Aquias drove her short sword into the dragon’s side. Under its glimmering green scales, it was as vulnerable as any mortal beast. A quavering screech escaped its throat as it shook, spasmed, and finally lay dead on the hillside. She pulled her sword out, and the blood on her blade smoked as readily as the dragon’s wounds. Panting heavily, she stepped back and examined her handywork.
Doc snorted. “Less than half the size of a pony. What d’you figure, three-hundred pounds?”
Aquias caught her breath. “Two hundred. No more than two-fifty.”
Doc sighed through his nose. “Mmm… They said it was five-hundred at least. Hope they’ll still pay what they promised.”
The blood died out, already turning brown in the late afternoon sun. Aquias wiped off what she could on the dragon’s hide, the rest on the grass. It was good steel, though dinted in many places. Its cruciform hilt had once been coated in gold, and its pommel had a blank, burnished eye where a ruby once had sat. She found herself staring at the vacancy.
“Ohh,” Doc muttered, “Yeah… What did you say you got for that ruby?”
Aquias slid the short sword back into her wood-and-leather sheath. “A horse.”
Doc snorted. “One horse? That ruby must’ve been the size of an eyeball.”
“And a half-dozen salted hams,” she added, still staring at the dead dragon. The smoke had died in its wounds. It was still now.
“Must’ve been a good horse,” Doc said. “What happened to it?”
Aquias sniffed. “Dragon ate it.”
Doc threw his head back and roared with laughter. Aquias was well-muscled for a woman nearing her fortieth year, but Doc was nearly three-times her size, and his keg-belly was outmatched his massive, hairy arms. Grey whiskers drooped down other side of his mouth, stubble covered his broad chin, and his eyebrows were every bit as bushy as his moustache. His nose was huge and red, though they had not had a proper drink in over a fortnight, and his eyes were small and black and beady, glittering only at the sight of gold. “Must’ve been a good horse,” he repeated.
Aquias rolled her shoulders. Upon her right shoulder was a great pauldron of black iron, shaped like a tiger’s snarling face. It was so large she had to stuff it with leather to get it to fit right. Strapped to her arm was her old round-shield, battered and dented so greatly it was nearly concave. Her other pauldron was small, simple, unpolished steel, and it let her maneuver her sword arm more easily. Her head was throbbing from a bad tumble she got tripping over the dragon’s tail. Why had she sold her helmet, she wondered? She had sold her greaves first, replacing them with tough leather boots. Should she have sold her shield first, then her helmet? She looked at the shield again. It was hideously scarred and dented, but that meant she used it a lot.
“Well,” Doc sighed, “I s’pose we’ll have to carry it back with us. To prove the deed is done.” He stretched his back. “We’ll wait another five minutes, to let the corpse cool down.”
Aquias smirked at him, but said no more. An adult dragon’s hide was so hot it could blur the vision of those that looked upon it, and men had fainted from the heat by simply standing near one. This thing she had killed, however, was likely already as cold as any other carcass. Still, if Doc wanted to wait, that was fine. He would be doing the carrying.
She took a deep breath and looked around her. They were at the foot of a large hill, covered in springy green grass and dotted with vibrant beech trees. About halfway near the top, she could spy a small cavity boring into the side. “Look,” she said.
“Cave,” Doc hummed. “Likely that’s where it slept.”
She nodded. “Think there might be more in there?”
“Doubt it. But even if there is, they only paid us to kill one.” Doc was rolling his head about, limbering up his spine. A leather skull-cap offered minimal protection to his head, but then again, Doc did not do much fighting these days. His bulky, fur-lined pauldrons matched, his chest plate still held most of its yellow paint, with a stylized bronze bull rampant upon it. He even still had fur-lined cloak fastened to his shoulders. It was the middle of Spring, but the fur made him look more impressive.
“We’d best get going,” Aquias said.
“All right, all right.” He knelt down by the dragon. It was already starting to look a little deflated. He bore it up in his arms like a swooning maiden, and with a great heave hoisted it over his shoulders. He grunted roughly. “Which way was the village?”
“Come,” Aquias started walking.
It was less than five minutes before Doc was breathing like a bellows. “How old are you these days, Doc?” she asked.
Doc chortled. “Ask me no secrets, girl.”
“Don’t call me girl, old man,” she said, not for the first time.
“Right, right,” he grumbled. She faintly heard, “Older and wiser,” under his breath.
The village of Foote was well named, as it sat at the foot of Mount Vramont, a rather humble eruption that had the distinction of being the only mountain in a sea of rolling hills. A generous stream ran all the way down from its peak and along the village, supplying the sixty or seventy peasants with everything they needed to survive. Save, of course, protection from dragons.
