Tassia got up suddenly, and Sam saw her swiftly but carefully picking her way across the pumpkin patch. She stooped down, pushing aside the large fuzzy leaves to uncover a massive patch of dandelions. Their spiky green foliage had blended in with the vines, and their yellow flowers matched the ones growing on the plants. Neither of them had noticed the weeds encroaching.
“It never fails,” she said, digging in and thoroughly blackening her fingers. “They always manage to hide under the leaves. There’s probably a million of them in the other squash, too.”
Tassia had taken over the pumpkins, and Sam moved into the zucchini, carefully pushing aside the broad leaves to see if there was anything growing under them. He found a few stray patches of clover, but nothing like the dandelions Tassia had come across. They were both combing through the vines when the first piercing cries shattered the still summer air.
Tassia swore and stood upright, searching the sky from horizon to horizon. The cries were loud, but clearly still far off.
“Do you see them?” Tassia demanded, her voice beginning to break with panic.
Sam didn’t understand and looked around, seeing nothing but cumulus.
His eyes grew wide, but he said nothing. The cries came once more, and he could at least identify the direction.
“Let’s go! The city blocks our view of them, so we’ll never see them until they’re here!”
“Where do we go?”
“Into the city. There are shelters. We’ll go to Nalea.” She cast a quick, desperate look around at her garden. “Good luck,” she whispered to it, and then clutched Sam’s hand and began running. She paused at the hut, considering, and took another look around. “We should have a few minutes yet,” she said to him and darted inside. She came out a moment later with her soldier’s gear and a couple of books. Sam grabbed up the basket of vegetables, and they started running toward the city.
The streets were full of people scrambling for cover. If the dragons were coming in from the north, the brigades along that side would be preparing while the rest took to their shelters. Tassia could have taken them to her brigade’s shelter, but she couldn’t bear the thought of just two of them in such a large and hollow place with no news of what was going on outside.
They fought against the waves of people who were heading toward the local shelters and away from the castle, and Tassia paused only for a moment to see if she could spot the dragons yet. There were two clans in the nearby mountain range, and they were constantly warring with each other, but only the red clan came after human settlements. All dragons travelled in groups, and it was impossible to tell from their cries if this was a group from the blue clan merely passing over or one from the red clan out marauding. They wouldn’t know until they could see them, and by then it would be too late — especially if it was the red clan.
Tassia could see nothing but blue sky and soft clouds, so they kept going, heading for the queen’s towers at the heart of the city. Tassia knew they would be safe if they made it to the shelters, which were sturdy and deep underground. The dragons were not out to destroy the city; in fact, there was little damage they could do as most of the city was built of brick and stone. In previous attacks, they had targeted the rulers and left the rest of the population to deal with minor damage. Even so, Tassia knew it was critical to not be caught above ground when they arrived.
She paused to scour the sky once more, but Sam nudged her from behind.
“I’m watching, you lead. They’re not here yet.”
He was holding on to the strap of the bag she had slung over her shoulder and giving only a fraction of his attention to the path ahead of them as he watched the skies to the north. They could always turn south again and head to the nearest shelter if the dragons appeared before they reached the towers.
A surge of terror rippled through the crowd as people started screaming, “Red!”
“I don’t see anything,” Sam said to Tassia.
“Scouts to the north probably see them now and have passed the message along. Hurry!”
The crowds were thinning out, and Tassia and Sam were able to go much faster. They reached the castle as the cries became deafening, but there was still no sign of the clan. The guards at the castle recognized Tassia and ushered them in. Nalea was guarded by soldiers and enchanters, but standing in a vast courtyard in case the dragons wanted to negotiate.
“Can I help?” Tassia called.
Nalea spotted her, but waved her off.
“Into the shelter. Gear up, and I’ll send for you if we need reinforcements.”
Tassia nodded and turned, pulling a confused Sam with her. He paused at the door and turned her around to face him.
“Is it far to the shelter from here?”
“Down the hall, there’s an iron door, and then the stairs.”
“I just want to see them, just a glimpse. Can we wait here?”
She pursed her lips nervously and glanced to the sky, wincing as another cry came.
“All right,” she said. “The instant we see them, we head to the shelter though. It’s a long way down the stairs and a long tunnel to the underground compound. It’s out under one of the courtyards, not under the actual castle.”
“In case they collapse the building.” Sam nodded in understanding.
Tassia began gearing up while Sam watched the sky. A few stragglers rushed past them, heading for safety. Sam heard people crying out in renewed terror a moment before he spotted the dragons — far away still, but sleek and glimmering crimson against the blue sky. Sam found them mesmerizing to watch — their movements had a liquid grace that betrayed their size and strength, and their wings seemed to be tinged with silver — but his reverie was shattered by the clang of Tassia’s things dropping to the stone as she starting swearing.
