The early morning sun shone down on the ancient walls of Giant's Pass castle. It fell on patches of green moss clinging to the weathered stone blocks which formed the Outer and Inner Wards. It cast small square shadows from the eastern battlements onto the rampart behind them. Shards of light sparkled uselessly against the only window in the castle, the stained glass panes now covered in dirt and hiding the long disused Royal Chapel from view. But the glittering day made a brave showing of the banner of King Argud the Defiler flying high above the Keep and reflected brightly from the string of wind polished skulls decorating the flag post. A few rays of shimmering sunlight even penetrated the arrow slits of the Prison Tower, to be instantly snuffed out amidst the pitch black stench of despair and corrupting flesh. Many more were wasted in falling on the steaming surface of the castle moat and its covering of rotting turds.
King Argud and his Master-At-Arms were no fools. Any attacking soldier who fell into that reeking gray-blue slush of slimy semi-liquid with even the smallest of wounds on his body would soon be dying a most painful and poisonous death. The smell on a warm day was truly awful but since nearly everybody in the Royal household stank like a dead goat anyway it was of no great consequence. And there was always a price to pay for magical protection.
The King should have been in his counting house, counting out his money. Unfortunately, there was hardly any to count, since there was nobody in marching distance who had anything left worth stealing. So instead the monarch had taken a newly arrived serving wench into the buttery, bent her over a table and applied double handfuls of butter to her bared hindquarters. The girl was mystified by his actions but in a few seconds time she was destined to find out two things: why he was called Argud the Defiler, and the real reason why the buttery was called the buttery.
The Master-At-Arms, on the other hand, was dealing with more delicate business. A matter of negotiations which called for diplomacy and cordiality. Not easy qualities to summon up in a proud old soldier covered in scars and past glory: in his time the Master-At-Arms had killed and raped more victims than a boatload of Ice Land Warriors. He resented having to be unduly deferential to any other official of the Royal Household. But even he had to respect the authority of Sir Tarquin as Royal Tax Collector and Keeper of the castle torture chamber.
"A fine day, Sir Tarquin."
"A fine day, Master."
Sir Tarquin reluctantly laid aside a series of woodcuts left behind by a visiting trader of tormenting equipment. Often and anon did he gaze at them wistfully, especially the ones showing the young lady with the long legs stretched out on a rack, the legs getting longer and longer in each succeeding picture. What he wouldn't give to have a bit of glamour like that in his own appliances instead of the dreary peasants that were all that ever came his way in this backward apology of a backwoods kingdom. Not that he'd ever dare to let such words pass his lips, not if he didn't want them sewn together. On matters patriotic King Argud was so right wing he was almost a Tiberian Republican.
"How can I help you, Master?
"I'd like to book a session in the torture chamber, Sir Tarquin."
"Certainly -- a personal one, Master? Ha, ha, the old ones are always the best, hey?"
The Master smiled dutifully with a twitch of his lips as the Torturer reached for his diary, a movement which paused halfway as an earsplitting scream came from the direction of the buttery. Sir Tarquin cocked his head to one side and listened with professional judgement.
"She'll be able to carry around the mead tonight, but I hope it's not at my table. Her hands won't stop shaking for a week. Now, Master, was it a group booking?"
"No. Just the one, thank'ee, my lord."
"Fine. Any particular torments in mind? Male or female?"
The Master-At-Arms grinned. To be more exact, he bared his teeth like a wolf seeing a sheep caught in a briar patch: "Definitely male, Sir Tarquin. It's the castrating vice I want to use. Could I have a couple of hours, if that's agreeable to you?"
"A couple of hours? That's a long time for such a simple little job. Is this business or pleasure, Master?"
"Oh, both, Sir Tarquin -- both."
The old soldier looked as if he'd seen a divine vision of a thousand virgins, each one more beautiful than the next, and all driving carts heavily laden with wine barrels.
Sir Tarquin felt a touch of unease. As a normal thing, letting enthusiastic amateurs loose in a torture chamber was a mistake. Blood everywhere afterwards, and all the tools bent out of shape with overmuch heating. But the Master was a professional too, or at least he'd always behaved up until now as a career soldier and pain giver. And as an officer of the Royal Household there was no way he could be decently refused access to the in-castle tormenting facilities.
"The day after tomorrow? From the third emptying of the water clock until the fifth emptying?"
"Thank you, Sir Tarquin. You co-operation is appreciated."
The Torturer fastened his weak blue eyes on the Master's vicious brown ones.
"You'll appreciate that you'll still have to raise an inter-departmental invoice for the hire of the chamber. Two florins an hour, four florins in all. You'll need to make seven copies of the invoice, all signed by yourself or your deputy and counter-signed by myself or my deputy. One copy for your files, one for mine, one for the routine-of-the day clerk, one to the Royal Accounts Office, one to me as the head of Value Added and Value Removed Tax department, one for the Royal Archives, and one for the Bureau of Births, Deaths, Marriages and Castrations. And, naturally, it's your department's responsibility to ensure the removal of all bodies and bodily parts from the chamber at the end of the hire period. All equipment used is also to be cleaned and lightly oiled afterwards."
"You know me, my lord. I always leave the torture chamber the way I would wish to find it."
Sir Tarquin suddenly realized that the Master-At-Arms wasn't looking at him, but over his head and through an arrow slit in the wall. He turned in his chair and glanced out through the narrow gap himself. On the other side of the moat were the straggly lines of filthy wooden shacks where those of King Argud's subjects unfortunate enough to be still alive eked out their wretched existences. But one building at least was well built, the size of a barn, close to the protection of the castle walls, with a patch of scorched grass outside it. Playing happily together on the bare ground was a young boy and a young female. The female was much younger than the boy, but a great deal bigger. About forty paces longer, in fact, bright pink in color -- at the moment, anyway -- and gently weaving her snout and her sinuous body like a giant ferret as the boy tickled her underneath her left wing root.
"By the Gods, Master, I still can't believe it -- not even after seeing it every day for nigh on five years. A living, breathing dragon. And when I was a boy we all thought they'd never existed. Even the witches and warlocks said the old carvings were only make believe. Just dreams and mind pictures from nearly forgotten stories. And then a dirty little sniveling son of a night soil spreader comes out of the forest with an great egg he says he found in the roots of a fallen tree."
The Master-At-Arms nodded absent-mindedly. Everybody from far and wide knew the story, and how young Hal O'The Shitbuckets had not told anybody about the egg but hidden it inside a pile of warm dung near to his family's hut. And how the boy had come out a few weeks later and found a dragonet frolicking around on top of the pile of shite. And by the time anybody of importance had found out about any of this, it was too late. The dragonet and Hal had instantly developed the same kind of affection as between a man and his dog, and any attempts to part them had sent the young dragon into such a state of fretful decline that the companionship had to be restored immediately. But otherwise the hatchling seemed perfectly healthy and had grown at an astonishing speed. And of all its mysteries, three had continually dominated King Argud's thoughts.
The first was whether there was any truth in the old legends about dragons breathing fire?
