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Suddenly the kayaks slowed, pausing about twenty yards away—close enough that the Wrackshees’ awful stench covered the area with a suffocating blanket. Using only hand signals to communicate, the slavers silently peered here and there for any sign of their prey. The razor-sharp tips of dozens of small throwing lances, carried on bandoliers slung over the Wrackshees’ shoulders, shone red in the moonlight. Helbara knew that terrible things happened to beasts hit by those poisoned tips—going mad with thirst, eyes bugging, bleeding the color of grass. Each time the gaze of a Wrackshee seemed to fix on the spot where they were concealed, Helbara trembled on the edge of panicked flight. To do so, however, would mean certain capture or death. They were trapped. With every ounce of inner strength, Helbara held her panic in check.
__________________ FoRoar-2036 gasped for breath, struggling to climb the steps in the biting cold. Every muscle in his body protested. He was too tired to go on. Every sense told him he was too weak to continue. Yet, still he went on, his breath shooting out in great white clouds. Gasps of moist breath, instantly shock-frozen into icy puffs, marked his progress. He clutched his sacred stone tightly to his chest. The heavy stone made it hard to keep his balance on the ice-covered stairway, worn to a slippery gloss by the constant pad of reed-boots passing over the ice. “Can’t walk...any...further...AIEEEIYAHHH!...” FoRoar-2036 hesitated in confusion, wondering in his semi-frozen stupor if the fearful scream was his own. Too late, he tried to grasp the cloak of the Hedgie walking in front of him. Clutching vainly after the flapping folds of his friend, he watched helplessly as SaRimm-2036 collapsed from cold and exhaustion, and pitched sideways off into the abyss. FoRoar-2036’s eyes filled with icy tears, but he kept walking. He had no choice. Barely inches separated one stair-climber from another in a line that stretched for miles in both directions. Step, step, step—the stair-climbers endlessly moved up the stairway toward the castle, Maev Astuté, each bearing his or her own sacred stone. To stop in such a line, on such a narrow and treacherous stair, with no guardrail or helper except one’s own courage, could mean that dozens might stumble and pitch off into the abyss. The line could not stop—no matter what.
__________________ The key to a successful run of the dragons to the Hedgelands was speed. Once the monitor caravan was loaded and the monitors were fully awake again, the monitor train had to make the passage between Norder Crossings and the Hedgelands before the monitors grew ravenously hungry again. A skilled Dragon Boss knew precisely how to make the run to the Hedgelands with great speed. Mudpot was the best of them all. Stuff the monitors with shark, load while they dozed, then as they began to stir, set a swift—and tasty-smelling—runner at the front of the caravan. For the runners it was a chance to escape the fate of the slave works at Tilk Duraow. As the runner ran for life and freedom, the monitors raced after the scent of their next meal. The faster the runner, the faster the caravan traveled. If the runner was fast and strong enough to endure the grueling race, he or she might stay just ahead of the monitors all the way to the slave works and win freedom. Runners that faltered or stumbled became an impromptu snack for the monitors. A Dragon Boss wanted the fastest, strongest runner possible. A failed runner meant delay and other problems as the lead monitors snacked, and then turned sluggishly sleepy—while the rest grew dangerously restive. The delay could be even longer if replacement runners turned to “shakes and gibbers”—quivering piles of terrorized flesh unable to stand, let alone run. When “shakes and gibbers” struck it could hold up a Dragon Train for days while new runners were brought from Norder Crossings.
__________________ “TEEA-CHT! YAHT! YAHT! TEEA-CHT! FLY YA SLITHER-BOBS! FLY! YAHT! YAHT” The long lash curled again and again, whistling through the air above the monitors before cracking loudly—just nicking the tail of each monitor on alternate lashes. The monitor train flew wildly down the road, rattling and clattering, careening around corners and sweeping through villages and towns—scattering beasts in the road to the right and left as they dived to safety. The noise of an approaching monitor train emptied the streets of villages long before the monitors actually ran through. Mothers pulled their wee beasts away from the windows and slammed the shutters tight. Mudpot’s constant cries of “TEEA-CHT! YAHT! YAHT! TEEA-CHT!” mingling with the fearsome hissing and blowing of the monitors at the runner’s heels could give wee ones nightmares for many a day. And no beast wanted to be bitten by a monitor or, worse, lunch for the monstrous lizards. “PASS AWAY YAS’T FLEA-PICKERS! YAS’T BE OUTTA THE WAY OR YA’LL BE DRAGON FOOD! TEEA-CHT! YAHT! YAHT!” Yet, as the monitors raced past, creating a terrifying spectacle with their hissing and Mudpot’s profane yells filling the air, even the mothers who frantically shielded their children peeked through cracks in the shutters. Frightened though they were, there was a fascinating attraction in the terrifying spectacle passing by. The only thing a runner was supposed to do was run for life itself—and Helga ran as she had never run before. Mile after mile she sped along as if in an unbroken series of all-out sprints. Gasping, flushed, pumping the air with her arms—swilling a little saliva around in her dry mouth as if it were water—the hot breath of the monitors just at her rear. She stumbled at times, but never broke stride. It was twenty-three miles to the Hedgelands and only a wild-beast’s dash could save her.
___________ “So, the gentle, humble WooZan is not so gentle and humble, eh?” Breister observed. “Some WooPeace!” he said with a hollow laugh. “Oh, it’s gentle and peaceful, all right,” Janty said speaking rapidly with excitement. “If the Council of Inquiry decides someone should die, they are simply blindfolded and conducted deep, deep into the uncharted, deepest parts of the cave system and left there. No one hears from those poor souls ever again. That’s exactly what she’s got in mind for you! We’ve got to get you out of here. This was not a good idea!” “No, Janty, not so fast,” Helga replied in a determined voice. “Let me think. We have until tomorrow at least. I have my flicker-pole for protection. If they try to take us, I’ll bring every bird within 20 miles in on her head. No, we’ll be O.K. We are not going to simply run away. That is probably what she most wants to happen. Either we change our minds and join the WooPeace, or we flee—that’s what she hopes. But she did not count on how determined a Wood Cow can be.”