A pair of young boys were playing in what passed for a village square, using two shaved sticks as swords to mock-battle one another. Just outside the villages was a large copse of trees that supplied the lumber for shacks, cabins, and playthings. Over half the trees had been cut down. A faint breeze blew a lock of golden hair in Aquias’ face, and she brushed it out of the way. None of this mattered to her.
Doc was heaving and grunting when he finally dropped the carcass in the middle of the square. It thudded on the downy ground like a sack of potatoes, and drew as little interest from those gathered. Nestled behind a couple of cabins, a few dozen sheep grazed in a large pen. An old woman in grey skirt and white blouse was speaking with the shepherd there, but looked up at the noise. She took her time crossing to them.
“There she is,” Doc murmured through his teeth. “Big smile, Aquias, big smile.” Aquias tried to smirk, but feared it looked more like a grimace. “Here comes the hard part.”
Easy for him to say. Aquias did all the actually fighting these days.
“Is that it?” the old woman said. A girl of around ten years dressed all in brown had walked up to join her, staring down at the dead thing.
“In the flesh,” Doc cried with well-assumed pride. “A mean one, but in the end we put her down.”
The old woman wrinkled her nose at the smell. “Not much larger than a wolf, is it.”
Doc shrugged. “Wolves are dangerous. Just ask your sheep.”
She shrugged back. “We can kill wolves with sticks and knives. We can cut down their forests.”
Doc nodded politely, his still-white teeth flashing as he said, “Too true, madam. Wolves don’t breathe fire, of course. Nor do they fly.”
She cackled at that. “You expect me to believe that thing could fly? Them wings are smaller than its stubby, stunted legs.”
“For now,” Doc allowed. “Give it another year, two at most, and she would’ve stormed down on you from above, burned your village down, and roasted the sheep she didn’t steal.”
“How d’ye know it’s a she?” the little girl asked. Her big brown eyes were wide in excitement.
Doc acknowledged her point with a raised finger. “Excellent question, young lady. In truth, a dragon’s neither man nor woman. The eggs are laid already set to hatch. That’s why the whole world used to be ruled by these monsters. All it takes is one, grown to adulthood, and she’ll start infesting the countryside with her children.”
The girl’s eyes grew wider still as she stared at the shrinking corpse. “And you say, in only two years, it could fly, and spit fire from its gullet.”
“Two years at most,” Doc said, lowering his voice to a confidential and dangerous whisper. “This here’s a hill dragon. Dangerous enough, to be sure, but a fire dragon, or a rock dragon, ohhhhh my… ready to kill before a year old, you mark my words. And the king dragon, oh my, the deadliest of them all. Size of a house after half a year, ready to swallow a bull whole when it’s fully grown!”
Aquias thought the little girl’s eyes might start from her head. “Oughtn’t you call it a queen, dragon, if there are no males.”
Doc threw his head back and laughed so loud and full, you might almost think he was sincere. “Another good question, young lady. Luckily, there are none left to correct my rudeness.” The girl actually seemed sadden by that, but asked no further questions.
The old woman sneered. “A shame no such beast was about for you to kill. It might feel less like you were trying to extort us now.”
Doc’s smile froze, but did not faulter. “Extort, madam?”
Aquias wove deftly in front of him, her left hand resting casually on her pommel. “We have come for our pay, madam.”
The old woman was not tall, but the contempt with which she glared at Doc made him seem smaller than the dead dragon at their feet. “Dragon slayer… hmph… hiding behind a little girl.”
“I am a woman, madam,” she said, simply, without rancor.
The old woman sniffed, then spat on the dragon. “Seems to me the deed’s already been done. Not much of a deed either. Why should I even bother to pay you? This thing looks like it could be killed with a few staves and a knife. Or even a stiff breeze.”
“A common misconception, madam,” Doc pressed on, seemingly oblivious to her insults. “A knife might do on one this young, if one of your men was brave enough to risk it. But a stave? No, not a dozen, not a hundred could even bruise the beast under all those scales.”
“So you say.” She looked about. Aquias looked too. About five people had gathered to watch their polite argument. Most were preparing for the sunset. The two boys that had been play-fighting with sticks were nowhere to be seen. The dead dragon lay between them, ignored.
“There was a cave,” Aquias said.
Doc laid a meaty hand upon her shoulder and guided her back behind him, “Never mind that, Aquias.”
“Aquias?” the old woman mocked. “That’s a fancy name, girl. What’re you doing with this grizzly thing?”
