All around the upturned wagon, ruin and confusion stumbled and scattered itself everywhere. The cage had toppled directly onto several travellers, crushing them dead without a chance. Caewen tried not to look too closely, but it seemed to have been the procession with the dragon-armoured man and his taggers-along in robes. Two or three of the latter had escaped and were keening in a sort of high, mad shriek. Blood was spreading in the mud of the road, trickling into the ruts, mixing with grit. Severed limbs lay on the ground too. Caewen felt a retching wave rise in her throat, but she screwed up her eyes, looked away, and managed to bite back the twist of nausea. She tried then to take some bearings. The creature was thrashing and coiling itself into knots on the far side of the wagon. The sheen of its grey-green scales had an oily quality, and when the head came into view it was the head of no snake: long, tapering and ending in a hooked beak, the draconic skull sported a fringe of quills and a membranous crest. From her current vantage, the creature appeared to be fighting someone or something.
“Have you ever seen the like?” said Caewen. Feeling that she was gaping a bit stupidly, she shut her mouth and tried to square her shoulders.
“Yes. Of course.” Dapplegrim snorted. “I am hundreds of years old and have travelled all about the shadowy north. Mind you, this is an unusually large specimen. Wurums don’t usually grow so big. I wonder if someone has been feeding it?”
“Come on, then.”
“Are you sure you want to get closer. It looks like someone else might be handling it.” There did seem to be noises of fighting.
“Come on,” repeated Caewen.
Caewen and Dapplegrim rounded the wagon, slowing their approach only to avoid stepping on what remained of the now very dead wagoner. When they came into direct view of the creature, the sight was strange enough to make Caewen pause as she tried to take it in. The two Forsetti she had seen earlier had dismounted, and taken into hand the short fighting-spears with flanged blades at the butt-end that their people favoured. The young man was dodging and weaving around the wurum, ducking, stabbing and slashing, barely avoiding jaws as they snapped at him. The young woman on the other hand stood not very far away, and was looking, if it could be believed, a mixture of skeptical and bored. As she leaned against her fighting spear, she called out, “Are you certain you don’t want help, little brother?” He just kept stabbing and evading. And actually, Caewen realised, he was not doing a bad job of it. There were already several bloody gashes up and down the length of the wurum’s muscular body. He was not armoured, and was relying instead on own raw speed to keep inches ahead of the snap of teeth.
Caewen and Dapplegrim paused then. She had her sword drawn, but was now uncertain what to do with it. She could feel that the sword had its own ideas: it must have sensed that there was blood on the air, and it grew slightly warmer to touch, slightly impatient. Its gentle thrum and whisper grew more strident in her mind. It was not a powerful magic sword, but there was enchantment enough in the blade all the same. And though she had not owned it long, the weapon had saved Caewen’s life more than once by moving quicker than she could have managed unaided, or artfully deflecting a blow that by all rights ought have shattered every bone in her arm and most of her ribcage.
“I guess–” said Caewen, now quite unsure… but then the fight shifted. The Forsetti youth took a poorly judged step, slipped and fell. He was suddenly and unexpectedly on his back in the mud. The wurum, seeing its chance, lunged and brought its tail up in a twisting arc. On the tip of the tail was a barbed sting, like a scorpion’s stinger, only this barb was as long as a short sword–to say nothing of whatever poison it carried.
It looked as if the sister had been too casual in her appraisal of the fight. Although she tensed at once, she was too far off. Jumping into a quick run, it still looked unlikely that she would reach her sprawled brother in time. Behind her, the sallow-skinned Modsarie with their white kelpie shields were sitting atop their horses, milling about, evidently not prepared to intervene. Their leader, the young woman with the long, stern features and the richly decorated suit of leather and scale, was watching from her saddle intently, almost raptly, leaning forward with a leering expression on her face. She was intent on the outcome of the fight, but had no interest in taking part in it. That much was clear.
“Now!” yelled Caewen.
Dapplegrim burst forward and they crossed the space to the wurum in three quick bounds. Dapplegrim was swifter than any mortal horse. Caewen swung her blade as hard as she could, bringing it about in an arc that bit into a coil of the wurum and sent a grey-black spray of blood out onto the mud and grass.
The wurum screamed.
It was the sort of scream to make bears wet themselves in fear. Every living thing for a league or more would have known in that moment, the best, maybe the only sane thing to do, was hide and hope that whatever had issued that sound of mindless rage would eventually just go away.
Caewen was not in a position to hide.
Instead of plunging its stinger into the prostrate young Forsetti man, the wurum turned its large head around, and stared at Caewen. It blew hot, angry air from its nostrils. It’s eyes grew wide and the gold and green in them spun with mad rage and pain.
“Now you’ve done it,” said Dapplegrim. “He took a few halting steps backwards. Maybe we should run?”
Caewen found herself saying, “No. We finish this or others will die.”
Dapple snorted. “We’re others to someone else you know. Shouldn’t you consider whether we might die?”
As they circled keeping out of reach of a few hesitant, snapping attacks, an ululation crested on the air. The sister appeared out of nowhere. Caewen noticed, oddly, that she was barefoot as she jumped and landed on one of the coils of the wurum, then vaulted, landed on another, higher coil, and from there, leapt to the point where the creature’s neck met the back of the skull. As she did this, the brother, accompanied by his own wild cry, managed to scramble back onto his feet, then swing a hard blow into hard scales and flesh.
Caewen and Dapplegrim hardly had to do anything after that. She did her best to get in one or two more blows, but the sword did not sink much past the creature’s thick rind of a hide. She wasn’t sure that she did anything more than provide a distraction. It was the brother and sister who, between them, killed the thing: the sister was perched up on the neck, using her legs to hold on, and striking the creature about the skull repeatedly, eventually taking out an eye. The brother then crept through a gap in the wurum’s snarls and attacks. He climbed underneath the wattle-like flab of skin that ran down the meaty throat, and, with a twist of shoulders, he thrust his spear upwards, burying it into soft flesh, sending the point deep into the brain. The creature shook three or four times, thrashed once, then fell. As it tumbled sideways, both the sister and brother jumped and rolled away from the dropping mass of meat and scale and horn. It thrashed out a few weak spasms after that, dying like a snake beheaded by a farmer’s shovel. The great coils of lank serpent, as thick around as a young oak, spasmed twice more, then were still.