Someone was creaking none too quietly down the stairs to my basement workshop. I turned to deliver my tenth fatherly lecture to the butcher's boy about jimmying the lock on a person's front door and promptly dropped the flask of stinkwort oil I'd been holding.
It wasn't the butcher's boy.
My unannounced visitor was covered head to toe in armor: not the sparkly kind the king's guard wear, but thick, dull stuff, dented and stained, and covered with trigger-clasp niches for the poisoned knives of her trade. Oh, my: a member of the slayers' league, a renegade band only slightly less terrifying than the dragons they hunted. If she hadn't pushed back her visor before she spoke, revealing an ordinary young face not so different from the ones I labored over every fourteen days, I might have fainted on the spot.
I squeezed all the respectful confidence I could muster into my own rather young voice. "You'll be wanting the armorer. Two streets over. Here, I'll draw you a map."
She clanked into my workshop with an ominous rattle. "No, I won't. I'm where I mean to be."
"You're the virgician, aren't you?"
I was: that unlucky soul tasked with preparing tender, trembling virgins for their date with death-by-dragon. It was a horrible job, but it came with a home and a comfortable stipend. Not to mention the opportunity to carry on the happy task of living, rather than being executed for failing to perform my appointed duty. "Yes, but—"
"Then I'm set. Look, I've got all the armor I could possibly wear. It won't keep me from getting my limbs clawed off, then spurting blood until I'm too weak to move, then being charred to an oily cinder and feeling dragon fangs sink into me just before I die."
I felt my lunch poke an inquisitive finger toward my throat (no doubt aided by the waft of stinkwort rising from the puddle by my feet).
"No," the slayer went on with a thoughtful look, "I need a clever strategy, something new. I need a disguise to put me near them while they sleep."
"Oh!" I said, beset by sudden understanding. "Oh, no. You want me to prepare you for sacrifice?" She nodded, and my lunch promptly sank into my legs. "Well, the thing is, miss—that is, sir—"
"Brightcheeks." She narrowed her eyes, but I didn’t need a warning; silly name or no, I wasn’t about to laugh at a dragonslayer.
"Yes. Well. Sir Brightcheeks. You are no doubt aware the treaty stipulates virgins with unblemished cream-white skin, hair of faintest gold, eyes of palest gray, and a voice sweeter than honey." You see why my profession arose: how many of those could a village have?
"Of course." She arched an eyebrow, as if I'd said water was wet and the sky was blue.
Heavens help me, I was going to have to spell it out. "Well, you see, sir," I said with all the please-don't-kill-me regret I could pour into my voice, "here’s the thing. I can glamor a girl into flaxen hair and pale skin and a pretty voice, that's all surface stuff." I took a deep breath. "But there’s no way to turn a—" I cleared my throat "—an, ah—" I coughed "—a, shall we say, mature woman back into an immature maiden." I shut my eyes, waiting for her to vent her displeasure at this inconvenient fact.
After several pain-free seconds in which the only sound was my galloping heart, I opened one eye. The slayer was still watching me, her hands no closer to a dagger than before.
"I understand it's a challenge," she said at last, taking a step forward. "But it can be done."
I took a step backward. "Sir, despite my youth, I am well-versed in the teachings of my trade. I know of no spell that can do what you ask."
"Then invent one," she said, in a tone that left no room for alternatives. "I'll be back in the morning." With that, the slayer banged a hand against her dented breastplate and blew out of my little workshop. A moment later I heard my front door slam behind her.
I blinked. Then I smacked my lips and turned left and right with no discernible purpose. At last I fixed upon a plan of action and shuffled to the rack of smocks hanging beside my overstuffed bookcase, where I pulled a thin flask of Tralkish brandywine from a pocket in the middle of the jumble. There was really only one way to prepare for the dragonslayer's return tomorrow, and I went to it.
"Morning, virgician," the dragonslayer boomed as she rattled into my workshop. In that she was correct: sunlight thrust its irritating way down the stairs from my living quarters and through the open door. I mumbled something incoherent and rubbed my pasty eyes. I hadn't even made it to my bed last night; I'd spent it on the cold, potion-spattered stone floor of my workshop, and felt exactly as one would imagine I'd feel.
The dragonslayer laughed at me and held out a metal-clad hand. I stared at it dumbly.
"Well go on, take it!" she said, clanking her fingers together. I closed my eyes and took it, expecting my arm to be yanked out of its socket, but her grip was surprisingly gentle. She led me to the ramshackle couch where, every fortnight, I served cookies and saxonberry tea to the distraught mother and terrified daughter du jour. Once the slayer had me seated, she backed away and appraised me. "Looks like you've had quite a night."
