by Eric J. Juneau
“Get off my lawn, ya damn kid,” the old dragon slayer said.
Marche stopped climbing up the hill and looked around. Nothing but prairie grass surrounded him. As far as he could tell, all the land within miles was the old man’s lawn.
“Are you Hed Pelenore? The dragon slayer?” Marche asked him.
The old man yanked out a weed from the flowerpots on his porch and added it to his bulging handful. He looked terribly aged, but he could still bend up and down without groaning.
“Eh? There’s no dragon slayer here. Not no more.” He scooted back into the house.
The door shut on Marche just as he caught up. “Please, sir.”
“Go away. And get off my lawn, I said.”
Marche banged on the door. “Please, I need your help with-” The rotted wood splintered at the hinges and the door fell in.
“Damn,” the old man said, “Meant to fix that.”
Marche stood in the entryway of the one-room cabin. There was a bed against the far wall, a rising hearth opposite, and a makeshift kitchen. “I’m sorry about your door, sir. I can fix it. Do you have any tools –”
The old man waved dismissively. “It’s all right. You may as well come in. You’ve already broken my door. Kids today…”
Marche panned around the room. The walls were covered in trophies, plaques, and mounted objects, all taken from dragons. Two dragon claws served as bookends on a shelf. A glass frame with a set of long serrated teeth, pinned on velvet, hung next to it.
Marche looked above the entrance and yelped. A blue wyvern head stared down at him–yellow slit eyes gleaming, jaws open for the kill.
“Oh, that’s Yavin,” the man said, “He was a runt, but a fighter. I liked the way he looked.”
“Then you are Hed Pelenore, the famous dragon slayer?”
“That’s my name.” Pelenore handed him a cup of tea. “And you are?”
“My name’s Marche Blakingstock. I come from Tabar, east of here.”
“Tabar? Isn’t that all farm land? You don’t look like a farm boy.”
“I’m not, I’m a bookkeeper’s apprentice.”
“Hmph, when I was your age it was just a small township. No need for bookkeepers.”
“It’s big enough to have a dragon living nearby. I’ve been appointed by the town to ask you for your services-“
Pelenore grunted and turned away. “I’m done with that now. If you came here looking for someone to slay your dragon, look elsewhere.” He went back to the kitchen and dropped the dishes in the tin washtub.
Marche put down his untouched cup and stood. “Please, sir, you must help us. You were a dragon slayer appointed by the king. The best. I wasn’t expecting you to be so old, but if you could-“
“So old? Listen, boy. When I was your age I could tow a fifteen-stone block around the castle and still have enough breath left to swim across Gloomwing Lake.”
Marche nodded. “Well, the town thought you were the best candidate to help.”
“If you know who I am, then you know I’m retired. And that I like my privacy,” Pelenore said. “Find someone else.”
“All the rest we could think of are gone or live too far away. And no one in the town knows anything about dragons, or could even fight one. It’s an old profession.”
“Aye. Not too many dragons anymore, so no dragon slayers. Can’t say I know of any myself that are still around. I used to chum with Jasper Cottingwood, down at the tavern, but he’s not coming in as often anymore. Good guy. He loved jousting. We could talk about the matches forever.” He laughed to himself as he washed a plate.
“Anyway,” Marche said, “The town needs your help. If someone doesn’t slay the dragon, the town will have to make a sacrifice to it. You see, it drinks the blood of virgins-“
“Of course it drinks the blood of virgins,” the dragon slayer said. “That’s what dragons do. Why don’t you tell me it wanted to play pinochle? At least that would surprise me.” Pelenore sighed. “What’s the deal with the sacrifice?”
“Every ten years, there is a lottery of those come of age. But we’re living in an era beyond such archaic traditions. The time has come for the dragon’s tyranny to be stopped. I questioned the council myself why it hasn’t been slain already.”
“Yeah, we don’t know about every dragon,” Pelenore yawned. “Just the ones that start poking around shepherd’s fields for a treat. No one I know has seen one for years. They’ve learned to stay away from the populated areas now. Theodoric at the tavern thinks they’ve gone extinct.”
