Issue 125 – February 2017

8640 words, novelette, REPRINT

The Dragonslayer of Merebarton


I was mending my chamber pot when they came to tell me about the dragon.

Mending a pot is one of those jobs you think is easy, because tinkers do it, and tinkers are no good or they’d be doing something else. Actually, it’s not easy at all. You have to drill a series of very small holes in the broken pieces, then thread short lengths of wire through the holes, then twist the ends of the wires together really tight, so as to draw the bits together firmly enough to make the pot watertight. In order to do the job you need a very hard, sharp, thin drill bit, a good eye, loads of patience, and at least three pairs of rock-steady hands. The tinker had quoted me a turner and a quarter; get lost, I told him, I’ll do it myself. It was beginning to dawn on me that some sorts of work are properly reserved for specialists.

Ah, the irony.

Stupid of me to break it in the first place. I’m not usually that clumsy. Stumbling about in the dark, was how I explained it. You should’ve lit a lamp, then, shouldn’t you, she said. I pointed out that you don’t need a lamp in the long summer evenings. She smirked at me. I don’t think she quite understands how finely balanced our financial position is. We’re not hard up, nothing like that. There’s absolutely no question of having to sell off any of the land, or take out mortgages. It’s just that, if we carry on wasting money unnecessarily on lamp-oil and tinkers and like frivolities, there’ll come a time when the current slight reduction in our income will start to be a mild nuisance. Only temporary, of course. The hard times will pass, and soon we’ll all be just fine.

Like I said, the irony.

“Ebba’s here to see you,” she said.

She could see I was busy. “He’ll have to come back,” I snapped. I had three little bits of wire gripped between my lips, which considerably reduced my snapping power.

“He said it’s urgent.”

“Fine.” I put down the pot—call it that, no way it was a pot anymore. It was disjointed memories of the shape of a pot, loosely tied together with metal string, like the scale armor the other side wore in Outremer. “Send him up.”

“He’s not coming up here in those boots,” she said, and at once I realized that no, he wasn’t, not when she was using that tone of voice. “And why don’t you just give up on that? You’re wasting your time.”

Women have no patience. “The tinker—”

“That bit doesn’t go there.”

I dropped the articulated mess on the floor and walked past her, down the stairs, into the great hall. Great, in this context, is strictly a comparative term.

Ebba and I understand each other. For a start, he’s practically the same age as me—I’m a week younger; so what? We both grew up silently ashamed of our fathers (his father Ossun was the laziest man on the estate; mine—well) and we’re both quietly disappointed with our children. He took over his farm shortly before I came home from Outremer, so we both sort of started off being responsible for our own destinies around the same time. I have no illusions about him, and I can’t begin to imagine he has any about me. He’s medium height, bald and thin, stronger than he looks and smarter than he sounds. He used to set up the targets and pick up the arrows for me when I was a boy; never used to say anything, just stood there looking bored.

He had that look on his face. He told me I wasn’t going to believe what he was about to tell me.

The thing about Ebba is, he has absolutely no imagination. Not even when roaring drunk—whimpering drunk in his case; very rare occurrence, in case you’ve got the impression he’s what she calls basically-no-good. About twice a year, specific anniversaries. I have no idea what they’re the anniversaries of, and of course I don’t ask. Twice a year, then, he sits in the hayloft with a big stone jar and only comes out when it’s empty. Not, is the point I’m trying to make, prone to seeing things not strictly speaking there.

“There’s a dragon,” he said.

Now Ossun, his father, saw all manner of weird and wonderful things. “Don’t be bloody stupid,” I said. He just looked at me. Ebba never argues or contradicts; doesn’t need to.

“All right,” I said, and the words just sort of squeezed out, like a fat man in a narrow doorway. “Where?”

“Down Merebarton.”

A brief digression concerning dragons.

There’s no such thing. However, there’s the White Drake (its larger cousin, the Blue Drake, is now almost certainly extinct). According to Hrabanus’ Imperfect Bestiary, the White Drake is a native of the large and entirely unexpected belt of marshes you stumble into after you’ve crossed the desert, going from Crac Boamond to the sea. Hrabanus thinks it’s a very large bat, but conscientiously cites Priscian, who holds that it’s a featherless bird, and Saloninus, who maintains that it’s a winged lizard. The White Drake can get to be five feet long—that’s nose to tip-of-tail; three feet of that is tail, but it can still give you a nasty nip. They launch themselves out of trees, which can be horribly alarming (I speak from personal experience). White Drakes live almost exclusively on carrion and rotting fruit, rarely attack unless provoked, and absolutely definitely don’t breathe fire.

White Drakes aren’t found outside Outremer. Except, some idiot of a nobleman brought back five breeding pairs about a century ago, to decorate the grounds of his castle. Why people do these things, I don’t know. My father tried to keep peacocks once. As soon as we opened the cage they were off like arrows from the bowstring; next heard of six miles away, and could we please come and do something about them, because they were pecking the thatch out in handfuls. My father rode over that way, happening to take his bow with him. No more was ever said about peacocks.

Dragons, by contrast, are nine to ten feet long excluding the tail; they attack on sight, and breathe fire. At any rate, this one did.

