… A monstrous shadow fell over Folly Hill.
He could barely see—his eyes had teared up, stinging, itching, and everything seemed to have gone dim. He hunched over, strangling his reins in a white-fingered hold. His roan threw its head up and snorted and danced. People shouted but he couldn’t make out the words.
He blinked and blinked and now he could see shadows whipping and boiling across the green grass. He couldn’t look up. Just the thought of looking at what hung above in the sky—directly over them!—about to break and fall like a rain of ill!—froze him with sick dread. The shadows were like tentacles and bat-wings and lashing tails. They moved so fast, writhing across the grass, that it was hard to see their full size. Christopher tried to follow one coiling shape, but then it lunged toward him, just the shadow on the grass, and his vision swam sickeningly and his whole body lurched. He almost lost his reins.
No enemy attack had ever breached the city walls before.
Fireworks spangled the sky, somewhere on the far south side of the city. Three of the tethered balloons came apart, their canopies falling in shreds, globes of smoke and fire blooming in their places. From Southwarf, winged lions climbed roaring into the sky.
Cannon boomed from the city’s fortifications. Arrows hissed from the palace, in massed flights.
Christopher clenched his back teeth and looked up just in time to see winged horses leaping from the palace battlements.
Three of them. They plunged, caught the air on enormous wings, soared. These weren’t the tiny pegasoi that carried messages, small enough that young boys were best to ride them. The pegasoi were sparrows, but these were eagles. Knights rode them.
From the lead horse came a crack of lightning sizzling across the sky.
Above, something immense bellowed.
Christopher had to force himself to look at it—something so huge it seemed about to engulf the hill. Enormous and fragmented, bits of sky showing through it, its outline curling and boiling outward. Like smoke, like a storm-cloud. Like an onrushing nightmare.
The winged horses were bright specks climbing valiantly against its breast. Someone bellowed, “Ride! Ride!”
The other riders converged on Christopher, their escorting knights racing in on their horses too. The smaller girls were screaming, but the knights didn’t hesitate. They drove the girls ahead of them. Two converged on Crown on her white gelding. She was shouting what sounded like orders, swinging one arm, and the knights’ mounts turned with hers, toward the shelter of the huge rose-trees halfway down Folly Hill. The other two knights flanked Christopher. Sir Inconnu seized his reins. “Make for the Mage-queen’s roses!”
Above, the vast shadow spilled wind from its wings, stooping.
Their whole group charged headlong for the trees. Christopher thought of a flock of sheep with four very aggressive sheepdogs. He still gulped back sickness. His ears rang; his skin felt tight and icy. It was hard not to hunch over and cover his face.
The lightning cracked again, a shaft blazing into the heart of the monster.
It tattered as it fell. Coming apart. Tiny figures cartwheeled off its back. They fell screaming, a flock of motes around the plummeting monster, all of them vanishing on the far side of Folly Hill. The whole hill shook as they hit.
“Keep riding!” That wasn’t Sir Inconnu, but the girl Crown, in a voice loud enough for three battlefields. In moments their party reached the shadow of the rose-trees, hidden by lashing greenery; wind whipped across the hill, and tremors shook the ground. Christopher couldn’t see the sky anymore, but he could hear the same tremendous confusion of noise. Earthquake noises. Rushing-wind noises, grinding noises. Leaves thrown into his face. The little girls wailing. There was no making sense of it.
“It was stooping for us,” Crown said, off to the left in the milling mass of girls and horses. “Straight for us. I’m going to be sick.” A pause. “No I’m not.” Christopher shot a glance her way, in time to see her jutting her jaw out, in what must be a characteristic expression. “Is that the dragon-sickness the soldiers talk about?”
“Yes but no,” Sir Argan said. “That’s what it is. But it’s called dragonspeech.”
“Dimity! If you fall off your horse, you’ll break something.”
“Y-yes, your grace.”
“Sir Inconnu, if that thing carried troops—“
“Your royal father will have something to say about that.”
Another quake, amidst cracks of thunder. The horses neighed and stamped their feet. “Hold fast, all of you,” Sir Argan ordered. He had taken one of the little girls—the pretty doll-girl from the stables, the one who called him Da—onto his saddle before him, her cheek pressed to his chest and his hand rubbing her back. “Now we wait.”
Crown’s face glowed. “Listen to that! That’s Father for sure. Invincible in battle. The king.”
A knight said grimly, “If we can’t hold them away from the city, we’re done.”