“Maybe,” Marche said. “I can pay you whatever you want. The town has authorized me.”
“It’s not about the money, kiddo. Look at me. I can barely shuffle out into the garden. When I get out of bed, my back sounds like someone stepping on dry twigs.”
“You’re the best that there is. You won’t need to lift a finger. I just want your advice, your guidance. I’ll strike the killing blow myself. I brought everything I need–camping supplies, a horse. I even have my own sword.”
Marche pulled out a broadsword from the sheath on his belt. It gleamed in the window-scattered sunlight.
“I inherited it from my grandfather. Tempered steel,” Marche said.
“Uh-huh,” Pelenore said. “And what do you think you’re going to do with that?”
Marche paused. “Slay the dragon?”
“That would be like cutting a steak with a toothpick. You really have never seen a dragon, have you? You need something like an awl pike or boar spear.”
Pelenore walked into the kitchen. A long iron polearm lay on two hooks over the washtub. “Like this,” Pelenore pointed. “See the wings under the point? Those prevent the spear from going in too far. Or you being sloshed with dragon’s blood.”
Pelenore stepped on a stool and pried the spear off–age had stuck it to its moorings.
“My god,” Pelenore said, “How long has it been since I’ve held this? All those times. Thirty-odd years of adventures and quests.” He hefted the lance’s weight. “Still feels the same.”
“We could use that, if you’ll accompany me.”
Pelenore smiled. “This is Scaledriver, my favorite dragon spear. Got it custom after the Wizard War. They still talk about that?”
Marche shook his head. “I’ve never heard of it.”
Pelenore shrugged. “It could be the spear that slays the last dragon ever. Wouldn’t that be a trophy? They’d be talking about that for ages, wouldn’t they?”
“I imagine they would,” Marche said.
“Looks like it’s going to get one last ride.” Pelenore brought himself to his full height. “We’re going dragon hunting. Get your steed, Mark.”
Pelenore dragged the lone colt out of the stable. It tossed its reins back and forth. “I know. I’m not happy about it either,” Pelenore said to him.
( check Palomino)
“We must make haste,” Marche said, tapping his heel in the stirrup of his palomino. “It will take two days to get to the foot of the mountain, and the sacrifice is in three.”
“Hold your britches, son,” he said. “I haven’t done this for a while.”
Pelenore pulled out a step stool from the stable, and placed it under the horse. With a held breath, he raised his leg over and fell in the saddle. “Ooh, I don’t think I’ll do that again,” he said. Pelenore directed his horse to Marche’s side.
“Do you need anything more? Any armor?” Marche asked.
“Nah,” Pelenore said. “Armor just slows you down. And a dragon’s swipe can rip through plate mail like paper.”
Marche bit his lip. “Very well. Let’s go.”
They urged their horses forward at a sturdy trot. “I remember when this was all prairie land,” Pelenore said, “Not a farm field in sight.”
“Uh-huh,” Marche said, who urged his horse faster, hoping the old man would follow.
“Every year, more and more fields get plowed around here.”
“We must hurry. We’ve little time left before the dragon will come out for his sacrifice.”
“What kind?” Pelenore said.
“What kind what?”
“What kind of dragon?”
Marche stammered. “I didn’t know there were kinds. It’s up in a cave on Mount Brigadier, above the town.”
“Hm,” Pelenore said. “Could be a Nyzian Wyvern. They’re tricky. They only need virgin blood to live, so they can stay in their caves for years without coming out. Makes them mighty nasty to anyone coming in. Did you make out a last will and testament?”
“A will?” Marche’s eyebrows shot up.
Pelenore laughed. “Never mind. I’m just messing with you. You remind me of a sidekick I had once. Old Barney. He was a young thing too. Goofy guy. Wanted to be a minstrel.”
“Uh-huh,” Marche said.
“Last I heard, he found a seat in a tavern and never left. A lot of slayers trying out for the king’s army never made the cut. Eventually became farmers, longing for days of glory, boring you with their fish tales.” Pelenore peered into the horizon with his weak eyes. “What’s this up ahead?”
He pointed to a small ravine with a wooden bridge lying across. Three trolls stood in front, wearing tattered leather jerkins and brandishing daggers.