The dragonet had never shown any sign of being able to do so but there had been a lingering hope in King Argud's breast that the facility might develop as the creature reached puberty. A hope which had found triumphant resolution one night when a pack of stray dogs had gotten into the dragon hut and attacked the dragon and Hal. The resulting flames had not only burnt down the dragon's hut but also a dozen others belonging to peasants unfortunate enough to be living nearby. As the suddenly dispossessed poor fled for their lives the King had capered wildly in delight in the snow in his night shirt, calling for his pipe to light it from the burning fragments of the huts, and then for his fiddlers three to provide the music for his pyromaniacal dance. At dawn he'd demanded that Hal demonstrate the dragon's incendive skills again by burning down more huts, clapping his hands like a delighted child as the dragon had coughed out tiny spitballs which flew for hundreds of paces and then ignited into raging fireballs whenever they hit anything.
"By Odin, I love the smell of dragon spit in the morning!" King Argud had roared in ecstasy at the sight of so much destruction inflicted so quickly.
The second mystery was whether the promise of the pup's nascent wings would eventually be proven. Could a dragon fly?
The answer had been yes, a fact finally determined in the last few weeks of early summer. Although, in truth, the dragon only flapped her wings barely enough to be airborne before locking them into outstretched sails and seemingly riding the currents of the air upward and upward, then gliding across great distances before turning and turning like a falling leaf in one place in the sky. Yet instead of drifting down she would drift upwards again. Nobody could explain how this could happen, except through magic. Apart from Hal O'The Shitbuckets, who thought that the air rose in bubbles from pieces of hot ground, like the bubbles in water coming to the boil, and that somehow the dragon could see or sense where these air bubbles were rising.
Under normal circumstances nobody would have paid any attention to young Shitbucket's ideas. The one thing which did get them a hearing was that Hal was the only person in the whole kingdom who had ever flown with the dragon. At least that was what most people thought, but four people knew differently. Hal, the Master-At-Arms, and two of the Master-At-Arm's daughters. Unfortunately for all of them, the Master had accidentally overheard Chelinde telling her young sister how she had twice been aloft with Hal and how young Shitbuckets had rewarded her with what he called a frequent flyer point.
It was Chelinde's candid description of where young Hal had inserted his point whilst they were together in the beastling's riding net which had resulted in Hal's recently appointed meeting with the castration vice. The next item on the Master-At-Arm's schedule was arresting the still unwitting boy and explaining in great detail about exactly what was going to happen to him. Hal might have spent most of his life emptying latrines but if he'd thought before he was in the shit, he was soon going to know better -- or worse.
Sir Tarquin shook his head in sorrow as he kept watching the boy and the dragon at play: "Such a shame. Worse yet, a tragedy. Is there anything sadder than the sight of a promising life destined never to know true fulfillment? The King comes near to weeping every time he thinks of it. What say you, Master, are you still of the same opinion?"
The Master-At-Arms expression was one of bewildered surprise, until he realized what Sir Tarquin was talking about. It was the third great mystery about the dragon, the mystery which had King Argud groaning with despair at nights for a solution.
"Absolutely the same opinion, my Lord. Our tiny army had no chance at all of defeating the Imperial Legions. One dragon on its own might win us a battle but never the war. We'd need a whole flock of them to be assured of destroying the Emperor's forces in the field and taking the great cities of the plains."
"A rise, Master. The collective noun for group of dragons is apparently a rise of dragons. So the Chief Warlock tells us of the High Council from his reading of the ancient writings. And no wonder the King weeps when he looks down from these hills onto an empire he could easily conquer -- if only we could find a male dragon to mate our female with. Nature can be so cruel." Sir Tarquin sighed heavily in quiet despair.
"How many peasants have we worked to death digging up the forest floor roundabouts that fallen tree seeking another egg -- a male egg, in all love? How many spells have the Witches and Warlocks cast, seeking a trace of other dragons in the great wide world? How many spies have we sent out seeking news of such beastlings? And not one trace, not one rumor, not even one tavern tale about such monsters existing. No, what you see innocently playing there, Master, are two virgins, and destined I think to stay that way for a long time."
The Master-At-Arm's face was pale, only two red spots on his cheekbones revealing the pure fires of anger burning within him. "My Lord, I intend to make sure one of them will certainly never have need of a mate."
He tapped the cover of the torturer's diary with heavy significance and Sir Tarquin's eyebrows rose in sudden concern. "Hal? It's our young dragon handler you've a mind to geld? Nay, I think the King must know of this first. Why do you want to do such a thing?"
The Master-At-Arms had no intention of telling the truth on that subject. Nor did he think that he needed to.
"My Lord, my duty is to the security of the King and the Kingdom, and that dragon is a menace to both. It cannot help us defeat our enemies but should Hal ever decide to turn on his true Lords and Masters that beastling would be a formidable threat to us. Many of us would perish and much damage would ensue before he and that confounded animal were killed. Since we cannot breed from it, better to destroy the monster and its handler's spirit now before they acquire a taste for more than they are being given."
Sir Tarquin shook his head: "A sound argument, Master, but not sufficient to achieve your purpose. Leave our dragon handler alone for a while yet."
"Dragon handler? That's not his substantive rank on the household rolls. He's a privy purveyor, he empties the shit pans into the moat and he was only allowed to work in the castle at all because he tends the beastling a few hours each day. The dragon is of no use to us, only danger, and the sooner we get rid of it and debollock that young upstart, the better."
The Royal Torturer waved his hand at the chair the Master-At-Arms had recently vacated: "Sit you down again, Master, and breathe no word of what I am about to tell you. For you have unwittingly touched upon decisions recently made by the High Council and it were better for you to know something of them and thus keep discreetly silent."
Sir Tarquin leaned forward across his desk and spoke in lowered terms.
"The King and Council in secret session have decided that now the dragon has reached true maidenhood there is one last turn of the cards we can yet play. If we can't find a male dragon, perhaps the young female dragon may. She can fly, and she can seek, and Hal that was will go with her to return a clutch of fertile eggs, be it nothing else he can bring back. Let that dragon go hang, if only he can find dragon hatchlings enough for us to breed a rise from."
The Master-At-Arms tried to absorb the implications of Sir Tarquin's statement: "Go? Go where?"
"Out into the wide world, wherever the winds may blow the pair of them. Over the northern mountains perhaps, or southwards over the provinces of Lyonesse to that great city itself and beyond. Or the east, to the forests of Prydein, or west wards, into the sea mists of Tintagel. Wherever it be that the great beast may feel drawn to go. Like calls to like, Master, and if there be a scaly and horny mate for her anywhere, surely that dragoness will be drawn to him like a homing pigeon to its nest."
"But ... but ... Hal, that was? What do you mean by that, my Lord?"
"Why but think, man! If a dragon or dragons there be anywhere, surely they will be owned, as here, by the King of those parts. Can we send a shit-carrier's offspring to negotiate on behalf of the Kingdom of Argud with another royal court? No, of course not. Know you, Master, that in the next issue of the castle gazette there will be a notice raising young Hal O'The Shitbuckets to the aristocracy. A lifetime peerage." The Royal Torturer's lips tightened in sardonic amusement. "However brief that lifetime may be."
The Master-At-Arms looked as if he'd taken a crossbow bolt in the stomach: "That ugly little piece of trash is to be ennobled!"
"Aye. A strange world we live in, hey? But you know yourself that the boy is the only one in the Kingdom whom the dragon obeys, so he must go with her. The King sought our advice on a suitable title for him and I suggested Duke Skyrider as being apt to his station, but the Chief Warlock would have none of it. He said it sounded too foolish to be believed. So we have had to seek further. The Chamberlain said we should simply use the boy's family name, but the Warlocks laughed at that."