Three houses and four barns in Merebarton, two houses and a hayrick in Stile. Nobody hurt yet, but only a matter of time. A dozen sheep carcasses, stripped to the bone. One shepherd reported being followed by the horrible thing: he saw it, it saw him, he turned and ran; it just sort of drifted along after him, hardly a wingbeat, as if mildly curious. When he couldn’t run any further, he tried crawling down a badger hole. Got stuck, head down the hole, legs sticking up in the air. He reckoned he felt the thump as the thing pitched down next to him, heard the snuffling—like a bull, he reckoned; felt its warm breath on his ankles. Time sort of stopped for a while, and then it went away again. The man said it was the first time he’d pissed himself and felt the piss running down his chest and dripping off his chin. Well, there you go.

The Brother at Merebarton appears to have taken charge, the way they do. He herded everyone into the grain store—stone walls, yes, but a thatched roof; you’d imagine even a Brother would’ve watched them making charcoal some time—and sent a terrified young kid off on a pony to, guess what. You’ve got it. Fetch the knight.

At this point, the story recognizes (isn’t that what they say in Grand Council?) Dodinas le Cure Hardy, age fifty-six, knight, of the honors of Westmoor, Merebarton, East Rew, Middle Side, and Big Room; veteran of Outremer (four years, so help me), in his day a modest success on the circuit—three second places in ranking tournaments, two thirds, usually in the top twenty out of an average field of forty or so. Through with all that a long time ago, though. I always knew I was never going to be one of those gaunt, terrifying old men who carry on knocking ’em down and getting knocked down into their sixties. I had an uncle like that, Petipas of Lyen. I saw him in a tournament when he was sixty-seven, and some young giant bashed him off his horse. Uncle landed badly, and I watched him drag himself up off the ground, so desperately tired. I was only, what, twelve; even I could see, every last scrap of flesh and bone was yelling, don’t want to do this anymore. But he stood up, shamed the young idiot into giving him a go on foot, and proceeded to use his head as an anvil for ten minutes before graciously accepting his surrender. There was so much anger in that performance—not at the kid, for showing him up, Uncle wasn’t like that. He was furious with himself for getting old, and he took it out on the only target available. I thought the whole thing was disturbing and sad. I won’t ever be like that, I told myself.

(The question was, is: why? I can understand fighting. I fought—really fought—in Outremer. I did it because I was afraid the other man was going to kill me. So happens my defense has always been weak, so I compensate with extreme aggression. Never could keep it going for very long, but on the battlefield that’s not usually an issue. So I attacked anything that moved with white-hot ferocity fueled entirely and exclusively by ice-cold fear. Tournaments, though, jousting, behourd, the grand melee—what was the point? I have absolutely no idea, except that I did feel very happy indeed on those rare occasions when I got a little tin trophy to take home. Was that enough to account for the pain of being laid up six weeks with two busted ribs? Of course it wasn’t. We do it because it’s what we do; one of my father’s more profound statements. Conversely, I remember my aunt: silly woman, too soft for her own good. She kept these stupid big white chickens, and when they got past laying she couldn’t bear to have their necks pulled. Instead, they were taken out into the woods and set free, meaning in real terms fed to the hawks and foxes. One time, my turn, I lugged down a cage with four hens and two cocks squashed in there, too petrified to move. Now, what draws in the fox is the clucking; so I turned them out in different places, wide apart, so they had nobody to talk to. Released the last hen, walking back down the track; already the two cock birds had found each other, no idea how, and were ripping each other into tissue scraps with their spurs. They do it because it’s what they do. Someone once said, the man who’s tired of killing is tired of life. Not sure I know what that means.)

A picture is emerging, I hope, of Dodinas le Cure Hardy; while he was active in chivalry he tried to do what was expected of him, but his heart was never in it. Glad, in a way, to be past it and no longer obliged to take part. Instead, prefers to devote himself to the estate, trying to keep the ancestral mess from collapsing in on itself. A man aware of his obligations, and at least some of his many shortcomings.

Go and fetch the knight, says the fool of a Brother. Tell him—

On reflection, if I hadn’t seen those wretched White Drakes in Outremer, there’s a reasonable chance I’d have refused to believe in a dragon trashing Merebarton, and then, who knows, it might’ve flown away and bothered someone else. Well, you don’t know, that’s the whole point. It’s that very ignorance that makes life possible. But when Ebba told me what the boy told him he’d seen, immediately I thought; White Drake. Clearly it wasn’t one, but it was close enough to something I’d seen to allow belief to seep into my mind, and then I was done for. No hope.

Even so, I think I said, “Are you sure?” about six or seven times, until eventually it dawned on me I was making a fool of myself. At which point, a horrible sort of mist of despair settled over me, as I realized that this extraordinary, impossible, grossly and viciously unfair thing had landed on me, and that I was going to have to deal with it.

But you do your best. You struggle, just as a man crushed under a giant stone still draws in the last one or two desperate whistling breaths; pointless, but you can’t just give up. So I looked him steadily in the eye, and I said, “So, what do they expect me to do about it?”

He didn’t say a word. Looked at me.

“The hell with that,” I remember shouting. “I’m fifty-six years old, I don’t even hunt boar anymore. I’ve got a stiff knee. I wouldn’t last two minutes.”