He looked in her direction just as she drew her sword and started running back toward Nalea, and he realized she hadn’t been looking north at all, but to the southwest. He turned and followed her gaze. A spike of fear and adrenaline tore through his body when he spotted the lone dragon silently sweeping toward the adjacent courtyard where Nalea stood in wait. All eyes were on the northern approach. He dropped his basket beside Tassia’s things, but froze, unsure of what to do.
Tassia was already screaming the warning to Nalea and her people, and the enchanters got a shielding ward up against the dragonfire an instant before it exploded off the invisible dome. Cover blown, the beast began screeching. Its cry was enough to bring Sam to his knees; the terrible sound had physical weight at such close range. When he looked up again, he saw the beast streaking across the courtyard, dragging its heavy spiked tail along the ground. It shredded the ward that had been meant only to protect against fire and trained its sights on Nalea. Sam watched one of her guards — quite possibly the largest man he had ever seen — slam a war hammer nearly as large as Tassia into the beast’s tail just in time to alter its course around the queen. Her guards swarmed her then, pulling her farther from danger.
Having missed its best chance at eliminating Nalea, the beast spiralled up over the towers to regroup and attack with renewed force. In the aftermath, Sam could see several wounded people and at least one who was certainly dead; they must have been caught outside the ward when the dragonfire hit.
Tassia was still rushing headlong into the courtyard, her shield across her back and her sword held ready, but Sam could see she had only had time to strap on one forearm guard. He looked down to see the rest of her armour beside him on the stones. Nalea, encircled by two enchanters and nearly a dozen guards, was running toward where Sam now stood, heading for the safety of the castle. Sam’s feet finally heeded the garbled messages from his brain, and he began to run as well, heading out to Tassia. He fought to keep panic from overtaking him. He reached the edge of the battle zone just as Nalea and her entourage passed him, but none of them took notice.
Sam picked up a lance of one of the fallen guards, and the energy of his fear pushed him forward more quickly than he would have thought possible. He spotted the dragon, crimson death, swooping back toward the courtyard, and it seemed focused on Tassia. She was separated from both groups — the guards remaining to defend and those bringing the queen to safety — and was an easy target.
The dragonfire rippled off the renewed dome of protection the enchanters had erected, but there was simply not enough of them to create a defence that could withstand the physical attack of a dragon. The dragon tore through the shield again, a fiery mountain collapsing on them from the sky, and skimmed the ground with teeth gnashing and claws tearing.
Tassia had her shield out to deflect the claws as she swept her sword at the dragon as it passed, but the rush of air from its wings was enough to knock her to the ground and expose her to the spiked bludgeon of its tail. She rolled backward and came to a crouch, ready to fight. She still had her sword, but her shield had been knocked from her grasp and carried away by the dragon-gale.
Sam wasn’t thinking when he swiped the shield up off the ground — he was focused intently on the swiftly approaching tail and trying to calculate its trajectory. He slid to a stop just in front of Tassia, jammed the hilt of the lance into the ground and braced it with his entire body. He got the shield up just in time to receive the strike from the dragon, but the lance had done its job. It wasn’t nearly enough to pierce the tough dragon scales, but it caused enough pain for the dragon to swing away from them, dealing only a glancing blow.
The impact was still enough to slam both Sam and Tassia backward a dozen paces, a shot hard enough to cause Sam to black out for a moment. He came to as Tassia was frantically dragging him toward the castle and out of the worst of the danger. The enchanters and castle guards were retreating as well, now that Nalea was safely inside, and the dragon was rocketing skyward again, its battle cries being met by those of the other dragons who were closing in on the castle.
Sam stumbled to his feet, ignoring Tassia as she cursed his foolish bravery, and they retreated into the castle, stopping briefly to collect what they’d dropped when the attack began. The iron door to the shelter still stood open, and Tassia plunged through it, dragging Sam behind her. The stairs were lined with lanterns at regular intervals, and there was another iron door at the entrance to the tunnel. This one was closed tight, but a guard opened it from the inside once Tassia identified herself. The tunnel stretched out into the darkness, and Sam quickly began to feel nervous in the narrow, low passage. It had been designed to be too small for a dragon to follow, no matter how determined, and the door at the end of it was also made of iron, but unlocked.
Tassia and Sam entered a large room, long and arching, with tables and benches running down the centre and bunks along the walls. Like the stairs and tunnel, the shelter was made of grey stone and lined with lanterns. The wall along the back was packed with supplies, and the higher ceiling made Sam breathe a little easier.