Thomas sighed again. He had been doing that a lot lately. Thistle looked back at his friend encouragingly, but his gaze was met with a look of bleak despair.
“We haven’t found the person yet, and we’ve searched almost all of your islands!” Thomas voiced his concern.
Thistle shrugged, but then stopped immediately, because he realized that the rolling motion might unseat his friend whose position was already precarious. “Have some hope, Thomas. Keep in mind that my islands are smaller than the other dragons’. Besides, the other dragons are probably having a lot more luck than we are.”
Thomas glanced at the sun, which was rapidly sinking. “I sure hope so…at this rate we may get all the islands searched today, but we won’t be able to carry out any sort of rescue until tomorrow.”
“On the contrary.” Thistle disagreed, shaking his head. “We may yet be able to rescue our unknown friends tonight.”
“B-but, won’t it be too dark?” Thomas stuttered in his amazement.
Thistle smiled. “How many times to I have to remind you that I’m a dragon, and that Prickle, Brier, Nettle, and Bramble are dragons?”
“You can see in the dark!” Thomas exclaimed, suddenly apprehending his friend’s meaning.
“Exactly,” Thistle nodded, “which makes it just as easy for us to rescue our unknown friend in the dark as it would be for us too in the day. And besides, that also means that if our friend is in danger from someone or something, we’ll be able to sneak them away without being easily detected.”
“You’re brilliant!” Thomas cried, hugging Thistle’s neck tightly in his excitement.
“Easy, Thomas, easy.” Thistle replied in a strangled voice.
“Oh, sorry.” Thomas eased his grip immediately.
Thistle moved his neck gingerly from side to side, as if checking for broken bones. “I am rather attached to my neck, you know.” And so Thistle avoided the embarrassing subject of praise.
Unfortunately, Thistle and Thomas had no luck with their own islands, and returned to Thistle’s cave in low spirits.
This wasn’t helped much when both Brier and Bramble arrived one after another with negative reports.
“Nothing.” Bramble said sadly, and then relapsed into silence, mourning.
“Well, there go ten more islands.” Thomas said, crossing them off and smiling in what he hoped to be an encouragement to Bramble. But he wasn’t looking at Thomas at the moment, so his smile was wasted.
“No luck from any of my islandsss.” Brier added as she alighted next to Bramble. “How did you do?”
“Not very well…” Thistle admitted. “But we now know that thirty-seven islands don’t have our unknown friend on them.”
“Well…” Brier sighed. “I sssupossse that’sss helpful.”
Meanwhile, Nettle arrived. “I’m afraid…” she began.
“No luck?” Thistle finished for her, reading her expression.
Nettle nodded. “I’m so very sorry, my dear friends, but I have failed you.”
“Nonsense!” Thistle cried, hating to see his friend so near tears.
“None of usss found anything.” Brier agreed, much to the surprise of the other dragons. “And you have been a help, there’sss eleven more islandsss that the ressst of usss don’t have to sssearch tomorrow!”
Thomas nodded, and held up the map he had created, showing the islands that the dragons had searched. “All we need to do now is wait for Prickle.”
Prickle came at last. Hurtling through space as if his life depended on it, Prickle made a beautiful crash landing that made all his friends jump in surprise.
He skidded to a stop about three feet in front of Thomas, and when the dust settled, he looked up at the dragons and Thomas in excitement.
“IthinkIfoundtheminoneofmyislandswhileIwassearching!” Prickle exclaimed.
“What?” All of the dragons (except Thistle) asked at once. Thistle translated.
“Why, that’s wonderful!” Thomas exclaimed. “Let’s go at once!”
Thistle smiled, but shook his head. “Wait a moment at least, my friend.” He cautioned. “You may be rested and ready, but you forget that we dragons have been flying practically all day. We need a few hours to rest. Besides, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m hungry.”
The rest of the dragons murmured their ascent. Grudgingly, Thomas nodded as well. He hated to waste precious minutes, but he knew that what Thistle said was right: the dragons needed rest and nourishment.
The cell door opened with a bang that caused both Brittney and Patrick to jerk awake from where they had been sleeping fitfully at the bottom of the stairs. Thorac entered and walked down to them, closely followed by Thorn.
“We have delivered the message.” He announced.
“How are you two doing?” Thorac changed the subject suddenly.
“Fine.” Brittney replied flatly, though her stomach felt as though it had just been squeezed until there was nothing left to nourish her hungry body. In all seriousness, her stomach wasn’t far from being wrong in its feelings.
“Not…” Thorac paused and flicked an imaginary speck of dust from his jacket and met Brittney’s gaze wickedly. “…hungry, I suppose?”
At the mere mention of hunger, Brittney winced, feeling her stomach growl…loudly.
Thorac laughed. “I thought so. You wouldn’t want to apologize for your behavior, would you?”
Brittney’s eyes blazed, and she forgot her hunger when anger rushed to the surface. “I’d never, EVER apologize to you Thorac.” She spat, making him wince to her surprise.