“A troll bridge,” Marche said.
“Didn’t used to be trolls here. I always take the western gully into town–safer that way.”
“I passed it on the way in. They demanded money for safe passage, but I’ve already given them two coins for here and back.”
“Hmph,” Pelenore grunted. “They’re everywhere now. Greedy little curs. You can’t sneeze without a troll popping up with a hanky and an open palm. Everything costs you these days.”
“I will dispatch them.” Marche urged his horse forward and approached the creatures. “Be gone, trolls. I’ve already paid you.”
The smaller troll in front, not more than two feet high, wiped his bulbous nose. “Aye, ye did,” he said. “But ‘e ‘asn’t.” He pointed the twisted blade at Pelenore.
“What?” Marche said. “He rides with me. You must stand aside for him as you would for me. Be gone with you.”
“A toll’s a toll,” the leader said and waved his dagger. “And a troll’s a troll.”
“Leeches, all of you,” Pelenore said. He dug in his pocket for his coin purse. “How much?”
“Bah.” Marche dropped off his horse and placed his hand over his sword’s pommel. “Stow your bag, Pelenore. I will trounce these soul-sucking maggots. They’ll not bleed us today.”
Before Marche had gripped the hilt, the lead troll pounced on him. Marche stumbled backward as the troll climbed up to his face and bit his nose.
Marche yelped and fell on his back as the other two trolls piled on. One plucked the money satchel from his belt like ripe fruit.
Marche pulled the troll off his face and threw him aside as the other two ran away. The third followed them into the ravine where they disappeared.
“Bloody goblins,” Marche said as he rubbed his nose. Pelenore had his head back, cackling hysterically. “What’s so funny?”
“What are you doing? Taking on three trolls at once?”
“And what would you have done?” Marche said.
“Pay the man. It’s not worth a bloody nose to scuffle with trolls. Not for a few coins. And don’t talk like some hero in an adventure scroll. Save the fancy speeches for the townspeople. They eat that up.”
“I thought I’d save you the embarrassment of paying a fee. You are in my company, and you seem to live with little means.”
Pelenore waggled his finger. “Don’t equate my squalor with poverty. I was smart with my money. Not a lot of slayers were. Did you ever hear of Njalbarg? We used to joke that he kept the gambling houses in business.”
Marche wiped off the blood with some ointment and cloth while Pelenore continued. “I remember when he took on the ‘GGM’. That’s what we called the dragon that lived in the North Mountains–the ‘Green Galloping Menace’. That must have been thirty years ago. The king was ready to pay five times what it was worth and Njalbarg asked for ten times more. Shrewd bastard. No one really liked him.”
Marche hoisted himself on his horse. He glared at Pelenore, who only grinned.
“Well, what are you waiting for, kid? I thought you said we had to make haste. Yah!” He whipped the reins and the horse took off at a gallop. Marche and his palomino followed.
At sunset, they reached the foot of Mount Brigadier.
Pelenore slowed his horse at a clearing. “Whoo,” he sighed, “This is the most fun I’ve had in years. I didn’t think I could do this anymore.”
Marche caught up, showing a serious countenance. “We won’t be able to make it to the cave or town before nightfall. Shall we make camp here?”
“You’re asking me? I thought you were leading this expedition.”
“I am,” he said, straightening his shoulders. He dropped from his horse and gathered sticks and stones for a fire. “We’ll reach the cave in the morning. In the meantime, we can plan our approach. I have a map of the mountain pass. We’ll need to set out clothing for battle. Perhaps we can form a few stratagems. Are there any common tactics for slaying such a monster as this?”
Pelenore scoffed. “Stick the pointy end into the dragon. That’s about all there is.”
“What do you mean? Surely there’s more to it than that?”
“You’d think so, but not really. You get a bit of training on how to handle the spear, but that’s it. It’s not like fighting a person. There are no parries or thrusts or counter-attacks. You’ve got to kill the thing any way you can. Even if you’ve got to sneak up on it and shove a spear up its butt.”
Marche dropped his firewood. “Are you serious? You don’t arrange a line of attack or scout the area?”
