‘Here we go.’
‘The bird grabs the jumper delicately in its beak and it rises up, wings fluttering furiously..
The girl —
It drops the jumper onto you and your head peeks through the neck hole and it carefully
drapes your sleeves so they sit just right on your arms.
‘Not a problem —’
‘The bird says, and it has this little twinkle in its eye.’
‘Why are you helping me?’
‘A good question. Wise not to trust strangers too much. You haven’t gotten this far by trusting any magical animal that comes your way, have you?’
‘No. You’re a warrior.
You’re smarter than that.’
‘Yes, but we don’t have time to explain that right now.
Anyway, rest assured this bird has only the purest of intentions.
You know your mission, don’t you?
Find the maiden!’
‘So then what are we waiting for?
Where do we start?’
‘Ah now, hang on a second.
Your stomach is rumbling, isn’t it?
The girl hasn’t eaten for ages.
10 whole hours.
Hunger’s crawling up her spine.’
What can I eat?’
‘You look around the room you slept in.
It’s a ratty little place —
Stone walls and stone floors —
Which explains the chilliness —
All covered in threadbare tapestries and carpets.
There’s nothing in here you could eat.
You’ll have to go downstairs, to the tavern.’
That sounds a bit —’
‘You do want to eat don’t you?’
‘Then the tavern it is.’
‘You can do it.
You’ve fought sea monsters with gnashing teeth and trolls the size of trees and giant serpents with poisoned scales.
A tavern in an inn is nothing compared to those things.
And the girl gathers up her things —
Her dagger —
The most important thing she owns —
Winking steel, sharp as a wolf’s teeth.
She stows it in her belt and pulls on a cloak.
‘She makes her way downstairs.
This is not the best inn in this small town —
Not by a long shot.
It’s not even in the top ten of the best inns in this town.
But it was cheap —
And she had a place to lay her head for the night —
And the clientele who frequent the dusty bar —
They’re exactly the kind of loveable rogues who might be able to help her on her mission.
They go into the living room.
She takes a deep breath and opens the door to the tavern —
And it’s packed.
Rammed with ruffians.
They breathe in.
It smells like soggy straw and hot bacon in a pan and sweat stains on clothes.’
‘Well, it’s hardly rosewater, but you’re not going to let a little smell get in the way of your breakfast, are you?’
‘Tell me what you see.’
There’s a lady holding a tray of cups —
And she’s —
She’s handing them out to people and shouting at them.’
‘The owner of the tavern!
Look, she’s got a lizard head and a human body.’
Her eyes have slits for pupils, but they’re a warm amber.
And she’s shouting at her patrons, you’re right, but —
It’s got an affectionate edge to it.
She’s fond of everyone here.
‘She shouts at you from across the tavern.
You can barely hear her over the raucousness.
Call out to her.’
‘She comes over to you, wiping her hands on a dirty rag.
She looks you up and down.’
You look a hell of a lot better than you did last night.’
‘You must’ve been exhausted.
Fighting off those robbers was no small feat.
You saved this week’s food stock.
I’m very grateful.’
‘She eyes you.
What do you say?’
‘ Now, I don’t like to owe favours, so breakfast’s on me, and then we’re even.
Now, what’ll it be?’
‘And just as the girl starts to reply —
There is a huge crash at the front door of the tavern.
A young farmer bursts into the room, clutching his bleeding arm.
His eyes are wild, rolling like a skittish horse.’
‘What’s all this?’
‘Madam Underwell — he’s back.’
‘And there is this enormous Roar from outside the tavern.
So loud that it shakes the tables.
And everyone falls to a deathly hush.
And these are no pampered, lily-livered princelings we’re talking about.
These are hard-nosed robbers and bandits.
And they’re absolutely terrified.’
‘Who is it??’
‘Ah, you haven’t been around these parts for long.
‘I don’t —
I don’t remember anything before yesterday.
I fell asleep and I woke up and and and —
I don’t remember a thing!’
‘Isn’t that strange.
There’s a dragon what haunts these parts.
A scourge on the farmers in the area.
It scoops up their cattle in its claws and feasts on them in its cave, up on the mountains.
Its lair is littered with the bones of the humans who have tried to defeat it.’
‘That’s how it’s always been, child.’
‘Surely we can do something?’
‘All we can do is wait it out,
It’s become more confident lately.
Coming further into town.’
‘This doesn’t sit right with the girl.
Her brow furrows.’
‘Surely I can help?’
‘Madam Underwell shrugs. She’s a hundred years old. She’s seen all this before.
But the girl is young and spritely and full of determination.
You creep towards the front door of the tavern.
The farmer is slumped in a stool, having his arm tended to by the local apothecary owner.’
‘He says, weakly.
His eyes are fluttering shut.’
‘I’m looking out of the window.
And in the street I can see —’
‘An enormous dragon.
With emerald green scales.
It’s huge —
As tall as the buildings which line the crooked, narrow streets.
Its head is bent and its feasting on...something.
Something the girl can’t quite make out.’
‘It jerks its head up, as if it’s heard the girl —
There’s blood and drool hanging in strings off its mouth —
It narrows its eyes.’
It can’t see me!’
‘It slowly turns away, still suspicious but more focused on its meal.
The girl breathes hard.’
‘What am I supposed to do?’
I suppose she has two options.’