He regained his composure easily, and his smooth smile replaced the wince so quickly, Brittney feared that she had merely imagined it. “Well, then, I shall let you simmer for a few more hours.” He turned and walked back to the cell door.
But before leaving, he looked down at Patrick, who squirmed uncomfortably and tried his best to hide behind his sister’s skirts. “If you care nothing for your own comfort…” Thorac gave one last jab, “…at least you could consider the comfort of your brother. I’m sure he doesn’t like hunger pains any more than you do.”
And with that he slammed the door behind him, leaving the siblings in the dark.
Brittney slipped to the floor weakly. Her last strength had been used with her one last effort to remain defiant.
Time was running short.
After they finished eating a few mountain goats, the dragons rested. Thomas did his best to be quiet and calm, but found it very difficult. He could manage the quiet part, but had to get up every once in a while to pace outside Thistle’s cave. Besides, the heat from the resting dragons made the valley so uncomfortably hot that he wouldn’t have been able to sleep with them anyways.
Finally, when Thomas had begun to give up hope of Thistle even remembering that there was a search to finish, Thistle walked out of the cave. He looked like he was refreshed.
When Thomas met his gaze hopefully, Thistle smiled. “Yes, I’m ready.” He answered Thomas’s unspoken question. “And, yes, I’ll awaken the other dragons in a moment. They’ll have to cool off, but we should be ready in an hour.”
Thomas nodded eagerly. He was ready!
One by one, the dragons came out of Thistle’s cave and cooled themselves off in their different ways, though they cooled off quicker in the evening air.
Finally, all the dragons were ready to go.
Thomas turned to his friend. “You promised.” He reminded.
Thistle smiled. “How could I forget?”
Gently, almost reverently, Thistle pulled a sword towards Thomas. It was in wonderful condition.
“This was a sword given to me by my father.” He said. “Use it well Thomas.”
His eyes shining, Thomas nodded and strapped the belt on which held the sword. Then he turned to the smallest dragon with a grin. “Lead on, Prickle!”
Excitedly, Prickle led the way into the darkness.
He went on and on over islands and sea without slowing down once. Apparently the little dragon knew the way to the island well. Although the other dragons grumbled about how fast he led them, Thomas knew they were all relieved to finally have a destination, not what might have been a random coincidence.
An island came into view at last and Thomas knew before he even saw the black outline the grim towers of the fortress made against the midnight sky that the unknown friend that they had searched for was here.
He tapped Thistle on the neck. “We need to stop somewhere on the island where we can’t be seen from the fortress.”
Thistle nodded, but said nothing. He gave a signal to the other dragons, which in turn fell into line behind him. Prickle, now finished with his job of leading them to the island, and also took his place in line, though it forced him to slow down to about half his usual speed. Even then he occasionally bumped into Brier, the dragon in front of him.
Finally, after a few minutes of stealthily circling the island in the dark, Thomas spotted a landing that would provide the needed shelter from any prying eyes in the fortress.
Silently, the dragons landed and Thomas slipped off Thistle’s back. He stared at the outline of the fortress until his eyes ached from the strain, but they still weren’t adjusted enough to see details. This kept him from being able to find a weak spot in the castle’s walls that they would be able to sneak through, which was what he had been searching for.
“Can you see any way that we could get in?” Thomas asked Thistle, knowing that the dragon would have better luck since he could see in the dark.
“No. Well…” Thistle hesitated, as if to change his mind, but then shook his head helplessly. “No, never mind.”
“What were you about to suggest?” Thomas eagerly asked.
Thistle shrugged. “Well, there is a window, up in the top of a tower near us, but none of us dragons would fit through, it’s too small…even for you, Thomas.”
Bramble studied the window carefully. “Prickle would fit, wouldn’t he?”
The dragons looked at their friend in new respect. Prickle began, in his great excitement, to dance around them in a circle, but stopped when he received several fierce frowns from other dragons.
Thomas clapped his hands together, his eyes shining. “You are brilliant, Bramble.”
Bramble hung his head in embarrassment, but seemed pleased.
“So, Prickle, it’s up to you.” Thomas turned to the little dragon. “Will you go?”
“WillIwillIwillI?” Prickle chanted, in hushed excitement. “OfcourseIwill, canIgo now?”
Once Thistle had translated, Thomas nodded. “Go ahead…” He paused as Prickle began dancing in a circle, waiting for him to stop and pay attention. When he did, Thomas met Prickle’s eyes seriously. “Be careful Prickle.”
The little dragon seemed to suddenly realize what he was really getting himself into, and nodded at Thomas solemnly. “Iwillbeveryveryverycareful.” He promised, and then rose into the air.
The dragons and Thomas watched him fly towards the fortress, so small that one wouldn’t have been able to tell that he was even a dragon. With satisfaction, Thomas realized that whoever or whatever was in the fortress, if they happened to look out a window and see Prickle, would have assumed he was only a large bat, out catching insects for dinner.
Prickle found the window and disappeared. Thomas and his dragon friends sat down to wait.