To Bait a Dragon
Journeying with Fell isn’t bad. I’ve had worse travelling companions.
I’ve had more interesting ones too. ‘Chatty’ isn’t the word I’d carve into his gravestone. But if I thought he was reticent on our first day together, it’s nothing compared to the contemplative silence he falls into as we get further into the forest. After two days with only his grunts for company, I embark on a project of re-stowing the baggage in the wagon. With enough ingenuity, I succeed in creating a few feet of space where I can practise fighting drills as we go along. It’s not massive, but I don’t need much room. Oh look. Another advantage to being tiny. Yay me.
The swaying motion of the wagon poses an extra challenge to keeping my balance. I train until I master the basic drills without teetering. Then I move on to advanced drills. Then I draw a target onto a sack of horse feed and practise throwing knives into it. Then I hold a wad of clothing over my face and howl unrestrainedly into it until my throat is hoarse. I am so. Goddamn. Bored! Even trailing through the mud with Waldani’s group of drunk puppeteers was more fun than this. At least it was entertaining watching them loll around, waving their gin bottles, falling off their horses. Sitting on a wagon seat next to a silent wizard through endless, unchanging forest is not why I became a mercenary fighter.
Suddenly I notice the wagon has stopped moving. Did Fell hear me howling? “It’s fine,” I call. “I was just-”
I clamber forward to see what’s going on. When I arrive on the wagon seat, the reason for our abrupt stop becomes obvious.
We’ve been driving through unrelenting forest scenery for days, but here in front of the wagon is a point where the trees simply end. Beyond that is a barren, burned landscape as far as the eye can see. It looks like someone turned one of Fell’s flame spells loose on everything in sight. Charred rocks litter the ground. Smoke and ash hangs like a fog in the air, turning the sun a weird murky colour.
“What happened here?” I breathe.
“Dragon,” declares Fell with a satisfied note in his voice.
“Wait, the creature who did this is the one I’m supposed to be acting as bait for? Absolutely not! Turn the wagon around.”
“Contract,” Fell reminds me.
I glare at him. “Do sentences of more than one word cause you to leak magical power?”
He ignores me and gestures out over the barren landscape. “I intend to perform scouting charms to ascertain the exact position of the beast. We’ll camp here for now.”
I put on a face of mock surprise. “Dear me, Fell. You’d better not let the wizard’s guild hear you wasting all those words.”
As punishment for my cheek, I get lumped with the bulk of the camp chores. Fell chooses a spot among the trees a short way from where the burned area begins. I ask whether it’s sensible to camp among all of this flammable stuff, but he kindly explains that a direct blast from a dragon would incinerate everything in its path instantly, regardless of surrounding materials.
For once I wish he’d just kept quiet because now my mind is jumping back to those burning men. Maybe Fell and the dragon have more in common than they realise.
Meanwhile Fell stands at the edge of the charred area and mutters stuff while waving his hands around. Glad I’m not a wizard if it requires you to do such dorky stuff. My profession is far more kick-ass. At least it was…
I wonder about the wisdom of lighting a campfire, then realise no-one is likely to notice a bit more smoke in this scorched environment and build myself a comfortably massive blaze. I’m toasting my feet next to it when Fell finishes his arm-waving and comes to sit next to me. He doesn’t deign to share the results of his scouting with me. Privately I decide it means he hasn’t found the dragon. Maybe there isn’t a dragon. It could have flown away or died or whatever. Well that’s just fine with me.
What’s the point of a dragon, anyway? I mean, what purpose does any creature have being so goddamn deadly? Incinerating everything instantly? Good luck finding something to eat! I snort and then have a coughing fit. This bloody smoke is irritating my sensitive little lungs. It would serve Fell right if my coughing keeps him awake all night.
I have a restless night and struggle my way out of a recurring nightmare to find Fell pacing back and forth in front of the smouldering fire. After a bleary breakfast, he spends an hour or so taking out his aggression on a tree. First, he fires spell after spell at the tree’s base until it falls with an almighty crash. Then he painstakingly shoots off each branch and twig until only the smooth trunk remains.
“Is that for burning?” I ask. That green wood will smoke like the devil. My throat recoils just looking at it.
“In a way.”
I scowl at him. “What sort of a way?”
He flicks a final spell at the log he’s created, making it levitate, then he walks over to me. The log follows, bobbing along through the air a few feet behind him like an obedient dog.
“I intend to plant this timber in the ground close to the dragon’s current location. Then I will tie you to it and you will lure the dragon as we agreed.”
Whaaaat! “Wait a minute, you didn’t say anything about tying me to a log!”
He adjusts his glasses impatiently. “It is the traditional method of making an offering. Dragons are sticklers for tradition.”
“Never mind tradition, what about your assurances that I wouldn’t get hurt?! You just said that this log...” I aim a kick at the floating tree but it bobs out of reach, “…was for burning!”
“I assure you, I have layered enough spells over you to safeguard your survival. Even if the wood burns, you will be unharmed.”
“How can I know for sure? It’s not like I can exactly complain if it turns out you’re lying!”
He falls silent, staring at a point next to the log. He stays like that for so long that I wonder whether he’s fallen into a trance. I’m just gearing up to kick him in the shin when he snaps back to the present. “What was your question again?” he asks.
When I repeat the question through clenched teeth, he shakes his head.
“You cannot know for sure,” he says. “You will have to trust in my word and in what you have seen of my skills so far.”
“And if I don’t trust your word and your skills?”
“If you refuse to act as bait then you will be in breach of the contract we agreed on. I am aware of your pitiful financial state. There would be little profit to me in pursuing a court case to demand a reparatory fee from you. You would, in effect, get off scot free. You would, however, also remain unpaid and be many days’ journey from the nearest town where you might find gainful employment.” He shrugs. “I am unable to ascertain the exact effect of such a situation on your morale, but I suspect it would be a dampening one.”
I glare at him. It would suck to be stranded this far away from civilisation. Do I really want to trudge all the way back to Druinberg on these tiny legs? Plus, the dragon must have scared off all the game in the vicinity so it’d be a heck of a job trying to hunt for food.More importantly, I desperately need the money from this job so I can escape this miserable miniature existence!
“Okay, fine!” I snarl. “But those protection spells better cover my dress too.”
We walk a mile or so out into the barren wasteland and then Fell does a spell to make the trunk bury itself in the ground. He wraps a bit of rope around it and bids me to stand where he can tie me. “I’ll only be a few metres away,” he says in a low voice, while fastening the rope around my middle. “But invisible.”
“Am I supposed to shout or yell for the dragon or something?”
“I suggest singing. That’s the traditional method of summoning the beast.”
I roll my eyes. No way in hell am I singing. I might look like a cute little girl wearing a frilly dress and currently be tied to a dead tree in the middle of dragon territory, but I have some dignity left.
Three hours of boredom later, I start croaking out Three Blind Mice.
I’ve made it to the part with the tail mutilation when there’s a WHOMPHHHH and I’m blasted with a gale of hot air.