Darius was expecting a quiet day. Reach one city, drop off his packages, receive some new ones, move on – in all the time he’d been a courier, that was how his days had gone. Sometimes he stayed there for only a short time, sometimes longer, sometimes he spent the night; it all depended on how tired his beast was, and how far he could expect to get before nightfall. At the moment, he was looking forward to a warm meal, a cold drink, and a soft bed once he arrived at Gervin’s Vale.

His plans did not include the whiff of an arrow past Jadetalon’s wing, but this, in fact, happened.

Darius spat out a curse, shifting his knees and tugging the lower reins to urge the drake lower and to the right. He’d heard enough arrows in flight to recognize that sound quite well, but where the devil was it coming from? Who would be mad enough to interfere with a royal courier within sight of a city’s walls?

Another arrow whipped past him, and this time he was able to see where it was coming from.

Someone might just be that sort of mad if they held the best-fortified city in the west, and were shooting from the walls…

Every curse he’d ever learned scrambled for place on his tongue as he wheeled Jadetalon around, back northward. He had to get back to Frostwatch – had to tell someone what was going on. He had to keep moving…

His efforts to fly low and fast were almost enough. Gervin’s Vale was shrinking behind him, the dense trees of the Sunset Wood almost beneath them, when Jadetalon shrieked and bucked in mid-air, tumbling leftward.

It had been a surpassingly lucky shot on that archer’s part. A bit further forward and the arrow would have missed entirely; a tiny bit back and it would have gone through the wing membrane – a painful wound and one that would need time on the ground to rest and heal, but not dire. If it had landed to the left or right, again, it would have been a significant but not horrible injury. Instead, the arrow had struck the wrist joint of the drake’s left wing, effectively paralyzing much of the limb.

There was nothing Darius could do. Jadetalon keened in agony, struggling to fight the pain, to level out despite his near-crippled wing. Any effort on Darius’s part to guide him would’ve just confused him; he let go of the reins and clung to the drake’s neck, instead, and prayed for his dear life to whatever gods might be listening.

The drake flared his good wing at the last moment. Darius lurched off his shoulders and fell painfully onto a bush – dense, springy, and thorny; it could have been worse, but the pain stole breath from his lungs.

He didn’t have time for his own pain, though. He shushed and crooned at the injured drake, glad beyond telling that Jadetalon hadn’t been more than scraped by the rough landing. Somehow, he managed to quiet the beast enough that he could reach for his packs and some healing salve.

They needed to get under the cover of the trees – and soon.

Darius tugged off a glove and poured a daub of salve onto his fingers. They tingled and went numb almost instantly, but he forced them to work anyway, to smear the stuff over Jadetalon’s injured wing. Mercifully, the arrow had gone right through – once the drake was starting to calm, Darius was able to slice off the fletching, grip behind the head, and pull the shaft free. The drake keened and shuddered, but didn’t wail out loud.

Darius tugged on the reins, leading the beast under the canopy of leaves. He hurt all over, bruised from the rough landing and punctured by thorn-pricks all over his back, but there was no time to stop and tend to that. He had to keep moving, had to get out of sight. Had to find a place to hide.

He came to a fallen tree, leaning up against a ridge, its decaying bark covered in moss and vines. The hollow beneath it held promise, and the vines would break up the shape of anything beyond, but it was too small for the drake to fit.

Still, even if he was hurt, confused, and unable to fly, there was nothing wrong with Jadetalon’s forelegs, and the drake had been taught to dig out dens. A bit of direction, and the drake started digging, hollowing out that space, packing the earth in tight. There was inevitably some fresh-turned earth outside the hole, but Darius packed it in around the edges, under that veil of vines.

It worked well enough; by the time Jadetalon was hunkered down in the hole, out of sight, there was just enough space for Darius to squeeze through the gap, and a few artfully-rearranged bushes and additional vines broke up the shape of it. From inside, he could hardly see out past a few yards; he had to hope it was even harder to look the other way.

Not a quarter hour later, he heard shouts – hunters calling out to one another, hooves thundering in the distance, then slowing as the riders came under the trees. But though he strained his ears for it, he didn’t hear the baying of hounds.

Hopefully the dogs were actually absent, not just waiting until they had a scent.

The voices came nearer. Beyond the leaf cover over his hiding-place, there were flickers of motion.

Then the voices receded somewhat; still calling back and forth, but from farther off. A tense hour passed, and then the hunters passed by the other way, this time close enough for Darius to hear, “The boss is not going to like hearing that he got away…”

He didn’t break down his barricade as soon as they’d passed; he wasn’t that much of a fool. But he let out a heavy sigh of relief.

There might still be some searchers out there, and with himself and his drake injured he couldn’t afford to make a break for it. But he could afford to snap a lightstick, use the cool blue glow to get a better look at the drake’s injury, and put a dressing in place. And, finally, to skin out of his jerkin and salve his own injuries.

He could do this. It’d take time to get free, but he would bring word.