When the traitors saw that Stephen was a good-humoured, kindly, and easy-going man who inflicted no punishment, then they committed all manner of horrible crimes…For every great man built him castles and held them against the king; and they filled the whole land with these castles. They sorely burdened the unhappy people of the country with forced labour on the castles; and when the castles were built, they filled them up with devils and wicked men. By night and by day they seized those whom they believed to have any wealth, whether they were men or women; and in order to get their gold and silver, they put them into prison and tortured them with unspeakable tortures. And men said openly that Christ and His saints slept.
-The Laud (Peterborough) Chronicle, annal for 1137.
“I eat too much,” Miatig announced. Since half of a chicken was hanging out of her mouth at the time, bloodied feathers flecking her mottled grey snout, the announcement was unclear, and Aethelgyth was forced to ask her to repeat herself.
“Well, you do,” Aethelgyth acknowledged, after giving the question due consideration. “But you keep me alive, Miatig. So it’s all right.”
“But you don’t eat enough. I can see all your ribs.” Miatig nudged Aethelgyth with her nose, smearing chicken blood and feathers on Aethelgyth’s jerkin; Aethelgyth brushed at the feathers and they fell to her kirtle. Since both jerkin and kirtle were very dirty, the blood was really of no consequence – indeed, there were faint shadows of stains on her blue skirts, and darker stains that would not come out of the worn brown leather of her jerkin, that had been there for weeks now. Aethelgyth had tried washing both when they had briefly sought sanctuary at a monastery, without any marked success, and she had not been able to salvage much from the burned-out remains of her home so had very little by way of a change of clothes. She would worry about cleanliness when she reached Hurley Priory; Rohese would not be pleased if the nuns’ first sight of her youngest sister was of a ragged vagrant riding a dragon.
Then again, Rohese might reasonably be distracted by the news that they had both been summarily orphaned.
“You can’t see my ribs,” Aethelgyth said contrarily. “The jerkin’s in the way.”
Miatig huffed, puffs of smoky air appearing from her nostrils. “You know what I mean.”
“Well, if it comes down to that, I can see your ribs too,” Aethelgyth retorted – not without logic. The little dragon, mottled in soft shades of grey and palest blue to match the sky and its clouds, was quite thin for her age and size. She had never been particularly plump. While Aethelgyth’s father had eventually decided to tolerate the bastard offspring of one of the Earl’s more valuable dragons, brought all the way from Aquitaine, he had not been disposed to give Miatig more than was strictly her due. She was lucky to be alive: Aethelgyth knew that if her father had had his way the egg would have been smashed before Geoffrey de Mandeville’s Pou-de-Ciel had even been able to turn around. Fortunately, the Pou-de-Ciel had been an uncharacteristically attentive and ferocious mother. After Robert Gueures and his two sons had nearly lost limbs to her wrath, Aethelgyth’s mother had been able to persuade her husband to stop – setting off a chain of events that had ended with Aethelgyth, at thirteen, cradling a hungry dragonling in her arms and naming it Miatig, for lack of anything else to say. It was true the dragonling, paler at birth than she was now in her adult colouring – and probably cleaner, considering the mud and effluvia both girl and dragon were now liberally spattered with - had had the look of the fine mist that crept about the streets of Pleshey castle town in the early mornings.
“You could at least have named it Brouillard or something,” Robert had complained, standing in the warm, close kitchen with his arms folded and his black brows beetling with irritation as he eyed his daughter and her renegade dragonling. Aethelgyth, whose stubborn tongue had never wrapped itself well around Norman French of the sort her middle sister Rohese spoke so well, had kept her silence. Then Robert had huffed and thrown up his hands and said – “I suppose it’s yours, girl. At least it proves the dam’s fertile. Keep it alive if you can; no matter if you can’t.”
Aethelgyth had kept Miatig alive, and had even raised her into quite a fine little dragon, considering her dam’s evident intractability and the increasingly obvious fact that Miatig had been sired by a passing Grey Widowmaker, feral dragons with foul tempers and a bad reputation for stealing livestock. Her parents used to comment on Aethelgyth’s dragon-raising skills with approval, knowing that Miatig was in a sense part of Aethelgyth’s dowry. Lords wanted dragonmasters, and dragonmasters wanted wives who didn’t scream and run if a dragon addressed them, and who could be trusted to sit up with a sick hatchling and its handler, or keep a valuable egg warm. Aethelgyth’s oldest sister, Edith, had made an excellent match with the Bishop of Winchester’s dragonmaster, and there was no reason why Aethelgyth should not have followed in her steps - she was certainly better suited for the life of a dragonmaster’s wife than for the nun’s vows Rohese had sworn. So Aethelgyth’s mother had embroidered little dragons onto her one good gown and helped her save for ribbons and trinkets to adorn Miatig as she grew, and had even encouraged her to train Miatig as best she could according to the manuals and conduct books her father treasured. Robert had even seemed proud of her efforts sometimes, and had certainly praised her skills where she and Miatig could hear and written to other dragonmasters where they could not. Aethelgyth had been uneasy at the thought of a marriage – it was strange to think of herself as a woman who might marry, so long the youngest child – but had not been upset by it. After all, her parents had envisaged a bright future for her, a good match with every reason to be happy, and one in which she could keep Miatig.
Aethelgyth felt tears sting at her eyes. There had been no reason why she should not have made such a match.