He looked at me. When you’ve known someone all your life, arguing with them is more or less arguing with yourself. Never had much joy with lying to myself. Or anyone else, come to that. Of course, my mother used to say: the only thing I want you not to be the best in the world at is lying. She said a lot of that sort of thing; much better written down on paper rather than said out loud in casual conversation, but of course she couldn’t read or write. She also tended to say: do your duty. I don’t think she ever liked me very much. Loved, of course, but not liked.

He was looking at me. I felt like that poor devil under the stone (at the siege of Crac des Bests; man I knew slightly). Comes a point when you just can’t breathe anymore.

We do have a library: forty-seven books. The Imperfect Bestiary is an abridged edition, local copy, drawings are pretty laughable, they make everything look like either a pig or a cow, because that’s all the poor fool who drew it had ever seen. So there I was, looking at a picture of a big white cow with wings, thinking: how in God’s name am I supposed to kill something like that?

White Drakes don’t breathe fire, but there’s this stupid little lizard in Permia somewhere that does. About eighteen inches long, otherwise completely unremarkable; not to put too fine a point on it, it farts through its mouth and somehow contrives to set fire to it. You see little flashes and puffs of smoke among the reed beds. So it’s possible. Wonderful.

(Why would anything want to do that? Hrabanus, who has an answer for every damn thing, points out that the reed beds would clog up the delta, divert the flowing water and turn the whole of South Permia into a fetid swamp if it wasn’t for the frequent, regular fires, which clear off the reed and lay down a thick bed of fertile ash, just perfect for everything else to grow sweet and fat and provide a living for the hundreds of species of animals and birds who live there. The fires are started by the lizards, who appear to serve no other function. Hrabanus points to this as proof of the Divine Clockmaker theory. I think they do it because it’s what they do, though I’m guessing the lizards who actually do the fire-starting are resentful younger sons. Tell you about my brother in a minute.)

She found me in the library. Clearly she’d been talking to Ebba. “Well?” she said.

I told her what I’d decided to do. She can pull this face of concentrated scorn and fury. It’s so intensely eloquent, there’s really no need for her to add words. But she does. Oh, she does.

“I’ve got no choice,” I protested. “I’m the knight.”

“You’re fifty-six and you get out of breath climbing the stairs. And you’re proposing to fight dragons.

It’s a black lie about the stairs. Just that one time; and that was the clock-tower. Seventy-seven steps to the top. “I don’t want to do it,” I pointed out. “Last bloody thing I want—”

“Last bloody thing you’ll ever do, if you’re stupid enough to do it.” She never swears, except when quoting me back at myself. “Just think for a minute, will you? If you get yourself killed, what’ll happen to this place?”

“I have no intention of getting myself—”

“Florian’s too young to run the estate,” she went on, as though I hadn’t spoken. “That clown of a bailiff of yours can’t be trusted to remember to breathe without someone standing over him. On top of which, there’s heriot and wardship, that’s hundreds and hundreds of thalers we simply haven’t got, which means having to sell land, and once you start doing that you might as well load up a handcart and take to the roads, because—”

“Absolutely no intention of getting killed,” I said.

“And for crying out loud don’t shout,” she shouted. “It’s bad enough you’re worrying me to death without yelling at me as well. I don’t know why you do this to me. Do you hate me, or something?”

We were four and a quarter seconds away from tears, and I really can’t be doing with that. “All right,” I said. “So tell me. What do I do?”

I don’t know, do I? I don’t get myself into these ridiculous messes.” I wish I could do that; I should be able to. After all, it’s the knight’s move, isn’t it? A step at right angles, then jump clean over the other man’s head. “What about that useless brother of yours? Send him.”

The dreadful thing is, the same thought had crossed my mind. It’d be—well, not acceptable, but within the rules, meaning there’s precedents. Of course, I’d have to be practically bedridden with some foul but honorable disease. Titurel is ten years younger than me and still competing regularly on the circuit, though at the time he was three miles away, at the lodge, with some female he’d found somewhere. And if I really was ill—

I was grateful to her. If she hadn’t suggested it, I might just have considered it. As it was; “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “Just think, if I was to chicken out and Titurel actually managed to kill this bloody thing. We’ve got to live here. He’d be insufferable.”

She breathed through her nose; like, dare I say it, one of the D things. “All right,” she said. “Though how precisely it’s better for you to get killed and your appalling brother moves in and takes over running the estate—”

“I am not going to get killed,” I said.

“But there, you never listen to me, so I might as well save my breath.” She paused and scowled at me. “Well?”

Hard, sometimes, to remember that when I married her, she was the Fair Maid of Lannandale. “Well what?”

“What are you going to do?”

“Oh,” he said, sort of half-turning and wiping his forehead on his forearm. “It’s you.”

Another close contemporary of mine. He’s maybe six months older than me, took over the forge just before my father died. He’s never liked me. Still, we understand each other. He’s not nearly as good a tradesman as he thinks he is, but he’s good enough.

“Come to pay me for those harrows?” he said.

“Not entirely,” I replied. “I need something made.”

