekkinmod is there? Or you’re spotted by one of your father’s friends or palace staff? Come on, Pree, you are the Prelate’s daughter; people know you!

You didn’t!

But I’m just a cart pusher; I’m a nobody.

But that is who I need, Johnson. I need to meet the nobodies, the people up in The Wealle and in The Skattlings. Those are the people who we need to talk to, not the toffee-nosed prats my father surrounds himself with. At the moment, I am just growing roots, barely able to sleep, and going slowly mad! She clamped her teeth together and a tear of frustration pushed its way from her eye.

Since arriving in Taken, she and Rusty had been suffering the backlash of their experiences. The long journey across Bind in the wagon worrying about Tekkinmod and sharing their lives so closely with their friends, had left them little time to deal with the horrors of their capture by the slavers. Now Pree was safe on this Isle of Taken, populated by some of the largest dragons on Dirt, the nightmares were taking control, and she was waking up every night in panic, fearing she would find herself back in the small bare room by the kitchens in Tekkinmod’s hall, naked, cold and dying.

When Farthing, Eofin, Weasel and Gellin had rescued them, Farthing had picked her up, blankets and all, and carried her away to safety. The fear of not being wrapped in those arms was real and painful. Now they were a couple, all but inseparable, but both were feeling trapped on the island. Rusty was making a break from the past with Mistry, but Pree had been unable to make the move; she was becoming fearful of leaving the house some days, despite desperately wanting and needing to.

Do you want to go and stay with Mistry and Rusty for a bit? Farthing had suggested this a few days before, but Pree had been reluctant. Get drunk?

Pree grinned. Watching Mistry get drunk is fun.

Watching you get drunk has its moments too, Red.

I didn’t go when you last asked.

No, but I think you have to say yes now. Farthing’s looked into her eyes. You must get out of here, however cosy it is.

I know! What do you want to do? I mean, really want to do?

I want to get started, Pree. We have talked and talked, but we’re getting nowhere. We don’t know what Tekkinmod is up to or where he is, even though the Jippersons have been talking to boat masters coming through the port. We don’t know what your father is up to, and we don’t know anything about these royalists in the Western Prelates that Sen-Liana spoke of. The only one of us who has done anything at all is Weasel, but that is a different issue at the moment. You know your father, you know that he runs the Prelatehood for himself and his wealthy cronies, and you were the one who said that it could not be left to continue. As Weasel said to me ages ago, you cannot do anything without friends, and we need to start making some.

And he is right. The two of them jumped at the sound of Fren-Eirol’s voice. Pree ran outside and hugged the dragon though she had only seen her that morning. Put me down, Pree, said the dragon sharply.

Pree stood back, surprised at not getting the return hug that she normally received from the sometimes motherly Fren-Eirol. She looked up at the large sea dragon and saw she was wearing the hides given to her by the desert dragons, and not her usual light, printed cloths.

Are you going somewhere? she asked nervously.

I think you are.

Where?

Redust, if you wish. Farthing is right, you are sitting on your hands, and it’s doing no one any good, especially you. This time, Mistry has got it right and I’ve got it wrong.

What do you mean?

I flew down to see the two of them, and they are getting themselves properly sorted. Rusty is still having problems, but she is beginning to cope, mostly because Mistry always makes sure she has something to do. Less comfort, more action.

Just going back to Wead is too dangerous, said Farthing flatly.

Yes, it is, agreed Fren-Eirol. And that is not going to change. If you are determined to make people’s lives worth something, then you have to put yourself in danger.

There must be a better way, objected Farthing.

No there isn’t, and you know it. However much you wish it, you can do nothing from Taken. Right here, right now, you have two choices. If you want to set in motion all the things you have been planning since even back on the Bekon moors, then you climb onto Be-Elin and you fly to Redust. If you are too frightened to do that, and, believe me, I would quite understand if you were, then you must put your dreams aside. Be-Elin will take you to Sarn-Tailin, and you can live out your lives with Seb Dawfoot and his family. The one option you haven’t got is staying here.

Why? asked Farthing.

Because Weasel is in full flight up on that mountain and won’t stop for anyone. Eventually, he is going to end up confronting people that might be a danger to you, Pree, and he won’t want to be worrying about your safety. And we now have the worry about you being the descendant of the Cwendrina. You either have to put yourself in danger or hide away from everything.