Pelenore shook his head. “Dragon slaying’s not something that takes skill. It takes bravery. Or stupidity. Met plenty of both.”
“And which one are you?”
“Not stupid, definitely. For instance, what’s the real reason you’re here?”
Marche’s eyebrows rose. “The real reason? The dragon is taking virgin sacrifices. The town sent me-“
“The town sent you? A lone boy? If the town really wanted a slayed dragon, they would have sent the mayor or a retainer. Someone important.”
“They sent me,” he said. “In fact, I volunteered to come get you.”
“Who is she?” Pelenore asked.
“Who is who?”
“The girl they’re sacrificing. Are you guys in a relationship already or do you just have a crush?”
“The girl? What? What girl?” Marche stuttered.
“Look, kid. If you’ve got a drinker, that means it’s set up shop for a long time. And since your dragon’s not slayed yet, the town must be doing pretty well for having a dragon nearby. That means you’re no stranger to virgin sacrifices. Except now. Which means someone important to you is next in line.”
Marche’s mouth opened and closed like a bird. “That’s not true. The town has sent me as an envoy. Many of them falsely believe their good fortune comes from the dragon.”
“Unless the dragon’s shitting gold, I highly doubt anyone thinks it’s helping your town by doing anything other than not eating you. So who is it? Your girlfriend? Your sister?”
Marche bowed his head. “My betrothed.”
“That’s what I thought. I’m old. Not senile.”
“I asked the mayor to send for the king’s army, but they wouldn’t even try to ask. They said the kingdom would never think anything of one little farm town. And no one would help me raise arms against a dragon for one girl. They’d be happy to forego one of its citizens to ensure prosperity.”
“Everyone’s used to the hurt by now,” Pelenore nodded.
“They picked Giselle from the lottery. But it wasn’t fair, I know it. The mayor’s advisor has his sights on her father’s land, which she’s supposed to inherit. So I know they arranged it.”
“Settle yourself, sonny.” Pelenore held up his hand. “Anyone ever see the dragon?”
“No one I know, but there are drawings. And grazers near the Brigadier’s base can hear its roars.”
Pelenore stoked the fire with his spear. “Now, this might seem a little forward, but why don’t you just take the virginity out of the equation? Eh? Seems like win-win.”
Marche looked offended. He spoke slowly, “We were saving ourselves for the sanctity of our marriage night. I would never act so sinful towards her.”
“Yeah, but you got to do what you got to do,” Pelenore smirked.
“It doesn’t even matter. The townspeople are watching her like hawks now, making sure she stays unspoiled before the sacrifice. I’d never get a moment alone with her. In two days, they’ll take her up to the cave entrance, (bound/bind) her, and leave her.”
“Yeah, same old story. Maidens and dragons go hand-in-hand.” Pelenore buffed the end of his spear with a cloth. “I married the first maiden I saved. Biggest mistake I ever made.”
Marche rolled his eyes and played with a twig.
“Enisa. She was a pouty thing. Whined like a tea kettle all the time. No wonder they wanted to sacrifice her. In those days, it was customary for the hero and maiden to live happily ever after. Of course, then another dragon needed slaying, and another maiden needed saving. And then another, and another. She got so jealous, she left me and took half my earnings. Bloody courts favored her because she had no dowry. Women couldn’t own land back then. Nowadays-“
“Stop it, stop it, stop it!” Marche said, putting his hands to his ears. “Enough of your pointless stories. You trivialize my situation. You have no advice on how to slay the dragon. You stand there while I’m attacked by trolls. And the only thing you have to offer are your constant, worthless stories. You’re completely bloody useless.”
Pelenore pursed his lips.
Marche snapped the twig. He stood up and threw it in the fire. “I thought you could help me, but you’re just weighing me down. I can slay the dragon myself. You can go home in the morning. No reason for you to risk your life with me.”
Marche jammed himself into his bedroll and turned away.
Pelenore stared into the fire. He rubbed his back, which was sore from riding.
“I guess you’re right,” he said softly. “I just wanted that feeling I had when I was young, that little glory. When you get old, all you really have left is your memories. The world changes fast. I bought that cabin so that I wouldn’t have to watch it change. I thought the world was leaving me behind. I guess I was leaving it.”
