Part 2 of The Dragon’s Ghost, by Lucy D. Ford
It was if Alysona walked in a dream. The moor was quiet, without an insect’s buzz or the stealthy rustle of hares in the brush. The sky, too, was empty of birds. Only her footfalls and an occasional mew broke the silence.
It was hard going for Alysona’s stumpy legs. There was no path, but she knew the way. She came here several times during the year, to gather horehound for cough syrup and madder roots for dye. Perhaps that was how she had come under the Palloes’s eye.
She shook her head. “Too late to worry over that.”
A wart grew on the horizon, green with grass but capped by a dark sheen of stone. Venge Hill. She headed toward it, defying gusts of wind that whistled in the gorse bushings. Perhaps an hour passed before she put the hamper down and sat on it. Her rest was fraught with worry and dark questions.
Were her visitors truly the notorious Palloes, tyrants from local legend, or were they ghosts of some sort? No one had seen the Palloes in ages. And what did they want with a dragon’s bone? Nothing good, Alysona was sure. Only, perhaps, if the dragon’s power kept them in check, they hoped his bone would set them free. She picked up the hamper and struggled on.
Details of the tumbledown keep were clearer. There was the high watch tower, and a great black maw where Cazarluun had torn through into the ancient mine. Despite the hard walk and her warm shawl, Alysona shivered. She had never liked been this close to Venge Hill.
White stones ringed the broken mount, like stitches at the edge of a rough green quilt. Low blocks were spaced between slim and straight ones, a double row weaving like the coils of a monstrous serpent. Soon she was close enough to spot heaps of other stones, slouched like shoulders or hips. The largest of these had great gaping windows.
Eye sockets of the dragon’s skull, if the legends were true. Alysona had always taken them for simple stones, their purpose lost to memory. Now that she was nearer, she could see the curves and planes. They were, in truth, a dragon’s bones.
Despair washed over her. “How can a teeny woman such as myself carry those great things?” Daisy huddled under a gorse nearby. Alysona answered for herself. “I’ll have to find a smaller bit.”
Ribs and vertebrae passed in a slow march. Surely there were little bones in the tail, or perhaps a toe. She did find a foot, skinny and clawed like a cock’s, but even the least back talon was as long as her arm.
Alysona leaned against a gigantic shoulder blade and gazed down the endless row of ribs. If only she could go home, forget all this! But Euryx had planned too well. She could never live with herself if she didn’t save Brynn. Daisy came to rub her ankles, encouraging her.
“I can’t believe you came this far,” Alysona said. The cat cast an anxious eye up at her. “If you can do it, so can I.”
Eventually she came to a bundle of long, skinny bones, some of them well sunk into the earth.
“The dragon’s wing,” Alysona guessed.
Following one of the stretchers out, she spied a smaller spur at the end of it. A wingtip claw. It was only the length of her hand, quite a tiny bone relative to the rest of the skeleton.
The claw was cool and smooth, not spongy like other bones. It seemed untouched by the decades since the dragon entered its final rest. She pulled, but the wingtip clung stubbornly to the bone.
“Forgive me, Cazarluun,” Alyzona murmured. “This is what I have to do.”
She set both hands, twisted and tugged, and finally wrestled the claw free. It was heavier than it seemed. She bundled it into the hamper, adjusted her shawl, and set off back the way she had come. Daisy trotted ahead, ears working nervously.
A chill breeze stirred the brush. It sounded like a harsh whisper all around her.
“Give me my bone.”
No one was there. Alysona would have seen them. Still, she hunched her shoulders up to her ears and walked faster.
Movement caught in the corner of her eye. White mist or steam wafted from the rib bones as she passed. Daisy was growling again. Something brushed Alysona’s face, like cobwebs in the dark, and there was a faint odor of char.
She swallowed a a sour taste in her mouth and hurried straight up the hill. Her stunted legs made it a tough climb, while her shoulders burned with the hamper’s weight. More stones were scattered all the way up slope. These were not white but dark, blackened by ancient fire.
Wind pushed from behind, a louder hiss in her ears. “Give me my bone.”
It was definitely a voice, low and dangerous. Alysona risked a look over her shoulder. White vapors clotted together at the base of the slope. The ghostly shape had a long neck edged with saw-toothed spikes, mighty wings, deadly talons. The great head had horrid, hollow eyes.
A ghost — the ghost of Dragon Cazarluun!
She charged up the steep hill, though her short legs were stiff as wood and her heart pounded in her throat. Slabs of masonry blocked her way. She scrambled around them, stumbled, kept on.
“Give me my bone!”
“I can’t,” Alysona panted. The hamper dragged, its weight slowing her.
Other voices echoed soft and sinister from up ahead. “Well done, Alysona.”
“Your dear Brynn is waiting.”
The Palloes — this was all their fault! She struggled on, gulping breath, as anger renewed her strength. How could she get rid of them? For she knew, if they got what they wanted, they would keep coming back to her. Brynn would never be safe.