"I never even knew he had a family name. Why, he wasn't even born into his family. The stinking brat was found newly born wrapped in a shawl at the forest's edge."
"True, but he was bought up by the Shitbucket emptying clan. Apparently they were given a Tiberian family name by those interfering monks before the King finally drove them out. One of the holy men must have had a sense of humor though because the family name is Merdinus. The Warlocks thought the notion of a Duke Merdinus a great jest because the word in the Tiberian language for dung is merdus. So it was proposed the boy be dubbed Duke Merlinus instead. And in a few day's time our young Duke and his dragon will leave on his quest. What think you, Master?"
"What do I think? To speak truth, my lord, I think the whole council must have been sniffing on a platter of that white powder the traders bring from the Happy Isles. I think the young tosspot will sell that dragon as soon as he is safely out of our kingdom and spend the gold on fucking serving wenches."
Sir Tarquin snorted with brief laughter: "So think we all, Master, so think we all. It was also said that a duke who spoke not a word of Tiberian, knew nothing of magic or ceremony and stinks of the privy would have much trouble playing the part of a nobleman. Someone must go with him, someone to make sure the quest succeeds, someone able to educate Hal as they travel together, someone who will be respected in any royal court in any land. We have now decided on a suitable escort and consort for our aspiring Duke Merlinus."
The Royal Torturer leaned forward, even closer to the Master-At-Arms and spoke even more confidentially: "Tell me, Master, have you still any desire to see the wide world?"
The Master, the victor of a thousand vicious killing fights, whimpered like a beaten dog: "Me, my lord! Go up on one of those things? I beg you, no, no, a thousand times no! I'm a man, not a bird!"
"Ho-ho-ho! Your face, Master, your face!" The Royal Torturer slapped his thigh in glee. He was a man whom dearly loved a joke above all things, well accustomed at taking full advantage of a captive audience.
"Be calm, Master, be calm. Did we need a bulldog for an honest fight you would be our choice, but the Chief Warlock has found us something much better for our needs. A cunning serpent able to fly as well as that dragon, a serpent of fascinating wickedness and as full of venom as a nest of lawyer spiders. A serpent well versed in all kinds of magic and courtly behavior, a speaker of many tongues and a convincing liar in all of them. Best of all, a serpent whom both enchants and terrifies every man she meets."
"She ... " The Master-At-Arms stared at Sir Tarquin. "A witch? You are sending a witch with Shitbucket? Which witch -- I mean what witch?"
"Look at my finger, Master."
The Torturer traced the outline of three letters on the desk in front of him. The Master-At-Arms blinked, blinked again, and then smiled a little. So did Sir Tarquin. Both of them looked at each other and smiled even more widely.
"So, Master, have we not found you a better ball-breaker than anything I could provide in my chamber?"
The Master-At-Arms laughed aloud, clapping his hands together as though applauding a play or an execution: "The bitch-witch! The bitch-witch herself!"
Sir Tarquin stood up again, his belly heaving at the same joke as he watched the innocent victims below, all unaware of what evil was speeding towards them.
"But what could bring her to this small place, my lord? What does a lady of her powers care about our dragon?"
"The lady has the King's sworn promise. Bring back the eggs which will create an army of warrior dragons for him and she will be rewarded, even unto half of the Empire once he has seized it. But if ever that should come to pass, Master, be assured I'll make sure that I'm living in the other half."
Had Hal been able to overhear this conversation he would have been frightened witless. One part of it though would have given him a warm glow of satisfaction. For, if a member of the High Council should talk so lightly of his selling the dragon, it meant that none of the great men of the kingdom knew about the most profound of her mysteries, one of infinite more value than flying or flame throwing. A mystery he had been taking advantage of under any watching eyes from the castle walls in his pretence of playfully tickling the dragoness. What he had actually been doing was soaking a piece of rag near glands underneath her wings where a colorless liquid sometimes seeped out -- a liquid which drove all those who touched it into a flaming desire to couple as madly as a March hare.
Hal had only noticed the liquid appearing in the last few weeks, as the dragoness reached her maidenhood. He supposed that it was intended for male dragons to lick and thus encourage them to mount the female. Certainly he had never suspected such a thing at first. He'd believed the liquid to be sweat, the first sign that the dragon was as other creatures.
Before then, in all the years since he'd first seen it, the dragon had seemed to live on a higher level than other life forms, including men. It never ate, but spread its wings out under the sun whenever it could, as though it drew life from the great fire like a growing flower. Thus, it never dropped dung either, a great relief to Hal. All the beastling seemed to need was a daily drink of water and lots of affection. But now it seemed able to create affection itself, uncontrollable affection in all who were touched of its sweat.
By great fortune the first trickles were of a weaker potency than was to come. But such as they were, the dampness on his fingers had driven Hal into a corner of the dragon hut with his breeches around his ankles and continually jerking at his lance, a lance which refused to droop in tiredness after the first, second, third, and even fourth eruption. It had felt as if the fires of hell itself were burning in his loins and would never be damped down.
The boy had almost killed himself before collapsing onto the straw and suffered so much soreness that every movement for days afterwards had been torment. He had quickly learned from his experience though, and took great care now never to touch the liquid directly and to mix it with plenty of water before use. A power intended for dragons was far too strong for humans without it being much weakened first. But what wonders even a trace of dragon sweat produced!
Carefully holding the rag by a still dry corner he led the beast back into the hut which housed it. Blotches of yellow appeared on the dragon's neck from its head to its front legs like daisies appearing after rain. Hal quickly answered the unspoken question.
"Be content, Josephine, I see all the colors of your coat. We shall fly this morning. But first I must prepare."
As soon as the dragon was inside Hal pulled the doors shut and put a bar across them. The thousands of cracks in the planked roof and walls let in enough light for the shed's interior to be as dusky as early twilight, a million straw motes floating through the intruding rays and then disappearing from sight in the dimmer areas. The dragon ambled over to the largest pile of straw at the far end of the hut and sniffed at it. Girlish laughter and cries of mock fear came from the depths of the straw.
"Come away, my lady," Hal said severely. "There are terrible creatures hidden in there, and I fear for your safety."
More giggles, and a mass of blonde curly hair popped up out of the straw: "It's true, you do speak your dragon as though it were your heart's love. Chelinde told me it was so but I didn't believe her, so I came to hear myself."
"A good day between you and evil, Caelia," Hal said, little bothered by the girl's banter. "And is it that long tongued sister of yours who is hiding with you?"
Another head came out of the straw, more tangled fair hair filled with stalks and two faces both of a kind, round and rosy, with bright blue eyes full of mischief. "Why here I am indeed, mighty dragon master, and have been since we crept in before the first light shone."
"And what of your father? How would our Master-At-Arms deal with me if he knew you two were here in Josephine's pound?"
"He'll never know," Caelia answered lightly, brushing the problem of her parent aside, and none of the three with the slightest foreboding of the dangers closing in on them. "And anyway, I wanted to see the dragon."
"See it, girl? And haven't you seen it every day for years past, just as all hereabouts have done?"
"I haven't seen it the way Chelinde has."
Hal himself blushed furiously and unable to stop from casting a guilty look at Chelinde's face: "And what way would you be talking about, Caelia?"
