Once inside the gate, Festuscato grabbed the old man from the group that appeared around the parley. “Macreedy,” He knew who it was. “Why are you here.”
Macreedy put up his hands to forestall any anger. “There are only thirty of us, and we have come to protect my niece, Mirowen, and her ward, Mousden, and that’s all. You humans can play whatever game you want, as long as Mirowen is safe.”
Festuscato frowned, while Macreedy waited to see how his half-lie got taken. Festuscato decided keeping Mirowen and Mousden safe was a valid concern, but Mousden would probably hide. Mirowen would pull out her bow and wade into the midst of the fighting, but if Macreedy and his supposed thirty elves could keep her from serious injury, Festuscato would not quibble about how many Saxons they killed.
“All right. Spread your men out along the wall, only keep a strong glamour on to appear human, please. The best way to protect Mirowen will be to keep the Saxons from breaking into the fort.”
“Yes, Lord.” Macreedy let go of his breath. “To the wall,” Macreedy shouted, and his men appeared with dragon tunics, already on the wall, anticipating the attack. Festuscato rolled his eyes, but said no more until Mirowen stepped up beside him and confessed.
“You wouldn’t let me go to the parley, so I called my uncle. Sorry you weren’t here to ask.”
Festuscato only said one thing. “Elf.” It did not get kindly spoken.
MacNeill and Patrick looked over the wall at the gathering Saxons. The Saxons had no siege equipment, not even ladders to scale the nine feet of wall, but even with men from the village added, the Saxons had twice the number of defenders. The Saxons probably also thought that apart from the twenty or thirty men who worked more directly for MacNeill and acted something like soldiers, the rest likely did not have the stomach for a real fight. They concluded that this would not take long, and the only reason the Saxons paused before attacking the fort was to visually determine where the weak spots might be in order to concentrate on those places.
Festuscato walked up and down the length of the wall. “Keep down,” he shouted. Get your bows ready, but don’t stand and fire until I yell fire. Don’t expose yourselves until I yell fire. Bows ready, but heads down until I yell fire.”
All this time, Donogh kept Clugh entertained in the lair, and kept him quiet, but it became impossible to avoid the tension and excitement in the air. Donogh felt it just outside the cave entrance, so Clugh certainly felt it. People say dragons can smell fear, but the truth is more complicated than that. They can actually sense things like stress, worry, apprehension and the like and feel the general emotional state in the air around them, even if there is something near, like someone invisible that they cannot see or smell or hear. That is why it is all but impossible to sneak up on a dragon, unless the dragon is sleeping, but as said, waking a sleeping dragon is not recommended.
“I see you found some friends,” MacNeill said and pointed at a nearby man in a dragon tunic.
“These are not like the glorious ones that shined even in the dim light of dusk,” Patrick said. “There is something more earthy and humble in these.”
“Like Mirowen,” Gaius said, as he stepped up beside the others. Festuscato said nothing. He took a good look at the enemy and jumped down to continue his walk up and down the back of the wall.
“Heads down. Bows ready. Wait until I yell fire.”
Clugh came out of the cave despite Donogh’s protests. Seamus was there, but it did not help. The people who did not find a place inside Lord MacNeill’s manor house, or in the barracks, or out back by the blacksmith’s and other shops, backed up as far as they could. Some screamed on sight of the dragon, but not many noticed, concentrating as they were on the coming battle. Festuscato ignored the interruption and kept walking up and down the back of the wall, yelling in as calm a voice as he could muster.
“Keep down and be ready. Not until I yell fire.”
“Donogh, lad. Clugh can’t be out here,” Seamus said,
Donogh had one hand on the back of Clugh’s neck, where the dragon liked it, but Clugh squirmed and Donogh appeared anxious himself, so the scratches behind the ears did not really help.
“Ready,” Festuscato yelled. They heard the Saxons begin to scream their war cries. They would scream wildly for a minute or so, a technique intended to unnerve their enemy. “Ready,” Festuscato repeated as he jumped up to the back of the wall. He raised his hand and waited while he looked up and down the line. Men here and there could not help a peek at the assembled Germanic horde. Some chose not to look. Generally, the only heads above the wall were MacNeill, Patrick, Festuscato and Gaius, and they stared, and not one of them looked concerned.
