CHAPTER TWELVE

WE ROWEDfor most of the night, in what we hoped was a straight line (there seemed to be no currents to drag us off course), rested for a few hours either side of dawn, then began rowing again, this time navigating south by the position of the sun. By the third day we were bored out of our skulls. There was nothing to do on the calm, open lake, and no change in scenery - dark blue underneath, mostly unbroken grey overhead. Fishing distracted us for short periods each day, but the fish were plentiful and easy to catch, and soon it was back to the rowing and resting.

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To keep ourselves amused, we invented games using the teeth Harkat had pulled from the dead panther. There weren't many word games we could play with such a small complement of letters, but by giving each letter a number, we were able to pretend the teeth were dice and indulge in simple gambling games. We didn't have anything of value to bet, so we used the bones of the fish we caught as gambling chips, and made believe they were worth vast amounts of money.

During a rest period, as Harkat was cleaning the teeth - taking his time, to stretch the job out - he picked up a long incisor, the one marked by a K, and frowned. "This is hollow," he said, holding it up and peering through it. Putting it to his wide mouth, he blew through it, held it up again, then passed it to me.

I studied the tooth against the grey light of the sky, squinting to see better. "It's very smooth," I noted. "And it goes from being wide at the top to narrow at the tip."

"It's almost as though - a hole has been bored through it," Harkat said.

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"How, and what for?" I asked.

"Don't know," Harkat said. "But it's the only one - like that."

"Maybe an insect did it," I suggested. "A parasite which burrows into an animal's teeth and gnaws its way upwards, feeding on the material inside."

Harkat stared at me for a moment, then opened his mouth as wide as he could and gurgled, "Check my teeth quick!"

"Mine first!" I yelped, anxiously probing my teeth with my tongue.

"Your teeth are tougher - than mine," he said. "I'm more vulnerable."

Since that was true, I leant forward to examine Harkat's sharp grey teeth. I studied them thoroughly, but there was no sign that any had been invaded. Harkat checked mine next, but I drew a clean bill of health too. We relaxed after that - though we did a lot of prodding and jabbing with our tongues over the next few hours! - and Harkat returned to cleaning the teeth, keeping the tooth with the hole to one side, slightly away from the others.

That fourth night, as we slept after many hours of rowing, huddled together in the middle of the raft, we were woken by a thunderous flapping sound overhead. We bolted out of our sleep and sat up straight, covering our ears to drown out the noise. The sound was like nothing I'd heard before, impossibly heavy, as though a giant was beating clean his bed sheets. It was accompanied by strong, cool gusts of wind which set the water rippling and our raft rocking. It was a dark night with no break in the clouds, and we couldn't see what was making the noise.

"What is it?" I whispered. Harkat couldn't hear my whisper over the noise, so I repeated myself, but not too loudly, for fear of giving our position away to whatever was above.

"No idea," Harkat replied, "but there's something - familiar about it. I've heard it before - but I can't remember where."

The flapping sounds died away as whatever it was moved on, the water calmed and our raft steadied, leaving us shaken but unharmed. When we discussed it later, we reasoned it must have been some huge breed of bird. But in my gut, I sensed that wasn't the answer, and by Harkat's troubled expression and inability to fall back asleep, I was sure he sensed it too.

We rowed quicker than usual in the morning, saying little about the sounds we'd heard the night before, but gazing up often at the sky. Neither of us could explain why the noise had so alarmed us - we just felt that we'd be in big trouble if the creature came again, by the light of day.

We spent so much time staring up at the clouds that it wasn't until early afternoon, during a brief rest period, that we looked ahead and realized we were within sight of land. "How far do you think - it is?" Harkat asked.

"I'm not sure," I answered. "Four or five kilometres?" The land was low-lying, but there were mountains further on, tall grey peaks which blended with the clouds, which was why we hadn't noticed them before.

"We can be there soon if we - row hard," Harkat noted.

"So let's row," I grunted, and we set to our task with renewed vigour. Harkat was able to row faster than me - my strength was failing rapidly as a result of not having any human blood to drink - but I stuck my head down and pushed my muscles to their full capacity. We were both eager to make the safety of land, where at least we could find a bush to hide under if we were attacked.

We'd covered about half the distance when the air overhead reverberated with the same heavy flapping sounds that had interrupted our slumber. Gusts of wind cut up the water around us. Pausing, we looked up and spotted something hovering far above. It seemed small, but that was because it was a long way up.

"What the hell is it?" I gasped.

Harkat shook his head in answer. "It must be immense," he muttered, "for its wings to create - this much disturbance from that high up."

"Do you think it's spotted us?" I asked.

"It wouldn't be hovering there otherwise," Harkat said.

The flapping sound and accompanying wind stopped and the figure swooped towards us with frightening speed, becoming larger by the second. I thought it meant to torpedo us, but it pulled out of its dive ten or so metres above the raft. Slowing its descent, it unfurled gigantic wings and flapped to keep itself steady. The sound was ear shattering.

"Is that - what I - think it is?" I roared, clinging to the raft as waves broke over us, eyes bulging out of my head, unable to believe that this monster was real. I wished with all my heart that Harkat would tell me I was hallucinating.

"Yes!" Harkat shouted, shattering my wishes. "I knew I - recognized it!" The Little Person crawled to the edge of the raft to gaze at the magnificent but terrifying creature of myth. He was petrified, like me, but there was also an excited gleam in his green eyes. "I've seen it before - in my nightmares," he croaked, his voice only barely audible over the flapping of the extended wings. "It's adragon !"

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