The straw pile parted and Caelia emerged from it, pale skinned and much freckled, hot eyed, wide mouthed, a cupid's bow on the upper lip which was made for laughing and kissing. Her pleasing shape was akin that of her elder sister, short in body and leg, but as well curved as any piece of fruit sinful Adam ever plucked and as fully endowed in the bust and bottom as Eve herself must have been. The forest green gown she was wearing was much worn and overdue to be passed down to another sister, for the buttons on the bodice were all but popping off, and as her fingers stroked it, removing wisps of straw, she knew full well what effect she was having on Hal.
"Why, I haven't been for a flight with your dragon as Chelinde has."
Hal was speechless, not knowing how much Caelia had learnt and whether she could be trusted to keep quiet. Bad enough she knew as much as she did already, after he'd sworn Chelinde to silence by all the Gods in the mountains.
The straw broke apart again like the pool of Venus and Chelinde rose out of it to stand beside her sister. Two buttons on her bodice were already undone and Hal remembered -- as he would remember all his mortal days -- what was still concealed below them, and how Chelinde had squealed with excitement as he'd taken her full womanhood in his hands. Now she was back again, her sister with her to boot, and the pair of them looking like bear cubs that had found the beehive.
"No need for hard words, Hal. Wouldn't you like to take the both of us for a flight? Didn't you say yourself I could bring another girl next time if I wished?"
True it was indeed he'd said some such thing -- or rather, his balls had said it through his mouth when they possessed him body and soul.
Had Chelinde not the slightest suspicion of how she'd been tricked into washing with water tainted with dragon sweat? But why would she think of such a thing when only Hal himself knew of the sweat? No, she could know nothing of the magical power at his command and must still believe her seduction had been fully consummated by a desire as uncontrollable as Hal's own. But to bring her own sister to another meeting! Had it truly been Chelinde's idea or that little minx of a sister? And another of the Master-At-Arm's daughters! Lunacy!
Yet when Hal looked at both pairs of bright eyes, both pairs of red lips, and at the taut female flesh underneath those gowns he knew the argument was lost before it was even debated. If Josephine could lift the three of them into the air he cared not whether Caelia and Chelinde were the Master-At-Arm's kin or the devil's. He could no more resist them than refrain from breathing.
"You ... you have the price of your flights with you?"
"Here," Chelinde said and held out a small white muslin bag. "I took them from a batch that our mother has just finished drying."
Hal moved forward, took the bag from her fingers, opened it and carefully spilt the treasure inside into his hand. Three pieces of treasure in truth, three small squares of ash speckled potash mixed with fats and essence of herbs. Three pieces of soap! Hal held one of the squares to his nose and breathed in the smell from it as if he was standing by the rose gardens of Paradise. The great head of the dragon loomed over his shoulder, Josephine sniffing at Hal's hand in her curiosity. Both girls cowered back as if they feared being bitten
"Ah, you need none of this, my lady. You are not condemned to do my filthy work. But heed me now."
Hal carefully pointed to himself, then to Chelinde and Caelia, held an hand on each side of his head, and flicked two fingers on each one up and down. Then he made a hooked question sign with one finger: "Can you carry the three of us aloft, Josephine?"
Outbreaks of pink blossomed along the dragon's belly, running into each other like spilt paint. Like her namesake, her coat was always of many colors. Hal cocked his head in some surprise at the boldness of the display.
"So sure, hey? I hope you may not be coming it the phoenix. But on your wings be it. Please to step this way then and oblige."
Hal pointed to the large drinking trough and the well pump beside it. He plunged his fingers into the water inside the trough, then quickly pulled them out again and shook his hand to show how cold the water was. Afterwards he tapped his nose and stood back. The dragon waddled forward, dipped her snout into the trough and made a coughing noise. Then she apparently lost interest in the trough and slithered away. The two girls clung to each other as the water in the middle of the trough swelled up in a great boiling and moiling, with jets of steam spurting out of it and waves running along the length of the trough to splash over the ends.
"Tis nothing to fear, sister," Chelinde reassured Caelia. "Only a little dragon spit being used to warm the cold water for us. For Hal says that the dragon cannot abide the smell of mortals close to it unless we are freshly washed."
Hal had indeed told her that. A lie of course, but a most convenient one. As soon as the dragon's spit had been quenched he picked up a stick, plucked the rag from his belt, pushed the rag deep into the trough, then used the stick to swirl the boiling and colder portions of water into a comfortably warm mixture. Only he knew what else was also being spread through the water from the rag. Two buckets Hal then filled from the trough, put a ladle in each and carried the buckets to the dragon's washing place. The dragon had scratched out the earth there and carried in the sacks of sand that Hal had spread, for the boy hated mud almost as much as he hated dung.
In the middle of the sandpit was a waist high pile of straw from which Hal drew handfuls of stalks to rub Josephine down with after her daily bathe. He set the buckets down behind the straw.
"So, do you girls wash yourselves most carefully. You may crouch down as necessary, though I will have no eyes to spare for you as I prepare Josephine for her flight."
Chelinde giggled, and then Caelia too, exchanging knowing looks, and four rosy cheeks looking even redder. Hal handed one the precious pieces of soap to each of them.
"Go to it, girls," Hal urged. And if the dragon sweat worked as well as before, even much diluted, the pair of them would soon enough stop blushing.
From the wall Hal took down a net made of ropes, of the finest quality the castle ropemaker could provide, furnished on the King's direct orders. To try to ride on Josephine's back was impossible, for along her spine were a single row of fins, each half the length of a man's forearm, and each fin tipped with a needle as sharp and as strong as the tip of an Iberian rapier. Any saddle on her would have been ripped to shreds within minutes, and her rider with it.
As soon as she saw the net the dragon crouched down eagerly on her belly, eyeing the door of the dragon pound like a dog waiting to be released from a kennel. Hal laughed and first fetched four sheepskins which he impaled in a row on her fins, each skin pressed well down so the tops of the fins stood proud above them. Then he threw the net over the sheepskins, carefully arranging the ropes to ensure none were twisted and each fin projected through one of the wide mesh holes in the net. The load must be properly spread along Josephine's body and the sheepskins were to protect the net from chafing, not the dragon's hide. Her scales had never been pierced to his knowledge, not even with a pack of pi-dogs snapping and biting at her. They had been like puppies trying to chew through chain mail.
At each corner of the net was a wooden ring, triple sewn into the ropes, the rings hanging level with each wing root, front and back.
Hal fetched a second net and laid it flat on the floor, then spread more sheepskins along the middle of it. "Come, my lady, come."
The dragon rose on her legs, scuttled forward over the second net, then crouched down again. Like the other net, the belly net had rings sewn into each corner and Hal had four lengths of rope over his shoulder, the 'Fria und Odin!' lashings. They were called that because if they came undone those would be the last despairing words he'd have time to shout. As he secured each set of rings together Hal totally ignored the laughter coming from across the straw pile. Only when the nets were safely secure above and below Josephine did he turn and look towards Chelinde and Caelia. And as he did so his lungs seemed suddenly emptied of air.
