Chapter Sixty-One

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Ygrael clung to the dragon's neck with every ounce of her strength, and still she was nearly flung off at every turn. Beside her, face grim and body tense, Varyn seemed to be having the same difficulty. The wind tore and stung, eager to pry them loose and send them plummeting thousands of feet to break upon the rocks far, far below. 

This is not like riding Harn, Ygrael thought. He was always gentle, coasting, gliding--this beast seems to be doing everything in its power to dislodge us, short of actually throwing us off its back.

But of course, Harn hadn't thought her a murderer. He'd thought her his friend.

Ygrael bit her lip hard enough to split the inside skin and shut her eyes, willing all thoughts of the young prince to the back of her mind. She couldn't afford distractions, not now. Soon, she would face her death--but first, she had to use what little time remained to purge the Alavardian filth from her home.

Once Svard is free, I will rest, she thought, teeth gritted with the effort of staying in place as the beast beneath her sliced through the mist toward Svard. 

She could already hear screaming.

The dragon arched its back and let out a piercing cry. They were nearing the wall--would pass over it in seconds--

The net came spinning out of the mist like a leaping predator. Countless silver wires gleamed momentarily in the sun. Glass orbs filled with iridescent blue liquid shone like dewdrops. 

Ygrael didn't have time to be afraid. She yanked the dagger from her belt and, with a force she'd not been sure she still possessed until that moment, slammed the hilt down on the dragon's right shoulder. The blow hardly penetrated the dragon's scales, but it was enough to get its attention. The beast screamed in rage, surprise, confusion--and veered reflexively to the side. The flying net missed them by a hair.

"They're firing Girtha!" Ygrael screamed. Her voice was instantly snatched away by the rushing wind, but the dragon heard her. It let out a scream of its own, a warning cry to its kin that echoed through the mountains. 

Beside her, Varyn growled a stream of curses.   

Ygrael bent forward, fingers digging into grooves between scales as the beast began to dodge and weave through the clouds over Svard. Glancing from side to side, she saw more dragons materialize out of the mist, swooping and soaring over the city, unleashing torrents of flame upon the wall and the castle. 

Black arrows whistled through the air, a storm of gleaming obsidian thorns, interspersed with volleys of flaming tar from the slings. Few struck their targets, and even when they did the damage inflicted was negligible. There was no order, no strategy to the attacks--just blind firing. Ygrael scoffed inwardly. You could not simply point and shoot at a dragon, you had to read their patterns, anticipate their trajectory. Clearly, the Alavardians knew nothing of sky warfare.

You killed my guard, and now look at you--fools. Children with no idea how to use their toys.

When she looked at Varyn, Ygrael saw her own disgust echoed in the captain's expression. 

Still, there was Girtha. That was a potential problem.

The beast she was riding dodged a lob of burning tar and dropped into a steep dive. Ygrael gasped and clung on even tighter as the city rushed up to meet them.

"I'm dropping you both on the castle wall!" it cried. "Then you will be on your own!"

Ygrael didn't bother to reply. There was little point, and she had no choice in the matter. 

Their descent tipped sharply, and the dragon swooped low over the rooftops of Svard, circling back to the wall. The great grey expanse of the inner wall filled Ygrael's vision, and for a heart-stopping instant she thought they would crash into it. Then, the beast reared, spread its wings, and landed with a scrape of claws on stone.

Ygrael and Varyn slid off its back. The impact of stone on her bruised and bloodied feet made Ygrael wince. This section of inner wall was free of soldiers. Judging by the broken, charred weapons and smoldering corpses scattered along its length, it Ygrael guessed the Alavardians had made a prudent retreat to more easily defended ground, probably inside the outer wall.

Turning back to the dragon, she saw it had already spread its wings. A moment later, it took off and was once more wheeling through the battle-torn sky.

Varyn turned to Ygrael. "We need to disable Girtha, find Orven, and kill the Alavardians' commanding officer. Without leadership, they'll scatter."

"I imagine we'll find all three in close proximity," Ygrael said, glancing over her shoulder, casting her gaze over the city. 

There was a tremendous crack, followed by a glint of metal and a spark of glass flying through the air. As they watched, the net whistled over the city and struck a dragon mid-swoop. Ygrael imagined she heard the shatter of glass, the hiss of acid meating scales...

The beast screamed. It was a sound unlike any Ygrael had heard a dragon utter before, even in the midst of battle--even falling from the sky, riddled with arrows and burning tar. It wheeled wildy through the air, a graceless, panicked swirl of silver scales and lashing wings. Blue-gray smoke began to billow from its body, and Ygrael smelled burning skin. When it finally fell, she glimpsed raw, exposed flesh glistening amidst charred scales. The dragon crashed into the city below, and remained there.

In the sky over Svard, the remaining dragons roared loud enough to shake the mountainside. 

The ground trembled violently beneath their feet. Varyn gripped the wall, muttering more curses and she watched a tower of smoke billow from where the beast had fallen. 

Ygrael realized she hadn't inhaled for nearly a whole minute. Slowly, carefully, she took in a breath--and thought she could taste the beast's scorched flesh on her tongue. "If that trajectory was any indication, they still have Girtha set up in the main courtyard," she said, her voice a dry rasp. She swallowed, then added, "Probably didn't have time to move her."

"Then we know where we're headed," Varyn replied coldly. She stepped back from the wall, walked a few paces and knelt by one of the the bodies that littered the stones. She pulled a sword from the corpse's belt and held it out to Ygrael. "We need to cross the city. Best arm yourself, M'Lady. They won't let us through willingly."

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