Marche grumbled and turned over, but said nothing.
Pelenore crawled into his bedroll and went to sleep.
The sound of ringing bells woke Marche. It was still night, and the fire hadn’t quite died.
“Dammit,” a hushed, gravelly voice said.
“Wot was that?” another said.
“‘Ere’s bells under the ‘orse. Wot the ‘ell?”
More clanging. “Quit moving ’em. You’ll wake’em up.”
From his bedroll, Marche saw three trolls hovering around their two sleeping steeds. Their stubby hands curled in the air around the saddle’s straps.
Marche looked to Pelenore, whose eyes had just opened too. Marche mouthed the word ‘trolls’. Pelenore glanced at them.
Marche’s eyes fell on the sheathed sword next to his bedroll. He glanced back at Pelenore who nodded and looked around for a weapon of his own. A big rock sat behind his head.
As Pelenore grabbed the rock, Marche quietly slipped out of his bedroll. The trolls still bickered among themselves.
“Get those bells off’n the thing.”
Marche snuck towards them, his hand gingerly wrapping around his sword’s hilt.
His foot landed on a twig, which snapped. The trolls looked back, startled.
Pelenore launched his rock with a heavy grunt. It arched low and struck the smallest one on the ankle. Marche unsheathed his sword and raised it above his head, screaming a war cry. But the trolls were already running, and he sliced downward into empty ground.
Marche ran a few steps, then stopped, knowing he’d never catch them in the dark of the forest.
“Damn trolls,” Pelenore said, “Must’ve followed us down. They got your money, figured they’d get mine.”
Marche looked under Pelenore’s horse’s stomach. A string net of bells lay attached to the saddle rigging. “What is this? Bells?”
“Oh. Yeah, little alarm I came up with this one time when I was traveling through bandit country. It was a solo job, no one to keep watch. Luckily, I had these little bells the town children gave me for good luck. Heh, maybe they knew something.”
The arrangement was such that a gentle nudge set all the bells ringing. They were painted black to disguise them in the dark. “You came up with this? It’s so simple.”
“I knew another guy who took geese with him everywhere he went. They’d honk to high hell if anyone came… Sorry, I’m rambling again.”
Marche regarded the old for a moment, then (resheathed) his sword. “One of us should keep watch the rest of the night. They might come back. I’m surprised they didn’t stab us in our sleep.”
Pelenore flicked his hand. “Trolls have no blood thirst. They just want money. What if you were a nobleman? All the kingsguard would be hunting them down. And trolls track easy–it wouldn’t take a day to catch them. Then they spend the rest of their lives in the courtyard hanging by the short and curlies.”
Marche laughed out loud. The tension from the encounter rolled off him.
“Well, I’m not getting back to bed.” Pelenore pulled away his bedroll. “I’ll stay up, if it’ll ease you. You’ve got a dragon to kill tomorrow, and I need to leave in the morning.”
Marche pursed his lips and looked back at where the trolls had escaped. He returned to his bedroll, snuggled in, and went back to fitful sleep.
The next morning, Pelenore woke to broad daylight. When did he fall asleep? He knew he had managed to stay up at least a few hours, keeping watch. His back hurt from the ground and he needed to make water so bad his pelvis ached.
Marche was gone. So were all his supplies and both horses. The fire was doused and scrubbed. He was all alone in the forest.
He looked around, panicking. No one knew he was out here. There was no way he could make it back to his cabin without a horse. A younger man could make it to town on foot, but if a man his age fell the wrong way…
His colt emerged out of the brush, being led by Marche on his own steed. “Here,” he said. “I took your horse to the river to drink. Figure I’d let you sleep. It’s a long way up the mountain.”
“The mountain? You mean…”
Marche nodded. “I’ve thought about it. I’m sorry I was so curt last night. I didn’t come to you because you were a great hero. I came to you because of your experience. And last night, you proved both. I made a mistake. I was hasty.”
“We’ve all been there. Comes with youth,” Pelenore said.
“I realized that someday I’m going to be like you. And I want people to respect that.”
