“And I need to understand what?”
“When the spells crashed, it blasted us out of that world to this.”
“Good question,” Li said, rubbing a forefinger over his chin—a habit that often helped him think. This time, it only reminded him that he needed to shave, so he resorted to pulling his right ear, which never failed to wake brain cells. “It could be a number of places, but as far as I know the only world where Green Dragons live outside a zoo is Knuth. That’s my home, and Jedrek’s. Georgina’s too, for that matter.”
“I’m stuck here?”
Li patted the big man’s shoulder, hoping to forestall the panic he saw rising before it got into full swing. “Relax, it’s temporary. When we find the wizard he’ll be able to get you home.”
“No, sorry, I haven’t got that kind of magic. It won’t be any problem for the wizard though. Just stick with me, for now. We’ll work our way downstream.” He nodded toward the river and hooked a thumb to indicate direction. “We’re sure to come out on a lake or an ocean eventually. When I get my bearings, we’ll high tail it to the wizard’s house. There’s a fair chance that’s where he landed after the blast, and he’ll be looking for his socks, anyway.”
“Looking for his socks…” Guthrie gripped the sides of his rock with both hands. “What if he didn’t land there?”
“Let’s not borrow trouble.”
“Okay,” Guthrie said, standing up, blowing air, and getting loud. “How about this for trouble we already have? A huge dragon happens to be camping between us and downstream, where we hope the wizard, good lord, is looking for his socks!”
“Yes, but as I said, it’s Green.” Guthrie’s sarcasm irked him, but he understood the man’s distress. From what he remembered of the folklore, Earth didn’t have any dragons at all, although they might have had, in the distant past. He suspected the Okanogan and probably the whole State of Washington was short on wizards, too. And Earth folks (discounting a few physicists) had no inkling about vortices and interworld travel. Too bad, but the man would just have to trust him. What else could he do?
Sure that Guthrie would follow, Li walked toward the massive emerald creature who had curled herself into the canyon, blocking the space between the cliff and the creek. “She’s thinking about food,” he said, wanting to keep Guthrie in the loop.
“I can hear her thinking, remember? Besides, food is what dragons are always thinking about. Seems she’s got her supper waiting.” He dropped his voice as they moved closer. “They cook their food alive, you know.”
Guthrie opened his mouth, and then closed it again when a fly buzzed close. After a moment, he asked, “So, you mean dragons really breathe fire?”
“Yes, Guppy… er… Guthrie. At least the Green ones do. Whatever this one’s caught, she’s hiding it with her body. That’s why she’s curled up to look so small.”
“Small! She’s the size of a mountain. She could hide a horse — good lord, she could hide the whole seventh cavalry — in there!”
“Umm… I don’t think it’s a horse,” Li said, pulling his ear. “But it is something big, maybe a deer or a calf. It’s something she hasn’t eaten in a long time. She’s trying to remember how to cook it.”
“You know, how hot to breathe the flame, how many passes to make, at what speed. Dragons like their meat hot, but bloody. The Greens in particular are smart enough to be specific about cooking. Stupid about everything else, but that might be to our advantage.”
They came even with the curve of her back, and Li motioned for Guthrie to keep still. Then he crept forward, stepping over the spike that tipped the dragon’s tail.
“Blessed sunlight!” It was a whisper, but it was louder than Li had intended. He was thankful the dragon was preoccupied.
Guthrie’s echo was silent, but Li heard the thought. He crept back a few steps and crouched behind a boulder, where the creature couldn’t overhear, and told Guthrie what he’d seen. “She’s got Jedrek!”
“This is bad, Guthrie. This is very bad.”
Li rolled his eyes. “Yes, bad. I had thought I could just plant a thought or two, convince her to take her meat elsewhere — you know, tell her about the flies and the ants and everything. They hate bugs.”
“Stop doing that.”
“Dragons hate bugs, especially Greens do, because they’re selfish about food and don’t want the bugs to steal any of it. But it will hardly solve things if I convince her to take Jedrek away and eat him elsewhere, now will it?” Li pulled again at his ear, harder this time. “She’s already got him levitated and sleeping, that means her enchantment is complete, and she’s ready to start cooking any minute.”
