Dragons have very keen hearing. Barnabas cursed himself for being such a fool as to forget it.
‘If you’re thinking of setting off, then you must have the phoenix feather already?’ Firedrake looked from Barnabas to Ben. ‘I can’t forget how desperate Ànemos was. I’m sure you’d never leave the island without the feather, would you?’
Ben avoided the dragon’s glance. He thought he saw irony in Firedrake’s eyes. And even worse, disappointment.
‘It does seem to be a dangerous island,’ F
iredrake continued. ‘A kraken told us about the lion-birds. I assume they regard this island,’ and here he looked at the statue of the griffin, ‘as their property? What a good thing it isn’t their feathers that you need. Those griffins sound very unpleasant.’
‘Ah, yes, the phoenix feather! Of course. Yes! Yes, we have it.’ Barnabas did his best, but he was only making matters worse. He was hopelessly bad at telling lies. His voice died away as Firedrake gave him a stern and far from friendly look.
Then Firedrake looked at his dragon rider. Ben felt like sinking into the ground, where he would be invisible.
‘How about the truth, Ben?’ asked the dragon. ‘Does a dragon rider lie to his dragon? And what’s the matter with the rest of you? Barnabas! Hothbrodd! Twigleg!’ He scrutinised them one by one.
‘Dammit all!’ growled the troll. ‘That’s enough bad acting! Yes, there are griffins here, and we need one of their sun-feathers for the Pegasus eggs. That’s why Barnabas is in such a hurry for you two to leave the island, and fast! Dragons and griffins… you know about that…’
Firedrake stood up very straight. His whole body was taut. Tattoo looked at him anxiously.
‘So you all lied to me?’ Firedrake sounded so hurt that Ben would have liked to crawl back into his basketwork cage. ‘What were you planning to do? Let the Pegasus foals die rather than ask me for help? And you, dragon rider? Wouldn’t you have given me a chance of protecting you, even though I gave you my scale?’
Ben had never seen Firedrake in such an aggressive mood before, but the dragon was still feeling the darkness that the poachers had aroused in him, and the lies told by Ben and Barnabas did nothing to cast any light into it.
‘The monkeys stole the scale from me!’ cried Ben. ‘But even if I’d still had it – how could I want you to come here? We all wanted to protect you. Believe me! You haven’t seen the griffins! They’re terrible. Except for one of them…’
One whom they wouldn’t be able to save without the help of the dragons. But much as Ben liked Shrii, even for him he couldn’t allow Firedrake to put himself in danger. Not to save Shrii, or the Pegasus foals, not even for himself! He loved the dragon too much for that.
Ben felt tears coming to his eyes. And knew that Firedrake saw them.
‘It’s all my fault,’ said Barnabas. ‘I persuaded Ben to lie to you. There’s almost no deeper enmity between fabulous creatures that the hostility of griffins and dragons!’
‘But they’ll defeat them!’ Winston went to stand between Firedrake and Tattoo, and looked admiringly from one to the other. ‘Just look at them! They’ll defeat Kraa and set Shrii free! How can you doubt it?’
‘Thank you!’ Tattoo bowed his head to Winston. ‘Spoken like a dragon rider.’
‘But it’s not just Kraa!’ cried Ben. ‘There are seven griffins, Firedrake, and only two of you. And then there are all the monkeys who serve Kraa and his jackal scorpions!’
‘Yes, that’s true,’ he murmured. ‘Forget what I said! I was only thinking of Shrii! And you chased Catcher and his men away so easily…’ He fell silent, and cast Ben a remorseful glance, while Berulu stared at the dragons with his big, round eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ muttered Winston. ‘They’re right. You must go.’
The two dragons exchanged a glance.
Neither Ben nor Barnabas liked it.
‘I entirely agree with you,’ Tattoo told Firedrake. ‘All this sounds as if they’d be lost without our help.’
‘Exactly. Entirely lost. And I’m sure you’d be very disappointed if you had to set off for home right away, wouldn’t you?’ added Firedrake, ignoring the dismayed glances of his friends.
Tattoo nodded firmly.
‘Just a moment!’ cried Sorrel. ‘Look at their beaks!’ She indicated the griffin heads in the trees. ‘And their claws!’ She pointed to the griffin statue. ‘Claws and paws! As if just one of those wasn’t enough for them!’
‘And don’t forget the snaky tails,’ Twigleg said, from Ben’s shoulder. ‘And those jackal scorpions are really horrible! Lola will say the same!’
‘That’s true! It’s noble of you both to offer us your help. But you – can’t – stay – here!’ said Barnabas firmly. ‘And Ben and Winston shouldn’t really be here either, Firedrake! If you don’t want to leave because of the griffins, then at least do it to get the two boys to safety.’
But now it was Ben and Winston who took offence. Ben went to Firedrake’s side, and Winston instinctively went over to Tattoo.