You sound like Weasel, Fren-Eirol, said Farthing.

Perhaps I do, and perhaps I just remember who I was three hundred years back. I have wronged Eafa in the last months in a bid to enjoy his old witty, sometimes wicked humour. He and my Bren were a force to be reckoned with, but I assumed that flame had long since died as it had in me. It hasn’t. I’ve been watching him argue with Bren-Diath, and he has turned that old, stubborn ice dragon from an enemy into an ally, even getting him to accept the truth about Eafa and his magician father. Oh, they will never love each other, but I had not fully understood the respect they had for each other under the sarcasm. The hill is now in turmoil, with the two of them in the middle of it all standing back-to-back.

What about you, Fren-Eirol? Pree sat down next to Farthing listening to this new, fast-talking, hard-edged side of the dragon she thought she knew so well.

That will depend on Mistry and Rusty.

How so? asked Farthing.

They have more of a choice than you two. They could stay here and build a new life, or they could head back to Bind and up to Sarn-Tailin. No one would be looking for them there. They would be safe and there is a whole pile of tall lads who would be queuing outside their door. They could even go to the Eastern Plains and join Eofin and Gellin and the Draig yr Anialr. Or they could decide to go with you to The Prelates if that is what they wish to do. If that is the case, then I come too. If not, I will take them wherever they need to go.

Pree smiled warmly at Fren-Eirol with a twinkle in her eye. You will go wherever Mistry goes, that is what you are saying.

Yes, said the dragon. Although I don’t know if that’s what she truly wants.

She would be heartbroken if it were not the case, trust me on that. They had all watched the daughter-mother bond building between the oversized sea dragon and the undersized but tough little goat farmer.

And if we decide to go to the Prelates? asked Farthing. Where do we start?

You need to ask?

Oh; Geezen.

Jipperson the elder had erected a long table outside the Pub by the Waters and roasted two whole goats. Around the table sat four young people, a magician, the master of the Melina, and a small, white, humanlike dragon. To the side of the table stood two huge dragons, and between them, a much smaller one who seemed to be having trouble with his neck as he looked up from dragon to dragon.

What is bothering you, Mab-Tok, Weasel asked the irritated Draig Bach-Iachawr.

I’m feeling small and vulnerable.

Be-Elin looked down at him. I can shift closer if you wish, small one, she said with an innocent look. Mab-Tok glared at her. Shifting closer would only get him squashed.

I have been spoilt by my years on Taken. I had forgotten what a mob you Draig yr Anialr can be. And you were so polite to Farthing when we first arrived.

We always put on a good show for newcomers, small one, but we also like our fun. Eirol, fancy a hug?

Alright! I’m standing somewhere else! huffed Mab-Tok, and plodded around to the other side of the table to stand next to the delicate Draig Wen, who was trying out the concept of beans.

Weasel gave up trying to sneak rum into Mistry’s beer and walked over to Fren-Eirol who was sitting proud and upright, towering over everyone. He pushed at her mind and made her jump.

Don’t! she said, partly in embarrassment. Not only was it intrusive, but the annoying little magician knew exactly where to prod. Be-Elin coughed in amusement and lay down on the grass to bring herself level with the human members of the party.

So, darling Snowy, said Weasel. Why exactly are we all here?

Well, little man, she answered. I thought it was time you had some space from your new buddy in arms, Bren-Diath. There have been rumours that the two of you have been hiding behind the statues telling each other jokes and giggling like children. Weasel put on an innocent look that no one bothered to notice, let alone believe. And it was also time we got together and remembered who we all are.

I am still trying to work me out, Snowy, so don’t hold your breath for that one! said Weasel. Fren-Eirol huffed. Well, that is my excuse, and yes, it is good to get together with my favourite drinking companions. Weasel nodded at Mistry, who had just grown a white moustache and was grinning widely. But now, the real reason please, before we make short work of two goats and whatever you have in that stinking bag.

Fren-Eirol looked down at her friend, and the smile faded from Weasel’s eyes as he saw her grave expression. He took his place back at the table quietly.

We have to make decisions, said the sea dragon to the group of friends. A week ago, I talked to Farthing and Pree and asked them to choose what they wanted to do next. I do not know what they have decided, they have not told me, but what we all do from this point on will depend on what they say now. I gave them two choices and only two. They could leave here and return to Sarn-Tailin or they could move on with their plan. The dragon looked straight at Pree. Whatever her relationship was with the tall, strong, young man, this was her choice.