“Of course you do.” He turned his back on me, dragged something orange-hot out from under the coals, and bashed it, very hard, very quickly, for about twenty seconds. Then he shoved it back under the coals and hauled on the bellows handle a dozen times. Then he had leisure to talk to me. “I’ll need a deposit.”

“Don’t be silly,” I said. There was a small heap of tools piled up on the spare anvil. I moved them carefully aside and spread out my scraps of parchment. “Now, you’ll need to pay attention.”

The parchment I’d drawn my pathetic attempts at sketches on was the fly-leaf out of Monomachus of Teana’s Principles of Mercantile Law. I’d had just enough left over to use for a very brief note, which I’d folded four times, sealed, and sent the stable boy off to deliver. It came back, folded the other way; and under my message, written in big crude handwriting, smudged for lack of sand—

What the hell do you want it for?

I wasn’t in the mood. I stamped back into the house (I’d been out in the barn, rummaging about in the pile of old junk), got out the pen and ink and wrote sideways up the margin (only just enough room, writing very small)—

No time. Please. Now.

I underlined please twice. The stable boy had wandered off somewhere, so I sent the kitchenmaid. She whined about having to go out in her indoors shoes. I ask you.

Moddo the blacksmith is one of those men who gets caught up in the job in hand. He whinges and complains, then the problems of doing the job snag his imagination, and then your main difficulty is getting it away from him when it’s finished, because he’s just come up with some cunning little modification which’ll make it ever so slightly, irrelevantly better.

He does good work. I was so impressed I paid cash.

“Your design was useless, so I changed it,” he’d said. A bit of an overstatement. What he’d done was to substitute two thin springs for one fat one, and add on a sort of ratchet thing taken off a millers’ winch, to make it easier to wind it up. It was still sticky with the oil he’d quenched it in. The sight of it made my flesh crawl.

Basically, it was just a very, very large gin trap, with an offset pressure plate. “It’s pretty simple,” I said. “Think about it. Think about birds. In order to get off the ground, they’ve got very light bones, right?”

Ebba shrugged: if you say so.

“Well,” I told him, “they have. And you break a bird’s leg, it can’t get off the ground. I’m assuming it’s the same with this bastard. We put out a carcass, with this underneath. It stands on the carcass, braces it with one foot so it can tear it up with the other. Bang, got him. This thing ought to snap the bugger’s leg like a carrot, and then it won’t be going anywhere in a hurry, you can be sure of that.”

He frowned. I could tell the sight of the trap scared him, like it did me. The mainspring was three eighths of an inch thick. Just as well Moddo thought to add a cocking mechanism. “You’ll still have to kill it, though,” he said.

I grinned at him. “Why?” I asked. “No, the hell with that. Just keep everybody and their livestock well away for a week until it starves to death.”

He was thinking about it. I waited. “If it can breathe fire,” he said slowly, “maybe it can melt the trap off.”

“And burn through its own leg in the process. Also,” I added—I’d considered this very point—“even without the trap it’s still crippled, it won’t be able to hunt and feed. Just like a bird that’s got away from the cat.”

He pulled a small frown that means, well, maybe. “We’ll need a carcass.”

“There’s that sick goat,” I said.

Nod. His sick goat. Well, I can’t help it if all my animals are healthy.

He went off with the small cart to fetch the goat. A few minutes later, a big wagon crunched down to the yard gate and stopped just in time. Too wide to pass through; it’d have got stuck.

Praise be, Marhouse had sent me the scorpion. Rather less joy and happiness, he’d come along with it, but never mind.

The scorpion is genuine Mezentine, two hundred years old at least. Family tradition says Marhouse’s great-great-and-so-forth-grandfather brought it back from the Grand Tour, as a souvenir. More likely, his grandfather took it in part exchange or to settle a bad debt; but to acknowledge that would be to admit that two generations back they were still in trade.

“What the hell,” Marhouse said, hopping down off the wagon box, “do you want it for?”

He’s all right, I suppose. We were in Outremer together—met there for the first time, which is crazy, since our houses are only four miles apart. But he was fostered as a boy, away up country somewhere. I’ve always assumed that’s what made him turn out like he did.

I gave him a sort of hopeless grin. Our kitchenmaid was still sitting up on the box, hoping for someone to help her down. “Thanks,” I said. “I’m hoping we won’t need it, but—”

A scorpion is a siege engine; a pretty small one, compared to the huge stone-throwing catapults and mangonels and trebuchets they pounded us with at Crac des Bests. It’s essentially a big steel crossbow, with a frame, a heavy stand, and a super-efficient winch. One man with a long steel bar can wind it up, and it shoots a steel arrow long as your arm and thick as your thumb three hundred yards. We had them at Metouches. Fortunately, the other lot didn’t.

I told Marhouse about the dragon. He assumed I was trying to be funny. Then he caught sight of the trap, lying on the ground in front of the cider house, and he went very quiet.

“You’re serious,” he said.

I nodded. “Apparently it’s burned some houses out at Merebarton.”

Burned.” Never seen him look like that before.

“So they reckon. I don’t think it’s just a drake.”

“That’s—” He didn’t get around to finishing the sentence. No need.

“Which is why,” I said, trying to sound cheerful, “I’m so very glad your granddad had the foresight to buy a scorpion. No wonder he made a fortune in business. He obviously knew good stuff when he saw it.”