“Not many young people do.” Pelenore smiled and rolled up his sleeping bag.
“Nothing,” Marche said, staring into the cave’s mouth.
“Maybe throw a rock in,” Pelenore said.
Marche picked up a fist-sized rock and chucked it into the darkness. There was a sound of clacking stone a few yards away, but nothing else. The horses behind them chuffed at the noise.
“Must be deeper in,” Pelenore said. “A Nyzian Wyvern would like warm areas. He might be in a mantle crack.”
Marche held the pike out in front of him, and the two treaded into the cave. They both lit their lanterns as the darkness swallowed them. They came to a branching path, with both ends lapsing into pitch-black. Marche held up his lantern, but couldn’t discern a difference.
“Which way?” he asked.
Pelenore’s eyes didn’t work well in this weak light, so he listened to each portal. Nothing. Either his hearing was failing, or there was no sound.
“Don’t hear anything. No claw marks on the floor.” Pelenore wrung his hands. “Blast it, I don’t know. And the wrong way might lead to anything–goblins, a bottomless pit, ancient traps. We’re not prepared for that.”
Marche looked surprised. “You’ve been slaying dragons all your life, and you don’t know which way to choose? Just put yourself in its perspective.”
“Eh?” Pelenore said.
“Think about what a dragon would do. That’s what I did… with you, I mean.”
Pelenore glanced back and forth between the two branches. Then he turned around to see how the dragon would view the cave’s entrance. A collection of stalactites almost blocked the left branch.
“Oh, this one.” Pelenore pointed to the right.
“How do you know?”
“In my stable, some idiot put the equipment rack up in front of the door. Have to walk under it every time. I just use the horse gate now, instead.”
“So those stalactites there,” Pelenore pointed, “he would have to go around them every time he wanted to go out.”
“Ah,” Marche said.
“Not bad for an old guy, huh?”
The two walked down the right tunnel. The walls had been worn away to jagged smoothness, which further convinced Pelenore that they had chosen correctly.
Then they heard the breathing.
“Now that is definitely a dragon,” Pelenore said.
Marche nodded. “I believe you.” The thick, leaden breathing sounded like a fireplace bellow.
They reached a grotto ingress. A red-orange glow poured out of the aperture. “We’re near a lava flume,” Pelenore said. “Must be deep in the mountain now. The dragon’s got to be here.”
“Here, you may take the spear,” Marche said, unconsciously shortening his steps as the crimson light grew closer. He added quickly, “This is not an act of cowardice. I want you to have the honor of defeating it. I owe you that much. I don’t care how the dragon is killed. And you said before, about the glory…”
“I understand,” Pelenore said. “We can do it together. We’ll give it two targets. You distract it, while I kill it.”
Marche took the sword out of its scabbard and nodded ready. They both poked their heads into the cavern.
There was a collection of animal bones in one corner, deep claw gouges on the wall above. A burbling lava pit in the center cast the scarlet glow saturating the walls.
“I don’t see him,” Marche said, entering fully.
Pelenore followed. “He must be here. Look at the bones.”
“Maybe it’s sleeping? Dead?”
“Then where’s the body?”
As if in answer, the ground vibrated. Marche held up his sword, but Pelenore stood his ground.
At the other end of the grotto, rock dust and pebbles burst from a crack in the wall. An azure, pointed snout emerged, followed by the head, neck, and body of the dragon.
“Is that… it?” Marche asked.
It stood ten feet tall, but looked as decrepit as a dead tree. Its claws were cracked and yellow. Its rough and dull scales flaked away as it walked. Its skin sagged to the floor, like a loose suit. And it stared blankly ahead with milky-white pupils.
“My god,” Marche whispered. “I had no idea.”
“I don’t think anyone did,” Pelenore said. “Otherwise they would have killed this thing a long time ago.”
Whether it heard the two, or simply needed to vocalize, it roared. But the sound came out as a tired burble. Its maw revealed only three remaining gray teeth. After, it shuddered, shaking the perforated membranes of its wings.
“This is good,” Marche said, “If we take the dragon’s head to the village, they’ll have no need of a sacrifice.”