The young woman, only just approaching nineteen, stood and looked around the table at her friends. Then she stood a little straighter. We are going to Redust, she said. There is so much wrong with Dirt, starting with my father selling Rusty and I into slavery, the poverty of Johnson and his life, and the unfair rules that have stripped Mistry of her farm and home. And where there has been light, here in these few houses, or in Sarn-Tailin, it has been despite the world and the greedy few who run it, not because of it. I’m told I am part of some ancient dynasty that no one seems to understand, and yet I have the strongest soul I have known standing next to me making me braver than I really am. We want to do something. We are not sure what, or how, but we know we cannot do it here, and we cannot do it from the safety of Sarn-Tailin. We have to be over there, in Redust. So that is where we are going. Pree sat down again, her decision made.

I will take them, said Be-Elin. Farthing is my rider, and Precious Hearting is his mate. I will take them, and I will protect them as I can. In the silence that followed, Fren-Eirol whispered something to Be-Elin. Well that is the word we use in the Sand Hills! she said defensively.

So, that is the decision, said Fren-Eirol. It comes as no real surprise to me and nor, I suspect to Weasel. He has his own mission, and for the moment, that is here. It will be not far short of a miracle to force the dragon peoples of Dirt to acknowledge that sharing this world means working with others, not turning their backs on them, but if anyone can then Weasel and Diath can. Although I have no idea what to do about the growing distrust of our kind. The sea dragon looked pained. She turned to Mistry and Rusty. Your choices are different. You have both played your parts and have earned everything life can give you. You can stay here and build your life in this small community, or you can return to Bind, or go anywhere. Or, you could even…

We go to Redust, said Rusty, and Mistry nodded in agreement. Fren-Eirol, we talk about this nearly every day. We love it here, she said to the two Jippersons. And you have offered us a wonderful chance, but we cannot abandon our friends, and Wead-Wodder is my home, our home. She turned to her brother, her eyes touched with small tears. Johnson, we want to go back home, sort out our little house up on the Wealle, and then fight whatever battles you and Pree need to be fought. You did not abandon me when others would have done. You did not abandon Mistry, although you didn’t even know her, and you have stood by Pree through every tear and nightmare. We will not now abandon you. We go to Redust.

Then I go too, said Fren-Eirol. Weasel looked at her, his concern clear. I must, little man. You know that. He nodded sadly.

And what of Lily and me? asked Mab-Tok.

You help me, Tok, said Weasel. I will need you to go to the Black Hills and tell my mother what is happening, and we can take it from there. This will not be easy. The dragons here at Taken are inclined to reject any lingering history with humans.

Mab-Tok leant over and shook the magician’s hand. Then you have us both with you.

The thin man smiled at the Draig Bach-Iachawr, then his eyes settled on Rusty, her arm linked through Mistry’s. He felt a strong connection to both these young women. He saw a little of himself in Mistry. She saw things clearly and understood much that confused the others. She was bright and analytical and a lot braver than even she perhaps realised. Rusty, on the other hand, puzzled him. She was so different from her brother in so many ways, but Weasel felt a kinship with her that made no sense at all. But then, he also had, despite himself, built a strong friendship with Farthing over the months. Maybe it really could be as simple as the others had said back at Hilda’s Inn by the Iron Mountains. To family, he thought to himself.

Well, Jipperson the younger said, rising to his bandy legs. I can’t do any of that flying stuff, I know nothing of magicianing, and I’m pretty rusty on dragons half the time, except when getting them bags of pickled fish. He lifted his rum bottle to Fren-Eirol. But me and my brother know about upheaval and change, and with what you are trying to do, sooner or later you are going to need a lot of friends. You might even need a boat again and someone who knows this sea like few others. So, if you need me, call. I ain’t going nowhere in a hurry. His brother turned to him in surprise. No, brother mine, I’m done with whaling. You and I are sitting on decades of unspent coins. We do better by serving these folks now, even if that just means making sure they have a home to come to. I’ve got a good little crew, and they are few enough to find bits to do around here and still be available when needed. So, here I wait until called.

