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“What’s this? What’s this? Is this a snake hole?” The fear and distress in Sylve’s voice seemed to infect her dragon. Mercor came lumbering over and swung his large head down to snort at a spot on the copper dragon’s neck.

“What does it look like?” Alise asked, leery of coming closer while the golden was so intent.

“A raw spot. The dirt around it was damp, maybe with blood. She’s not bleeding now, but…”

“Something jabbed her there,” Mercor opined. “But it’s not a ‘snake hole’ my dear. Still, the blood smell is strong, so she bled quite a bit.”

Alise found her wits. “I don’t think the snakes make a hole and crawl inside. I think they only stick their heads in and drink blood.”

Mercor stood absolutely still, his head still hanging over the copper dragon. His eyes were black on shining black;still Alise had a sense of that color slowly swirling in them. He seemed to go away from them for a time. Then he shuddered his coat, rippling his scales in a way that reminded her more of a cat than a reptile. An instant later, she felt again the presence of his mind, and marveled. If he had not briefly left them, she would never have recognized how strongly he affected her when he was focused on them.

“I do not know about snakes called rasp snakes. These things you describe, I have heard of, long ago, and then they were called burrowers. They dug in deep. They may be more dangerous than the rasp snakes the other keeper spoke about.”

“Sa have mercy,” Sylve said quietly. She stood silently a moment, her rush scrubber still in her hands. Then she abruptly walked around the dragon and pushed her. “Relpda!” she shouted, as if to penetrate the dragon’s stupor. “Roll over. I want to see your belly. Roll over!”

To Alise’s astonishment, the sickly dragon stirred. She moved her hind legs feebly against the mud she sprawled in. She lifted a wobbly head, unlidded her eyes, and then let her head drop back to the earth. “Move away,” Mercor directed them roughly, and both women obeyed him promptly, jumping back to be clear of the prone dragon. Mercor lowered his head, thrust his muzzle under Relpda, and tried to turn her over. She rumbled a feeble protest and scrabbled her legs as if the motion pained her.

“Is he eating her? I don’t think she’s dead!” The protest came from another dragon keeper who had suddenly joined him. Rapskal, Alise thought. Was that his name? He was a handsome lad, despite his Rain Wild strangeness. His thick dark hair and black clawed hands contrasted oddly with his pale blue eyes and angelic smile. His dragon was with him, a dumpy red creature with stumpy legs and a brilliant sheen to her scales. When Rapskal stopped to stare, the small dragon leaned her head affectionately against her young keeper, nearly knocking him over. “Stop it, Heeby. You’re bigger and stronger than you know! Stand up on your own feet.” There was more affection than rebuke in his voice. He gave his dragon a shove, and she playfully nudged him back.

“Mercor’s not trying to eat her,” Sylve explained indignantly. “He’s trying to turn her over so we can check her belly for parasites. There’s a snake kind of creature—”

“I know. I was just over watching them get them out of Sestican. Just about made me puke to see them back out, and Lecter was almost crying and blaming himself. I’ve never seen him so broken up before.”

“But they got them out?”

“Yes, indeed they did. Must have hurt, though. That big blue dragon was squeaking like a mouse as they came out. I don’t know what Captain Leftrin had mixed up, but they put it around the hole where the snake went in and pretty soon it started thrashing its tail, and then it started backing out. Lots of blood and goop come with it, and hoo, what a stink! And then when it finally dropped to the ground, Tats jumped on it and chopped it up with an ax. Made me glad I check my Heeby from top to toe every day. Right, Heeby?”

The red dragon gave a snort in response and shoved Rapskal again, sending the boy staggering. His account had made Alise feel a bit queasy, but Sylve had other things on her mind. “Rapskal, can you get Heeby to help Mercor? We’re trying to turn the copper dragon onto her back.”

“Well, sure I can. All I got to do is ask her. Hey, Heeby! Heeby, look here, look at me. Heeby, listen. Listen, girl. Help Mercor turn the copper dragon onto her back. Understand? Help him turn her over? Can you do it? Can my big strong dragon do that for me? Sure she can. Come on, Heeby. Put your nose under here, right here, just like Mercor. That’s my girl. Now lift and push, Heeby, lift and push!”

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