Chelinde was standing behind the straw pile, visible from the hips up and wearing nothing but her necklace of painted wooden beads. Her expression was one of pure mischief as she rubbed a piece of soap over and around her large tits, showing particular care to the dark plums on the tip of each wet and wobbling mound. Behind her was Caelia, not even wearing as much as a necklace, and grinning at Hal as if he were the castle fool. He stepped towards the straw, mouth agape, hardly knowing what he was doing. Caelia laughed in delight at his obvious stupefaction, then reached around Chelinde and began massaging the trails of soap on her sister's breasts into a lather. The front of Hal's breeches jerked upwards as quickly as a disturbed viper rousing itself. Both of the girls giggled anew at the visible proof of their effect on him.
"Come on, Hal, time for your wash as well," Chelinde called out. "We've water enough left for you."
He stumbled forward, as dazed as a man hit with a club in a tavern brawl. The more he tried to undo his jerkin, the bigger the toggles seemed to get and the smaller the leather loops. But when he was behind the straw pile the girls crowded close to him, each taking on the task of loosening his clothing. And neither of them wearing a stitch.
The smell of the soap on their warm bodies was the finest aroma ever in his life's experience, even better than roasting pork. And when he found four pillows pressed against him, four pillows of white flesh sprinkled with freckles, pillows softer than any on the King's bed, he nearly fainted.
The sisters had no more interest in teasing Hal's weaknesses though, only in exposing his strength. Each of them held onto a sleeve of his jerkin as they removed the dirty garment, and then Caelia pulled his shirt out of his breeches as Chelinde undid the wooden buttons at the neck.
"Ha, you're too tall for us, Hal," she chuckled, her breath caressing the hair at the base of his throat. "Kneel down, dragon master."
He would have jumped into a bonfire if they'd asked if of him -- even into the moat, perhaps. On his knees in the damp sand, he held up his arms again and his shirt was lifted high and over his hands. Directly in front of his face as this happened was Chelinde's loins and the blonde patch of hair set above her sweet cleft. Hal pushed his head forward and his tongue further forward yet, the tip of it not quite reaching its target as Chelinde laughed and retreated half a step, keeping her hands clasped around Hal's raised wrists.
"La, Caelia, this monster is as fearsome as his dragon. He wants to eat me!"
Her sister squealed in mock alarm: "Odin save us! What are we to do?"
"Never fear. I shall sacrifice myself to save you. Hal, lie down and roll over on your back."
He did so, stared up with bulging eyes and saw Chelinde appear over his face, each of her feet almost touching one of his ears, her smooth legs and exquisitely shaped thighs wide apart, right up to the furrow of the delectable man trap between them. She brushed some strands of loose hair away from her knowing eyes, then looked along the length of his body to Caelia.
"Sister, while I hold him down, do you remove his breeches and wash him most thoroughly."
Caelia giggled: "How can you hold down such a beast?"
"Watch and learn."
Chelinde lowered herself, putting a knee where a foot had been before. The entrance to the promised land filled Hal's gaze, and then nuzzled against his lips. He snorted in delight and tongued away her hot flesh like a cat at spilt milk. The fat bulges of Chelinde's rump quivered in response, pressing the join between them down onto his nose, until he was compelled to put a hand under each buttock to help support her weight.
It was something like death Hal decided, in some far corner of his mind which still had a measure of calm. The last rites of pre-burial washing and cleaning being performed on the body he could no longer see but still feel. Half suffocated, blood pounding in his ears, and above him the moans and lamentations of a grieving female. Well, moans anyway, and warm water splashing over him, and a feeling beyond compare of four busy little hands rubbing soap all over his grimy skin.
They went everywhere they could reach: chest, stomach, legs, feet, Caelia washing his soles as Chelinde bounced up and down on his face, scratching at his flanks with her finger nails. Until all that was left uncleaned was his jutting cock and tight drawn balls. Then the ladle was emptied over his parts, soap swiftly applied by twenty vigorously active fingers and thumbs, all of them seemingly rubbing his foreskin simultaneously and Hal was writhing as if he was on hot coals as Chelinde rode on the tip of his tongue. She let out a great cry, and another, and another, and then a fearful scream. Suddenly the girl off his face, sprawled on the sand, knocked there by a push of the dragon's head, and Josephine's eyes were staring into Hal's, seeking assurance that nothing was amiss. A string of filthy curses came from Chelinde's mouth in her anger at being interrupted during her moments of satisfaction.
"Damn your eyes, be quiet, girl. You'll upset Josephine. Patience for only a few minutes more, my lady, and we'll fly."
"Damn you and damn your vile dragon," snapped Chelinde in a spat of temper. "Get down on your hands and knees, Hal, and seek my forgiveness."
Hal knew better than to argue with any girl gripped with the sort of passion that Chelinde was in right then. He did as she bade him and was instantly gripped with passion himself as she knelt behind him, put a hand between his legs and rubbed his cock as if he were a stallion being put to a mare.
"Wash his back, Caelia."
"Wash his back yourself. I want to hold him by the tupper -- 'tis my turn."
Chelinde laughed: "So be it, sister. Here, get down by his side and take whatever you may seize on."
Caelia crouched down, put her hand underneath Hal and caught hold of his shaft. She stayed there, holding him like a groom holding a waiting horse as Chelinde poured more water over Hal and rubbed soap over his back and legs. The effect of the dragon sweat was passing into his own body now, and every time the younger sister moved her tightened fist up and down his cock he scratched out holes in the wet sand and wailed. Caelia was delighted with the power she had found in the palm of her strong little hand.
"Ah, Hal, you men may be masters most of the time, but not always, hey?"
Again, in that faraway corner of his mind, Hal wondered at being called a man. Surely he was still only a boy in age, even if he had a man's lusts? But whatever he was, this was no time to think about it.
"Let me go, Caelia. 'Tis time we flew."
"Rinse him off, Chelinde."
The older girl emptied the two buckets over Hal's back. He shook the water from his hair like a dog emerging from a stream, then staggered to his feet.
"Bring your clothes."
He grabbed up his own, ran to the side of the dragon, pulled out the side of the bottom net and dropped his filthy rags into it. Then he took Chelinde's clothes from her hand and did the same with them, followed by Caelia's.
"Chelinde, show Caelia how to get into the net."
The naked girl moved against the dragon's side, in front of the left wing root. She reached up and seized handholds in the top net, put her feet into mesh holes on the bottom net and scrambled upwards with the nimbleness of a squirrel climbing a tree. As soon as her feet were at the upper edge of the lower net Hal bit her lightly on each side of her rump. Chelinde stopped moving and hung giggling as Hal pulled out all the slack in the net and guided her feet into the narrow gap. His hands reached up, underneath her arms and helped her to slip down between the belly net and Josephine's smooth scaled side. Once inside the net she lay on her back on top of the row of sheepskins, her face and teats scarcely half an arrow's length below the belly of the beast.
"Caelia, do you still want to fly?
The pink and swaying girl almost elbowed him aside in her eagerness to follow her sister into the net. Only this time, after Hal had nipped at her buttocks like a playful dog, he left her in place as he put his hand up between her legs and rubbed his top finger along the outer lips of her maidenhood. Caelia's knuckles went white as she wriggled around with the feverish energy of a landed fish.
"Hal! Hal!" she cried out.
A hand came out of one of the net holes. It squeezed Hal's rod, then rubbed it.
"What are you doing with my vexing sister, Hal?"
"Why, nothing but returning her a favor and showing that master-is-as-master-does. Down you come, Caelia."