Yes, this is a family, Weasel thought to himself. They need one another and they are very quick to jump to each other’s aid and raise a pot of beer to each other’s dreams. Do they really know or understand what they might be setting in motion? Fren-Eirol might, he thought, although she often let her own emotions cloud her judgement. She had backed him and Bren-Aneirin in their struggles, but he had not always been convinced she had done so wisely; the three had made a lot of mistakes. Mab-Tok possibly had a better idea. The small, devious dragon had a healthy streak of distrust for most things, and enjoyed the politics on the hill. As for the rest, Weasel was pretty sure that however honest and noble their dreams, they would be learning some very harsh lessons, and it might prove to be a very short road to failure. His one hope lay with Mistry. Despite her young age, she took nothing for granted, did rather than discussed, and was honest about being scared. Fear was not a weakness but a strength, and he felt all the young people would need her cleverness and clear-sightedness if it all went wrong. In his experience, it always went wrong.

Well, is no one going to eat? said Weasel out loud, his careless humour covering his fears.

Where is Fren-Eirol? Mistry had all their clothes and food laid out on the grass by the pub and was folding and rolling the clothes as small as she could. They had agreed to take as little as possible on the two dragons to keep the weight down. Only Farthing had flown high on a dragon before and they did not have Weasel to help.

She has gone up to the Neuath, said Rusty from where she was folding two thin canvases that would make do as basic tents. Two sea dragons from Wead flew in this morning and I think she wanted to say goodbye to Weasel.

Do you know what they wanted?

No idea. Farthing and Pree should be here with Be-Elin shortly.

Will any of your clothes at your home fit me? Mistry asked Rusty. They were planning to go up to Rusty’s small if it was safe.

I don’t have many, but I should think so. The market in the Hive always has cheap second-hand clothes if they don’t. I had never owned anything new until we bought clothes on Bind.

I still have some of the tops twe made from Fren-Eirol’s beautiful, silky cloths. Best clothes ever!

I think Lily made up some more for herself from the same cloth, said Rusty with a smile. There wasn’t enough of it left for Eirol to use.

Oops! Did you get a chance to say goodbye to Lily and Mab-Tok? Mistry had spent part of the morning down at the town making a last trip for the Jippersons.

Yes, I did. I gave them a hug for you. Mab-Tok is worried about the journey to Bind carrying Lilygwin. Last time he made the flight it was in Fren-Eirol’s wake. Jipperson has marked him out some more islands in a zig-zag route so he should be fine. Rusty finished with the canvases and helped Mistry. Are you alright with all this, Mis?

What do you mean?

You’ve been getting so comfortable here so quickly. I reckon you already know more people around here than the Jippersons have met in all the time they have lived here. You don’t have to go.

I do, Rusty. I really need to go. In here, she tapped her chest. Something in here is making me. She grinned at her friend. And anyway, you and Farthing couldn’t cope without little Mistry!

Rusty gave her friend, her closest friend, a hug. I had to ask.

Yeah, I know.

A rush of air followed by a thump and a very unladylike curse, hailed the arrival of Be-Elin, Farthing, and Pree, who was sitting on the ground, looked annoyed. Be-Elin looked round at her.

It is my responsibility to take off, fly and land, young lady, but it is your responsibility to stay on!

Be-Elin had picked up a little of Fren-Eirol’s bossiness they had all noticed, or perhaps the real dragon was beginning to show through. With Farthing, she was quite different, however. He was her rider, and they had come to realise that with desert dragons, this was like having a brother and best friend and even a playmate. She would go from being all protective of him to intentionally tripping him up with the end of her tail at a blink. Mistry had commented that Farthing’s Mate, as Be-Elin kept calling Pree, was unbelievably accepting of the relationship, which showed how secure she felt about Farthing. I would have given that dragon a right telling off by now, she had said. Rusty had ribbed her about it for days. If anyone had shown unbelievable acceptance, it was Mistry, who had never lost her feelings for the young man, even if she kept them buried as deep as the painful memories of her murdered father.

Are Mr and Mr Jipperson around? asked Farthing, taking half the canvasses and bedding rolls and throwing them over to Be-Elin who was sorting out her bag.

Down at the port. Another boat has come up for sale, said Mistry. I took them down some spare lines and some of the metal rigging rings that Mr Jipperson has been making up.

What do they want with another boat? Mr Jipperson already bought that little schooner to play with. The amount of coin the two brothers had saved up over years of not spending anything was proving to be quite a hoard.

