Errol balanced on his flame. He seemed to be thinking.
Then he nonchalantly kicked his back legs out as though hovering on your own stomach gases was something dragons had mastered over millions of years, somersaulted, and fled. For a moment he was visible as a silver streak, and then he was out over the city walls and gone.
A groan followed him. It came from ten thousand throats.
Vimes threw up his hands.
“Don't you worry, guv,” said Nobby quickly. “He's-he's probably gone to, to have a drink. Or something. Maybe it's the end of round one. Or something.”
“I mean, he ate our kettle and everything,” said Colon uncertainly. “He wouldn't just run away after eating a kettle. Stands to reason. Anyone who could eat a kettle wouldn't run away from anything. ”
“And my armour polish,” said Carrot. “It was nearly a whole dollar for the tin.”
“There you are then,” said Colon. “It's like I said.”
“Look,” said Vimes, as patiently as he could manage. “He's a nice dragon, I liked him as much as you, a very nice little chap, but he's just done the sensible thing, for gods' sake, he's not going to get burned to bits just to save us. Life just doesn't work like that. You might as well face it.”
Overhead the great dragon strutted through the air and flamed a nearby tower. It had won.
“I've never seen that before,” said Lady Ramkin. “Dragons normally fight to the death.”
“At last they've bred one who's sensible,” said Vimes morosely. “Let's be honest: the chances of a dragon the size of Errol beating something that big are a million-to-one”
There was one of those silences you get after one clear bright note has been struck and the world pauses.
The rank looked at one another.
“Million-to-one?” asked Carrot nonchalantly.
“Definitely,” said Vimes. “Million-to-one.”
The rank looked at one another again.
“Million-to-one,” said Colon.
“Million-to-one,” agreed Nobby.
“That's right,” said Carrot. “Million-to-one.”
There was another high-toned silence. The members of the rank were wondering who was going to be the first to say it.
Sergeant Colon took a deep breath.
“But it might just work,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” snapped Vimes. “There's no-”
Nobby nudged him urgently in the ribs and pointed out across the plains.
There was a column of black smoke out there. Vimes squinted. Running ahead of the smoke, speeding over the cabbage fields and closing fast, was a silvery bullet.
The great dragon had seen it too. It flamed defiance and climbed for extra height, mashing the air with its enormous wings.
Now Errol's flame was visible, so hot as to be almost blue. The landscape rolled away underneath him at an impossible speed, and he was accelerating.
Ahead of him the king extended its claws. It was almost grinning.
Errol's going to hit it, Vimes thought. Gods help us all, it'll be a fireball.
Something odd was happening out in the fields. A little way behind Errol the ground appeared to be ploughing itself up, throwing cabbage stalks into the air. A hedgerow erupted in a shower of sawdust . . .
Errol passed silently over the city walls, nose up, wings folded down to tiny flaps, his body honed to a mere cone with a flame at one end. His opponent blew out a tongue of fire; Vimes watched Errol, with a barely noticeable flip of a wing stub, roll easily out of its path. And then he was gone, speeding out towards the sea in the same eerie silence.
“He miss-” Nobby began.
The air ruptured. An endless thunderclap of noise dragged across the city, smashing tiles, toppling chimneys. In mid-air, the king was picked up, flattened out and spun like a top in the sonic wash. Vimes, his hands over his own ears, saw the creature flame desperately as it turned and became the centre of a spiral of crazy fire.
Magic crackled along its wings. It screamed like a distressed foghorn. Then, shaking its head dazedly, it began to glide in a wide circle.
Vimes groaned. It had survived something that tore masonry apart. What did you have to do to beat it? You can't fight it, he thought. You can't burn it, you can't smash it. There's nothing you can do to it.
The dragon landed. It wasn't a perfect landing. A perfect landing wouldn't have demolished a row of cottages. It was slow, and it seemed to go on for a long time and rip up a considerable stretch of city.
Wings flapping aimlessly, neck waving and spraying random flame, it ploughed on through a debris of beams and thatch. Several fires started up along the trail of destruction.
Finally it came to rest at the end of the furrow, almost invisible under a heap of former architecture.
The silence that it left was broken only by the shouts of someone trying to organise yet another bucket chain from the river to douse the fires.
Then people started to move.
From the air Ankh-Morpork must have looked like a disturbed anthill, with streams of dark figures flowing towards the wreck of the dragon.
Most of them had some kind of weapon.
Many of them had spears.
Some of them had swords.
All of them had one aim in mind.
“You know what?” said Vimes aloud. “This is going to be the world's first democratically killed dragon. One man, one stab.”
“Then you've got to stop them. You can't let them kill it!” said Lady Ramkin.
Vimes blinked at her.
“Pardon?” he said.
“Lady, that was the intention, wasn't it? Anyway, it's only stunned,” said Vimes.