In a few seconds the belly net was full of girls. Full enough for Hal's modest wants anyway, as overwhelming as they were. He rushed towards the door, Josephine following behind on tipclaw, with squeals coming from beneath her as the slung net bumped on the ground a time or two. Hal removed the bar from the doors, pushed one open a head's width and then looked out and about.
There was no one else in sight. Only the glint of a polished helmet on top of the Keep where a sentry stood guard. Hal partially opened the doors, but not much, being careful to keep his nakedness from view. Josephine needed little enough room to slip through anyway, she was as lithe as a stoat. When he returned to her side flickers of purple along it showed her eagerness to lift off.
With the skill of practice he hauled himself up, wriggled his toes and then his feet into the belly net and let himself down handhold by handhold. But as his waist slipped past the top of the net a warm palm moved up the inside of his left leg and then held his cock. Something damp and warm slithered around his cock's helm as if it were testing the taste of it. Probably it tasted of soap, but whether or not, the flavor must have been deemed acceptable, for a mouth followed the tongue. A mouth that spread itself around the helm and lower yet, sucking at him fiercely. Hal gasped and clenched at the top net. Somebody was paying him back in his own coin, and he had little doubt who it was. He could see a string of muscles behind Josephine's left front leg tighten as the dragon trembled with eagerness to fly. Trying to tell her to wait further was like ordering a dog to sit still as a coney ran past.
"Let go, you silly bitch!"
Josephine took a step, a leap, a bound, a girl's voice squealed, his cock was unmouthed and unhanded, he slipped into the net, down and sideways, on top of warm and trembling bodies which hung onto him as if they were possessed, the net flexed upwards as Josephine cleared the hut and leapt into the air, his head hit the dragon's belly, a curly haired head bounced against his chest in turn, a soft belly rising up to slam against his cock and balls, a groan was forced out of his mouth by pain, the great wings lashed at the air.
Then, as suddenly as the dragon had first lunged forward, the net steadied and swung as gently as a hammock slung between two oak trees. A breeze blew in along the dragon's belly like water flowing down a river bed, the great wings appearing and disappearing on either side in upward and downward beats. As they swung down into view with the regularity of sails turning on a windmill harder gusts of wind simultaneously slapped into the net from either side, the wind waves clapping together as though applauding Josephine's efforts.
Staring down, Hal could see that the beastling's boasts about being able to lift the weight of all three passengers seemed well founded. Already the ground was as far underneath him as it would be if he was standing on the castle ramparts. Both of the girls were squealing in fear and delight and Hal cursed them as the dragon passed over the town huts: men, women and children alike stopping and lifting their faces upwards like frogs surprised in a well.
"Be quiet, you silly bitches, they can hear you down there," he snarled, trying to quiet his passengers as quietly as he could himself but probably still too loudly.
Hal knew well enough how easy it was to hear even the smallest sounds from the ground when flying low above it, and also, he supposed, that the opposite was true. The only small mercy was that Josephine was still beating her wings, so perhaps the voices had been muffled by their drum roll. At least none of the staring eyes below could pierce the bottom covering of sheepskins which he and the girls were lying on.
But worse was to come as Josephine's wings stiffened and she began turning in a tight circle as if chasing her own tail, one wing tip high up, the other held low, akin to a man stooping sideways with a yoke across his shoulders to hook on a bucket. As Hal stared along the underside of the lowered wing the thatched roofs it pointed at seemed to turn in circles as though they were on a giant potter's wheel.
From some of them the smoke of cooking fires was still rising from holes in the roofs, roofs still so close below he could not only see the smoke but taste it in his mouth as well. Then the dragon's shadow was moving away from the huts as Josephine kept dancing widdershins in the air, slowly getting higher, and moving just as slowly across the ground as she followed the air currents -- back towards the castle.
There was nothing Hal could do about that. A dragon could not be ridden like a horse, nor yet guided like one. To even try to tell the beastling how to lift herself into the sky would be like a blind rider trying to follow a path by pulling on his mount's reins. Josephine alone decided when to circle and when to fly straight -- and only when she was high and flying straight could he seek to alter her destination by tapping on her belly on the side he wished her to favor. Down here amongst the sparrows she had no interest at all in his desires, she flew entirely according to her own mind. And whatever it was that was going on in the dragon's mind, at least he she wasn't being distracted as much as he was, because Chelinde and Caelia had already become used enough to flying for the dragon sweat to regain its power over them.
One of the girls still partway underneath him had wriggled her way down to his loins and was forcing him to lift himself up by nipping at his sides with her sharp nails. Her tongue had started licking around his balls as her sister had begun licking Hal's feet.
Again that distant part of his mind which was still unaffected by the dragon's sweat and by Chelinde and Caelia's enticements warned Hal to stay low lest the girls were seen by the sentry atop the Keep. It was sensible advice and as capable of holding back his dragon sweat raised lusts as a toddler was of penning a mad bull. He rolled over onto his back and Caelia was dragging herself on top of him in an instant.
Her mouth was against his, her tongue into his throat like an hedge hog sucking out an egg, the pressure of her body forcing him deeper into the sheepskins as she more than filled the gap between him and Josephine. Odin, keep those lashings secure! Caelia's tits were so squashed between his body and hers that he could feel their softness spilling out onto his arms, yet even so she writhed against him as if she was a mating snake, his straining cock rubbing uselessly against the girl's cleft. And then a hand took hold of it and did his work for him -- Chelinde was guiding him into her sister's cunt.
Hal took his mouth from Caelia's, gasped, and felt himself slide all the way inside her, every tiny muscle clamped around his cock holding him tightly and rubbing against his flesh as though it was plunged into a sack of baby eels. The boy shouted out his delight as Caelia squealed and jerked herself against him even more frantically. One of the sheepskins was pulled aside and Hal saw they were a little higher than the Keep but hardly more than a short arrow shot from it and the sentry.
He was a tall, thin man with his hand shielding his eyes and the pinhead speck of reason still left in Hal's head cursed as it recognized the figure and stance of Will Spearshaker, a long limbed, long sighted and long tongued fellow who delighted in spreading gossip around the town. He was a particular nuisance because the less facts there were for his stories, the more imaginative he became in devising them. Thank the Gods nobody had ever taught him to write or he would have been dangerous.
But all this trivia went out of Hal's thoughts as Caelia's cunt caressed him even more tightly than Chelinde's ever had. Then all his thoughts turned into fading vapor when Chelinde's fingernails scratched underneath his balls and as Caelia screamed triumphantly, knowing she was no longer a girl. The sweat from her face was falling on his, her eyes were wide open, perhaps seeing him, perhaps not, and her hands were clenched into the netting above his shoulders as she slapped her belly against his. Then he knew his seed was spurting and he clutched Caelia's shoulders as his loosed himself into her like an overdrawn long bow. Another scream and her mouth was by the side of his throat, biting into him as every muscle in her body went as rigid as Josephine's wings. Eventually she gave out one last cry, sprawling on top of him as if she was a doe exhausted unto death by hunting dogs.
The net swayed and groaned itself in the lashings as Josephine's wings leveled and she flew towards the mountains. The advantage in height she had gained was being quickly whittled down as the rising ground came closer. Hal eyed the mass of approaching treetops with fear but also with great pleasure. Pleasure, of course, from what had happened between Caelia and himself, and how she had been dealt with so satisfactorily, but perhaps even more purely distilled pleasure from simply being alive, in breathing the pure, pine scented air and seeing the world in a way no other mortal could. Happiness seemed to be springing from the depths of his soul as naturally as the streams he could see below were trickling down the hill sides. Then Josephine's left wing dipped and she was turning and rising once more, at the same moment as Chelinde began licking the bottom of his feet again.