If Aethelgyth tried very hard she could remember a time before the war, but for more than half her life England had been rent between two powerful monarchs and their vassals, high lords and ladies fighting over scraps of land between their great stone castles. Her older brother had followed old King Stephen in the Earl's train, and then Empress Matilda, but he had told them on one of his rare visits home that he no longer tried to understand where they were marching, or why, or who for. So long as his feet followed the Earl’s, he had done his duty. Her younger brother, who was smaller and lighter than either his father or older brother, had sometimes carried messages on that swift and obnoxious Pou-de-Ciel who had disgraced herself by mating with a Widowmaker. However, since the younger Robert would have lost a hand for reading his lord’s correspondence and in any case had neither the imagination nor the literacy to try, that didn’t inform the Gueures family any further. Beyond Geoffrey’s tales and Robert’s occasional flights, the war had seldom come home, except in grave news filtering through the land, or brief letters. One of these had told them of the Rout of Winchester weeks after the fact, and would have caused great consternation in the Gueures household had Edith not written it in her small cramped hand to assure them that she, her husband, and their son had survived the attack.
Aethelgyth had still felt safe, though, with the stone keep of Pleshey Castle louring over the town, her father’s strong arms and the dragons in their mews about them. Treated as if she were terrifying herself for the increasingly large dragonling that followed her around, criticising everything that didn’t move and snapping at almost everything that did, Aethelgyth had never seen any reason to be terrified.
And then the king’s men had come, bearing a writ for the surrender of Pleshey Castle – a demand that the garrison had not taken well.
Aethelgyth had been several miles away in search of an escaped pig when the garrison and the king’s men took to fighting, so she had no idea what had happened or why. By the time she had seen smoke rising over the hills, consigned the pig to Hell, and flown back to Pleshey with Miatig, the skirmish was over, the king’s men in full control of Pleshey Castle – and the castle town half burned out.
The Earl’s Pou-de-Ciel was dead, a circumstance which enraged Miatig. So too were Aethelgyth’s parents and brother. Robert Gueures had been killed beside his younger son, out among the dragons he was devoted to - most of whom had then turned on the attackers, and several of whom had paid a blood price. Robert’s wife Edith, Aethelgyth’s mother, had been cut down in the kitchen, where Robert had stood and grumbled at their daughter about her unfilial decision to try to raise an unwanted hatchling. Since most of the house had probably been on fire at the time, Aethelgyth could only assume that Edith had run into the flames to escape something worse. She had been shot twice in the back.
The castle town had been extinguished shortly after by water a king’s dragon had brought from the river, so that Aethelgyth’s home was not merely charred but sopping. She had hidden with the baker until night fell, and had then been able to creep into her home and take what little remained to be taken – some small store of food, a good knife which had fallen into the hearth, a bowl and spoon; a leather jerkin that had belonged to her brother Robert, and a little money that had been hidden by her mother, somewhere the king’s men clearly hadn’t thought to look for it.
Aethelgyth had been exhausted and frightened, but so too had the baker and his family, so Aethelgyth hadn’t waited for dawn to make her escape. Miatig’s night vision was excellent and there were no dragons patrolling the skies, due partly to the fact that nobody had thought to mention that the dragonmaster’s daughter had a dragon of her own, partly to the fact that everyone but the baker probably thought Aethelgyth and Miatig been caught and murdered by another party of soldiers, and largely to the fact that nobody much cared what happened to them now. Aethelgyth had given some of the money to the baker and asked him to see her parents and brother buried and prayed for, and give word to her brother Geoffrey of her survival if he should chance to return. Then she had tied herself onto Miatig and flown into the darkness, making for her mother’s family near Ely.
Robert Gueures had told Aethelgyth to keep Miatig alive if she could, but in the end it had been Miatig who had kept Aethelgyth alive.
Aethelgyth lost her battle with her tears and issued a snorting, miserable snuffle. Miatig flapped her papery wings in distress, causing a wholly unwelcome breeze and startling Aethelgyth enough that she fell off the rotting log she was sitting on and dropped a perfectly serviceable chicken drumstick.
“You’re crying,” Miatig declared, spitting out the mangled remains of her half of the chicken. “You must be hungry. Here, look, Aethelgyth, you can have the rest of my chicken. Don’t cry!”
Aethelgyth wiped her eyes on the frayed woollen sleeve of her kirtle and retrieved her drumstick, peeling off the dirtied skin and tearing at the meat with her teeth. “I’m fine. You eat, you’re still growing and I’m not.”
“You ought to be,” Miatig said suspiciously, but she nosed at her dropped half-chicken anyway, crunching some bones thoughtfully. “You’re not very big. For a human, I mean. Your sire was very big. And your dam wasn’t small either.”
“Mother’s sisters are shorter than her,” Aethelgyth said, with another pang of pain. It was a strange pain, she thought, separate from the pain that came from the bruises and cuts she knew mantled her body, and the ribs that cried aloud whenever she breathed too deeply. Her aunts had lived with their families near Ely, but it had proven impossible to find any safety in the Fens, and Aethelgyth had the marks to show for it. It was a shame. Aethelgyth had quite often travelled to see them, and one of her uncles on her father’s side – although he had long ago left for his lord’s Normandy estates – close to Peterborough. Though the wide flat skies, silent marshes and secret places of the Fens were not nearly as familiar as Essex was to her, they were much closer to home than anywhere else in the country.
Aethelgyth rallied, and summoned up a glare for Miatig. “And I’m not that short, anyway."
“Yes you are,” Miatig objected, and then continued, raising her razor-edge voice over Aethelgyth’s – “We could find them. We could try again. I’d kill anyone else who hurt you -”
“No,” Aethelgyth said quickly, and swallowed hard. “We can’t risk you hurting anyone else. You would be killed for attacking a man, you know that.”
“I could kill them all,” Miatig ventured, baring her yellowed ivory teeth and licking them with the relish that had made her unpopular in the streets of Pleshey.
“We won’t be that lucky again,” Aethelgyth said gloomily, and then caught her breath in startled shock. Those were not words she could ever have imagined herself uttering a few weeks before, true as they were. The encounter in the Fens had seemed like good luck, at first; one of the men had worn de Mandeville colours and Aethelgyth had hoped he would recognise her, might perhaps have known her for her father’s daughter from the similarity in colouring and features. But he had not known Pleshey, and he certainly had not recognised her in the grey twilight, and that had been bad luck.
