3. A Close Shave

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A metallic retort was followed by a series of loud clacks, squeals and pops. The dragon-trap had been sprung.

Gritting his teeth against the pain of his broken ankle, Kadav raised himself onto his elbows for a better view. Rearing up on its hind legs, the dragon towered cobra-like above the armored knight—that damnable intruder! Where had he come from? If only he had waited until the trap was sprung—but now the trap was sprung!

Amid a shower of splinters and broken machinery, the blade-tipped log grumbled its way down the channels hewn into the god trees, picking up momentum as it went. The base of the dragon's tail lay directly across its path. Kadav had hoped for a killing neck-stroke, but he couldn't fault Hrago's timing; it might be their best and only chance to strike it a serious blow.

The razor edge gleamed darkly in the forest twilight, the dividing line between fortune and disaster. For a brief moment, it seemed like it was going to work. But then, with a splintering crack, one end of the beam hitched on an obstruction, causing it to lag behind the other. Tipping toward vertical, the log slipped its channels to drive earthward like a stake of the gods. But all was not lost; it was still trained on its target. Instead of slicing into the dragon's tail with its steel blades, it would crush it with the blunt end—still a devastating blow surely. Only the dragon had also been tracking the log's downward progress, and with an ease that approached nonchalance, it flicked its tail out of harm's way at the last moment.

The log slammed home with a resonant boom that knocked Kadav flat. It poised upright for a couple seconds, its squared-off base sunk a foot deep into the loamy earth. Then it toppled length-wise, bouncing and rolling with a series of percussive aftershocks before finally coming to rest, massive, spent and useless.

The dragon's golden eyes took in the fallen log and roved up the sides of the god tree to dwell briefly on the broken trigger mechanism. After a moment's contemplation, it gave a disdainful snort.

The crushing weight of failure pressed down on Kadav like a millstone. What had taken his own genius to devise, the best artisans in the Edgelands to architect, and an entire town a month to build, had been foiled by the dragon in a split second's reflex.

Brave or foolish beyond all measure, the knight bellowed a fresh challenge. Kadav admired and pitied the unfortunate hero. Had he used the distraction to flee, he might have at least saved himself, but now his fate was sealed.

The knight charged, the dragon lashed out, but the outcome was decided by another. In the heat of action, everyone had forgotten about Hrago perched alone in the crow's nest. Suspended over forty feet in the air, there was little he could do apart from hurl his large hammer in the dragon's direction in the hope of hitting some vulnerable spot—and this he did with all his might. Spinning end over end, the blunt head of the hammer impacted the tip of the dragon's snout with a cushioned thud. The dragon's reaction was as instantaneous as it was unexpected. Its eyes went black as its pupils fully dilated. With a mighty shudder, it slumped bonelessly to the ground, its long torso unwinding in the dirt with the sound of a thousand cymbals.

* * * * *

The knight peered down at Kadav from the height of his black charger. He had removed his helmet and peeled back a black mask, revealing a creased face that might have once been stolidly handsome but had recently crossed into forlorn territory. "Are you hurt, my lady?" he inquired in clipped, formal tones.

"Of course I'm hurt, damn it all!" Kadav panted breathlessly. "Who in Ord's name are you?"

"I am Mav—I mean Nador of the Lav—Sky Blue Regiment of Alvaron," the knight answered haltingly. "When I heard of the plight of your village, I scarce believed it—until now."

A knight with two identities and as much subterfuge as a dried biscuit. The situation might have presented some exploitable opportunities if only Kadav wasn't lying battered and broken in a pool of his own blood next to an unconscious, fire-belching behemoth. "The dragon? Is it dead?"

"Just knocked senseless, it appears to me."

Kadav groaned with pain and frustration. If Rhojë was going to send him a guardian protector, couldn't he have chosen one with a dollop more sense? "Then why in the seven hells haven't you killed it already?"

"I thought to first check on my... lady?" And there it was, the long overdue epiphany. Up to now, the knight had only taken in the mayor in a general way, staring him eye to eye. Now his gaze flicked over each ersatz feature: the square hips, hairy arms, misshapen bosom with one lumpy breast pushed down to his stomach, and the sly, weather-beaten face straining against the agony of his wounds. His gaze came to rest on the shattered ankle where it remained fixated; bone shards had perforated the skin, and blood was pumping sluggishly from the wound. All the color drained from the knight's face. "Oh, the blood," he breathed just before his eyes rolled back in their sockets and he fainted dead away.

Kadav rolled himselfover to avoid getting crushed by the falling knight. The sudden motion setevery nerve in his body on fire. He heard a ringing in his ears like thousandsof tiny wind chimes. He hoped he was just delirious and that it was not thesound of the dragon stirring awake. Before he could find out the answer,darkness reached out and claimed him.

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