Surely, he thought, surely nothing could spoil an experience like this?
Unfortunately for Hal, the answer was yes, something could spoil his flight, his day, and his life and it was coming towards him from over those blue-misted mountain peaks which made a perfect backdrop to the summer's day scenery of Giant's Pass.
A golden eagle circling amidst the highest of the peaks was the first to see the interloper. As black as a raven's wing, flying as fast as a diving hawk, zig zagging between barren rock outcrops as if for the pleasure of the twists and turns, now rapidly growing in size until it could be seen to be as big as the eagle itself. The king of birds was also emperor of the mountains, a fierce eyed defender of its territory from anything which flew, even if it was something unlike anything in the eagle's previous experience. The giant bird prepared to stoop down in challenge. Prepared, then hesitated. Unlike a great many other monarchs it had very sharp eyes and a well developed sense of preservation. And there were things about this strange black creature which suggested that it was much better left alone.
The eagle had no words to shape its feelings exactly. But had it possessed them, 'evil' and 'dangerous' would have been the ones which would have been uppermost in describing them. Strongly coupled with another feeling that things which managed to fly without wings were an abomination to nature.
So the majestic bird decided on an alternative course of action. It looked away from the black thing and decided not to look back until there was every chance that it had flown past and disappeared. It even ignored the distant whine of the passing broomstick. Which in some ways it was a pity, for it was masterpiece of its kind.
To operate a witch's broomstick requires many years of training in both symbolic magic and in a deep understanding and continuous mental control of extremely complicated algorithms designed to keep reality at bay. There is no way in which any outsiders can learn such algorithms unless they become practicing witches or politicians.
The broomstick itself must remain in some way reminiscent of its origins, but can be much modified to suit the owner's personality. This one had the pillion seat sized bundle of twigs but a broom handle much cut down in length. A special edition H-D (Hag-Driven) chopper with customized high rise crossbar handles carved from a hangman's gibbet.
This brush was being flown solo, but carried a bed roll and two massive leather saddlebags with brass studs marking out the owner's initials: 'MlF'. The very same letters which Sir Tristan had indicated so discreetly to the Master-At-Arms. It would not be true to say that the witch's name was well known to her friends, for she had none. But her many enemies knew all about Morgana le Fay. And perhaps the greatest reason for her multitude of ill-wishers was evident in the words marked out with more brass studs on the back of her leather jacket: "COVEN CHEATERS".
It was Morgana's dykie gang which had led a revolt against the established order of witch precedence in their own coven. A revolt which had attracted many supporters: promotion is slow in an organization where senior members live many hundreds of years. But in the final battle tradition and numbers had won and most of Morgana's faction were now settling down to even more discontented lifestyles as bats and mice. Morgana alone had fought clear and was realist enough to know that a lot of melted snow would have to flow down these mountains before she could begin another campaign in the witch wars. In the meantime she would amuse herself by making life as miserable as possible for as many mortals as possible, especially the male ones.
The body she had handcrafted for the purpose was ideally suited to its task, designed to attract the absolute best of that breed to her like hounds smelling blood. After all, there was no longer any point in bothering with female lovers if she was going into a world run by men. But Morgana was far too clever simply to make herself look beautiful. Beautiful she was indeed, but that was only a part of the presentation, for everything about her newly minted body was a walking challenge to the male ego. And never had she encountered male egos as inflated as those dressed in armor, wielding swords and calling themselves knights.
These were men who had never known anything but submissive damsels dressed in hampering gowns, silly hats and wimples. Women brought up from birth to believe themselves as something rather less important to men than horses or hounds. Women who knew -- knew absolutely -- they existed only to serve, whether God as nuns, or their men as child carriers and domestic slaves. This was the state of the world, and at the first sight of Morgana the men who ruled it were dumbfounded. The largest of them stood lower than the top of her vivid red hair, none of their shoulders were as wide as hers, and the sight of her tightly cut leather jacket and breeches dropped every jaw. Firstly, that any woman would dare to dress in such style and, secondly, because she had created for herself a figure which could lure a saint down from out of a stained glass window.
Every one of those proud knights was scandalized and outraged at Morgana's dress, her presence, her style, her insolent manner of speech and -- above all -- because of her powers. Easy enough to accuse an harmless old woman of being a witch and pass a pleasant afternoon dunking her in a cesspit or rolling her through the streets in a spike lined barrel. But a real witch, a witch who could knock down a war horse with one punch, or tie a man's entrails into knots without even touching him, well, that was a curse of a different color. So the knights muttered in anger and, deprived of the use of their swords, turned to the only other weapons they could think of to conquer an overly proud woman who challenged all their beliefs.
It was a game which Morgana delighted in playing. Any man who was good looking enough was welcome to share her bed and if he satisfied her, he was allowed to walk -- or stagger -- away from the tournament. There were few such winners though, and nailed along her broomstick handle were a growing collection of small shriveled objects which had once been the most treasured possessions of fiercely proud knights who had jousted with her: jousted, but not satisfied, and had forfeited their manhoods as the price of disappointing Morgana le Fay. Not for nothing had Morgana carefully studied the standard treatise on witch-mortal relationships, "The Male Eunuch And How To Make Him One."
Over the mountains but very far from over the hill, Morgana dipped the nose of her customised broom and gathered speed in the direction of Giant's Pass Castle. She knew a lot about many things. What she didn't know were how the fates were chuckling at the rendezvous they'd appointed for her.
Nor were the fates alone in chuckling. Hal was as near to heaven as he ever expected to be whilst still breathing, as far above his normal stinking life as a privy emptier as the King was above him. The King! Hal wouldn't have changed places with the Emperor. The trees which had seemed so close had shrunk to the size of porcupine quills, the rushing mountain streams to silvery snail tracks. The entire length of Giant's Pass was his to look at in a single leisurely glance from over Chelinde's right shoulder as he thrust his cock into her with equal leisure.
With one sister already shagged he was now calm and relaxed enough to spin out the task of giving the other long, steady strokes that had Chelinde sobbing in gratitude. Not that Hal wasn't grateful in his turn to Caelia for the way she was busily licking his balls as he fucked her sister. It was exactly the kind of family support which helped families grow.
Hal changed his position slightly, grunting as he found a new angle at which to plunge into Chelinde's welcoming loins. Now he was looking over her left shoulder and could see the dragon's midday shadow almost directly below, skimming over cultivated fields as Josephine glided along the line of the valley. A minute more and she would be directly over the castle. A vision came into Hal's mind's eye, a vision in glorious detail, a vision of that bastard of a Master-At-Arms shouting and bullying everybody in sight, and totally unaware that two of his daughters were being fucked directly above his head by one of the Shitbucket clan!
So inspired was Hal by the thought that he suddenly found himself on the short strokes, the net flexing like a rope bridge underneath a galloping horse and heaving Chelinde back up against him until his own back was thumping against Josephine's scales. Like a village dance fiddler Caelia instantly changed her own timing to meet Hal's new pace, licking him feverishly and her fingers scratching at his rump.
"Pull out and put down!"
