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Again, I was aware of the flow of comfort that went with those words. The dragon too seemed affected by them. Or perhaps it was exhaustion that made his struggles slow and then cease.

“Mind the edge of the pit, man. The ramp is this way. Swift, guide your father down there. We'll need him.” Web's brow was bleeding from a glancing blow from a chunk of flung ice. He strode past us, unmindful of his own hurt, shovel in hand. For the first time, I became aware that the blast had injured some of us. One Hetgurd man was down, unconscious in the snow, blood trickling from his nose and ears. One of his fellows knelt by him in bewilderment. Civil had caught his hissing cat and held him in an awkward hug, trying to calm the struggling animal. I looked around for Dutiful, and saw him already hurrying down the ramp toward the trapped dragon, using a pry bar as a stave as he descended. The floor of the pit had been broken, reminding me of ice floes on a restless sea.

“My prince! Be careful! He may be dangerous!” Chade bellowed after him, and then he went hastening down the ramp and into the pit. Witted and unWitted alike converged on the trapped creature and began removing the loosened chunks of ice. It was hazardous, for the dragon continued to buck and heave as he struggled to free himself.

The stench was terrible. Starvation and dormant snake fouled the air. Burrich seemed unfazed by it as he stepped forward and then set his hands calmingly on the creature's black and scaly hide. “Be easy. Let us clear away the loosened ice before you struggle any more. Breaking a wing now will not help you.”

He stilled. It was not Skill but Wit that carried to me the dragon's panicky suffocation. I sensed Icefyre's attention was focused elsewhere now, and suspected that he communicated with Tintaglia. I hoped he would tell her that we were trying to help him.

“We need to get his head free. He can't get enough air to struggle,” Burrich told me as I came closer.

“I know. I feel it, too.” I tried not to smirk as I added, “I am Witted, you know.”

I had not realized that Swift would overhear me. Perhaps, because my ears were still ringing, I had spoken more loudly than I thought. But he stared at me, avid and intent. “Then you are FitzChivalry, the Witted Bastard. And it's true that my father raised you in the stables?” There was a strange lilt in his voice, as if he had suddenly discovered a link to fame and legend in his own family. I suppose he had, but I did not think it was healthy.

“We'll discuss it later,” Burrich and I said at almost the same instant. Swift gaped at us and then gave a strangled laugh.

“Clear that loose ice from around his left shoulder,” Web called as he strode by, and men hastened to obey him, Swift among them.

But Web halted beside us, pick in hand. A sharp motion of his hand halted Swift beside him. Quietly he observed to Burrich, “Later will not wait forever, for either of you. A time will come when both of you will have to explain yourselves to this lad.” Yet his words were not a rebuke, and I almost thought that a small smile played across his face when he spoke to us. He bowed to Burrich and went on, “Forgive me if I offend. I know that your sight is failing you, but your shoulders and back still look strong. If your son guided you, you could be most useful helping to pull the sleds full of ice chunks away from the worksite. Would you help us, Burrich?”

I thought Burrich would refuse. I knew he still wished to avoid Web and all he stood for. But the request had been made courteously, and it was a way in which Burrich could be genuinely helpful. I could guess how it chafed him to stand by a trapped animal while others labored to free him. Web's offer was also putting Swift right at Burrich's side, under his paternal authority. I saw Burrich make a difficult compromise. He spoke, not to Web, but to Swift, saying, “Guide me to the sled, lad, and let's put our backs into it.”

I was left standing alone as Swift and Burrich, father and son, departed to do Web's bidding. I watched them take up the hauling lines alongside Civil and Cockle. They leaned into their work, and despite Burrich's bad leg, his brawn was much the greatest there. The laden sled moved steadily up the ramp and out of the pit. It had been neatly done, that throwing together of them, and I think Burrich welcomed it as much as Swift did not. Did Web try to mend the rift between them, even as he sought to mellow Burrich's attitude toward the Wit?

I was still pondering the permutations of that when the final blast went off.

I now believe that the little kettle I had carelessly left burning when I retreated from the dragon's head had continued to burn. Did it eventually ignite the hides it rested upon, spreading fire to the oil flask and to the powder container? Or had the flask of oil spilled when the earlier, smaller blasts overset it on the hides near the powder and kettle? I have spent far too much time wondering about such useless questions.

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