His gang had not been very large or had any very powerful weapons. That was good luck, because it meant that Aethelgyth had not been very badly beaten before Miatig’s silently lethal arrival had brought a halt to the fight. Like the Grey Widowmaker who had sired her, Miatig did not give voice in her attacks, which was good luck, because while human screams might be ignored for a person’s own good, few villeins would fail to defend their fellow man from a raging dragon. It was even better luck that none of them had survived to tell the tale. In these dark days, nobody would go looking for a band of troublemakers in the middle of a damp, marshy backwater, and if they did, nobody would think much of the fact that they’d met their fate at a dragon’s claws. Probably nobody would notice that a human hand had dealt several of those slashing blows, and if they did, it was not likely that they would think a girl of Aethelgyth’s age was capable of inflicting them. Nobody had seen them flee, which was good luck: dark had fallen by the time that Aethelgyth and Miatig had composed themselves, sloughed off the worst of the blood, and taken wing for somewhere else – anywhere else.
Aethelgyth rubbed one of the darker patches on her kirtle between her greasy finger and thumb, further blurring the bloodstain. These had washed out better than the stains from turning over her ruined home, perhaps because she had got to them sooner. She'd spent a sleepless night alternately throwing up the little food in her system and scrubbing her kirtle in a stream, trying not to hear Miatig’s absurd and bloodthirsty comments on how foolish Aethelgyth was to be crying and vomiting, since they had won a great victory and men like that were prey anyway. The kirtle had dried out slowly over the course of the following morning; Aethelgyth had curled up under Miatig’s wing dressed in only her chemise, tucked up by the scaly warmth of Miatig’s belly, shielded by Miatig’s powerful legs and razor-sharp claws. She’d slept the sleep of the exhausted.
That afternoon, when Aethelgyth’s kirtle had dried, they had turned west and found the monastery. Aethelgyth had made a partial confession, the sin of it eating away at her, and had accepted the gift of a simple wooden paternoster from a monk old enough to have been her grandfather, who had kind eyes and – unlike some of his brother monks - addressed her in fluent English, even if she had trouble parsing some of his accent, which was thick Fenland Saxon. She had had cause to be grateful for that gift. She told over the beads a great deal, now. She had a lot of sin to expiate and a lot of prayers to address to the Virgin, and whichever saints were most appropriate for her situation. She had a hazy notion that St Agnes might be of assistance, although the St Seaxburh her mother sometimes swore on in moments of great stress was much more likely to be paying attention, having been an English lady in life, and not a Roman maiden.
Aethelgyth gnawed the last threads of meat from her drumstick and rubbed the beads of the paternoster, now hanging around her neck. Miatig still said the paternoster was useless, since it wasn’t shiny or large enough to decorate even Miatig’s front paws with, and that she didn’t understand why Aethelgyth was praying. Aethelgyth was not shocked - she had raised Miatig from an egg, after all, and was familiar with Miatig’s wonky theology – but she did wish Miatig wouldn’t say such things, even if she understood once Aethelgyth explained her hopes for saintly intercession. Aethelgyth couldn’t bear to lose Miatig, too, and she was sure they would both be cast out of any sanctuary they found if Miatig persisted in asking silly questions.
Her fingers tightened on the rough beads, and she felt splinters prick her skin. She only hoped that the saints were awake and listening. She’d heard men in the marketplace say otherwise, and their women scold – as much because they needed to believe that help was coming from somewhere as anything else.
“Are you praying again?” Miatig asked curiously, looming over Aethelgyth, who looked up. Miatig wasn’t a big dragon, as dragons went; Robert Gueures had bred and raised far larger, and Aethelgyth’s brother-in-law raised battle-wyrms twice the size of anything Aethelgyth’s father ever handled. But she was taller than Aethelgyth at the shoulder – taller than any woman Aethelgyth had met, and most men – and when she loomed over Aethelgyth the soft grey bulk of her body blocked out the light.
“No,” Aethelgyth said, tucking the paternoster under the collar of her chemise.
“I still don’t understand why you pray.” Miatig settled back to her previous place in the centre of the clearing, now a large scrape in the soft dirt and thickly fallen autumn leaves that any fool would know a dragon had sat in, and began to clean herself, cat-like. Aethelgyth watched, mesmerised. The Pou-de-Ciel – who the Earl called Mélisande, and who Aethelgyth's family had called Melly - had taught Miatig to do that. It was quite a strange thing for a dragon to do, just as Melly's fierce defence of her egg had been strange; certainly all dragons liked to be clean, just as all humans did, but none of the other dragons Aethelgyth had known had done that. None of the English ones, at least.
Perhaps it was a Norman thing.
“I pray because I hope that the holy saints will intercede for me,” Aethelgyth replied wearily, “and for you, too, Miatig, because I pray for you too –”
“What saint do you pray to for me?” Miatig demanded, pausing in a forensic cleansing of her muzzle. She had missed a bit of flesh and knew it, and was worrying at it without any marked degree of success. “What’s the dragon’s saint?”
“Not St George!” Miatig added fiercely, quicksilver eyes snapping like lightning, and Aethelgyth winced at the memory of the friar who had gone on crusade telling the story of St George and the Dragon, which had been entirely new to Aethelgyth at the time. Had she known it she would have hurried on instead of staying to listen. The friar had been a good storyteller and she hadn’t been aware that the story ended with the dragon’s death, that was her only excuse – but it had felt like a very poor one at the time, trying to drag a recalcitrant and hissing dragonling down the street with everyone staring at her, and the friar looking most affronted. Aethelgyth had given Miatig a very long lecture on the respect due to men of God, and her mother had delivered a longer one on the importance of not embarrassing her mistress in the street, but Aethelgyth was never entirely sure that either of these two homilies took. Miatig had definitely never shown any particular reluctance to embarrass her.