“I mean you can't let them kill it like this,” said Lady Ramkin insistently. “Poor thing!”
“What do you want to do, then?” demanded Vimes, his temper unravelling. “Give it a strengthening dose of tar oil and a nice comfy basket in front of the stove?”
“Suits me fine!”
“But it's a dragon! It's just doing what a dragon does! It never would have come here if people had left it alone!”
Vimes thought: it was about to eat her, and she can still think like this. He hesitated. Perhaps that did give you the right to an opinion . . .
Sergeant Colon sidled up as they glared, white-faced, at one another, and hopped desperately from one squelching foot to the other.
“You better come at once, Captain,” he said. "It's going to be bloody murder!''
Vimes waved a hand at him. “As far as I'm concerned,” he mumbled, avoiding Sybil Ramkin's glare, “it's got it coming to it.”
“It's not that,” said Colon. "It's Carrot. He's arrested the dragon.''
“What do you mean, arrested?” he said. “You don't mean what I think you mean, do you?”
“Could be sir,” said Colon uncertainly. “Could be. He was up on the rubble like a shot, sir, grabbed it by a wing and said 'You're nicked, chummy', sir. Couldn't believe it, sir. Sir, the thing is ...”
The sergeant hopped from one foot to the other. “You know you said prisoners weren't to be molested, sir . . .”
It was quite a large and heavy roof timber and it scythed quite slowly through the air, but when it hit people they rolled backwards and stayed hit.
“Now look,” said Carrot, hauling it in and pushing back his helmet, “I don't want to have to tell anyone again, right?”
Vimes shouldered his way through the dense crowd, staring at the bulky figure atop the mound of rubble and dragon. Carrot turned slowly, the roof beam held like a staff. His gaze was like a lighthouse beam. Where it fell, the crowd lowered their weapons and looked merely sullen and uncomfortable.
“I must warn you,” Carrot went on, “that interfering with an officer in the execution of his duty is a serious offence. And I shall come down like a ton of bricks on the very next person who throws a stone.”
A stone bounced off the back of his helmet. There was a barrage of jeers.
“Let us at it!”
“We don't want guards ordering us about!”
“Quis custodiet custard?”
Vimes pulled the sergeant towards him. “Go and organise some rope. Lots of rope. As thick as possible. I suppose we can-oh, tie its wings together, maybe, and bind up its mouth so it can't flame.”
Colon peered at him.
“Are you serious, sir? We're really going to arrest it?”
It's been arrested, he thought, as he pushed his way forward. Personally I would have preferred it to drop in the sea, but it's been arrested and now we've got to deal with it or let it go free.
He felt his own feelings about the bloody thing evaporate in the face of the mob. What could you do with it? Give it a fair trial, he thought, and then execute it. Not kill it. That's what heroes do out in the wilderness. You can't think like that in cities. Or rather, you can, but if you're going to then you might as well burn the whole place down right now and start again. You ought to do it ... well, by the book.
That's it. We tried everything else. Now we might as well try and do it by the book.
Anyway, he added mentally, that's a city guard up there. We've got to stick together. Nobody else will have anything to do with us.
A burly figure in front of him drew back an arm with a halfbrick in it.
“Throw that brick and you're a dead man,” said Vimes, and then ducked and pushed his way through the press of people while the would-be thrower looked around in amazement.
Carrot half-raised his club in a threatening gesture as Vimes climbed up the rubble pile.
“Oh, hallo, Captain Vimes,” he said, lowering it, “I have to report I have arrested this-”
“Yes, I can see,” said Vimes. “Did you have any suggestions about what we do next?”
“Oh, yes, sir. I have to read it its rights, sir,” said Carrot.
“I mean apart from that.”
“Not really, sir.”
Vimes looked at those parts of the dragon still visible under the rubble. How could you kill one of these? You'd have to spend a day at it.
A lump of rock ricocheted off his breastplate.
“Who did that?”
The voice lashed out like a whip.
The crowd went quiet.
Sybil Ramkin scrambled up on the wreckage, eyes afire, and glared furiously at the mob.
“I said,” she said, “who did that? If the person who did it does not own up I shall be extremely angry! Shame on you all!”
She had their full attention. Several people holding stones and things let them drop quietly to the ground.
The breeze flapped the remnants of her nightshirt as her Ladyship took up a new haranguing position.
“Here is the gallant Captain Vimes-”
“Oh gods,” said Vimes in a small voice, and pulled his helmet down over his eyes.
“-and his dauntless men, who have taken the trouble to come here today, to save your-”
Vimes gripped Carrot's arm and manoeuvred him down the far side of the heap.
“You all right, Captain?” said the lance-constable. “You've gone all red.”
“Don't you start,” snapped Vimes. “It's bad enough getting all those leers from Nobby and the sergeant.”