I nodded, to my immediate regret.
"I presume your drinking didn't interfere with your work?" She opened the basket she had brought in with her, and I smelled the usually delectable but currently debatable aroma of the baker's sweetgum buns.
I took a deep breath. "About that—"
"We don't have long, virgician. In three weeks the league will call me back and send me to fight the ordinary way."
I sucked in a sharp breath; she might as well have said in three weeks, I'll be raking myself to shreds with a pitchfork, then throwing myself into a raging fire. Most slayers never even wounded their dragons. Which was probably why the king made only half-hearted attempts to round them up; it was more efficient to let them destroy themselves.
"I intend for us to kill your town's little dragon before then, and several larger ones as well."
This was the first time anyone had implied that Smantsley's dragon was less than gigantic, and I shuddered to think other towns had bigger ones—and that the slayer meant to drag me along to meet them. "Now, wait," I said, panic rising. "Just hold on a minute."
"If we strike fast enough, we can kill all ninety-seven before the king has time to capture us. I've worked it all out." Her eyes were bright and fierce. "There's no other way to kill them. So you have to find a way to restore my maidenhead, virgician."
All ninety-seven? The panic reached my brain, and I snapped. "Stop calling me that. I hate that word. My name's Dinsday Rapsson. Friends—" such as I had them, given my profession "—call me Din."
I expected her to roar on about my role as an involuntary cog in her dragon-killing wheels, quite possibly after cuffing me bloody with her studded metal fists for emphasis, but she just said, "All right, Din."
Her response struck me dumb—but only momentarily. "What about you?" I demanded, panic making me testy. "Don't you have some other name? The one you gave me yesterday can't possibly be the one your mother gave you."
Her fiery expression twisted and I found myself looking at a haunted young face. "Callamynta," she said. "My friends called me Cal."
My friends called me Cal. Words cupped around a sea of heartbreak. In an instant, my panic burned away and I saw the young girl conscripted years ago from her village by a band of outlaws. This young warrior standing in my workshop had probably never wanted to fight dragons at all, and here she was, devising a plan that could free the entire kingdom. And her plan truly was a clever one, aside from that one impossible detail.
"Callamynta," I said. "It's a lovely name. I'll be honored to call you Cal."
She smiled. I smiled back. And just like that, Cal and I were a team.
"Let's start with my hair," Cal said after we had broken our fast on the sweetgum buns and a pot of very strong bitterroot tea.
"As you wish,” I shrugged. Lightening a girl's hair was normally the last step of the preparatory process, being an immediate plant-based remedy that could hardly go wrong, but nothing about this was business as usual. I looked at her expectantly, but she didn't move. "Ah, Cal, you’ll be needing to take off your helmet."
She narrowed her eyes. "Why?"
I blinked at her. Why? "Because your hair is underneath it."
"Oh. Right." She began removing the armor protecting her head and neck and I cast my professional eye across her scalp. "Oh, lovely. Much healthier than I'd have expected with, ah, the dragonslaying lifestyle. And those curls! Chestnut, grade two, with grade-one highlights shading into auburn. Piece of cake." I reached out to touch a strand and suddenly found myself pinned to the floor and gasping, with a hard metal knee in my back and one arm twisted painfully behind me.
"Cal," I grunted against the floor, "is there something about you I'm missing? Some dragonslayer rule about touching people's hair?"
She released me. "Sorry. Reflex."
I lumbered to my feet and massaged my lower back. "If there are any other slayer no-nos I should know about, do tell. I'm all ears."
"No. It's okay. I just thought you were—" She shook her head. "It's okay."
"All righty, then." I gave my back one last knead and pointed at the processing chair by the washbasin. "Have a seat and we'll get started." I plucked three vials from the shelf and started my standard spiel. "Alchemist's clearbane, to strip all color from your hair. Goldenroot, to shade it flaxen. And oil of mackwort, to make it shine. Soon you'll be as fair-haired as I am." I walked around the chair. "First, I'll wet your hair. Don't be alarmed; the chair back will lower now, so the water doesn't drip onto your clothing. Ah, armor." I released the pin holding the chair back upright; but I didn't account for the added weight of Cal's armor, and instead of gently lowering into position with my hand to guide it, the slatted frame plunged toward the underlying table, pinning my hand between the wood and the lip of the ceramic basin. "Aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!"