The crusading friar’s Christian name had been David, which suggested a fortunate association of ideas to Aethelgyth, and she pounced on it the way Miatig had pounced on a small roe deer two days ago – only she hoped she would not commit the spoken equivalent of Miatig’s dramatic failure. The roe deer had panicked and sprung away, Miatig had misjudged her landing and hit a tree, and Aethelgyth had fallen off Miatig’s back. Her leather harness was somewhat makeshift, since her father had promised them a real one when Miatig stopped growing, and Miatig still had at least six months’ growth in her. Supposing Aethelgyth did not fail in her duties as dragon-mistress and feed her improperly.
“St David!” Aethelgyth declared belatedly, surreptitiously rubbing one of the bruises she had got from that fall, and worrying about Miatig’s diet. “St David. Saint of the Welsh. The Welsh have dragons.”
“But I’m English,” Miatig said suspiciously.
Aethelgyth resisted the temptation to slap her own forehead. “I know, Miatig. But there are… there are more dragons in Wales.”
“Really?” Miatig said.
“Yes!” Aethelgyth said. She had absolutely no idea if this was true or not: her father had not shared much of the broader picture of his trade with her. She had learned what it was needful for a dragonmaster’s wife to know from her mother, which was a little more than most dragonmasters’ daughters were taught, and a great deal more than most girls of Aethelgyth’s age would ever have wanted to know.
“Oh,” Miatig said, crestfallen. “But I wanted an English saint. For an English dragon. Like my English name.”
Melly had made little secret of how much she disliked Miatig’s name. She would have preferred Geneviève, or Bérengère, or something else French and complicated. Robert Gueures had pointed out to her that she had brought this on herself by mating with a feral Widowmaker, which had put Melly into a foul temper for days. Miatig, by contrast, had always been very clear that she liked having a name in the English tongue Aethelgyth herself was named in, and that had always brought a little secret warmth to a place between Aethelgyth’s ribs.
Aethelgyth sighed. “I’m sorry, Miatig. Sometimes the best saint is not always… always the same as you are.” St Seaxburh was from the Ely area like Aethelgyth’s mother, which was why Edith had always sworn on her, but St Agnes… “You’ve heard me pray to St Agnes, haven’t you? And the Virgin Mary?”
“Yes,” Miatig said, approaching the question with caution.
“Well. St Agnes was from Rome. Which is in Italy. Which is… It’s a very long way away. And the Virgin Mary was from the Holy Land. Which is even further away.” Aethelgyth got to her feet and dusted off her skirts without any noticeable effect. Bruised and strained muscles ached as she stood.
“How much further away?” Miatig pursued, and Aethelgyth bit back another sigh. Her mother would have smacked her for asking so many questions not at all to the purpose, but you couldn’t smack a dragon. At least not one so much bigger than you.
“Much, much further. Two times as far away. No, three.”
“Could we go there?” Miatig suggested, sitting directly upright and looking down at Aethelgyth, her head rising through the pollarded branches of the trees, tilted to one side; the ancient wisdom of the dragon in her eyes, Father Cuthbert used to say indulgently, patting Miatig gently on the shoulder when they met in the street. Aethelgyth hoped Father Cuthbert was not dead – that someone had restrained the king’s men from killing him over his protests for his parishioners’ lives, the way Aethelgyth had stopped Miatig biting Father Cuthbert’s hand.
Aethelgyth’s heart broke a little more. “No,” she said. “It’s a very long way away.”
“You said. But so is London and we almost went there.”
“We did not. That was an accident. And…” Aethelgyth swallowed. “It’s just… much, much further away, Miatig. And they’re fighting a holy war there, it… we wouldn’t be safe. Among soldiers.” She paused. “And pagans.”
It felt almost like an afterthought, although it shouldn’t have been, with all the tales she had heard of Saracen brutality. Aethelgyth had seen the brutality of English soldiers and common yeomen alike, and felt strongly that that was quite enough to be going on with.
“Where are we going to go?” Miatig got to her feet, and lowered her head to nuzzle Aethelgyth’s cheek with the infinite gentleness that Robert had said proved Aethelgyth had raised her correctly – in Aethelgyth’s thrall and no-one else’s. Aethelgyth thought that no dragonling who had taken such perverse delight in tripping up her mistress on the way to the privy every morning was truly in anyone’s thrall, and Miatig had grown into an equally perverse dragon. “What are we going to do, Aethelgyth?”
“I have a plan,” Aethelgyth told her, and flung her arms around the dragon’s neck, burying her face in Miatig’s smooth scales. They were not as clean or as smooth as they should be; she wished for a good clear stream and some beeswax, a soft piece of leather and sheep’s wool still greasy with lanolin. “A plan that means we can stay together, always.”
“What is it?” Miatig bumped her head insistently against Aethelgyth’s. “I think you should tell me. It’s not fair, I carry you all over the country, and -”
“We need to move first,” Aethelgyth interrupted firmly. “I bought that chicken, remember? That means someone knows we were near here, and we won’t be difficult to track.” She looked around the clearing. “Apart from anything else, there are chicken feathers everywhere, and my fire, and your scrape. We have to move for the night.”
“I’ll kill anyone who comes to get you,” Miatig announced, and Aethelgyth groaned and banged her head against Miatig’s neck.
“Miatig! Saints preserve us.”
“You keep saying they will,” Miatig pointed out, and then sighed herself. She was, of course, much larger, and the noise was correspondingly louder and delivered with greater emphasis, but her intonation sounded just like Aethelgyth’s. “Well then. Sort out that stupid saddlecloth and let’s go.”