Took him a moment to figure that one out, by which time the moment had passed. “There’s no arrows,” he said.


“No arrows,” he repeated, “just the machine. Well,” he went on, “it’s not like we use the bloody thing, it’s just for show.”

I opened and closed my mouth a couple of times. “Surely there must’ve been—”

“Originally, yes, I suppose so. I expect they got used for something around the place.” He gave me a thin smile. “We don’t tend to store up old junk for two hundred years on the off chance in my family,” he said.

I was trying to remember what scorpion bolts look like. There’s a sort of three-bladed flange down the butt end, to stabilize them in flight. “No matter,” I said. “Bit of old rod’ll have to do. I’ll get Moddo to run me some up.” I was looking at the machine. The lead screws and the keyways the slider ran in were caked up with stiff, solid bogeys of dried grease. “Does it work?”

“I assume so. Or it did, last time it was used. We keep it covered with greased hides in the root store.”

I flicked a flake of rust off the frame. It looked sound enough, but what if the works had seized solid? “Guess I’d better get it down off the cart and we’ll see,” I said. “Well, thanks again. I’ll let you know how it turns out.”

Meaning: please go away now. But Marhouse just scowled at me. “I’m staying here,” he said. “You honestly think I’d trust you lot with a family heirloom?”

“No, really,” I said, “you don’t need to trouble. I know how to work these things, remember. Besides, they’re pretty well indestructible.”

Wasting my breath. Marhouse is like a dog I used to have, couldn’t bear to be left out of anything; if you went out for a shit in the middle of the night, she had to come too. Marhouse was the only one of us in Outremer who ever volunteered for anything. And never got picked, for that exact reason.

So, through no choice or fault of my own, there were nine of us: me, Ebba, Marhouse, the six men from the farm. Of the six, Liutprand is seventeen and Rognvald is twenty-nine, though he barely counts, with his bad arm. The rest of us somewhere between fifty-two and sixty. Old men. We must be mad, I thought.

We rode out there in the flat-bed cart, bumping and bouncing over the ruts in Watery Lane. Everybody was thinking the same thing, and nobody said a word: what if the bugger swoops down and crisps the lot of us while we’re sat here in the cart? In addition, I was also thinking: Marhouse is his own fault, after all, he’s a knight too, and he insisted on butting in. The rest of them, though—my responsibility. Send for the knight, they’d said, not the knight and half the damn village. But a knight in real terms isn’t a single man, he’s the nucleus of a unit, the heart of a society; the lance in war, the village in peace, he stands for them, in front of them when there’s danger, behind them when times are hard, not so much an individual, more of a collective noun. That’s understood, surely; so that, in all those old tales of gallantry and errantry, when the poet sings of the knight wandering in a dark wood and encountering the evil to be fought, the wrong to be put right, “knight” in that context is just shorthand for a knight and his squire and his armor-bearer and his three men-at-arms and the boy who leads the spare horses. The others aren’t mentioned by name, they’re subsumed in him, he gets the glory or the blame but everyone knows, if they stop to think about it, that the rest of them were there too; or who lugged around the spare lances, to replace the ones that got broken? And who got the poor bugger in and out of his full plate harness every morning and evening? There are some straps and buckles you just can’t reach on your own, unless you happen to have three hands on the ends of unnaturally long arms. Without the people around me, I’d be completely worthless. It’s understood. Well, isn’t it?

We set the trap up on the top of a small rise, in the big meadow next to the old clay pit. Marhouse’s suggestion, as a matter of fact; he reckoned that it was where the flightlines the thing had been following all crossed. Flightlines? Well yes, he said, and proceeded to plot all the recorded attacks on a series of straight lines, scratched in the dried splatter on the side of the cart with a stick. It looked pretty convincing to me. Actually, I hadn’t really given it any thought, just assumed that if we dumped a bleeding carcass down on the ground, the dragon would smell it and come whooshing down. Stupid, when you come to think of it. And I call myself a huntsman.

Moddo had fitted the trap with four good, thick chains, attached to eighteen-inch steel pegs, which we hammered into the ground. Again, Marhouse did the thinking. They needed to be offset (his word) so that if it pulled this way or that, there’d be three chains offering maximum resistance—well, it made sense when he said it. He’s got that sort of brain, invents clever machines and devices for around the farm. Most of them don’t work, but some of them do.

The trap, of course, was Plan A. Plan B was the scorpion, set up seventy-five yards away under the busted chestnut tree, with all that gorse and briars for cover. The idea was, we had a direct line of sight, but if we missed and he came at us, he wouldn’t dare swoop in too close, for fear of smashing his wings on the low branches. That bit was me.

We propped the poor dead goat up on sticks so it wasn’t actually pressing on the floorplate of the trap, then scampered back to where we’d set up the scorpion. Luitprand got volunteered to drive the cart back to Castle Farm; he whined about being out in the open, but I chose him because he’s the youngest and I wanted him well out of harm’s way if the dragon actually did put in an appearance. Seventy-five yards was about as far as I trusted the scorpion to shoot straight without having to make allowance for elevation—we didn’t have time to zero it, obviously—but it felt stupidly close. How long would it take the horrible thing to fly seventy-five yards? I had no idea, obviously. We spanned the scorpion—reassuringly hard to do—loaded Moddo’s idea of a bolt into the slider groove, nestled down as far as we could get into the briars and nettles, and waited.