Cal instantly sat up and I pulled my poor hand away and cradled it, hopping around the room like a rabid frog.
"Let me see it," she said. I hopped over to her and she pried away the fingers of my other hand to get a look. I moaned when I saw the swelling. Then she pushed on one finger, and I screamed.
"Broken," she pronounced.
"Great!" I shouted. "Just great! We don't... Aaaaaahhhhhhhhh!"
"That one, too."
I snatched my hand back and cradled it to my chest. Cal stood up and replaced her head and neck armor. "What are you doing?" I whined.
"Taking you to the bonesetter. Where's your key?"
I pointed at the lower left-hand pocket of the smock I was wearing, and Cal pulled out my keyring.
"I'm the virgician," I wheezed. "The town really, really, really doesn't want anyone getting in here." All it took was one grief-crazed parent with a torch—or even just a sack and a broom—and the village would have no perfect virgin to offer the dragon. We'd be set back fifty years, before the treaty, when dragons roamed the kingdom at will, scorching entire towns to cinder.
Cal swung the heavy metal workshop door shut and secured all seven locks as I moaned beside her. I followed her upstairs, through the shocking disarray of my home—now that I was seeing it through visitor's eyes—and out onto the street, where she secured the final, ordinary lock on my front door, this time with its key.
"Wait a minute," I said, as something I'd seen in the house finally registered. "Were those your things in the living room?"
"You slept in my house last night?" I was speechless, for approximately half a second. "I don't believe this! You break into my home, you waltz uninvited into my private workshop—a place no one ever wants to enter, I might add—"
"I wanted to enter."
"Yes, but—" And then my outrage vanished.
People didn't hate me; I was a likeable enough fellow, and I dare say many of them felt sorry for me. But they lost their appetite when I came to sate mine in the tavern. They discovered a sudden need for something from the nearest shop when I was on the street, and a pressing urgency to be on the street when I entered a shop. But the hardest thing was the way mothers unconsciously gasped and shielded their daughters when they saw me, as if I were the dragon who would kill them. If only they knew how ironic that was: my childhood had been one long exercise in conflict avoidance. I'd been a timid boy, small and bookish, and only the bullies had taken an interest in me. The hope I'd clung to of finally making friends once I entered the civilized world of adults was permanently obliterated when the virgician's guild commandeered me.
So Cal had broken in, so she'd barged into my workshop, so she'd slept in my house without asking: she was also the only person ever, in my miserable life, to willingly seek my company.
"There's a spare bed in the back room," I said. "We just need to find it under all the clutter."
The bonesetter splinted together the fingers on my right hand, rendering it useless for much of anything. I supposed I should be happy he managed even that, trembling as he was with a dragonslayer looking on.
The bandaging was very large and very white and my hand looked very like a misshapen rabbit's ear. "How long?" I asked testily.
The bonesetter pursed his lips. "Month and a half, give or take. Come back in a month and I'll check your progress."
"Month and a half?" I turned an outraged face to Cal. "I can't have a broken hand for a month and a half!"
"But you do," she said. "Come on. We'll eat, and then we'll do what we can do with three unbroken hands."
Three unbroken hands were enough for us to get the back room in presentable shape by lunchtime, and I spent the rest of the day with my nose deep in spellbooks I hadn't opened in years. As I'd expected, I came up empty. In a final, what's-to-lose effort, I hunted down my dusty copy of Carsgrynd's Spells to Inspyre Awe and Terror. It was worth a try: Carsgrynd, whose works tended to the sensational (and a fetish for muslin), was reviled among professional alchemists, but unlike those of most dabblers, his spells had a reputation for working.
It was a book that had kept me company on many a childhood night. How to Lyft a Standyng Stone. How to Eat One's Weyght in Horsemeat. How to Turn Innocent Objects into Instruments of Terror. I'd read that last one a thousand times, imagining the looks on my tormentors' faces as I deftly sliced the air with a sword that moments before had been a long stick. Of course, I'd never had the courage to actually try it.
After a bittersweet stroll down memory lane, I closed the book with a sigh. There were no virginity spells here, either. I’d have to look beyond my own—considerable—collection of spellbooks.
As I slid Carsgrynd back into the bookcase, something caught my eye. It was the corner of a book that had apparently fallen behind the others, but I instantly remembered what had really happened. The book was Carsgrynd's Secret Guyde to the Intymate Arts, a beet-eared purchase in my teenage days. Despite its purely academic relevance to my life, I'd never quite managed to part with it. So I’d hidden it in the immense chaos that was my bookcase, where no one would find it, and promptly forgotten it existed. Until now.
