The water was knee-deep now. In the prison shacks to the left and right, other convicts were splashing and scrabbling for escape, like rats in a barrel.
It wasn’t drowning that worried them, really. It was what the water carried. The deeper the water, the bigger the debris, the more likely-
Very nearby, a shack crunched into splinters. The convicts inside screamed in pain and terror. A second later, something big rolled into the wall, breaking boards and letting in a fresh gush of dark, dirty water.
The gap was big enough, but only just. Struggling against the current with numb feet slipping on the muddy floor, jamming first an arm, then a shoulder through the opening, escape was nearly in reach.
The big thing that has crushed the wall was a log. Right now, it was wedged in place against the wreckage of the neighboring shack. There were no guards in sight, and that made sense, after all. The criminals sentenced to work at the docks were petty thieves, conmen, and muggers. No one actually dangerous, and also no one worth saving. The guards had saved themselves and left the convicts to die.
Which meant there was no one to chase an escapee.
Splinters gouged into exposed flesh as first head, then chest, then bony hips made it through the gap. The water was rough, and higher outside than it was inside. Slapping at thighs, then at hips, it tried to drag away all in its path, sweeping people along like so much flotsam.
A brief thought - what about the others?
Some of them were friends. Good people, despite their stupid mistakes. But the water threw something heavy against legs already unsteady on numb feet, and nearly took the body along with it. No. Staying here to try to get the others out would be suicide.
Muttering an apology no one would hear in the storm, the convict - the escapee - fixed on the hill that would be salvation for the night, and started to slog.
Maybe if there had been thunder and lightning, it would have been more tolerable. This certainly wasn’t the exciting escape imagined on dark, exhausted nights in the locked shack, alone with the snores of temporary roommates that never worked out. A thrilling chase, crossbow bolts whizzing just overhead, a cunning plan that left the pursuers knee-deep in swamp muck or eaten by predators.
Tonight, there was nothing but icy rain, persistent wint, and mud as thick as chocolate fudge. Thicker, maybe. And much, much too cold. The convict set a numb foot down in the muck with a wet squelch, then heaved forward to wrench the other foot free with a slurp and a pop.
Farther from the water meant less mud (in theory). From the top of the hill, the lumpy outline of a stand of trees could just be seen - trees meant shelter and firm ground. The darkness and rain made distances hard to judge, and by the time the trees blocked most of the rain, the escapee’s legs felt like they were about to fall off. The trees were big. Maple, or maybe oak. Raindrops collected in the leaves for whispered conversations, merged into larger drops, then divebombed the hapless creatures below, smacking into unsuspecting heads and shoulders and backs with enough force to drive the cold bone-deep.
A glint. A flash. A yellow gleam.
Too big to be a cat. Too big to be a dog.
But in the dark, a wolf’s eyes reflected green, not yellow.
At the docks, the threat of being eaten had stayed in the water. Death was there, but it wasn’t staring into their faces. The convict took a step back. Then two steps. One foot sank up to the ankle in freezing mud. There was no way running through that was going to end well.
I’m going to die.
The eyes bobbed closer, the shape of the animal they belonged to became clearer. It was at least as big as a grown man, walking on four legs, and had… a rider? No… those were wings.
The beast snarled, baring more teeth than any animal had a right to have in one mouth, and the eyes shone with an unearthly yellow glow. The dragon was about to spring.
I’m not ready to give up yet.
Fighting wasn’t really an option. The dragon had claws and fangs and huge battering wings. Fists and shouting wouldn’t do much good against that. Fleeing was an option, but there were limited directions in which to go. Remembering something Grandmother had once said (Running away from a hunter will always make you the prey.) the convict seized the only perfectly logical option and charged straight at the dragon.
Huge yellow eyes widened in the darkness and bobbed backward, away from this crazy human thing. A sword, maybe, or a crossbow would have been helpful. Even a staff. Instead, the escapee struck the dragon hard on the nose, clenched fingers splitting open against hard, sharp-edged scales.
The dragon gave an undignified yelp, falling back before this unexpected assault, and the convict charged on, past it and into the trees, heart pounding as though to leap out into the world beyond the safe cage of bone.
Fear kept tired legs moving until numb feet caught on some protruding root or rock, sending the exhausted escapee tumbling to the ground. There was a slope. A tree. Great gnarled roots embracing the tiny dell like protective arms. Crawling over those roots was no pleasant task, as raw gouges from broken boards protested the rough contact, but the inside of the dell was carpeted with thick, cool moss. It felt good.
Reeling in weak limbs, watery with exertion, the convict curled up. Somewhere beyond the thick canopy above, there was more light. The storm was weakening, maybe, or sunrise was coming. The wind was starting to die down, which was good, and the huge, cold drops of rain fell less frequently.
The dragon was back. It crouched nearby, eyeing the little dell unblinkingly.
They watched each other for several minutes as the light gradually grew around them. The dragon wasn’t large for its kind, but had unusual flat grey scales and a wide, triangular head. It stared like an intrigued cat.
As they stared, the dragon crept closer. One step. Then two. Up to the roots. Over the edge.
It didn’t look violent. It still had blood on its nose. The convict’s blood, red-brown against the grey scales.
It reached the bottom of the dell, sniffed the convict, who was too tired to try another crazy attack.
They stared at each other. And waited.
Eventually, the dragon laid down against the escapee’s back and closed its eyes.
Vague thoughts about scent familiarization and dominance displays floated through the convict’s exhausted mind. As the sun rose beyond the trees, sleep claimed them both.