“Thank you,” Aethelgyth muttered, and went to retrieve the saddlecloth and poorly adjusted tack which she and Miatig had been using for a harness, and which Aethelgyth had strung over various bits of tree to air out.
“Next time you pray,” Miatig said, as Aethelgyth was dumping the whole lot onto her back, “I want you to pray to St David for me, too.”
“I always remember you in my prayers,” Aethelgyth said, thumping Miatig in the ribs and fiddling with the old-fashioned leather straps. “Breathe out.”
Miatig breathed out. “Yes, but I want you to pray to the saint for dragons for me. Since dragons can’t pray.”
“Who told you that?” Aethelgyth demanded, stumbling into the pointy spur on one of Miatig’s elbows. “Ow.”
“Are you hurt?” Miatig demanded, head whipping round.
“No. Who told you dragons can’t pray?”
“Your father,” Miatig said promptly. “He said it was a waste of time.”
“Oh,” Aethelgyth said, digesting this as she knotted and buckled the last pieces of their makeshift harness. “Well. Father Cuthbert always said you had a soul, so you’d better get started praying, because if you’ve only ever prayed when I’ve prayed with you, you have a lot of catching up to do.”
“Ugh,” Miatig said, with entirely predictable disgust.
“Sorry,” Aethelgyth said, and winced as her thigh muscles protested and she slid down Miatig’s side with an unladylike grunt. Normally she would climb onto Miatig’s back using Miatig’s elbow to help her reach the stirrup high up Miatig’s side, but that seemed an impossibility, after sitting still for so long. Her muscles had knotted, and Aethelgyth had little hope of heat or help to unknot them again. Her mother had had a salve, cool with mint and hot with mustard, that her father and brother had used after long days flying in the cold air, when every muscle fixed into its place dragonback. But every last pot had burned with Aethelgyth’s home, and Aethelgyth didn’t have the ingredients or the equipment to make it. “Could you – could you kneel down a bit, my legs hurt.”
“Are you hurt?” Miatig demanded again, head swinging around, eyes narrowing accusatorily.
“You said that before.” Miatig’s snout loomed closer, chicken blood and the scent of earlier meals on her breath, and Aethelgyth recoiled. There were bits of old food stuck between Miatig’s teeth, which was even more unsightly than such a thing would have been on Aethelgyth. Aethelgyth added a good wooden toothpick to the list of items she wished she had to care for Miatig better, and wondered if a large twig might be found that would serve. At present neither she nor Miatig were doing their parents justice, but Aethelgyth found it easier to discount her responsibilities towards herself than towards her dragon.
“Your breath is disgusting,” Aethelgyth informed Miatig. “And I’m not hurt. Only bruised and stiff. Please, Miatig, I want to find somewhere to stay before night falls.”
Miatig collapsed onto her belly. “Fine.”
Aethelgyth clambered on with less than her usual grace, and tied and buckled herself into place, tucking the thick material of her kirtle under her legs as closely as possible before knotting the straps around her thighs and calves. She trusted Miatig to do her best to keep them both safe, but it was difficult not to contrast her patched-together harness, with its handles padded with rags, oversized girth-belts, and straps too big for either dragon or girl taken from various old harnesses, with the supple, gleaming, constantly adjusted harnesses her father oversaw the construction and care of. The contrast was even less favourable than it might have been, since Aethelgyth’s harness had been mended and cleaned and waxed carefully on a daily basis until the disaster at Pleshey and now looked… Well. As dirty and disreputable as both girl and dragon.
Miatig stood up and danced on her paws.
“Stop that,” Aethelgyth said, patting the plaits holding her light brown hair and trying to make sure the snood that held them in place despite the wind was as secure as her mother had taught her to make it. Then she pulled the grey woollen scarf that had been hanging loosely around her shoulders off and wrapped it tightly around her head, tucking the ends into the collar of her jerkin and tightening that as well. It was an old one of her brother’s, so fit poorly, but it was snug enough to keep her scarf in place and stop her head and ears freezing amongst the clouds.
“Are you ready or not?” Miatig said, dancing a little more, just to be difficult.
“I am now,” Aethelgyth said, leaning forward and holding on tight to the handles. “Let’s go.”
Miatig’s powerful hindquarters tensed and her wings carved the air, and then they bounded into the sky, and Aethelgyth’s breath caught as it always did.
This is what it must feel like to be an angel, she thought, as so often – and then wondered guiltily, in light of her conversation with Miatig, if that was blasphemous.
The day was a comparatively fine one, although autumn’s chill was more pronounced in the air and there were few hours of daylight left. Miatig circled idly on the thermals, heading generally west and south on Aethelgyth’s shouted instructions, and Aethelgyth watched the ground for suitable places to set down while Miatig watched the skies for other dragons.
In the week and a half they had been fleeing, they had seen very few dragons, and the only one they had been at all close to was an underfed and skittish feral that had fled from Miatig’s wrath. The others had been in the distance: once a single messenger and once a small fleet comprising an enormous battle-wyrm with archers on its back escorted by a couple of middleweights harnessed for war. None of them had not spotted Aethelgyth and Miatig, thanks chiefly to luck but also to the facts that nobody was exactly looking for an orphaned girl on a messenger-weight dragon, and that Miatig’s colouring was perfect for concealment in the sky. Aethelgyth’s own faded blue dress and grey scarf helped. Even her jerkin, a hand-me-down from the long-gone days when Aethelgyth’s oldest brother was small enough to fly messenger-weight dragons, was relatively pale and lined with creamy sheepskin, a soft biscuit colour Edith had picked out to stop Geoffrey standing out in the sky. So Aethelgyth and Miatig had been able to see the other dragons, and drop out of sight before anyone had spotted them in return.
