I'D NEVERin my life seen anything as wondrous as this dragon, and even though I was struck numb with fear, I found myself admiring it, unable to react to the threat it posed. Though it was impossible to accurately judge its measurements, its wingspan had to be twenty metres. The wings were a patchy light green colour, thick where they connected to its body, but thin at the tips.
The dragon's body was seven or eight metres from snout to the tip of its tail. It put me in mind of a snakes tapered body - it was scaled - though it had a round bulging chest which angled back towards the tail. Its scales were a dull red and gold colour underneath. From what I could see of the dragons back, it was dark green on top, with red flecks. It had a pair of long forelegs, ending in sharp claws, and two shorter limbs about a quarter of the way from the end of its body.
Its head was more like an alligator's than a snake's, long and flat, with two yellow eyes protruding from its crown, large nostrils, and a flexible lower jaw which looked like it could open wide to consume large animals. Its face was a dark purple colour and its ears were surprisingly small, pointed and set close to its eyes. It had no teeth that I could see, but the gums of its jaws looked hard and sharp. It had a long, forked tongue which flicked lazily between its lips as it hung in the air and gazed upon us.
The dragon observed us for a few more seconds, wings beating steadily, claws flexing, pupils opening and dilating. Then, tucking in its wings, it dived sharply, forelegs stretched, talons exposed, mouth closed - aiming for the raft!
With startled yells, Harkat and I snapped to attention and threw ourselves flat. The dragon screamed by overhead. One of its claws connected with my left shoulder and sent me crashing into Harkat.
As we pushed ourselves apart, I sat up, rubbing my bruised shoulder, and saw the dragon turn smoothly in the air, reverse and begin another dive. This time, instead of throwing himself on to the raft, Harkat grabbed his oar and thrust it up at the dragon, roaring a challenge at the monster. The dragon screeched angrily in reply - a high-pitched sound - and swerved away.
"Get up!" Harkat yelled at me. As I struggled to my feet, he thrust my oar into my hands, got to his knees and rowed desperately. "You keep it off - if you can," he gasped. "I'll try and get us - to shore. Our only hope is to - make land and hope we can - hide."
Holding the oar up was agony, but I ignored the pain in my shoulder and kept the piece of wood aloft, pointed at the dragon like a spear, silently willing Harkat to row even quicker. Above, the dragon circled, yellow eyes focused on the raft, occasionally screeching.
"It's assessing us," I muttered.
"What?" Harkat grunted.
"It's making a study. Noting our speed, analyzing our strengths, calculating our weaknesses." I lowered my oar. "Stop rowing."
"Are you crazy?" Harkat shouted.
"We'll never make it," I said calmly. "We're too far out. We'd best save our strength for fighting."
"How the hell do you think - we're going to fight a dragon?" Harkat snorted.
"I don't know," I sighed. "But we can't out-pace it, so we might as well be fresh when it attacks."
Harkat stopped rowing and stood beside me, staring at the dragon with his unblinking green eyes. "Maybe it won't attack," he said with hollow optimism.
"It's a predator," I replied, "like the panther and alligators. It's not a question ofif it will attack, butwhen ."
Harkat looked from the dragon to the shore and licked his lips. "What if we swam? We wouldn't be as visible - in the water. That might make it harder - for it to grab us."
"True," I agreed, "but we wouldn't be able to defend ourselves. We won't jump unless we have to. In the meantime, let's sharpen our oars." Drawing one of my knives, I whittled away at the end of my oar. Harkat did the same with his. Within seconds of us setting to work on the oars, the dragon - perhaps sensing our intent - attacked, cutting short our preparations.
My immediate instinct was to duck, but I stood firm beside Harkat and we both raised our oars defensively. The dragon didn't pull out of its dive this time, but swooped even lower than before and barrelled into us with its hard head and shoulders, wings tucked in tight. We jabbed at it with our oars, but they snapped off its hard scales without causing the slightest bit of damage.
The dragon collided with the raft. The force of the blow sent us flying clear of the raft, deep under water. I came up gasping and thrashing wildly. Harkat was several metres adrift of me, also winded and bruised from the encounter. "Got to - make the - raft!" he shouted.
"No use!" I cried, pointing at the wreckage of the raft, which had been shattered to splinters. The dragon was hovering overhead, almost perpendicular to the sea, tail curled up into its scaly body. I swam to where Harkat was bobbing up and down, and we gazed up fearfully at the flying lizard.
"What's it waiting for?" Harkat wheezed. "We're at its mercy. Why isn't it finishing - us off?"
"It seems to be puffing itself up," I noted, as the dragon closed its mouth and breathed in through its widening nostrils. "It's almost as though it's getting ready to ?" I stopped, my face whitening. "Charna's guts!"
"What?" Harkat snapped.
"Have you forgotten what dragons are famous for?"
Harkat stared at me, clueless, then clicked to it. "They breathe fire!"
Our eyes locked on the dragon's chest, which was expanding steadily. "Watch it closely," I said, grabbing hold of Harkat's robes. "When I say 'dive', power for the bottom of the lake as hard as you can, and stay under till your breath runs out."
"It'll still be here - when we come up," Harkat said dejectedly.
"Probably," I agreed, "but if we're lucky, it only has one burst of fire in it."
"What are you basing that - judgement on?" Harkat asked.
"Nothing." I grinned shakily. "I'm just hoping."
There was no time for further exchanges. Above us, the dragon's tail curled down and back, and its head swung towards us. I waited until what I deemed the last possible instant, then, "Dive!" I screamed, and together Harkat and I rolled over and dived down deep, thrusting hard with our hands and feet.
As we descended, the water around us lit up redly. It then grew warm and began to bubble. Kicking even harder, we swam clear of the danger zone, down into the darkness of the deeper water. Once safe, we stopped and looked up. The lake had darkened again and we couldn't see the dragon. Clinging tight to each other, we held our mouths shut, waiting for as long as our breath would hold.
As we floated in silence and fear, there was a huge splash and the dragon came slicing through the water towards us. There was no time to evade it. Before we knew what was happening, the dragon hooked us with its claws, dragged us deeper down into the lake, then turned and struck for the surface.
Bursting free of the water, the dragon screeched triumphantly and rose into the air, Harkat trapped in one of its claws, me in the other. It had hold of my left arm, gripping me tightly, and I couldn't wriggle free.
"Darren!" Harkat screamed as we rose higher into the sky and surged towards shore. "Can you - get loose?"
"No!" I shouted. "You?"
"I think so! It only has hold - of my robes."
"Then free yourself!" I yelled.
"But what about?"
"Never mind me! Get free while you can!"
Harkat cursed bitterly, then grabbed hold of the back of his robes where the dragon had caught him, and tugged sharply. I didn't hear the ripping over the sound of the dragon's wings, but suddenly Harkat was free and falling, landing with an almighty splash in the lake beneath.
The dragon hissed with frustration and circled around, obviously meaning to go after Harkat again. We were almost over land now, at the very edge of the lake. "Stop!" I roared helplessly at the dragon. "Leave him alone!" To my astonishment, the dragon paused when I shouted, and gazed at me with a strange expression in its giant yellow eyes. "Leave him," I muttered desperately. Then, giving way to blind panic, I screamed at the beast, "Let me go, you son of a?"
Before I could complete the curse, the dragons claws unexpectedly retracted, and suddenly I was dropping through the sky like a stone. I had just enough time to worry about whether I was over the lake or over land. Then I hit hard ?earth or water - ? and the world went black.