No show. When it got too dark to see, Marhouse said, “What kind of poison do you think it’d take to kill something like that?”

I’d been thinking about that. “Something we haven’t got,” I said.

“You reckon?”

“Oh come on,” I said. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t keep a wide selection of poisons in the house. For some reason.”

“There’s archer’s root,” Ebba said.

“He’s right,” Marhouse said. “That stuff’ll kill just about anything.”

“Of course it will,” I replied. “But nobody around here—”

“Mercel,” Ebba said. “He’s got some.”

News to me. “What?”

“Mercel. Lidda’s boy. He uses it to kill wild pigs.”

Does he now?, I thought. It had occurred to me that wild boar were getting a bit hard to find. I knew all about smearing a touch of archer’s root on a bit of jagged wire nailed to a fencepost—boar love to scratch, and it’s true, they do a lot of damage to standing corn. That’s why I pay compensation. Archer’s root is illegal, of course, but so are a lot of useful everyday commodities.

“I’d better ask him,” Ebba said. “He won’t want to get in any trouble.”

Decided unanimously, apparently. Well, we weren’t doing any good crouching in the bushes. It did cross my mind that if the dragon hadn’t noticed a dead goat with a trap under it, there was no guarantee it’d notice the same dead goat stuffed full of archer’s root, but I dismissed the idea as unconstructive.

We left the trap and the scorpion set up, just in case, and rode in the cart back to Castle Farm. To begin with, as we came over the top of the Hog’s Back down Castle Lane, I assumed the pretty red glow on the skyline was the last blush of the setting sun. As we got closer, I hoped that was what it was. By the time we passed the quince orchard, however, the hypothesis was no longer tenable.

We found Luitprand in the goose pond. Stupid fool, he’d jumped in the water to keep from getting burned up. Of course, the mud’s three feet deep on the bottom. I could have told him that.

In passing: I think Luitprand was my son. At any rate, I knew his mother rather too well, seventeen years ago. Couldn’t ever say anything, naturally. But he reminded me a lot of myself. For a start, he was half-smart stupid, just like me. Hurling myself in the pond to avoid the flames was just the sort of thing I might have done at his age; and, goes without saying, he wasn’t there when we dug the bloody pond, twenty-one years ago, so how could he have known we’d chosen the soft spot, no use for anything else?

No other casualties, thank God, but the hay barn, the straw rick, the woodpile, all gone. The thatch, miraculously, burned itself out without taking the rafters with it. But losing that much hay meant we’d be killing a lot of perfectly good stock come winter, since I can’t afford to buy in. One damn thing after another.

Opito, Larcan’s wife, was hysterical, even though her home hadn’t gone up in flames after all. Larcan said it was a great big lizard, about twenty feet long. He got one very brief glimpse of it out of the corner of his eye, just before he dragged his wife and son under the cart. He looked at me like it was all my fault. Just what I needed after a long day crouched in a briar patch.

Luitprand played the flute; not very well. I gave him the one I brought back from Outremer. I never did find it among his stuff, so I can only assume he sold it at some point.

Anyway, that was that, as far as I was concerned. Whatever it was, wherever it had come from, it would have to be dealt with, as soon as possible. On the ride back from the farm, Marhouse had been banging on about flightlines again, where we were going to move the bait to; two days here, while the wind’s in the south, then if that’s no good, then another two days over there, and if that still doesn’t work, we’ll know for sure it must be following the line of the river, so either here, there, or just possibly everywhere, would be bound to do the trick, logically speaking. I smiled and nodded. I’m sure he was perfectly correct. He’s a good huntsman, Marhouse. Come the end of the season, he always knows exactly where all the game we’ve failed to find must be holed up. Next year, he then says—

Trouble was, there wasn’t time for a next year.

By midnight (couldn’t sleep, oddly enough) I was fairly sure how it had to be done.

Before you start grinning to yourself at my presumption, I had no logical explanation for my conclusions. Flightlines, patterns of behavior, life cycles, cover crops, mating seasons, wind directions; put them together and you’ll inevitably flush out the truth, which will then elude you, zig-zag running through the roots of the long variables. I knew.

I knew, because I used to hunt with my father. He was, of course, always in charge of everything, knew everything, excelled at everything. We never caught much. And I knew, when he’d drawn up the lines of beaters, given them their timings (say three Glorious Sun Ascendants and two Minor Catechisms, then come out making as much noise as you can), positioned the stillhunters and the hounds and the horsemen, finally blown the horn; I knew exactly where the wretched animal would come bursting out, so as to elude us all with the maximum of safety and the minimum of effort. Pure intuition, never failed. Naturally, I never said anything. Not my place to.

So: I knew what was going to happen, and that there was nothing much I could do about it, and my chances of success and survival were—well, not to worry about that. When I was in Outremer, I got shot in the face with an arrow. Should’ve killed me instantly; but by some miracle it hung up in my cheekbone, and an enemy doctor we’d captured the day before yanked it out with a pair of tongs. You should be dead, they said to me, like I’d deliberately cheated. No moral fiber. Ever since then—true, I shuddered to think how the estate would get on with my brother in charge, but it survived my father and grandfather, so it was clearly indestructible. Besides, everyone dies sooner or later. It’s not like I’m important.