“Hmph.” The old woman spat on the dragon again. “We know there’s a cave. Every Autumn we send a boy up there to check it for eggs, and smash any they find. Usually there’s nothing. Clearly my lazy, idiot grandson did not bother to even check last year. Third year in a row he was charged with checking the cave. Guess he was too important to be bothered with a half-hour walk.”
Aquias almost asked what that mattered to them, but Doc broke in first. “Sounds like the boy could do with a sharp lesson.”
“Oh he’s gotten it, don’t you worry.” A faint, sharp smile creased her face. “Three swats on the head I gave him with my old walking stick, as his worthless mother and father were too meek to do it themselves.” She croaked in laughter. “Boy wants to marry the miller’s girl from the other side of the mountain. Thinks he’s ready to start a family, but can’t even be counted to check a hole for dragon eggs. Hmph!” She rubbed the little girl’s head. “Half the time he’s supposed to be watching this little one, he’s wandering off to see his ‘beloved one.’ Hmph!”
Aquias was getting bored, but Doc was taking a stronger interest.
“All boys could use a good thump in the head from time to time.”
“Not just boys,” the old woman broke in, her grin a fierce threat.
“Too be sure,” Doc laughed, “but if you’ll kindly bear my counsel, I wonder if this grandson of yours couldn’t use a sharper lesson still.” Doc raised his hand and rubbed his thick thumb and index finger together. “A wallop is good, but soon forgotten, my old papa used to say.”
There was a brief spark in the old woman’s eyes, and a thin smile split her face. “Petal,” she said, “go fetch your brother Fosten.”
It was a tiny village. Less than two minutes later, a tall and gawky boy with dirty yellow hair was being dragged by the middle finger by the girl in brown, whose name was apparently Petal. The boy’s eyes widened at bit at the dragon’s carcass, but he too soon lost interest.
“Boy,” the old woman croaked as she reached up and smacked the back of his head.
“Nana!” he cried, “you cannot be smacking people’s heads these days. It’s barbaric.”
She spat again, but somehow missed the dragon and hit the boy’s bare feet. “Barbaric. Hah! What’s barbaric is you abandoning your sister to go try and sneak into some girl’s skirts over in Montonvil. What’s barbaric is this reeking wyrm I’ve had to have killed because you were too lazy to take a walk last Autumn.”
The boy Fosten seemed to have no answer to that. “So?” he said at last, “it’s done.”
“It’s not done,” she snapped. “These fellows are owed two gold eagles for their labor.”
“Begging your pardon, madam,” Doc broke in, “but the agreement was for three gold eagles.”
“Three eagles!?” Fosten cried. “For that? I could kill that with a shepherd’s crook.”
“You could not,” Aquias said, simply.
The old woman cackled at that. “There. She’s the assistant, she would know.”
She almost spoke again, but a faint gesture from Doc kept her silent.
“Nana, you can’t,” Fosten cried. “I’m saving up for marriage. It’d take me a year to earn three eagles back.”
“Then this year you’d better check the damn cavern come Autumn, hadn’t you! Now hurry off and fetch their pay, before they take it out of your flesh like brigands.” Another swat to the head sent the boy skipping to get his treasure.
Doc leaned forward very slightly, and though he was still cordial, the warmth had notably left his voice. “Begging your pardon, madam,” he said, “but we are not brigands. I was a knight, and we have provided a service for your village.”
The old woman glowered at him, then cackled again.
In the end, Fosten did not even have what was owed. A single eagle, eighteen silver ravens, and a pile of copper pigeons. Doc smiled and point out they were still owed about ten more silvers, and the old woman finally acquiesced to be rid of them. The boy Fosten had stormed off in a huff, and the old woman hobbled away to fetch the last of the coin. The little girl named Petal remained, staring up at them with her shimmering eyes.
She was staring at Aquias. She ignored the girl.
A minute later the old woman nearly tossed the coins into Doc’s palm. “There,” she grunted, “little good may it do you.”
“Much praise to you,” he answered, his cheer only slightly cooled. “I fear it might be the height of foolishness to ask, but have you an inn or common house in your charming hamlet?”
She cackled again. “Looking to drink away your money already? No, we’ve none of that trash here. I suggest you take your racket around the mountain to Montonvil. They’re larger and more gullible. I hear there’s an old dragon’s nest right in the mountain on that side as well. No doubt they’ll like your song and dance better than I did.” She spat on the dragon yet again. “Drag that thing out of here and bury it before you go. I don’t want it drawing wolves or poisoning our grass.” And with that she tromped off, dropping them from their notice like a soiled handkerchief.