And there it was, on page seventy-three: How to Restore Maydenhead and Avoyd Parental Dyspleasure.
"Cal!" I yelled triumphantly. "I found it! I really found it!"
I just hoped I wouldn't lose a kidney when I told her she'd have to take off her armor for the spell.
"Did it work?" Cal's keenly hopeful eyes stared at me from beneath the mountain of muslin draped around her head.
I sighed and lowered the keparine. "No."
"No?" She took the crystal from me. "That can't be. The crystal must be broken. Or you used it incorrectly."
Her look of disbelief made my blood boil. "I most certainly did not."
"Go buy a new one, and we'll try it again."
"Go buy—?" I threw up my hands. "Do you have any idea how expensive a keparine of this size is? Go buy a new one, she says."
"Maybe you stored it improperly, or—"
"There is nothing wrong with my keparine!" I shouted. "Here, look!" I swung the crystal around my body in Carsgrynd's pattern, and it began to glow a soft green. "See? If the spell had worked, it would have turned green for you, too."
Cal stared at me like I was some kind of rare animal she'd only read about in books.
"What?" I snapped.
"You're a virgin," she said. "You've never..."
"That's right! I've never. Unlike some people, I've been saving myself for a special, sacred moment with a—"
Her bare fist knocked me backward. Even without her armor, it hurt like the devil. Before I could say a word, she had a hand around my throat. "Don't you talk to me like that," she growled. "You don't know anything about me." She let me go and I raised an indignant hand to my throbbing neck.
I hadn’t been bullied like that in years. And this time by a friend. My sense of betrayal had me simultaneously outraged and on the verge of tears. How dare she?
"Well, I know you picked a really stupid name," I shouted at the top of my lungs. "Sir Brightcheeks. Who picks a name like that? Trying to make the dragon laugh itself to death?"
Cal’s eyes widened and her nostrils flared and I braced for another blow. Instead, she turned away. I could see her back heaving with the effort to stay calm.
"I didn't pick that name," she finally said. “He picked it for me. My troop trainer.”
I remembered the way she’d pinned me with her knee after I’d touched her hair, and the full meaning of her words came to me. Sorry. Reflex. It's okay. I just thought you were... "Oh, Cal. I'm so sorry."
She wiped her cheeks and turned around. Her muslin headdress had come undone; it hung about her face in a loose tangle. "It's okay. You couldn't have known. Sorry about the punch. And your neck. I hope you don't bruise."
"I'll heal." I leaned against the wall and sighed. "At least now I understand why we failed. Carsgrynd’s spell is for virginity freely given. I'll go to Bikasby tomorrow and see what I can find in the regional library."
"No." She shook her head, and the tangle of muslin fell to the floor. "Between the spell and your broken hand, we'll never transform me in time."
"You're giving up?" I was taken aback. It didn't seem like her.
"Just making a change of plans." She studied me thoughtfully. "Is there any reason the offering has to be a girl?"
I blinked in confusion, until her meaning hit me. "Oh, no. You can't be serious."
She shrugged and smiled.
"I'm no fighter, Cal. Look at me. I can't even kill a spider."
"I know. You don't have to kill it. You just have to disarm its lair. Disable the internal magic that keeps out intruders while the dragon's sleeping. I'll do the rest."
She smiled again, and in her frank gaze I knew the decision was mine.
Three days later, after a tripled-up round of songmilk, pale-eye and skinsmoothe had turned me acceptably sacrificial, Cal and I stood at the edge of the blackened clearing that fronted the dragon's lair. The beast itself was gone; we'd watched the sky from town until a fat, black dot rose into the air above the northern caves and spread its wings.
I'd told myself I would be brave, I was a grown man and not a timid child; but now the moment was here, I was sweaty and trembling and sick to my stomach.
"Ready?" Cal asked. Thanks to our little tussle three days earlier, I already looked admirably like a fellow who'd gotten on some fiercer fellow's bad side in a tavern brawl and woken up on a dragon’s doorstep. I’d asked her to brain me again anyway, for my nerves. Cal was confident the dragon would keep fair-haired, honey-tongued, virginal me alive, but I harbored a considerable terror that the vital dragon-pleasing datum would turn out to be womanhood after all.
Hyperventilating as I was, I couldn't answer her; so I nodded and closed my eyes, and then she knocked me senseless.