Also, while Aethelgyth’s geographical knowledge was extremely shaky, it was not difficult to see and avoid large stone fortifications in the distance, and few people kept dragons outside castles; only lords with battles to fight wanted them, or indeed could afford them. Miatig had eaten everything Aethelgyth had found for her and was still plainly ravenous – Aethelgyth was sure the two of them would have been taken up for poachers and hanged if the country were less disordered and anyone had the leisure to pay attention to what they probably thought were the depredations of a single feral Grey Widowmaker - and Miatig was not a large dragon. She also ate fish, which many dragons would not, and though Aethelgyth had no line or hooks and the water was increasingly cold she knew from her oldest brother’s childhood lessons how to fish for trout and other freshwater fish with her hands, enticing them in and then flipping them out onto the bank for Miatig to kill. Anyone with a larger dragon would need access to herds of sheep and cows and deer: only a lord could afford it, and only a lord at war – or, Aethelgyth supposed, a really peculiar lord – would want to.
Aethelgyth shivered, and not because of the biting cold nipping at her rounded cheeks and childishly soft nose. Her plan to keep herself and Miatig alive and together hinged on someone other than a lord wanting a courier. She only hoped she hadn’t made a mistake.
"Where do you want to set down?" Miatig howled over the wind, and Aethelgyth was called back to herself with a jerk.
"I don't know yet," she shouted back, and focused her eyes on the ground below. Nowhere where tendrils of smoke curled up in the sky; somewhere sheltered. Somewhere fairly close to water... somewhere as far as possible from buildings.
They spent another fifteen minutes in the air, by the end of which Aethelgyth had risked letting go of the handles to tuck her frozen hands into her armpits and wish that - on that pig-hunting expedition, which felt like it had taken place centuries ago - she'd had the forethought to bring gloves. And then Aethelgyth spotted somewhere that seemed about right, and her heart bounced eagerly.
"There," she yelled. "Lower a bit, circle closer, tell me what you think."
Miatig obligingly folded her wings and dropped like a stone, a procedure which no longer made Aethelgyth shriek with terror the way it once had, but still startled a bubble of a gasp from her lips. They circled over the proposed landing spot for a couple of minutes before Miatig craned her head back and shouted: "I thought you wanted to go further south today?"
"It'll do," Aethelgyth replied, very loudly. If truth be told, she wasn't sure of her direction. She had asked the farmer's wife she had bought the chicken from for help, but the other woman had never been further afield than Reading in her life, and had no certain notion of where a small priory might be. Aethelgyth's own notion of landmarks near Hurley Priory wasn't particularly exact, either; she just knew that if you hit Salisbury you'd gone too far west. Her brother Robert had sometimes flown messages from the Earl or the Earl's lady to Hurley Priory, but of course, he hadn't told her how he'd got there. He had simply gloated a lot about the fact that he was allowed to fly places by himself for a purpose, no matter that he hadn't got his own dragon yet.
Aethelgyth blinked and held on tight, eyes streaming in the bitter wind as Miatig plummeted towards the earth. Sometimes she missed him, too.
They landed with a bit of a thump moments later, Miatig spreading her wings to soften the landing as best she could without snagging trees on her way down. Aethelgyth sat up straight and looked around her, gathering her wits. The clearing was smaller than the one they had left half an hour ago, and darker - not just because night was falling but because of the greater shade the trees afforded and a steep bank that left a wide, flat, half-hidden space between the sluggish stream and its earthen bulwark. The only buildings close by were a mile away, and one of them had looked abandoned.
"Good," Aethelgyth said, rubbing her hands together against the cold. They were stiff and slow. "We'll stop here."
Miatig shook herself a little, making Aethelgyth yelp and grip tightly with her thighs. "Get off my back, then."
Now that darkness was creeping across the sky it spread rapidly, like ink in water, and of course they had no fire. Though it was uncomfortable, Miatig slept in her harness, partly for the warmth of the saddlecloth it held on and partly because both of them feared having to fly in the night without it, if they were discovered. For similar reasons, Aethelgyth slept fully dressed, leather boots and all, and with her knife stuffed into her belt.
The two of them chose a place close into the bank, where they would be at least partly sheltered from any rain in the night, and where they would not be easily visible. A badger's sett was close by, but Aethelgyth had yet to meet the badger that would bother Miatig. Most animals fled from her if she moved, correctly assuming that she was a very hungry predator.
Aethelgyth glanced up at the sky, which was rosy with sunset, and estimated that she had only half an hour more of good light – less, in their shaded sleeping spot. She went and found a twig she could use as a toothbrush, and a much larger twig she could use to pick Miatig’s teeth. She trimmed the twig for Miatig while Miatig raked leaves into their sleeping place, and then used it to lever the pieces of old food out from between Miatig’s teeth. Miatig complained a great deal, but since her breath smelled foul Aethelgyth was able to point out that she was suffering at least as much as the dragon, and to deliver several dire warnings about tooth-worms creeping into Miatig’s mouth and making her lose her teeth if Miatig didn’t shut up and let Aethelgyth get rid of the old food. Aethelgyth almost threw up her half of the chicken from earlier, and wished fervently that she had done this days before, and that she could feed Miatig bulbs of fennel and a great deal of dill-weed to counteract the terrible breath.
Miatig turned her back on Aethelgyth and sulked while Aethelgyth trimmed and frayed her own toothbrush, and tentatively cleaned her own mouth, hoping her own breath wasn’t as bad. She still had all her teeth and hadn’t had a toothache since she was a little girl – the wormeaten baby tooth in question had been pulled – but she wasn’t sure exactly what that had to do with bad breath. Then Aethelgyth went down to the stream, and washed her face, hands and sweaty armpits and feet in the water. It was freezing cold, so she didn’t hang around, drying her feet and hands and face rapidly on the skirts of her kirtle, but she felt a little cleaner for having done it.
