Brian had made the mistake of reading the guidebook before he came to Woodland, despite Spider warning him that they were never accurate. So far, the little kingdom, with its miles and miles of forest, was proving her right. “Idyllic” was the word they’d used, but as far as Brian could see, “bramble filled and easy to get lost in” might have been more accurate.
Or “dragon-infested” of course.
That was why he was there. The people of the idyllic nation’s capitol had woken up a week ago to find a large green dragon flying over their town, before setting light to one of their nicest picnic areas. After that, it had settled into one of the place’s hundreds of woodland glades, flying out regularly to snatch livestock, burn holiday cottages, and generally make life about as difficult as it could be for a nation that made practically all its revenue from the tourist industry.
Naturally, the town elders had posted a reward for getting rid of it, which was how P. Edgeborough & co had come to be involved. Given Brian’s affinity for reptiles of all sorts, it had seemed like easy money, especially since there were Evil Sorcerers out there who would pay good money to add a dragon to their Towers of Doom.
Right now, actually, it didn’t seem like such easy money. Brian was pretty sure he was lost. And there was the question of other dragon-hunters to consider. They’d turned out in force, mostly carrying weapons slightly larger than they were, almost uniformly kitted out in extremely shiny armour, and generally regarding Brian like he was a complete amateur for not doing the same.
The only exception had been a barbarian warrior woman who had grabbed his knee rather worryingly, and painfully given that she had enough muscle for two normal people, over dinner at the local inn, before giving Brian the number of her cabin. She’d seemed quite upset when he’d turned her down. At least, from the way she’d started twirling a morningstar around, Brian assumed she was upset.
These thoughts occupied Brian enough that he hardly noticed when the trees gave way to a large clearing with a hillock in it. He noticed slightly more, when he tripped over something long and thick lying in the grass. Something long, and scaly, now that he came to look at it rather closer up.
The dragon uncoiled itself from where it had been sleeping, stretching slowly as Brian watched, before shooting a gout of flame into the sky. Brian stared at it in wonder. So much wonder, in fact, that he hardly noticed the figure in armour who ran out of the trees, holding a huge two handed sword.
Curiously though, it didn’t run at the dragon, but at Brian.
‘You can’t have it! It’s mine!’
Brian was so stunned that he almost forgot to move out of the way. Thankfully, the dragon chose that moment to flick its tail, sending the armoured figure sprawling. The would-be dragon slayer stood and fixed the dragon with a glare made slightly ineffectual by the fact that its possessor appeared to be a young woman who seemed several years too young for the armour, now that Brian got a better look at her.
‘What did you do that for?’ the young woman demanded of the dragon. ‘It’s no good if someone else comes along and deals with you, is it?’
We Like Him.
The words were clear, though they didn’t seem to bother with things like ears. It took Brian a moment to realise what he was hearing.
‘Hang on,’ he said, ‘since when can dragons speak?’
‘Oh, great,’ the woman said, ‘now you’ve blown it. I’ve got to get rid of him now.’
‘What do you mean, “No”? He could spoil everything.’
I want to speak to him.
That was fine by Brian. The idea that dragons could actually communicate was almost on a par with finding out that they existed in the first place.
‘Can all dragons do this?’ he asked. The dragon made a sound that might have been a snort of laughter, though if so, the jet of flame that set fire to a nearby bush wasn’t entirely appropriate.
Hardly. Only the oldest of us have this gift. The others are just…teenagers.
That at least explained why they were uncommunicative.
What are you, little human? You seem different.
‘Um… I’m Brian. I work for this business that supplies magical… stuff.’
The young woman in the armour piped up again then.
‘Xzax, please, you’ll spoil the plan, and then I’ll have to go back to milkmaiding. I hate bloody milkmaiding.’
We know, Yana. But he’s nice.
‘Plan?’ Brian echoed. ‘There’s a plan?’
What sort of plan could involve a dragon causing trouble, followed by a young woman showing up in armour, he wondered. Maybe she was a hunter, but why would the dragon
let her hurt it.
‘They’ll never give us the money if he tells them,’ the woman, Yana, complained.
‘Besides, he’s probably another dragonslayer, come to try and hurt you. I won’t let him do that.’
It came to Brian then.
‘You and the dragon are in on this together, aren’t you? That’s… well, it’s probably not very nice, for one thing.’
Yana glared at him.
‘You see, I told you! I’ve got to kill him now.’
She hefted the sword in a way that was, if hampered a little by the sheer size of the weapon, still almost certain to do Brian an injury once she brought it round. Brian took a step back.
‘Um… can we talk about this?’
The swish of the blade would have taken his head off if Brian hadn’t chosen that moment to duck.
‘Only,’ he continued, ‘I can see why you’d want to do this,’ he dodged a downward sweep, ‘but I think I can see a better way.’
Yana wound up for another tremendous blow, but the dragon caught her armour with a claw, dragging her gently but firmly away from Brian.
What did you have in mind?
The dragon leapt, it rolled. It breathed fire just inches from Yana as she threw herself to the ground. She took a mighty swing with her sword, and the thing collapsed to the ground, defeated. Yana stood over it with one foot on its neck, brandishing the sword in the sunlight.
The crowd gathered in the clearing applauded heartily, before the dragon got back to its feet and managed something approximating a bow.
That concludes our entertainment, ladies and gentlemen. The next show is at three o’clock.
Brian waited until the crowd had wandered off before going up to them.
‘That went pretty well.’
‘Better than I thought,’ Yana admitted.
The Woodlands’ Elders were happy?
‘They took one look at the way news of a dragon had been attracting heroes, and jumped at the opportunity. I even got them to stop talking about making you pay for the damage you’ve already done, after I pointed out that the extra business of the dragonslayers more than made up for it. They’re talking about three shows a day.’
For now, at least. The dragon sounded cautious. I have never been a tourist attraction before, but I would guess that it can’t last forever, though.
‘Maybe not,’ Brian admitted, ‘but after this, there will be plenty of people who need a dragon. Sorcerers, Warlords, all sorts of people.’
‘Not so many who’ll need me though,’ Yana guessed. Brian shook his head.
‘That’s where you’re wrong. They’ll want you, because when we talk to them, we’ll just happen to mention that dragons of this power can only be kept in line by specially trained dragon-mistresses, of which we just happen to know one.’
‘You mean I don’t have to go back to milkmaiding?’ Yana asked, as though the possibility was too much to hope for. Brian raised his hand solemnly.
‘I promise, nothing to do with cows at all.’
And of course, it allows us to put up our fee.
‘Well yes, which, since Edgeborough and co. get 10%, can only be a good thing.’