“You want me to slay that?” Pelenore pointed with his spear’s tip. “Look at the poor thing. It’s gone blind from living in a dank cave smelling of sulfur and brimstone. Look at its wings–it can’t even fly. And you want me to kill it?”
“Isn’t that what you do with dragons? What does it matter that it’s old? It’s an easy kill.”
“I’ve been killing dragons all my life, but this isn’t how we did it back then. And it’s not how I’m going to do it now.” Pelenore dropped his spear. The dragon looked toward the noise, snorted, then laid down.
“If you’re not going to kill it, I will.” Marche started for the spear.
“Don’t you dare,” Pelenore said, stepping forward. “That would be an act of cowardice.”
“If it’s not killed, my fiancée is going to die.” Marche said, bringing himself to his full height. “So what do you propose we do?”
Pelenore sighed like an old man, trying to think.
Marche strode into the town square. Street by street, the collective population of Tabar gathered behind him, drawn in by his squared shoulders, his confident demeanor, and the large spear hoisted on his shoulder.
The crowd murmured to itself. “What’s he doing? Where’s he going?”
“Why is he carrying a dragon spear? Did he go up to the cavern?”
“Isn’t that Giselle’s betrothed? The poor girl.”
“What has he got in that sack?”
With the entire town now collected, Marche stood on the platform in the middle of the square. He saw Giselle in the back, surrounded by maidens and mayoral retainers.
“Townspeople,” Marche announced. “There is no need to pay tribute to the dragon any longer. No more sacrifices. I have slayed the beast.” He raised his spear in the air triumphantly.
“Just you?” an old crone uttered. Others laughed.
“The dragon was old and feeble. I smote it one blow, and now its body lies in the cave.”
“How do we know?” another called out. “Where’s the proof?”
“You want proof?” Marche held up the sack. “Here is the beast’s head. It will make a fine trophy, for that is the way of the dragon slayer.”
“Let’s see it,” the townspeople said.
Marche bit his lip. “Are you sure? Its countenance is frightful, sure to suffer the weak-hearted.”
“Enough of your big talk. You want to save your maiden? Let’s see that you killed it.”
Hand shaking, Marche reached into the sack. The crowd grew silent with anticipation as he pawed through its contents. He seemed to be taking an abnormally long time to produce his prize.
Marche retracted his arm. His hand held the gaping head of a dragon. Its yellow eyes gleamed with primal rage. Its jaw hung open, filled with needle-sharp teeth, ready to snap off a limb in one bite. The crowd gasped.
“I warned you,” Marche said. “Convinced?”
The crowd, unable to turn away from the grisly sight, said nothing for a moment. Then a farmer pumped his fist in the air. “Huzzah for Marche, the dragon slayer!” The crowd erupted in a chorus of cheers.
The townsfolk whooped and hollered in celebration, throwing hats in the air and exchanging embraces.
In the chaos, Giselle ran up to the podium, tears in her eyes. She wrapped her arms around Marche and kissed him.
Marche nearly dropped the head, but had the presence of mind to subtly place it back in the sack, as he dreamed of their new life together.
Pelenore whistled as he opened the stable doors. His joints felt good this morning. Either the humidity or udder balm was working for him.
“How are we today, Nizzie?”
A pleasant grunt sounded from inside the stable. A giant dragon’s head emerged, droopy whiskers brushing across the grass. It looked up toward the sun and cooed.
Pelenore had never heard a dragon coo before, and laughed as he poured a bucket of virgin pig’s blood into a wide trough. The dragon bowed its head in and began lapping it up.
Pelenore patted the dragon’s head and watched him noisily slurp every last drop. When the beast was done, it trudged out, the loose chain around its neck clinking.
Of course, Pelenore had taken the precaution of restraining the beast, but it rarely ever struggled against the shackle. The dragon curled up on the grass and went to sleep, its belly exposed to the sky. Pelenore went back to his cottage.
He got a cup of tea from the kitchen and sat down in front of the fire. As he reached for the book on the side table, he glanced up at the plaque over his doorway. The faded globular outline, indicating something absent, looked unsightly. But it was still the best trophy he had.
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