Marhouse insisted on coming with us. I told him, you stay here, we’ll need a wise, experienced hand to take charge if it decides to burn out the castle. For a moment I thought he’d fallen for it, but no such luck.

So there were three of us: me, Ebba, Marhouse. The idea was, we’d follow the Ridgeway on horseback, looking down on either side. As soon as we saw smoke, Ebba would ride back to the castle and get the gear, meet us at the next likely attack scene. I know; bloody stupid idea. But I knew it wouldn’t happen like that, because I knew how it’d happen.

Marhouse had on his black-and-white—that’s breastplate, pauldrons, rerebraces, and tassets. I told him, you’ll boil to death in that lot. He scowled at me. He’d also fetched along a full-weight lance, issue. You won’t need that, I told him. I’d got a boar-spear, and Ebba was carrying the steel crossbow my father spent a whole year’s apple money on, the year before he died. “But they’re just to make us feel better,” I said. That got me another scowl. The wrong attitude.

Noon; nothing to be seen anywhere. I was just daring to think, perhaps the bloody thing’s moved on, or maybe it’d caught some disease or got itself hung up in a tree. Then I saw a crow.

I think Ebba saw it first, but he didn’t point and say, “Look, there’s a crow.” Marhouse was explaining some fine point of decoying, how you go about establishing which tree is the principal turning point on an elliptical recursive flight pattern. I thought: that’s not a crow, it’s just hanging there. Must be a hawk.

Ebba was looking over his shoulder. No, not a hawk, the profile’s wrong. Marhouse stopped talking, looked at me, said, “What are you two staring at?” I was thinking, Oh.

I’m right about things so rarely that I usually relish the experience. Not this time.

Oh, you may be thinking, is a funny way of putting it. But that was the full extent of it: no elation, no regret, not even resignation; to my great surprise, no real fear. Just: oh, as in, well, here we are, then. Call it a total inability to feel anything. Twice in Outremer, once when my father died, and now. I’d far rather have wet myself, but you can’t decide these things for yourself. Oh, I thought, and that was all.

Marhouse was swearing, which isn’t like him. He only swears when he’s terrified, or when something’s got stuck or broken. Bad language, he reckons, lubricates the brain, stops it seizing up with fear or anger. Ebba had gone white as milk. His horse was playing up, and he was having to work hard to keep it from bolting. Amazing how they know.

On top of the Ridgeway, of course, there’s no cover. We could gallop forward, or turn around and gallop back; either case, at the rate the bloody thing was moving, it’d be on us long before we could get our heads down. I heard someone give the order to dismount. Wasn’t Marhouse, because he stayed mounted. Wouldn’t have been Ebba, so I guess it must’ve been me.

First time, it swooped down low over our heads—about as high up as the spire of Blue Temple—and just kept on going. We were frozen solid. We watched. It was on the glide, like a pigeon approaching a laid patch in a barley field, deciding whether to pitch or go on. Very slight tailwind, so if it wanted to come in on us, it’d have to bank, turn up into the wind a little bit to start to stall, then wheel and come in with its wings back. I honestly thought: it’s gone too far, it’s not going to come in. Then it lifted, and I knew.

Sounds odd, but I hadn’t really been looking at it the first time, when it buzzed us. I saw a black bird shape, long neck like a heron, long tail like a pheasant, but no sense of scale. As it came in the second time, I couldn’t help but stare; a real dragon, for crying out loud, something to tell your grandchildren about. Well, maybe.

I’d say the body was about horse-sized, head not in proportion; smaller, like a red deer stag. Wings absurdly large—featherless, like a bat, skin stretched on disturbingly extended fingers. Tail, maybe half as long again as the body; neck like a swan, if that makes any sense. Sort of a gray color, but it looked green at a distance. Big hind legs, small front legs looking vaguely ridiculous, as if it had stolen them off a squirrel. A much rounder snout than I’d expected, almost chubby. It didn’t look all that dangerous, to be honest.

Marhouse is one of those people who translate fear into action; the scareder he is, the braver. Works against people. No warning—it’d have been nice if he’d said something first; he kicked his horse hard enough to stove in a rib, lance in rest, seat and posture straight out of the coaching manual. Rode straight at it.

What happened then—

Marhouse was five yards away from it, going full tilt. The dragon probably couldn’t have slowed down if it had wanted to. Instead—it actually made this sort of “pop” noise as it opened its mouth and burped up a fat round ball of fire, then lifted just a little, to sail about five feet over Marhouse’s head. He, meanwhile, rode straight into the fireball, and through it.

And stopped, and fell all to pieces; the reason being, there was nothing left. Horse, man, all gone, not even ash, and the dozen or so pieces of armor dropping glowing to the ground, cherry-red, like they’d just come off the forge. I’ve seen worse things, in Outremer, but nothing stranger.

I was gawping, forgotten all about the dragon. It was Ebba who shoved me down as it came back. I have no idea why it didn’t just melt us both as it passed, unless maybe it was all out of puff and needed to recharge. Anyway, it soared away, repeated the little lift. I had a feeling it was enjoying itself. Well, indeed. It must be wonderful to be able to fly.