The moon had now risen, and the rays of the sun died away completely. A lucky strike through the trees lit up Aethelgyth’s face reflected in the shivering water, and she stared at herself for a moment, struck by her sudden resemblance to her father. That small crease between the lowering dark brows and hard tilt to the jaw was his, for all her hair was much lighter and straighter – it hung in loose curls when she didn’t braid it up – and the rounded cheeks and round, wide-set grey eyes were her mother’s. Her resemblance to her mother had always been remarked on, though it wasn’t as strong as her sister Rohese’s…
Aethelgyth touched the line between her forehead in something like wonder, and asked herself who she was going to be like if she lived to be old.
A minnow flickered in the stream, breaking the image, and Aethelgyth shook herself, pulled her boots back on, and hurried back to Miatig’s side. Miatig was still curled up away from her: Aethelgyth rolled her eyes and unpinned her wool net snood, putting the pins in the apron of her skirts where they stretched over her crossed legs so she couldn’t lose them. Carved bone, they shone dully there, and she kept a careful eye on them as she pulled her plaits down, combed through her greasy brown hair with her fingers, and redid her hairstyle. She stuffed the snood and the pins that had held it into the sack where they kept their few belongings, and then got to her feet.
“How much longer are you going to sulk?” she asked Miatig, and yawned widely. “Because I’m tired.”
Miatig grumbled – a noise that had quite an impact when it came from a creature with a chest the size of a fishing boat – and flopped over onto her other side, lifting a wing and showing Aethelgyth the space she had left for her. “Come on. I thought you were never going to be finished. Why are you so finicky?”
“It’s not being finicky, it’s just…” Aethelgyth sighed, and crawled into the warm space beside Miatig’s belly, where the scales were softer and lay flat over each other. She could hear Miatig’s enormous heart beating, slow and steady, and feel the expansion of her ribs as she breathed in and out. Unconsciously, she matched her own breathing to the dragon’s slow pace. “Never mind.”
She had just curled herself up inside kirtle and jerkin, scarf bunched up under her head for a pillow, when she heard Miatig speak with a quiet determination that woke her with a jolt.
“Now tell me what your plan is.”
It was like hearing Miatig ten years from now, a mature adult dragon with a purpose and an eyrie and perhaps hatchlings of her own for Aethelgyth to raise and choose handlers for, the way she might have done if she’d married that hypothetical dragonmaster. She had sometimes imagined raising her children alongside Miatig’s dragonlings, choosing hatchlings for her daughters and her husband’s apprentices and teaching them to be the finest couriers England had ever seen – dragons and riders fit for a king’s service, showing the world that Miatig was worth a thousand of their weedy purebreds.
That had been when she was a girl, which was to say up until about two weeks previously. But hearing Miatig speak like that, with a calmness Aethelgyth had never heard from her before, flung Aethelgyth headfirst into all those dreams of what they could have been. She wallowed for a moment, almost lost, and then Miatig spoke again, a petulant twist to her tone that brought Aethelgyth right back down to earth.
“Fine then, don’t tell me. I suppose dragons don’t need to know the de-”
Aethelgyth thumped Miatig in the ribs. “I’m getting there, I’m getting there, I just… give me a moment.”
Miatig shifted and rumbled again. “Fine.”
Aethelgyth closed her eyes and thought about the best way to put this. She hadn’t spoken her plans aloud to anyone yet, too frightened that if she did the information she shared would somehow put her in danger, or that the plan would seem stupid, tissue-thin and foolish once laid out in words. It was the only plan she had for herself and Miatig, and she could think of nothing else to do: she couldn’t afford to be wrong. Few people had asked her about her plans: there were enough impostors and thieves on the roads that nobody wanted to know what a stranger was about, so long as they were off the property in short order. The monk who had given her the paternoster had asked, but Aethelgyth had merely mumbled something about commending her soul and Miatig’s to Christ, and fled.
She might have considered trying to stay at the monastery, but there had been no nuns or lay sisters, and the prior had stared at her as if she were half a mouse and he wanted to know where the other half had got to. There had been no place for her, not even with her dragon-mistress’s skills. The monastery had been well-endowed if it hadn’t been large, and one of the postulants had a beautiful Chasseur-Vocifère called Roland, a perfect specimen of the breed from its whiplike tail to its wide amber eyes and autumn-leaf colouring. It had been impossible for the prior to prevent Aethelgyth speaking to the postulant, whose name was Gilles, since the monastery’s facilities for dragon accommodation were limited and Roland was only a yearling, still in need of his master’s constant companionship. Aethelgyth had had quite a pleasant conversation with Gilles while Roland tried to be polite to Miatig in perfect Norman French and received nothing but Essex-accented slander and abuse in return, and had learned enough to know that Gilles was being brought up to carry out every function a monastery with hopes of influence might desire from a dragon. They had no need of a mongrel dragon and a half-Saxon rider who could not take a monk’s vows and had neither influential relatives at court nor insight into the people driving the war onwards like a cruel master pushing a dragon until it foundered and could not fly.
Still, Gilles had given her some useful ideas and perspective in return for Aethelgyth’s advice on caring for a dragon, which had been all she had to share in return: it was easy to see where Roland had got his beautiful manners from. In fairness, her father had raised two Chasseur-Vocifères in Aethelgyth’s lifetime, though neither had been quite as lovely as Roland, so Aethelgyth did know what she was talking about.
Aethelgyth took a deep breath and focussed. “You won’t remember my sister Rohese,” she said slowly. “The nun.”
“You’ve talked about her,” Miatig said uncertainly.
“Rohese went to Hurley Priory two years ago. She was a favourite of the Earl’s lady – that’s where her name is from. Countess Rohese de Mandeville. Anyway – she was always clever, and devout, very devout.” Aethelgyth swallowed. “She wanted to become a nun. She had a true vocation. So my father petitioned the Earl’s lady, and she had my sister sent to Hurley Priory.”