The movement in the net instantly stopped, except for the momentum left in the net. Three heads flicked over in gaping disbelief. Hal's brain simply refused to accept what he was seeing, a tall man in tight fitting leather clothes with long black hair streaming back from underneath a silvery helmet decorated with wings. Then Hal saw the arched eyebrows, the glittering eyes, the perfection of nose and mouth and knew he was looking at a woman -- he knew it even before his eyes were seeing the massive curves of her breasts. A woman on what was a broom, as strange a broom as could be imagined but a broom, flying along as though it had every right to be in the sky with all the creatures which Odin had given a home there. A witch! A real witch, a witch beautiful beyond words and so close to him he could see the very dimple in her chin.
She appeared angry, her eyes apparently aimed directly at Hal. One of her hands jerked down towards the ground, as though indicating that she wanted Josephine to land. She also seemed to be having trouble flying one handed, wobbling from side to side, the handle of the brush gradually lifting higher as though it was uncomfortable at the dragon's slower pace. Hal had another sudden vision, of an accidental collision between Josephine and the witch. The dragon's wing might be damaged, or the net torn. He suddenly realized he was more terrified of the death drop below than of anything else, even a flying sorceress.
"Fuck off, you stupid witch!"
It was from there that things went very wrong very quickly. The witch aimed her hand at Hal with fingers extended. A flicker of light showed around them like a glimpse of summer lightning and Hal was writhing in agony, as if a thousand red hot needles were jabbing all over his body. And as he screamed he heard the girls screaming too. And Hal also heard Josephine bellow in pain.
Witches travel a lot on broomsticks but rarely use them as fighting platforms. Which is understandable. Just persuading a broomstick to fly from A to B with U on it is hard work enough, without trying to make the task more difficult by encouraging other broom jockeys to knock you off what is a pretty precarious perch to begin with. And so it had been aeons since most witches had encountered anything else in the sky which was a threat to them, the occasional bird strike excepted.
Had she known more about dragons, Morgana would not have been surprised by the way the dragon tilted its wings and instantly applied them as airbrakes. She would have known how maneuverable a dragon's light wing loading made it. Most of all she would have known that the last thing you do with an angry dragon is to get in front of it while still travelling in the same direction. Because that offers the dragon a simple nil deflection aiming solution right up your twigs.
Hal felt Josephine's cough through the beastling's belly muscles. Just the one but it was more than enough. The spitball exploded directly on the back of the broomstick in a giant yellow unfolding petal surrounded by a ring of black smoke which instantly blew away. Fragments came flying back through the air towards Josephine, a burning unrolling bedroll, a saddlebag shedding a myriad of colored lights and smells as the lotions, potions and spells inside flared up. Then a coal dark figure with outstretched limbs whirling head over tail -- literally, head over tail. The giant tom cat slammed into the front of the net and hung there, claws fully extended, spitting with anger and green eyes blazing.
The broomstick itself was spiraling down leaving a thin trail of black smoke behind it. Defeating reality and gravity with constantly replicated mental algorithms is never easy, even for the most strong-willed of witches. It's especially difficult to concentrate your mental powers while sitting on a bundle of burning twigs. Which was probably why the witch was dropping much faster than was safe and apparently heading straight for the castle walls.
So indeed was Josephine, her wings furled as she came swooping down after her prey. Her entire body had turned a vivid shade of red, a color Hal had only seen her display once before, when the pi-dogs had attacked her. It meant that Josephine was spitting mad, and a spitting mad dragon is bad news.
In this case bad news could be described for her opponent as ending up with a choice between a high speed impact with several thousand tons of stone wall or bailing out into an open sewer. Even a witch has to make difficult decisions sometimes. But no one who witnessed the scene had anything but total admiration for Morgana's timing: her cat couldn't have fallen more neatly. She dropped off the broomstick while she was still twenty paces or so away from the outer edge of the moat, calculating exactly how far she would be flung by her forward speed. The stick hit the wall and splintered at exactly the same time as there was a disturbance on the moat's surface. It couldn't be described as a splash, not in that substance: more like a heavy stone being dropped into a cow pat.
"Oh, Odin!" Hal wailed in despair as a brown covered head and shoulders emerged from the hideous depths of the moat. A witch, a powerful witch, a bad powerful witch, a bad powerful witch who was up to her neck in shit because of him. Things couldn't get any worse.
There was movement on the lowered drawbridge. It seemed like every soldier in the castle was streaming out along it, all carrying crossbows, the Master-At-Arms leading them. And beside him was the gangling figure of Will Spearshaker, an accusing arm pointing skywards at Josephine. An indication followed by the soldiers aiming their crossbows at her as the Master-At-Arms shook his fist in rage. Oh, Gods, now things couldn't get worse.
Josephine's wings began beating the air as she hovered low over the moat, apparently savoring her moment of victory over the bitch witch in the ditch. Hal rolled onto his back and thumped his fists against her belly.
"Fly, my lady, fly. Leave this accursed place and we'll never return."
Both of the girls began wailing in despair at the idea of being taken away from their home; if they thought they could find any mercy from their father by staying they had much higher hopes than Hal had. The cat seemed to be deeply unhappy as well, going berserk in its efforts to reach in far enough through the net to rip open the boy's face.
"Fly, Josephine, fly!"
The witch raised her hand and again there was a flicker of lightning that was somehow there and not there at the same time. The supernatural disturbance ran around the left front net rings and they had gone as if transformed into smoke rings. Hal actually saw the lashings fall clear, still tied and untouched, before the corner of the net fell open. Even as he tried to accept what had happened the right front rings vanished as well, the front of the belly net falling down as if to pitch them all into empty air.
Chelinde and Caelia screamed in fright, twisting around exactly as Hal was doing and clutching at the sagging net with hooked fingers. Hal screamed too, not only for fear but because the cat was still hanging on the opposite side of the net and now at last it had him within claw reach. The first slash took a deep bloody furrow out of the top of his leg, barely missing his balls. Hal was as terrified as he could be, and more angry than he'd ever dreamed possible. He drew back his fist and drove it with every shred of strength in his body onto the tip of the cat's nose. There was a scream which was louder than Chelinde and Caelia combined and the cat was falling, turning, spreading its legs, slapping down into the weed speckled crust of the moat, disappearing from view, except for a hand's breath of black tail sticking straight up into the air. But the screams continued.
It was the witch, her hands clasped to her face and apparently in agony. Hal had no time to worry about her. Josephine was landing, letting the net fall slowly to the ground. Hal hit the grass first, crawled out from under the net, looked up and saw the Master-At-Arms staring at his daughter's bare bodies hanging from the net before they tumbled into the grass as well.
"Kill the little cunt!"
Only the front rank of the soldiers could aim at Hal because he was down so low, and they were hampered by having the Master-At-Arms and Will Spearshaker in front of them. Josephine coughed and spat, the Master-At-Arms burst into flames like a wax doll dropped into a fire and Will Spearshaker was running for the moat with his breeches burnt off and his chain mail glowing red. When he jumped into the mire a cloud of evil smelling steam shot up around his head. The other soldiers gaped at him, then at the calcinated remains of the Master-At-Arms and finally -- and reluctantly -- at the dragon again. There was an unmistakable air about them of warriors for the working day definitely deciding that it was quitting time.
Hal seized his chance: "Drop those crossbows, you bastards, or I'll flame mail the lot of you!"