“Ready.” Festuscato yelled, though it became hard to hear him above the Saxon din. The Saxons charged. They did not have much ground to cover, but Festuscato immediately lowered his hand to point at the enemy and he yelled, “Fire!” Knowing he would be hard to hear, he yelled it several times, up and down the wall. “Fire. Fire.” He knew the elves would hear, and spaced as they were among the men, when they stood, the men stood and the arrows flew. He did not know Clugh would hear, and fire was one word the dragon knew.
More than thirty Saxons got dropped in the first volley. Whether they were dead or wounded hardly mattered. They were taken out of the action. Another twenty fell quickly, but then the Saxons raised their shields and began to fire back, so the third volley looked much less effective.
The Saxons chose their targets well. There were a few places along the wall where the wood had sufficiently splintered from age or got wobbly in construction so men could get handholds and climb. The gate got the makeshift battering ram the Saxons made from a whole log taken from a house in town. But even as Gaius started suggesting it would be inevitable that the Saxons get in, Clugh could not contain himself. He took to the air when Festuscato yelled and, on seeing the Saxons roaring, Clugh roared and came in like a dive bomber spewing flame everywhere. Part of the fort wall got set on fire, and one Saxon became totally crisped while quite a few were badly burned. To be sure, when Clugh landed and roared, every Saxon within flame range turned and fled. That seemed all it took to get the whole lot of Saxons to run. They dragged off some of their burnt and wounded, to their credit as soldiers, but they did not stop long enough to see if some of their men might be saved. The ones who could not even limp were abandoned.
Once Clugh landed, he slithered to the crisped Saxon and bit off the dead man’s head. No doubt he found it tasty, but with that, Festuscato sighed. He knew once Clugh got a taste for human flesh, he would not be contained, no matter how well the Agdaline command words were pronounced.
“I cannot help the dragon.” Festuscato spoke gently to the boy. “But maybe the Lady can. Maybe mother can help.” Donogh and Seamus thought he spoke of Greta, but he meant Danna, and he traded places with her through time and immediately became invisible. She floated down to the dragon where she became visible again and calmed the beast.
“Mother,” Clugh said, but Danna shook her head and lifted her voice.
“Rhiannon. Come here. I need you.” She spoke, not a harsh call, but a request, and Rhiannon appeared, her face full of curiosity. “Rhiannon, dear. You need to take this beast and keep him from people. He has tasted human flesh, so now there is no turning back.”
“Mother. I have nowhere to keep such a creature.”
“Well, it is either that or I have to put him down. And he is still such a youngster, you know, a child in need of a good mother.”
Rhiannon screwed up her face. “You cheat,” she declared. “What am I going to do with a dragon?”
“I was thinking.” Danna folded her arms and put a finger to her temple.
“A dangerous sign,” Rhiannon admitted, but she waited for the shoe to drop.
“There is a lake on the edge of Amorican territory in the forest called Vivane. Do you know it?” Rhiannon nodded so Danna continued. “The naiad there is getting elderly, but she is very nice. I am sure she would not mind if you built a castle on the small island in the middle of the lake. There are plenty of spirits who live in the forest. You could hold court there and keep Clugh as a pet.”
“Because your work will come to you there. I have seen it.”
“You have seen the future?”
“No, I live there, remember?” Danna stepped up and kissed her many times distant daughter. “I have tweaked the image of mother in the dragon’s mind so you will fill the role, only don’t get too attached. Leave him in Amorica, and one day this male will sire babies, I think.”
“But you just told me to go to Amorica. Now why are you telling me to leave him there?”
Danna shrugged. “Just don’t get too attached.”
“Mother. Why do you have to be so mean to me?” Rhiannon reached out to pet the dragon and Clugh purred.
“Because you don’t belong here, you should be over on the other side.”
Rhiannon said nothing. She looked unhappy but disappeared, and took the dragon with her. Danna reappeared on the wall and went away so Festuscato could return. He smiled for his friends before he hugged Donogh. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Rhiannon will take good care of Clugh.”
“The goddess?” Donogh wiped an eye. Festuscato looked briefly at Patrick.
“And should no longer be here, but out of Ireland at least. And Danna should not be here, either. She knows that. I’m sorry. The new way has come.”
“The old way has gone, though stubbornly I see.” Patrick turned his back and said no more.
R6 Festuscato: 6 The Witch of Balmoor. Don’t Miss it. Until Monday, Happy Reading