Daisy bounded past, orange fur bristled to twice her usual size. The slope trembled as something awful rushed up behind them.
“Run, Daisy!” Alysona yelled.
“Give me my bone!” roared the dragon’s ghost.
Keeping ahead of the enormous wraith, she dashed through empty archways. Shattered towers were bare to the sky; halves of rooms held weathered furnishings. Then a courtyard where the ground suddenly dropped away. She skidded, fighting for balance.
A crumbling stairway led down into the gloomy pit. Howling wind pulled on her skirt and shawl, trying to drag her in. Three tiny, bald heads looked up from far below. She could hear them perfectly despite the distance.
“Come, join us,” coaxed Firiss Palloe. “We’re all waiting.”
Alysona trembled, uncertain. If she stayed, who knew what the dragon would do? But if she went in there, she wouldn’t come out — at least, not as the person she wanted to be.
“Why are you stopping?” Gevant Palloe demanded. “Give it to us!”
Daisy wailed and darted off, but Alysona’s head snapped up. Only one thing had ever defeated the Dwarven sorcerers — the wraith that was almost upon her. She dug frantically in her hamper.
Far below, Euryx Palloe raged, “No time for your sniveling — throw the bone now!”
The dragon’s ghost lunged, tail whipping and talons outstretched. “GIVE ME MY BONE!”
The little woman raised the wingtip that seemed to weigh as much as all the world. She screamed, “THEN TAKE IT!”
She hurled the claw into the pit. Seconds later, a blast of white and icy air roared past. It dove after that bit of bone. Alysona dropped to her knees, watching the dragon’s ghost plunge down and down. Three eager faces, alight with malice, looked up for their prize.
Then a mighty roar. The earth bucked and stones toppled into the pit, while indescribable howls and flashes echoed up from below. In the depths, three shrieks suddenly cut off.
Moments later, a pure white flare headed back up. Alysona scrambled backward, frantic to get away from the edge. Light rose, dazzling her. She cowered, covering her face, while her eyelids pulsed red with the glare.
Terrified, Alysona dared to peek between her fingers. The dragon’s ghost hovered, glaring at her. Spectral scales glinted, claws flexed, and vast wings beat with all the claw tips in place.
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered. “They made me —”
The dragon’s ghost snorted. “Go home, mortal.” It soared upward, spiraled wide, then curved back to settle around the base of Venge Hill.
Was it really over? Had she survived this nightmare of a day? Alysona didn’t believe it until she felt a furry ball shivering against her hip. She stroked Daisy’s head, sharing comfort, and tried to organize her thoughts.
Even with the dragon’s permission, she couldn’t go home. Her husband was still down there — or she desperately hoped so. Blinking against the after-image of the ghostly glow, she crawled to the edge.
“Brynn?” she called, desolate. “Brynn!”
Ragged shuffling came in answer. Could it be human footsteps? She peered down, hardly daring to hope. Far below, a figure in a night shirt ran up the stairs.
“Alysona,” he croaked. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, Brynn!” Alysona ran down the steps. They met on the nearest landing. Her husband swept her up like a little girl, while she wrapped her arms around his neck. “I thought they would kill you.”
“Who? Oh.” Brynn set her down, paling as he realized where they were. “What happened?”
Alysona took his hand and pulled him up the stairs. “They stole you. Those awful Dwarves!”
“I don’t remember,” he murmured, stunned.
“They wanted me to bring them a bone from the dragon’s skeleton,” Alysona explained bitterly.
“I thought I saw a dragon. It was fighting the Dwarves.”
“I gave them a bone, all right. Only I tricked them.” She smiled with fierce joy. “Cazarluun wanted his bone back, you see.”
“Is that what all the racket was about?” Brynn chuckled. “At least I have a good reason for walking about in my night shirt.”
Alysona smiled, relieved to hear his calm good sense. “Don’t worry, I brought your things.”
Once they reached the top, she passed him clothes from the hamper. Daisy pranced around, rubbing any knee or ankle she could reach.
“She came, too?” Brynn asked, surprised. Daisy trilled up at him.
“Every step,” Alysona said, “but it was the dragon’s ghost that saved you.”
Brynn gazed down with pride as he buttoned his shirt. “No, it did not. You did it, love. You saved me.”
She blushed. Brynn had always been the strong one who protected her from superstitious villagers. Now she had protected him. It felt strange, but good.
“To have and to hold,” Alysona said.
“Always.” He bent to kiss her, then pulled his boots from the basket.
While Brynn finished dressing, Alysona pondered whether other changes were due. Instead of hiding and letting Brynn do for her, she might just walk into Witherow with him next time. Let the folk get used to seeing her. Once they heard of this adventure, they would know there was no evil in her. Besides, she had survived wicked sorcery and a dragon’s ghost. How scary could a few villagers be?
Soon they walked down the slope, hand in hand. The many white stones were once more set firmly in place. Daisy trotted ahead with her tail high, leading them home.