“Well, I’m sorry, Li!” Guthrie threw his hands wide. “Every time you speak you say something totally incredible. Who ever heard of dragons and wizards except in bedtime stories?”
“Might I remind you that you turn yourself into a big black bird and fly?”
“That’s not like this. It’s nothing at all.”
Li stopped pulling his ear and reached over his shoulder to draw his longbow from its sleeve on his back. “Nothing,” he said, adding a snort as he bent the bow to receive the string. “Don’t lie.”
“Okay, it’s something, but it’s not dragons. At least I’m a bird that really exists.” Guthrie ran a finger along the silk-smooth wood of Li’s weapon. “Beautiful,” he said, to Li’s surprise. “What are you going to do, shoot her in the tender spot?”
“For now, your birds exist. But not for long, perhaps?” Li closed his eyes and worked a spell over the arrow with his hands. When finished, he said, “What tender spot? I’m not going to shoot her at all — it wouldn’t help, and Green’s aren’t bad sorts of dragons, really. They just have large appetites.”
The comment confused Li, who at first thought it referred to the hunger of dragons.
“Yes,” Guthrie went on, “we Condors are endangered. But dragons never did exist.”
“Step back,” Li said, ready to test the bow’s tension.
“So, what are you going to do with the arrows?”
“Dragons do exist, here.” Even to his own ears he sounded annoyed.
“Which is where, exactly?”
“Guthrie, there isn’t time for this. I’ve got to focus on getting Jedrek safe.”
“Then tell me, how are we going to get him out?”
Li noticed the “we” and appreciated it. He looked up to meet the tall man’s eyes, thinking fleetingly that sometimes a stranger wasn’t a stranger at all. He smiled and gave a slight nod of recognition before he went on. “I’ve placed a hover spell—please don’t ask,” he held up a hand, palm out. “It’s just what it sounds like. I’ve placed a hover spell on these arrows. I’m going to try to tease the dragon away from Jedrek and over that cliff.” He pointed downstream to a spot where the canyon folded in to funnel the water into a narrow channel between sheer walls.
“She’ll end up in the river,” Guthrie said, arching an eyebrow. “I’ve heard dragons hate water. Will it kill her?”
“If you don’t think dragons exist… never mind.” Li closed his eyes and shook his head. “They don’t like water at all, but it doesn’t kill them. It shrinks them. In the river, she’ll be the size of an ordinary salamander.”
He had the first arrow loosely nocked, and now he peered around the boulder at the dragon and listened in. She was still arguing with herself about how best to cook Jedrek — apparently she hadn’t eaten a human in decades.
“Really? A salamander?” Guthrie tugged at his ponytail. “Won’t she be mad? Won’t she just climb out and turn right back to dragon size?”
“Don’t worry. Her memory is short and, as I’ve said, she’s stupid. She’ll be mad that she can’t breathe fire to cook the tadpoles. She won’t think of getting out of the water for quite a while. Long before that happens we’ll wake the wizard and he’ll whisk you back to Earth.”
Thinking of that, of Guthrie gone back to Earth for good, a wave of sadness, or maybe longing, washed through Li. He didn’t like such feelings; they were chinks in his formidable armor. In any case, he had no patience for it now. It was time to shut up and save the wizard.
He shook his head. “No more questions.”
Li, the famous Knuthian Golden Warrior, crept up the sloped foot of the canyon wall to some low brush that gave him both cover and a chance at a clean shot. It was tricky because the beast’s big snout was very near the hovering, horizontal wizard. For his plan to work, Li would have to place the arrow directly before her eyes, between her face and Jedrek’s flowing gray mane. The clearance was inches.
To hesitate is to lose, he mentally quoted, and started his shot swiftly, following through in smooth motion. Look, pull, release.
The dragon reared her head back and snorted smoke and sparks. The arrow was too close to her eyes for her to see it without double vision, and Li hoped that would add to her anxiety. He waited, and just when she bunched her muscles to lift a forefoot to knock the annoyance away, he made his second shot. The second arrow knocked the first away and came to a spinning stop in the air about ten feet further on. As Li had planned, it was just confusing enough to frustrate the dragon, and the new arrow was just far enough away to get her moving.
