Peino Starhand frowned with the effort of keeping up with Lotye’s whirlwind of words and movements. From the yank on his cloak that nearly pulled him off his balance, to the pawing at the quiver on his back, to the rushed and panting explanation, there might as well have been five of her, but finally, about three beats after she had stopped talking, he put it all together.
“Oh,” he said, “yes, that might do. Tie it on, then, hand it over.”
He stepped up onto the interlaced lines that supported the bowsprit, the long spar that extended from the bow of the ship.
“When I get out far enough to sight the thing, I’ll signal you,” he said, reaching back for the arrow with the enchanted lock tied to it. “Keep your eye on me. You can start the spell as soon as I take my aim. In this wind I probably won’t be able to hear you, so you must match your words to my actions. We each have three of these wards, don’t we? Prepare another, in case I miss.”
Peino was making several assumptions in accepting Lotye’s plan, but now was not the time to second-guess himself. Even as that part of him that was always ready to tell him what he was doing wrong started muttering in the back of his mind, he mounted the lines and strode out towards the fragile end of the bowsprit. Used as he was to the wild pitching of the Daughter on the ocean, the calm floating of the Calinda made the walk as easy for him as strolling down Cherryrose Lane, but he could only get so far. On this narrow, round spar and these web-like ropes, the slick, half-frozen mountain rain made it impossible for his boots to find a purchase. He was forced to stop at the yard-arm of the square-jib, the forward sail that billowed out before the airship’s prow, still under the narrowing nose of the balloon but only just.
Bracing himself as best he could, he impatiently wiped sleet from his eyes with his coat sleeve and waved a hand to Lotye. He notched the arrow, then glanced up to spot the dragon, and down to orient himself.
That was when he saw the second dragon.
“Piss and corruption!”
The dragon below seemed to be growing bigger by the second, and not just because it was rising. Its dark, greenish brown body, glittering like the icy rain, was expanding with the poisonous gasses these beasts produced within themselves, making it lighter and lighter so its dark, membranous wings could lift it faster. The armored head snaked about on its long neck, hissing furiously.
An answering hiss sounded from above. Peino looked up at the other dragon, similar in color. Its pale underbelly contracted as it expelled the gas in great exhalations of flames. Its wings folded. It was coming down — fast, spewing fire as it fell.
In that instant, Peino chose his target. He raised his aim high, plotting a line perilously close to the balloon. He drew the bow-string back, past his ear, steadying his gaze along the line of the arrow towards the fiery beast plummeting towards him and — hoping for a very long list of uncontrollable variables to work out just so — let fly.
— — —
Jeneyeru Nightwise might have been one of the first to realize what kind of trouble they were in. Two apparently young dragons in the same territory — La Danse Calinda had stumbled into a nesting battle. Nothing short of the death of one would deter these beasts from their fight, and woe betide anything that got in their way. In their momentum, even cloaking the airship would do no good. The dragons would crash right through it in their lust to kill each other.
“Captain Lafitte!” The wizard looked about for the airship captain and, not seeing him, shouted his thoughts to anyone who might hear.
“Oh, where is he? He must look above and tack laterally at once. Oh, where is that wretched man? Thimble, find him for me.”
“Yes, Master Nightwise.”
The faerie darted off between the legs of crewmen, and Jeneyeru fingered the crossbow bolts in his belt. The bone head of the Staff of Ghosts breathed dark mist in echo of his thoughts.
He was calculating if he had enough time to turn dawn back into night, and if enough darkness would break the territorial frenzy of these yearling dragons sufficiently to make them go away. He decided to try. He raised the staff and began to chant.