Cornelius waited, watching the woman across the fire. The defiance in her eyes melted to mild surprise.
"Dragon," she repeated.
"Aye, that's what I said."
"You lost someone to a dragon."
The woman folded her hands together and dropped them in her lap. She stared at her thumbs. "It was a dragon that took my Loretta and her mother."
"South. South east. Down river aways on the prairie."
Cornelius frowned down at the woman. "And you're chasing after them?"
"You're hunting the dragons too?"
She pried her eyes off her hands and looked Cornelius directly in the eye. "Tell me everything you know about them."
Cornelius gave a dry chuckle. Gristle's ears pricked up where he lay staring at the fire.
"We can exchange information, sure. First, you tell me your story."
She sighed. "Not much to tell, really. I didn't give them much of a fight. It was early morning, two days back. I was off feeding the pigs. Loretta gathered eggs from the hen house with her mother. I'd warned them both to stay close to home after we'd heard about the dragons."
Cornelius shot forward, his head hanging over the fire, the bristle on his chin glowing in the light. "Who told you there were dragons?"
"It was on the radio. We didn't know the language. It came from some place out east called Graden. There was a boy visiting who was able to translate. He said that in Graden, they'd had trouble with dragon riders coming at night, taking people."
Cornelius sat back and rubbed his chin. "Plenty o' chatter on the radio," he said. "And almost none of it's in the king's English. Where is this translator boy of yours?"
She shrugged. "He and his friend moved on. They were just drifters."
She put her hands together and studied the fingertips. "I'd seen winged creatures the night before, circling overhead. I guessed what they might be, and we spent a tense night with bows and knives ready. Before sunrise, the sky looked clear, so we thought they'd moved on. Turns out they were hiding over the next ridge, waiting for us to let our guard down.
"I didn't see them coming," she continued. "One minute I was calling the pigs. Then, Loretta screamed—the chickens all clucking bloody murder. I turned in time to see her carried off by a dragon, her arms waving, her legs kicking. She was calling my name—calling for help. I ran as fast as I could. The second rider had jumped off his dragon and chased Petunia inside. By the time I got there he had her slung over the back of his dragon. I lunged up and only just caught the dragon by the tail. I didn't even slow the thing down. It flipped its tail like a bullwhip and sent me sailing. Nearly broke my shoulder."
She took a stick and shoved it deep into the glowing embers of the fire. "And that's it. I took ten minutes to gather what I needed and headed in the direction the dragons had gone. Been on the trail since that morning."
Cornelius nodded as she spoke, his eyes squinting, deep in thought. When she was done, he said, "So they scouted your place ahead of time."
"Why'd they only take the others? Why not you?"
"Of the three, I'm the strongest."
"So, they prey on the weak?" Cornelius's face darkened. If they only wanted Ganny because she was helpless, there was a good chance she was already dead. What use was a weakling, except to be a handy meal.
The woman seemed to follow his line of thinking. She quickly added, "And of the three, I'm the only one without spark."
Cornelius's eyes shot up. "Really? Your people have magic?"
She nodded. "Powerful, both of them. But no good in a fight."
Cornelius's eyes fell to the fire. "Ganny's father was a warlock. A good man. She'd shown no sign she had his gifts, but I'm no judge of such things."
They were silent. The fire hissed. The woman leaned over the embers, stabbed her knife into the stew pot and withdrew a chunk of meat. As she ate, she said, "What's your story? How'd they get your girl?"
His frown deepened to a scowl. "Same as you. We'd been scouting the desert west of here. There were three of us originally. There was a lad..." Cornelius's voice trailed off. Wink wasn't exactly a "lad." Cornelius himself was 120 years old, and he suspected Wink might be at least that old.
Cornelius played out the last moments with Wink in his head, how the "boy" had grown more agitated after encountering that pipsqueak in the old temple, refusing to eat, refusing to speak, and eventually refusing to continue in their company. Cornelius had left the boy beside a narrow stream in the middle of nowhere, hunched over, rocking and chanting.
"Go on," the woman prompted.
"Almost the same story as yours. A dragon had been circling over us for two nights. We'd stopped to camp at an oasis. I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of Gristle here barking and snarling. Ganny cursed and shouted and put up one hell of a fight. By the time I was up, all I saw was the ass end of a dragon, flying off in the moonlight. I chased it with my jeep but lost it in the darkness. We drove till we were out of petrol. Then we ran."
"How long ago?" the woman asked.
"Two nights. Probably hours before you lost yours."
"So there's more of them than just two."
"So it would seem."
They were quiet.
"Can I have my bowl back?"
Cornelius tossed it to her, then tossed the spoon. She caught them and scooped up the remaining stew.
He watched her eat for a minute, then stood. "I'll give you five minutes to get your gear together. Then we get going."
She looked startled. "You want to team up?"
"Why not? We're after the same thing. And you're a fair cook."
She scoffed. "And in a pinch, I'll make a fair meal."
Cornelius paced beside the fire. "No. Humans taste horrible. I'd rather eat dirt."
"Eat up, woman. You have four minutes and forty seconds."
She watched him. Finally, she nodded and downed the rest of her stew in three big bites. She jumped up and gathered her things. "I don't know if I'm even on the right trail," she said. "I've been heading northeast, near as I can figure. But..."
"Don't fret, lass. I can smell them. So can Gristle here. We'll find 'em. And when we do, we'll kick their collective asses."
A smile curled the corner of her lip. "My name's Jane, by the way." She extended her tiny hand.
"Cornelius," he replied. "And you don't want to shake my hand. I have a skin condition. A smile and a nod will have to do."
Minutes later, they raced over the hills, Gristle in the lead, barking and panting. Cornelius ran, barely breaking a sweat. Jane was not far behind, her raptor matching his pace.
"I'm coming, Ganny," Cornelius muttered. "I'll find you, and when I do, I'll tear that bloody dragon into two pieces and its rider into three."