When Jade’s “larger cousins” swooped in for a landing on the black sand beach–after first incinerating what remained of their picnic with a blast of flaming breath–Martha couldn’t quite help letting out a little gasp of delight mingled ever so slightly with fear. The Doctor had warned her of course, but the dragons were enormous! And yet, astride each massive, majestic neck was a rider, swathed in leather and fur and fastened to the beast by an elaborate harness that functioned at once as both a saddle and a seat belt.
The larger of the two dragons, a bronze so gigantic his head was longer than Martha was tall, landed nearest them. She watched in awe as the rider unfastened himself and slid down that great neck, his dismount aided by the creature raising a foreleg.
“Shells!” the rider exclaimed as soon as he was within earshot. “You’re lucky Rath spotted you from the air or there’s a good chance you’d both be half-eaten by that burrow by now!” He gestured vehemently towards the desecrated picnic. “What in the name of Faranth possessed you to be out during Threadfall? And this far from Hold, Hall or Weyr?”
Before either Martha or the Doctor could answer–even the Doctor–Jade blinked sleepy jeweled eyes and let out an indignant chirrup, as if to scold the stranger for disturbing her rest.
The rider’s eyes widened. Glancing around their tiny shelter, he took in the scattered shards of fire-lizard eggs, and the one or two duds which had failed to hatch, then let out a derisive snort. “Of course. Fire lizard hunting. Well, you got what you wanted; hope it was worth your life.”
“It’s not like that,” Martha protested indignantly. “We weren’t looking for her; we just happened on the nest out there in the open, and the Doctor said these little ones’d die if we didn’t get them under shelter.”
The rider snorted. “Well, it’s good to know one of you has got some sense. What manner of Hold did you grow up in, that you had to be *told* that Thread is dangerous?”
Martha bristled and opened her mouth to give the know-it-all bastard a piece of her mind, but the Doctor quickly jumped into the fray. “We actually brought shelter with us, only what with finding the fire lizard clutch, there wasn’t quite time enough to make it back.” He nodded towards the big bronze, then towards the cliff face they’d taken refuge under. “Ask your dragon if you don’t believe me.”
The man frowned, his eyes unfocusing for a moment as he carried on what appeared to be a silent conversation with the dragon, who lifted his head on his massive neck until he could easily see the top of the heights. “Rath says there’s something up there that looks like a big wooden box painted Harper blue.”
The Doctor grinned cheekily. “That’d be it, then.”
“Then you’re more stupid than I took you for,” the rider answered scornfully. “Everyone knows wood’s no guard against Thread.”
“It’s still there, isn’t it?” Martha interjected, pinning him with a defiant glare.
The dragonrider opened his mouth then closed it again, his brows knitting into a bewildered frown.
“Tougher than she looks, she is,” the Doctor declared proudly, grinning in his usual madcap fashion. “And I don’t just mean Martha here, though that’s true as well!” He slung an arm around Martha’s shoulders, then nodded back towards the cliff again. “Might look like a blue wooden box, but I assure you the TARDIS is made of much, much sterner stuff than that.”
Still looking disgruntled, and more than a mite dubious as well, the Rider gave them one last once over before confessing, “If this is more of the Mastersmith’s work, I don’t want to know. But either way…” He pointed back along the sand. “I saw just enough to know that between Thread and a clutch of fire lizards, you probably didn’t get much in the way of food in your stomachs. I’ll take you back to Fort: it’s a short enough trip a-dragonback, and they always have a bit to spare. Besides, that way at least I’ll know where to find you during the next Fall.”
Without another word, not even an introduction, the rider pivoted on one heel and strode back over to his dragon, glancing once over his shoulder to see if they were coming.
The Doctor beamed. “Come on, then!”
Martha balked, still fuming. “Honestly? After that, I’m not sure I want to. You said there were humans–you didn’t say they were so bloody rude.”
The Doctor blinked for a moment before seeming to realize. “Oh, that! Mustn’t mind him: it’s their job, dragonriders, protecting people from Thread, and a job they take very seriously. Finding someone out during Threadfall just makes the job harder, so it can make them a bit cranky. He’ll be pleasant enough once he’s convinced himself we’re safe as houses.” The grin returned. “Besides–when are you going to get another chance to ride a-dragonback, Martha Jones?”
As if he’d been listening in on their conversation, Rath swung his great head around to study them, one jeweled eye as big as Martha’s head fixing upon her curiously. “Well…” she began, clearly weakening.
The Doctor didn’t wait for an answer, just plucked Jade out of Martha’s hands and tucked her in neatly on Martha’s shoulder instead; the fire lizard gave a half-hearted squawk of protest, but quickly made herself comfortable, twining her tail around Martha’s throat like a living torc and dropping off to sleep once more. No sooner was she settled than the Doctor grabbed Martha’s hand and began pulling her towards the dragon in question.
Martha gave in without even a token resistance–the smile on her face would’ve belied any protest anyway.
After all, he was right; when was she ever going to have another chance to travel by dragon?