She rolled onto her belly, narrowly avoiding Jedrek, and slid forward, wanting — in true dragon fashion — to make sure it wasn’t a food source before she blazed it to ashes. Li repeated his maneuver twice more, each time taking the arrow a little farther than the last. With the third arrow, she got to her feet and walked. Then she thundered after the fourth arrow in a rage.
Despite the distance being almost out of bowshot even for Li, he placed the fifth arrow precisely inches beyond her reach from the cliff’s edge. She reacted, leapt before she looked, and her great, green bulk heaved out into empty air and dropped like lead. Fortunately, the river below was deep. She splashed down with a sound like crashing cymbals, and spray-painted a rainbow for Li and Guthrie, who had — in the joy of the moment — taken hold of each other’s hands.
Awkwardly, Li disengaged and busied himself unstringing his bow and stowing it in his pack. “Would you do me a favor? Fetch my arrows, except the last one, of course, that’s lost. And I’ll get the one near the wizard.” He flashed a grin at Guthrie, whose eyes were wide with dazzled admiration — or so Li let himself think as he watched the tall man set off without a word.
When he got back to the wizard’s side, however, he was disappointed. With the dragon out of the way, he’d expected the enchantment to fail, but Jedrek still slept soundly in mid-air, snoring in contentment. Li couldn’t see his face — the dragon had floated him high enough for Li to walk under him, if his gray robes hadn’t been flapping in the way — but a flash of metal told him that the old man was smiling broadly enough for the sun to catch his gold tooth. Apparently his dreams were not the sort that would wake him screaming.
By the time Guthrie came back with his arrows, Li had sunk down onto a rock, elbows on knees and chin in hands. “I am not sulking,” he said.
“I didn’t say you were.”
“You were thinking it.”
“Fine, you’re not sulking. What are you doing?”
“I’m thinking things over.”
“Right,” Guthrie said, but Li heard him think, “Definitely sulking.”
Guthrie held out Li’s arrows to give them back. “What’s wrong?”
Sulkily, Li stowed the arrows in his pack. “Well, just look at him!”
Guthrie walked over to the wizard and looked down at him. “How can I help?”
Li scooted to the left, making room on the rock, and Guthrie sat next to him. They talked for a good ten minutes, running through every idea that came to mind. “Okay,” Li said, rising. “Let’s just try something.”
They tried calling Jedrek’s name, but they both knew it wasn’t going to work.
They yelled, “Help,” thinking the wizard’s protective instinct might wake him.
Li wormed his mental way into the old man’s dreams to plant a wake-up thought, but Jedrek had defenses even in sleep. All Li got was disgusted. “You do not want to know,” he told Guthrie, “what sort of dreams make an old man smile in his sleep!”
Guthrie sounded the cry of the condor in Jedrek’s ear. Li jumped out of his skin. Jedrek snored right along.
They tried pulling the wizard to the ground. He bobbed a little when they put their weight into it, but bounced right back when they eased up.
Li brainstormed. “Maybe we can pull him along behind us and take him home. His own magic is bound to overcome the dragon’s spell, once he’s there.” They tried. First they both pulled, then they both pushed, then one pushed and the other pulled.
“Good lord, this is frustrating,” Guthrie said.
“Tell me about it!”
They pulled and pushed harder. Guthrie tackled him with a barging shoulder. Li got under him and pulled like an ox, putting his back and muscled thighs into it. Through it all, Jedrek slept and didn’t budge an inch.
Breathless, they sank onto the rock, back to back, and sighed in unison.
Soon, Li was up and pacing. The problem, he decided, was his own distraction. He was paying too much attention to Guthrie’s entertaining thoughts. I’ll block his brainwaves so I can think better. There’s got to be an answer.
Meanwhile, Guthrie sat on the stone, hands folded between his knees, eyes on the ground, brow scrunched, right foot tapping. Abruptly he stood, stepped near Jedrek’s slumbering head and peered at the old man’s face, his eyes level with the tip of Jedrek’s nose. After a moment he held up his hand, breathed into his palm, and sniffed it.
Li’s plan to ignore him failed miserably, but in the effort he’d lost the train of Guthrie’s thoughts. So, he had to ask. “What are you doing?”
“Checking my breath.”
“What… what are you doing?” Li repeated the question. Perhaps it hadn’t taken the first time.
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