23,516
07.03.2019

She grabbed a handful of chain and wrapped it around one pudgy fist.

“Some of those guards don’t know how to treat-” she began.

“No time, no time,” said Vimes, grabbing her arm. It was like trying to drag a mountain.

The cheering stopped, abruptly.

There was a sound behind Vimes. It was not, particularly, a loud noise. It just had a peculiarly nasty carrying quality. It was the click of four sets of talons hitting the flagstones at the same time.

Vimes looked around and up.

Soot clung to the dragon’s hide. A few pieces of charred wood had lodged here and there, and were still smouldering. The magnificent bronze scales were streaked with black.

It lowered its head until Vimes was a few feet away from its eyes, and tried to focus on him.

Probably not worth running, Vimes told himself. It’s not as if I’ve got the energy anyway.

He felt Lady Ramkin’s hand engulf his.

“Jolly well done,” she said. “It nearly worked.”

Charred and blazing wreckage rained down around the distillery. The pond was a swamp of debris, covered with a coating of ash. Out of it, dripping slime, rose Sergeant Colon.

He clawed his way to the bank and pulled himself up, like some sea-dwelling lifeform that was anxious to get the whole evolution thing over with in one go.

Nobby was already there, spread out like a frog, leaking water.

“Is that you, Nobby?” said Sergeant Colon anxiously.

“It’s me, Sergeant.”

“I glad about that, Nobby,” said Colon fervently.

“I wish it wasn’t me, Sergeant.”

Colon tipped the water out of his helmet, and then paused.

“What about young Carrot?” he said.

Nobby pushed himself upon his elbows, groggily.

“Dunno,” he said. “One minute we were on the roof, next minute we were jumping.”

They both looked at the ashen waters of the pond.

“I suppose,” said Colon slowly, “he can swim?”

“Dunno. He never said. Not much to swim in, up in the mountains. When you come to think about it,” said Nobby.

“But perhaps there were limpid blue pools and deep mountain streams,” said the sergeant hopefully. “And icy tarns in hidden valleys and that. Not to mention subterranean lakes. He’d be bound to have learned. In and out of the water all day, I expect.”

They stared at the greasy grey surface.

“It was probably that Protective,” said Nobby. “P’raps it filled with water and dragged him down.”

Colon nodded gloomily.

“I’ll hold your helmet,” said Nobby, after a while.

“But I’m your superior officer!”

“Yes,” said Nobby reasonably, “but if you get stuck down there, you’re going to want your best man up here, ready to rescue you, aren’t you?”

“That’s . . . reasonable,” said Colon eventually. “That’s a good point.”

“Right, then.”

“Drawback is, though …”

“What?”

“. . .1 can’t swim,” Colon said.

“How did you get out of that, then?”

Colon shrugged. “I’m a natural floater.”

Their eyes, once again, turned to the dankness of the pond. Then Colon stared at Nobby. Then Nobby, very slowly, unbuckled his helmet.

“There isn’t someone still in there, is there?” said Carrot, behind them.

They looked around. He hoicked some mud out of an ear. Behind him the remains of the brewery smouldered.

“I thought I’d better nip out quickly, see what was going on,” he said brightly, pointing to a gate leading out of the yard. It was hanging by one hinge.

“Oh,” said Nobby weakly. “Jolly good.”

“There’s an alley out there,” said Carrot.

“No dragons in it, are there?” said Colon suspiciously.

“No dragons, no humans. There’s no-one around,” said Carrot impatiently. He drew his sword. “Come on!” he said.

“Where to?” said Nobby. He’d pulled a damp butt from behind his ear and was looking at it with an expression of deepest sorrow. It was obviously too far gone. He tried to light it anyway.

“We want to fight the dragon, don’t we?” said Carrot.

Colon shifted uncomfortably. “Yes, but aren’t we allowed to go home for a change of clothes first?”

“And a nice warm drink?” said Nobby.

“And a meal,” said Colon. “A nice plate of-”

“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” said Carrot. “There’s a lady in distress and a dragon to fight and all you can think of is food and drink!”

“Oh, I’m not just thinking about food and drink,” said Colon.

“We could be all that stands between the city and total destruction!”

“Yes, but-” Nobby began.

Carrot drew his sword and waved it over his head.

“Captain Vimes would have gone!” he said. “All for one!”

He glared at them, and rushed out of the yard.

Colon gave Nobby a sheepish look.

“Young people today,” he said.

“All for one what?” said Nobby.

The sergeant sighed. “Come on, then.”

“Oh, all right.”

They staggered out into the alley. It was empty.

“Where’d he go?” said Nobby.

Carrot stepped out of the shadows, grinning all over his face.

“Knew I could rely on you,” he said. “Follow me!”

“Something odd about that boy,” said Colon, as they limped after him. “He always manages to persuade us to follow him, have you noticed?”

“All for one what?” said Nobby.

“Something about the voice, I reckon.”

