(Continued from Part IV)

A shadow, like that of an enormous bat, crossed the knee high grass in front of him. Somehow Cutter knew it was Moira even before he looked up.  The dragon dropped into the far end of the clearing, directly in front of him, her black wings stirring the air and causing the grass to wave violently.  She was now the size of a cow, though Cutter knew that with her hollow bones and lean muscles, she was much lighter. She would also be faster and stronger.

Moira landed on her back legs and remained standing for a moment. Her long, slender tail, which Cutter assumed she was using for balance, lay hidden in the grass.  Her wings, black skin stretched taut over a frame of cartilage and muscle, continued to wave the grass in front of her.  Two demonic horns, nearly a foot long from skull to spike, swept back from her bony forehead. But it was her face that caught Cutter’s attention.

While he never expected that he might recognize a specific dragon, he saw full recognition of him written on Moira’s reptilian face. She turned her head to the side, like some enormous hen, trying to better fix his location.  Then she did the strangest thing of all: she jumped like a puppy.  Cutter counted three bounces straight into the air, her wings and tail flailing, her face a study in canine happiness. Then Moira screamed. With her jaws open and teeth flashing, she charged straight at him.

Cutter knew he stood no chance against her in the open. She was too fast and too strong.  If he had any odds at all – a proposition he doubted – he would have to somehow negate both advantages.  Cutter bounded into the trees, choosing the tightest groups to pass through, forcing Moira to constantly weave around them in her pursuit.

As he descended further from the clearing, the trees grew even tighter together. The undergrowth spread thicker and taller. Moira would have difficulty maneuvering here, he thought, which might afford him some advantage. Apparently Moira agreed: she took to the air, floating directly above him as he slowed to a walk. He stopped in one particularly tight grove, a crown-shaped group of cedars whose trunks all leaned outward, roots pulled from the mire by the trees’ very weight. Moira merely floated above him, drawing circles in the darkening sky.

Cutter knew that in addition to outfighting him, she could outwait him. He could not remain awake forever, and if he fell asleep, he would likely not wake at all.  He needed to force a confrontation and he could not do it in the clearing. She would not allow it in the trees.  That left the river.

Cutter found a cedar that had fallen into the slow-moving water. It had been a strange-looking tree at one time, he decided, with one thick, tall trunk flanked by a smaller, shorter one.  He could see where it had split in half, perhaps during one of the violent ocean storms that punished the swamp every spring. The larger trunk had fallen first, and though he could not see any of it after it entered the brown water, he assumed it had settled into the mud and slime of the river bottom.  The smaller trunk, maybe 2 hands’ breadth thick, had followed its companion into the river and now lay atop it.

Cutter began to walk sideways into the river, his boots balanced atop the smaller trunk.  He could feel that it was loose: it bounced as he walked on it. He also noted that such trees as remained standing had given this waterway a wide berth. The sky was wholly clear above the river, and he could see Moira floating in it. He was sure she could see him just as clearly. The water now reached above his waist. His stand would have to be here.

Cutter felt the first fighting fish wriggle over the top of his boot. There would only be one to start: unless feeding or breeding, the toothy, two-inch nightmares shared the good sense of the rest of the animal kingdom, staying as far from other fighters as possible. One fighting fish would slice his skin and take a few small bites, maybe of his legs, maybe of his boots, maybe of his trousers.  But once he was cut, his blood would diffuse in those broad currents, its unmistakable scent beckoning others downstream to a banquet.

Fighting fish would soon arrive by the hundreds, then the thousands, working themselves into a frenzy that would gurgle and boil until nothing remained for them to devour.  The swarm would then dissolve into the murky river to patiently await blood to call it together once again.  Cutter knew that he had time to deal with Moira, but that it was no longer unlimited.  Still, if Moira bested him, let the fighting fish come quickly.  Far better to be eaten by them than to have his bones decorate some island trophy cave far to the west.

He was feeling for the fish in his boot when Moira made her first dive at him. She came in not as a hawk might, grabbing with her feet, but headfirst, her open mouth sporting two rows of serrated teeth. Moira apparently did not intend to pick him up as much as to merely spear him or bite him in half. She fell from the sky toward the river, gaining speed, then flew straight down it, her wings mere inches above the water, her scream slowly rising.  The slough did not devour that sound. Cutter could feel it in the log and in his bones.

He froze in place as Moira approached, then when he could almost feel her breath he stepped off the log and plunged into the river, curling into a ball and pressing as close to the log as he could.  Cutter felt Moira pass, scraping the water with claws or teeth. He quickly stood up, this time grasping the smaller trunk in his hands.  It took all of the effort he could muster to lift the slimy, sodden log, but eventually he held it upon upturned wrists, its top just below the muddy surface.  He planted his feet firmly on the larger trunk, straining to hold the smaller one in place.

Moira was turning for her second try.  She came from exactly the same direction as before – upriver – but this time she flew more directly at him.  Her scream arose again, seeming to create waves upon the slow-moving water. He felt the smaller log begin to slip from his grasp.  A second earlier than on Moira’s first run, he slipped to his knees in the water. This time he did not curl up. He held his head just beneath the surface. He held the smaller trunk in place with the palms of his hands.  There was no way that Moira could see him, he knew. He just hoped she was clever enough to be tricked.

He had barely pushed himself to the left, his boot still sticking in the muck of the river bottom, when he felt Moira’s head enter the river. Cutter was already pulling the smaller trunk down when the outside of her jaw bumped his right hip, and he felt Moira turn her head to snap at him in passing. Then she must have felt the smaller trunk on the top of her neck, for she pulled her head back in a panic.  If possible, the river became even darker as the dragon dug claws into the muck in a futile attempt to escape.  As she jerked her head backward, her horns caught in the smaller trunk, now held down with as much force as Cutter could manage.  Moira flailed, but she could get no leverage in the mud.

Cutter knew that would not last. As soon as she managed to get a rear leg on the lower trunk, she would be able to break his hold on the upper one. He jumped from the water, scrambling atop the bouncing log and sliding toward Moira.  If she stopped panicking now, she would be able to flip him into the water and deal with him at her leisure; he simply had nothing left to hang on to. Cutter drew his stiletto and reached under the log with his free hand to locate the top of Moira’s skull plate.  He could not see it in the brown water – he could not see anything but her hind quarters and her flailing tail – but he hoped that if her horns were still in the log, he would find her weak spot in time.

Suddenly Moira seemed to stop shaking and the upper log began to rise. She had apparently discovered that he was not holding it down anymore. Her head came above the water, raising both the log and the man who sat on it, knife in hand. Cutter drove the blade beneath her skull plate as deep as he could, twisting and shaking it and praying the wound would be enough to kill her. Moira screamed again. Her tail flailed madly. Then blood began to flow from her nose and her body went still. Cutter’s sons could now rest: their murderer was dead. He pulled the blade out of her skull and mindlessly wiped it on his pants. Now it was time to heal his daughter’s wound as well.

(Continued in Part VI)