Karen dropped to her knees just inside the entrance to the tunnel leading up to the eyrie. Rai could feel exhaustion leaking from her as she gasped for breath.
â€œAre you okay?â€ he asked.
â€œI…â€ She slowly pulled herself to her feet and began to climb the spiral stairway hewn into the rock. â€œI didnâ€™t realise how out of practice I was. You three stay here, itâ€™ll be safer since you canâ€™t fight.â€ She paused long enough to place them on a small ledge before turning to continue her climb.
â€œYou donâ€™t look like youâ€™ll be able to fight the dragons either,â€ Levina said. â€œPerhaps you should rest for a few minutes. It feels like youâ€™re about to fall over.â€
â€œI-Iâ€™ll be fine. Itâ€™s my mental not physical reserves which get depleted doing that.â€ She didnâ€™t sound convinced.
â€œAre you sure?â€ Rai looked at her dubiously. She was clinging to the wall and LevinaÂ was right she did look ready to fall over.
â€œYes,â€ she replied, then shook her head. â€œNo, not really. I should be able to, but Iâ€™m really out of practice. But I donâ€™t have much choice. I donâ€™t have time to rest. If there was time to spare I wouldnâ€™t have had to do that.â€ She squared her shoulders resolutely and turned back to the stairs. â€œIâ€™ve got to rescue Salia, if nothing else.â€
â€œYou wonâ€™t help anyone if you turn up in that state,” Rai said. â€œYouâ€™ve bought us a couple of hours and thereâ€™s usually a few Haltia and dwarf traders at the eyrie. Theyâ€™ll be retreating down the stairs with the chicks and eggs. Theyâ€™ll have the Princess with them. We can just wait for them.â€
â€œThe dragons will be on their tail,â€ Karen said.
â€œOf course,â€ he said. â€œBut this wasnâ€™t just built for traders you know.â€
â€œWe canâ€™t attack dragons,â€ Perun said. â€œThe ceiling above a dragon is another matter. When the dwarves carved this stairway for us, it was as an escape route. Itâ€™s full of tricks to slow dragons down.â€
â€And the Queen and Prince Alban wonâ€˜t be able to fly in either,â€ Rai added.Â â€œNot with the dragons circling. Theyâ€˜ll have to come in this way as well. You should rest while we wait for him.â€
Karen gave him a long look. â€œYouâ€™re right. Iâ€™m so tired Iâ€™m not thinking straight.â€ She sat down on the stairs and rested her head against the rock. â€œItâ€™s just I hate not being able help.â€
Valeria realised theyâ€™d never make it into the eyrie by air as soon as the mountain appeared on the horizon and she saw the dragons circling above him.
The thunderbirds must have noticed as well and dropped into a steep dive without warning.Â Valeria screamed and clung on for dear life. Just when she was sure her mount had lost control of the dive and they were going to crash, it straightened out and began skimming in just above ground level. She gasped for breath and waited for her heart to slow and her stomach to catch up with her.
After a moment she raised her head and scanned the sky for dragons. It was entirely likely her panic would have caught their attention. She pushed her mind out trying to sense where they were. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Alban doing the same thing. They exchanged a look and then she leant forwards and touched her thunderbird mountâ€™s mind with her own.
Get us as close to the ground entrance as possible.
That is our intent, my queen, he replied.
Karen says that sheâ€™s waiting for us just inside the entrance, mother, Alban interrupted.
Valeria gave him a sharp look – he rarely mindspoke her. It was tiring for him, since he lacked a heart stone. He was kneeling on the back of the thunderbird he was riding. One hand was still clutching onto his mountâ€™s plumage but he was grappling for his bow with the other. Valeria scanned the sky again and spotted one of the dragons diving towards them.
Hurry! she told her mount and then turned her attention back to Alban. Itâ€™s going to be close. Donâ€™t you even think of letting go and trying to fire your bow while weâ€™re in flight! She could see him flushing guiltily and knew sheâ€™d read his intent right.
But… He began.
But nothing. You couldnâ€™t fire an arrow and keep your balance at this speed. NotÂ in resting form anyway. She looked toward the fast approaching mountain and back at the diving dragon. I think weâ€™ll make it. Weâ€™re nearly there. She couldnâ€™t even convince herself.
Weâ€™ll make it, my queen, her mount said confidently. We canâ€™t fight but weâ€™re not completely helpless, and itâ€™s committed to its dive now.
Valeria was about to ask what he meant when the two thunderbirds swerved violently away from each other. The dark red dragon shot through the gap where theyâ€™d been moments earlier. It crashed into the ground head first and lay unmoving on the ground. She could still sense it, so it wasnâ€™t dead. It did, however, seem to be out cold.
Brilliant! she told them as they came into land near the bushes which concealed the tunnel up to the eyrie.
They dismounted and were headed towards the entrance when Karen came running out and almost threw herself at Alban.
â€œAlban!â€ There was such desperately genuine relief in the girlâ€™s voice as she hugged him that Valeria couldnâ€™t help wincing. Alban seemed just as relieved as he hugged her back. After a moment the girl pulled back. â€œWe donâ€™t have time to catch up just now. Letâ€™s go rescue your sister.â€