“Yes, but all for one what?”

The Patrician sighed and, carefully marking his place, laid aside his book. To judge from the noise there seemed to be an awful lot of excitement going on out there. It was highly unlikely any palace guards would be around, which was just as well. The guards were highly-trained men and it would be a shame to waste them.

He would need them later on.

He padded over to the wall and pushed a small block that looked exactly like all the other small blocks. No other small block, however, would have caused a section of flagstone to grind ponderously aside.

There was a carefully chosen assortment of stuff in there-iron rations, spare clothes, several small chests of precious metals and jewels, tools. And there was a key. Never build a dungeon you couldn’t get out of.

The Patrician took the key and strolled over to the door. As the wards of the lock slid back in their well-oiled grooves he wondered, again, whether he should have told Vimes about the key. But the man seemed to have got so much satisfaction out of breaking out. It would probably have been positively bad for him to have told him about the key. Anyway, it would have spoiled his view of the world. He needed Vimes and his view of the world.

Lord Vetinari swung the door open and, silently, strode out into the ruins of his palace.

They trembled as, for the second time in a couple of minutes, the city rocked.

The dragon kennels exploded. The windows blew out. The door left the wall ahead of a great billow of black smoke and sailed into the air, tumbling slowly, to plough into the rhododendrons.

Something very energetic and hot was happening in that building. More smoke poured out, thick and oily and solid. One of the walls folded in on itself, and then another one toppled sluggishly on to the lawn.

Swamp dragons shot determinedly out of the wreckage like champagne corks, wings whirring frantically.

Still the smoke unrolled. But there was something in there, some point of fierce white light that was gently rising.

It disappeared from view as it passed a stricken window, and then, with a piece of roof tile still spinning on the top of his head, Errol climbed above his own smoke and ascended into the skies of Ankh-Morpork.

The sunlight glinted off his silver scales as he hovered about a hundred feet up, turning slowly, balancing nicely on his own flame . . .

Vimes, awaiting death on the plaza, realised that his mouth was hanging open. He shut it again.

There was absolutely no sound in the city now but the noise of Errol’s ascent.

They can rearrange their own plumbing, Vimes told himself bemusedly. To suit circumstances. He’s made it work in reverse. But his thingys, his genes . . . surely he must have been halfway to it anyway. No wonder the little bugger has got such stubby wings. His body must have known he wasn’t going to need them, except to steer.

Good grief. I’m watching the first ever dragon to flame backwards.

He risked a glance immediately above him. The great dragon was frozen, its enormous bloodshot eyes concentrating on the tiny creature.

With a challenging roar of flame and a pummelling of air the King of Ankh-Morpork rose, all thought of mere humans forgotten.

Vimes turned sharply to Lady Ramkin.

“How do they fight?” he said urgently. “How do dragons fight?”

“I-that is, well, they just flap at each other and blow flame,” she said. “Swamp dragons, that is. I mean, who’s ever seen a noble dragon fight?” She patted her nightie. “I must take some notes, I’ve got my memo book somewhere …”

“In your nightshirt?”

“It’s amazing how ideas come to one in bed, I’ve always said.”

Flames roared into the space where Errol had been, but he wasn’t there. The king tried to spin in mid-air. The little dragon circled in an easy series of smoke rings, weaving a cat’s cradle in the sky with the huge adversary gyrating helplessly in the middle. More flames, hotter and longer, stabbed at him and missed.

The crowd watched in breathless silence.

“ ‘allo, Captain,” said an ingratiating voice.

Vimes looked down. A small and stagnant pond disguised as Nobby grinned sheepishly up at him.

“I thought you were dead!” he said.

“We’re not,” said Nobby.

“Oh. Good.” There didn’t seem much else to say.

“What do you reckon on the fight, then?”

Vimes looked back up. Smoke trails spiralled across the city.

“I’m afraid it’s not going to work,” said Lady Ramkin. “Oh. Hallo, Nobby.”

“Afternoon, ma’am,” said Nobby, touching what he thought was his forelock.

“What d’you mean, it’s not going to work?” said Vimes. “Look at him go! It hasn’t hit him yet!”

“Yes, but his flame has touched it several times. It doesn’t seem to have any effect. It’s not hot enough, I think. Oh, he’s dodging well. But he’s got to be lucky every time. It has only got to be lucky once.”

The meaning of this sank in.

“You mean,” said Vimes, “all this is just-just show? He’s just doing it to impress?”

“ ‘S’not his fault,” said Colon, materialising behind them. “It’s like dogs, innit? Doesn’t really dawn on the poor little bugger that he’s up against a big one. He’s just ready for a scrap.”

Both dragons appeared to realise that the fight was the well-known Klatchian standoff. With another smoke ring and a billow of white flame they parted and retreated a few hundred yards.

The king hovered, flapping its wings quickly. Height. That was the thing. When dragon fought dragon, height was always the thing . . .

❮❯