“Near here. Somewhere.” Aethelgyth closed her eyes. “I hope. I know it’s near the Thames. And it’s not as far west as Salisbury.”
Miatig shifted a little. “What’s it like?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been. But we hear from Rohese sometimes… Sister Marie, that’s what she calls herself now.”
There was a brief silence, and then Miatig said blankly: “What?”
“Nuns sometimes… often… change their names. Like a woman changes her name when she gets married. She’s a Bride of Christ. So she changed her name.”
“Yes,” Aethelgyth said. “Like Mary. That’s how the Countess says Mary.”
“Is she… French?”
“No.” Aethelgyth sighed. “Lords and ladies speak French, not English.”
Miatig digested this in silence. After a few moments, she said: “Do you want to be a nun?” She sounded as if she were attempting the mental equivalent of eating an entire half-sheep in one gulp, simply because she had told Aethelgyth she was capable of doing it and therefore she was going to do it. “Do nuns have… dragons? Like what’s his name. With the horrible Chasseur-Vocifère.”
“No!” Aethelgyth said, with unintended emphasis. “I mean, I don’t know. And I am not going to find out by becoming a postulant the moment I turn up on the doorstep!”
“Then… will your sister take us in?” Miatig asked, doubtfully. “She can’t be very senior. How long has it been?”
“Perhaps,” Aethelgyth said. “And four years. She was a postulant for one year and a novice for two; she took her final vows… last Michaelmas. Not Michaelmas gone, the one before that.” Aethelgyth turned onto her back and considered, trying to guess the shape of her sister’s life from what little she knew of nuns and what she remembered of Rohese, who she had never been able to remember to call Sister Marie. “No, I don’t think she can be senior, but she – she is quick, and she has the countess’s personal recommendation. The Earl and Countess Rohese gave the priory a lot of land and money at the same time as they sent her. It wasn’t… the price of taking her in, but the two gifts were… together.”
“Oh.” Miatig thought some more about this.
“They are quite rich,” Aethelgyth said, warming to her theme. “And I know they haven’t a messenger, or hadn’t when Rohese sent her last letter. It would have got here much sooner if they had. The monks and nuns will need to know what’s happening, they’ll need someone to carry their letters and take people to plead the priory’s case. You could carry another person, if they were skinny and we had better tack, and you’ll get bigger.” She rolled closer to Miatig. “Think about it, Miatig. It would be… it would be good, wouldn’t it? If we could do it. We’re strong enough and clever enough. You even speak French, though I… don’t. And I know how Robert was supposed to act, as a messenger, I was listening when Father gave him all those instructions…”
“That Chasseur-Vocifère said I had quite a good accent,” Miatig said cautiously. “For an English dragon.”
“Roland,” Aethelgyth corrected, hot relief running through her now Miatig was beginning to accept her plan. “His name was Roland. And his master was Gilles. Gilles talked a lot about being a messenger, too, so maybe… Maybe I can make something of this. Maybe we can. Together.”
“We could fly all over the country,” Miatig said, almost sounding pleased with the idea. “We could go anywhere.”
“And as a priory’s messenger we’d have safe conduct,” Aethelgyth said eagerly. She had private doubts about how effective a simple letter of safe conduct would be, but dressed as a lay sister, wearing a paternoster – perhaps she could polish hers into something a little more impressive – and carrying messages from men and women of God, she would be safer than she was now. “We’d have to go where we were told, of course – and I might have to become a nun – eventually. But we could see.”
“We could see,” Miatig echoed thoughtfully.
“Do you like the idea?” Aethelgyth asked. A note of shyness crept into her voice, and she couldn’t stamp it out.
“I do,” Miatig said decidedly.
“You would have to be polite,” Aethelgyth warned. “And quiet. Sometimes.”
Miatig huffed; Aethelgyth felt her ribcage puff outward. “I suppose I could. If I had to.” She paused. “And… well. What else could we do? If this doesn’t work?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we’d go back and try to find my aunts – but it’s a long way back, and it’s not safe.” Aethelgyth clenched her hands into fists: in the perfect darkness under Miatig’s wing, no-one could see them, including herself. “Maybe my sister Edith. You don’t know Edith either, she lives in Winchester and her husband’s a dragonmaster…”
“Winchester is where the king goes, isn’t it?”
“It used to be. And if there’s a king there…” Aethelgyth shuddered. As far as she was concerned, places royalty went were to be avoided as permanent residences, on the basis that trouble followed old King Stephen wherever he went, and trouble would probably follow Empress Matilda if she were to be Queen, too. She had expressed this opinion in front of Miatig, with a stern warning not to repeat it, and Miatig had agreed with her logic wholeheartedly. “But we could write to Edith from Hurley Priory, if Rohese said we couldn’t stay.” She sighed again, and shifted her scarf under her head to get more comfortable. “I’d think of something if we had to, Miatig. It’s just that this is the best plan I have.”
“It’s a good plan,” Miatig said, with the supreme confidence of the young. “We’ll fly to Hurley Priory in the morning. Wherever it is.” She settled her legs and wing more closely around Aethelgyth, and poked her in the head with an elbow spur. Aethelgyth, touched, did not complain. “Go to sleep, Aethelgyth. You’ll need to be clever for us to pull this off.”
“Good night, Miatig,” Aethelgyth said, smiling drowsily and patting Miatig’s leg affectionately. In the silent woods, disturbed by nothing more dangerous than a hooting owl, the pair of them slept.
The badger came out of his sett in the middle of the night and looked at the dragon who had invaded his home, and the patch of trailing fabric visible beneath her wings. Wisely, he decided not to meddle, and went the other way.