I think this is another small cargo boat or something. He has this thing about needing to shift things around in a hurry and he doesn’t want to rely on just the Melina if she is already out. But I think the real reason is he just likes buying boats! said Mistry with a chuckle. Farthing grinned. To be fair, they have all be in terrible condition, near to sinking, and he gets them dirt cheap.

Are we close to being ready? called out Be-Elin. We are not going to get that far today, especially if Pree keeps falling off.

You didn’t call me Farthing’s mate! Pree said with a grin of triumph.

If you fell off into the sea, you wouldn’t be his mate any longer. I was making a prediction. Sometimes it was near impossible to work out when Be-Elin was joking. Pree huffed and threw the last bedroll at the dragon. She was actually very fond of Be-Elin.

As soon as Fren-Eirol gets down from the Neuath, we can go, said Mistry, already taking up her job of wagon master, despite the complete lack of a wagon or any horses. And I think that is her now, she added, peering into the distance.

There was something unmistakable about Fren-Eirol. In recent weeks, the number of dragons up at the rock had tripled, and most of them were sea dragons, the Draig Morglas. But there was a distinctive beauty about the large sea dragon with her almost white belly and huge, diaphanous wings, that made her stand out from the others. Over the last few months, carrying humans for the first time in hundreds of years, and then being so badly injured it was uncertain that she would fly again, she had lost much of the extra weight she had put on during her years in Wead-Wodder. Be-Elin had also been severely injured, and the two of them had been on a relentless quest to get fit and strong, ready for whatever happened next. Fren-Eirol landed and changed from flight to walking in one fluid motion. She might not be as fast as the sleek desert dragon, but none could touch her when it came to pure grace.

A present from your favourite magician, girls, said the dragon, tossing a packet of black hair dye to Rusty. And we have a problem, she said with a frown, walking over to her bag, and throwing it onto her back between her wings. She was once again wearing the hides and leathers of the desert dragons which gave her protection as well as making it easier to carry humans, without the indignity of a saddle. The sea dragons have now abandoned Wead-Wodder. Pree, your father has told them that they will not be trading with them in the future.

The idiot! Pree’s face darkened. The fast trade we have done with the help of the dragons is what has made Wead so successful. How the hell does he think people will make those sorts of high-value trade deals in the future?

Fren-Eirol shrugged. I agree, but this is something repeated in several places now, starting in Bind. However, this makes our life more complicated. My home village is now empty, and if we just turn up there, we can hardly blend in with the other dragons. We need to find somewhere else.

Upriver somewhere? suggested Farthing.

Too many people, said Pree. If this has happened in the capital, it will happen all along the trade route up the Wead; they are all subservient to my bastard father and he will not tolerate descent.

Anywhere down the coast? There is quite a gap heading south between Wead and the next town, Farthing pointed out.

You mean Axen? That is more than thirty leagues away. Pree scratched her head. Farthing and Rusty had never left Wead before Rusty was captured, and that had been straight across to Bind. Pree’s knowledge was better. Hang on. There is that old coastal village, erm, Het something. It’s on a small river on the cliffs. Oh, Het Seborg!

Isn’t that just some ruin? Farthing asked her, helping Be-Elin with the packing.

Well, that’s my point. It was abandoned years and years ago. I was taught about this. It was never big, just a large village, and was entirely reliant on fishing, but the cliff was unstable and the road down to the harbour fell away or something. Anyway, most of the people moved up to Wead and it’s been empty ever since.

Won’t it be a ruin, like Farthing said? asked Rusty.

It's ancient, like some of the Hive. Those buildings never fall down. Enough should be there for us to at least camp out until we work out what to do next, and it has the little river.

Het Seborg it is then, said Fren-Eirol. Let’s get going, children. That it includes you, Be-Elin."

The desert dragon purred fondly. She was only seventy years old and Fren-Eirol had been mothering her a bit. Farthing climbed up onto Be-Elin and sat on her lower neck while Pree sat close behind him and leant forward onto his back, giving him a hug. The dragon leapt straight into the air and started her climb. Rusty climbed up onto Fren-Eirol, taking up Weasels traditional position in front of the large backpack, and Mistry climbed up below Fren-Eirol’s neck with her wagon master’s face on.

Walk on! she said jovially. Fren-Eirol turned her head and stared. Flap? suggested Mistry.