Doc sighed loudly, pouring the coins into a satchel on his broad leather belt. “At least we got the money,” he muttered. His beady eyes glittered, if only a little
The little girl was still staring at her. “What?” Aquias finally asked. “What is it?”
Little Petal was undeterred by her sharpness. “You’re a dragon slayer?”
She wanted to insult the girl, but in the end she simply said, “Yes.”
“Do you think I could be a dragon slayer, too?”
Aquias stared at her.
“We should’ve bought a pound of salted veal,” Doc complained as they walked around the humble mountain. “For the journey.”
“It should only be two or three days,” Aquias said, not for the first time. “Montonvil has an inn, so they’ll have cheaper food and a proper place to sleep.”
The sun was setting as they wandered along the foot of the humble mountain. They had wasted two hours carrying the dragon’s corpse far enough away to not be found, then leaving it for the wolves. They had no shovels with which to bury it, and a proper hole could have cost them half the night. “They’ll never hire us again,” Doc had pointed out.
“That’s already true,” said had Aquias, and that was the end of it.
“How long we been working together?” Doc asked as the sky turned dark as a bruise.
“Four years, as of last Winter,” she said, “but I’ve been slaying dragons as long as you have.”
“I know it, I know it,” Doc grunted, “I’m not looking for a fight.” They walked another two minutes before he asked, “When’s the last time you slew a real one? An adult?”
She had to think a while. “Only a year before we met. A year and a half.”
Doc winced. “Nasty business. I had to face one of them when I was about your age. I was a lot nimbler back then, though. No burns.”
Aquias grinned. “Me neither.”
“Mine was a hill dragon, but she was big. Must’ve been an ancient. She was nearly the size of a king dragon.”
“Queen dragon,” she corrected him.
He chuckled at that. “Monarch dragon, let’s call them. They won’t complain.” It was another minute before he continued. “Would have been about six years back. Her hill was small, but the whole thing was hollow. It was as if she’d burrowed under the field and turned it into a hill with her own mass.”
“I’m sure,” Aquias nodded.
“It’s true! I’ll warrant that’s how hill dragons first got their names. Maybe all these hills were made by great, giant beasts burrowing under the earth.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Everyone needs a home, girl.”
“Don’t call me girl, old man.”
“Aye, yes…” he grumbled.
They walked in silence for what felt like nearly an hour. The Spring stars were out in strength by now. Above them the Tiger roared, her claws extended out toward the Rabbit. Absently, Aquias rubbed at the tiger’s-face pauldron on her right shoulder. Her shield shoulder. It was only then she realized her beaten, dented shield was still strapped to her arm.
“That was when I first hurt my back,” Doc said from nowhere. “That hill dragon. She struck me with her tail. I must’ve flown a hundred feet, maybe more. Those were downy fields, but it was quite a flight.” He snorted. “Flight. I couldn’t tell you why dragons are so mad for flying. I did not care for it.”
“Dragons have a little more choice in the matter.”
Doc guffawed at that. “Right as always, Aquias.”
A few more minutes passed.
“Thank you,” she said at last, “for getting our money.”
“That’s how we always do it,” Doc answered, “at least for the last year or so. The dragons are so small these days, we’d only get in each other’s way trying to fight them together.” It was another moment before he cottoned on to her intent. “Ah. Thank you, Aquias. For actually slaying the thing.”
“Of course.” Her waves of gilt hair had mostly sweated to her head and neck, but now the cool breeze of the night was starting to breath some substance back into it. She ran her fingers through it, then finally began unstrapping her shield from her arm. “So,” she said, “Montonvil.”
“I’ve never been,” Doc said. “I don’t think I’ve been in the Rolling Hills at all for near on a decade. Not sure Montonvil even existed back then.”
“Not if there were dragons there.”
Doc snorted again. “Good point.”
They passed what looked like a great forest off to their left sometime nearing midnight. It was a ways off, but still too close for comfort. “Might be wolves,” Doc pointed out unnecessarily, so they kept walking. It was not far from dawn when they finally settled down for the night.
“Tent?” Doc asked.
Aquias shrugged in the night. “Good weather. Soft fields.”
“Ay,” Doc agreed, thoroughly exhausted.
“I’ll take the first watch,” Aquias said. She said with her back facing the mountain, looking out into nothing, her short sword out and resting on her lap.
Doc was already lying down. “Are you sure? This late, there’s likely to be only the one watch. You’re not as young as you used to me.”
“True,” She looked up at the Tiger. It had moved during the night, much farther west than when the night was young. Of course, the Rabbit had run just as far. “But I’m still younger than you.”
She thought Doc might laugh at that, but he was already asleep.