Ebba was shouting at me, waving something, the crossbow, he wanted me to take it from him. “Shoot it,” he was yelling. Made no sense to me; but then again, why not? I took the bow, planted my feet a shoulders’ width apart, left elbow tucked in tight to the chest to brace the bow, just the fingers on the trigger. A good archery stance didn’t seem to have anything to do with the matter in hand—like playing bowls in the middle of an earthquake—but I’m a good archer, so I couldn’t help doing it properly. I found the dragon in the middle of the peep-sight, drew the tip of the arrow up to find it, and pressed the trigger.

For the record, I hit the damn thing. The bolt went in four inches, just above the heart. Good shot. With a bow five times as strong, quite possibly a clean kill.

I think it must’ve hurt, though, because instead of flaming and lifting, it squirmed—hunched its back then stretched out full-length like a dog waking up—and kept coming, straight at me. I think I actually did try and jump out of the way; just rather too late. I think what hit me must’ve been the side of its head.

I had three ribs stoved in once in Outremer, so I knew what was going on. I recognized the sound, and the particular sort of pain, and the not quite being able to breathe. Mostly I remember thinking: it won’t hurt, because any moment now I’ll be dead. Bizarrely reassuring, as if I was cheating, getting away with it. Cheating twice; once by staying alive, once by dying. This man is morally bankrupt.

I was on my back, not able or minded to move. I couldn’t see the dragon. I could hear Ebba shouting; shut up, you old fool, I thought, I’m really not interested. But he was shouting, “Hold on, mate, hold on, I’m coming,” which made absolutely no sense at all—

Then he shut up, and I lay there waiting. I waited, and waited. I’m not a patient man. I waited so long, those crunched ribs started to hurt, or at least I became aware of the pain. For crying out loud, I thought. And waited.

And thought: now just a minute.

It hurt so much, hauling myself onto my side so I could see. I was in tears.

Later, I figured out what had happened. When Ebba saw me go down, he grabbed the boar-spear and ran towards me. I don’t imagine he considered the dragon, except as an inconvenience. Hold on, I’m coming; all his thoughts in his words. He got about half way when the dragon pitched—it must’ve swooped off and come in again. As it put its feet down to land, he must’ve stuck the butt of the spear in the ground and presented the point, like you do with a boar, to let it stick itself, its momentum being far more effective than your own puny strength. As it pitched, it lashed with its tail, sent Ebba flying. Whether or not it realized it was dead, the spear a foot deep in its windpipe before the shaft gave way under the pressure and snapped, I neither know nor care. By the marks on the ground, it rolled three or four times before the lights went out. My best estimate is, it weighed just short of a ton. Ebba—under it as it rolled—was crushed like a grape, so that his guts burst and his eyes popped, and nearly all his bones were broken.

He wouldn’t have thought: I’ll kill the dragon. He’d have thought, ground the spear, like boar-hunting, and then the tail hit him, and then the weight squashed him. So it wouldn’t have been much; not a heroic thought, not the stuff of song and story. Just: this is a bit like boar-hunting, so ground the spear. And then, perhaps: oh.

I think that’s all there is; anywhere, anytime, in the whole world.

I tried preserving the head in honey. We got an old pottery bath and filled it and put the head in; but eight weeks later it had turned green and it stank like hell, and she said, for pity’s sake get rid of it. So we boiled it out and scraped it, and mounted the skull on the wall. Not much bigger than a big deer; in a hundred years’ time, they won’t believe the old story about it being a dragon. No such thing as dragons, they’ll say.

Meanwhile, for now, I’m the Dragonslayer; which is a joke. The duke himself threatened to ride over and take a look at the remains, but affairs of state supervened, thank God. Entertaining the duke and his court would’ve ruined us, and we’d lost so much already.

Twice I’ve cheated. Marhouse was straight as a die, and his end, I’m sorry, was just ludicrous. I keep telling myself, Ebba made a choice, you must respect that. I can’t. Instead of a friend, I have a horrible memory, and yet another debt I can’t pay. People assume you want to be saved, no matter what the cost; sometimes, though, it’s just too expensive to stay alive. Not sure I’ll ever forgive him for that.

And that’s that. I really don’t want to talk about it anymore.


Originally published in Fearsome Journeys edited by Jonathan Strahan.

Author profile

One of the most inventive and imaginative writers working in fantasy today, K.J. Parker is the author of the best-selling Engineer trilogy (Devices and Desires, Evil for Evil, The Escapement) as well as the previous Fencer (The Colours in the Steel, The Belly of the Bow, The Proof House) and Scavenger (Shadow, Pattern, Memory) trilogies. His short fiction has been collected in Academic Exercises, and he has twice won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella, for "Let Maps to Others" and "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong." His other novels include Sharps, The Company, The Folding Knife, The Hammer, Savages, and The Two of Swords. His most recent novels are The Devil You Know and Downfall of the Gods. K.J. Parker also writes under his real name, Tom Holt. As Holt, he has published Expecting Someone Taller, Who's Afraid of Beowulf, Ye Gods!, and many other novels.

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