The ground around the Lonely Mountain had been burned.
A great conflagration had passed through. Here and there the heartwood of a tree still stood after its bark and leaves had burned off. Where a stream burbled across the plain, grass and moss made a half-hearted attempt to re-seed themselves.
The company mostly kept silent as they walked across the ruined plain, the grand shape of the mountain growing above them as they walked. Everyone seemed lost in their own thoughts, and she didn’t want to challenge or question them.
They walked in silence, hour after hour through a dead landscape. Twice they crossed a group of burned corpses. And once a fresh one, its corpse in the process of being picked clean by the carrion birds.
Are we walking to our own death? Aoife wondered. What if the dragon is awake, if it chooses to leave its hiding place now?
It would see them in moments. There was nothing to take them from its sight. Nowhere to hide. It would come out of the great crack in the mountain, and see them. And then it would fly towards them, beating its mighty wings.
Perhaps they would try to scatter. It might not get them all with its first blast. While half of them lay dying, it would fly past. Then it would turn, and fly towards them again.
The company trudged forth silently, leaving footprints in the dust that once was living flesh, wood, plant.
She wondered if she would face it as it came.
She wondered if she would see the fire come up from its belly through its throat, filling its mouth before disgorging at her. At them.
She wondered if the mystical arrow that never failed to strike true would be enough to kill a dragon in flight. Or if it would just be a pinprick.
Perhaps it wouldn’t even notice.
They continued to walk, each lost in their own thoughts, saying nothing. She wondered if any of them thought that they could slay this beast if it attacked. Save themselves.
But everywhere Aoife looked, all she could see was ash.