by Sean Sandulak
It wasn’t until the next afternoon that they reached the scorched earth that marked the edge of the dragon’s territory. While it would range over a hundred leagues when hunting, it always kept to the fire-blasted crags of the wasteland while it slept off its last meal. From the sightings by the nearby villagers, Mor had concluded that it was a newly matured adult, probably a male. That meant it would hunt every fortnight, on the new and full moons. Last night’s moon was two days past full, so the timing was perfect. The beast should be fast asleep.
The lair was easy to find, marked by the charred bones of the monster’s previous meals. The horses would go nowhere near the place, so they were forced to tie them to the remains of a tree a mile back down the rocky trail. As they approached, the smell of brimstone grew stronger, and the ash that was stirred up by their steps stung their eyes. A cluster of boulders overlooked the flat plain in front of the cave entrance, so they took cover there to plan their next move.
“So what happens now?” the girl asked.
“Now you go down there and kill the dragon,” said Cravan.
“What?” she protested. “I’m not going down there alone. I’ll be killed.”
“Trust me,” he said. “It’ll be fine. Mor says he’s asleep. Just sneak in and stab him in the eye.”
“With what?” she asked. “I don’t even have a knife.”
Cravan looked around until he saw the remains of an unfortunate previous adventurer. He pried the sword from the skeleton’s grasp, shattering a few of the finger bones in the process. He forced it into the girl’s quivering hand. “Here you go, lass.”
“Uh…thanks,” she said. “That didn’t do him much good though, did it?”
“He wasn’t the chosen one,” said Mor. “You have destiny on your side.”
“If it makes you feel better,” said Cravan, “you can dress the part.” He turned back to the skeleton and grabbed the poor soul’s chainmail armor by the shoulders and shook it until the dead man’s arms and rib cage fell out of the bottom and rolled down the incline.
The girl covered her mouth with her free hand. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“What? It’s good armor.” Cravan held it up in front of him to model it like it was a debutante’s ball gown. “It’s nice, isn’t it? I wish I’d had this when I started adventuring.”
“I think that might be too heavy for her,” said Rieki.
“Hmm…maybe you’re right,” he said. “How about the helmet though?” There’s always falling rocks and low-hanging stalactites in caves.” Cravan reached into the headpiece, pulling out the skull that was still inhabiting it. He tossed the grinning head over his shoulder before shoving the helmet down on the milkmaid’s head.
The brim came halfway down her nose, so she leaned back and squinted from underneath. “I can’t see a thing in this.”
“Trust me,” said Cravan. “I’ve been in many battles and you’re far better off not knowing what’s going on around you.” He picked up a fallen, half-burned shield from the ground and strapped it to her arm. “There you look like a proper warrior princess now.”
“I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“Just think of all the lives you’ll be saving,” said Mor.
“And we’ll be right behind you,” added Rieki.
“All right. Here I go.”
They watched as she slid down the embankment to the flat ground in front of the cave. After taking a few steps forward, her nerve seemed to fail. She looked back to see Cravan, Mor, and Rieki giving her encouraging smiles as they motioned for her to continue. The girl took a few more steps before there was a hissing and a deep rumbling growl from inside the cavern which made the ground vibrate.
“Forget this,” she said. “I’m getting the hells out of here.”
She turned to run, but this time the three adventurers were crouched down behind the rocks with only the tops of their heads showing. A shadow rose up leaving smoke and ash in its wake. She slipped on the loose gravel and fell hard to the ground. When she sat up, she was looking straight at the monster. Its body was the size of a house; the head alone was bigger than a carriage. The dragon eyed her hungrily. Its serpentine neck drew the beast’s gaping mouth back before it came rushing down at her. The girl’s screams were abruptly cut off as the wyrm swallowed her up whole.
“Okay that didn’t work,” said Cravan. “Anybody got any more bright ideas?”
“I don’t understand,” said Mor. “The prophecy was true. I’m sure of it.”
“What a waste of a perfectly good farmer’s daughter,” said Rieki.
“Poor…did anyone catch her name?” asked Mor.
Below them the dragon began to cough and spit fire, seemingly at random. After a few moments it started to thrash violently, knocking over piles of rocks and smashing bones. It bucked like an enraged bull and then spread its wings out to their full extent before it finally collapsed on the ground in a heap and was still. The three adventurers clung to the side of the rock until they were sure it wasn’t going to start up again.
“What happened?” asked Mor.
“I think it choked on the milkmaid,” said Rieki. “Let that be a lesson to always chew your food, Cravan.”
Mor rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. “Well technically she did kill the dragon, so…prophecy fulfilled?”
“The fates can be cruel,” said Cravan, “but they can also be hilarious.”
“That blacksmith’s son that she was going to marry is going to need some consoling,” said Rieki.
“Leave that poor boy alone. Hasn’t he suffered enough already?” said Cravan. “But I think we’re forgetting the most important thing. There’s an unprotected dragon hoard down there somewhere. Tonight the drinks are on me!”
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