When I came to, Cal was gone and I was lying on the hard stone. Moments later—long enough to have my stomach tie in knots, but not long enough to actually die of terror—the dragon flew in over the northern forests, an inky blot that kept growing until it filled a quarter of the sky. My stomach pulled even tighter and my lungs threatened to explode; I looked to the side, at the simple, harmless cracks in the stone. Then the dragon's sinewed wings darkened the clearing, and I looked up in spite of myself. I had never seen one so close.
It was a hundred glistening shades of black, from its claws to its iridescent skin. Its man-sized eyes glittered even in the wan light. It was more beautiful and more awful than I had imagined.
"Oh, pray tell, what tiny gift is this?" it said, in a voice that rumbled the forest. I squeezed my eyes shut as its massive snout moved in and buffeted me; but it did not roast me where I lay. "Oh, a gift indeed," it rumbled. "I shall enjoy this one." It scooped me up in one enormous claw—not its paw, mind you, but one protruding claw—and carried me into its den.
The dragon may have been beautiful in an awful way, but its lair was only awful. It was not the vast, vaulted cave I had always imagined, but a long tunnel, just high and wide enough for the dragon to move about in. A layer of pungent muck covered every flat surface; I tried not to consider what it might be. Though the sky was still light, the lair was dim, the entrance mostly blocked by its owner's gargantuan body. The dragon was a red-limned outline on the cavern floor, glowing from its own heat. Each exhalation sent a warm gust over me and briefly lit the cave as the dragon's nostrils flared like embers.
"Come oil me, worm," it rumbled. "Or must I wait until you've soiled yourself? Why, you're just an ineffectual failure, aren't you? Too softhearted to act when it really matters. No wonder everyone has always laughed at you."
I stood frozen, listening to the dragon hurl my deepest shame at me like it was written on my face, until it drew me close with a claw. "Climb up, my little lily liver. I won't eat you. Not yet. There, on my back, below the second ring of neck spines, where I cannot reach. Scoop the oil from beneath the scales and rub it onto them." I wedged my left hand under a scale half my size and nearly half my weight, and after a good deal of wresting and grunting, managed to lift it onto my right shoulder. I edged forward with my unbandaged left hand until I touched the steaming glob beneath it. As I rubbed the thick oil onto the scale, the dragon rumbled again, shaking me so wildly I threw myself against it and grabbed onto a neck spine--harder than it sounds, with a hand full of dragon grease. "Oil me!" it commanded, and I reluctantly let go and resumed rubbing.
I climbed down half an hour later, my right shoulder bruised and my left arm exhausted from oiling a town square's worth of scale. "Now sing," the dragon commanded. "Something bawdy, something lewd."
My heart sank then. I wanted nothing more than a barrel of water and a soft place to sleep, and the night had barely begun. I couldn’t possibly entertain the dragon until it grew tired. Then I saw Cal in my mind's eye, saying we'll do what we can do with three unbroken hands.
I would do what I could do.
"There ONCE was a WELL-bosomed WENNNNCH," I started. It was a popular tavern tune that I greatly abhorred, which I was sure meant the dragon would love it. "And this WENCH was a WENCH with a WISHHHH—"
"Yes," the dragon hissed. "Now, do a little tap dance while you're singing."
Just do what you can do. I started shuffling my feet and swinging my arms. "And her WISH was to--" The dragon rumbled again, but this time I didn't squeak.
I do believe it was purring.
At last the dragon lumbered into a hollow in the midcavern and slept. My feet were cramped and my throat was ragged; I was parched and thoroughly exhausted, but there was no relief for me. Time to find the magic guarding the lair.
I felt my way to the back of the cavern as quietly as I could in the pulsing, red-tinged darkness. My foot brushed against something soft, and I heard a weak moan.
"Limra?" I whispered incredulously. She had been sacrificed six days before; how could she possibly still be alive?
I got a good look at her during the dragon's next breath. The bag of bones lying on the cavern floor looked nothing like the healthy girl of six days past; her eyes blinked dully, her hair was scorched short and ragged, and her skin was wrinkled where it was not covered in welts. Everything about her was sunken, as if she had not eaten for a month.
Every thirteenth day, the townsfolk gather in the northern clearing at dusk to bind the sacrifice to the standing stone, say a prayer, and ring the dragon's gong. Then we shuffle out, back toward town. Someone lights the first torches, starting a bobbing procession of light that will lead us back to safety. The girl can see it from her high perch, and I have always thought its almost holy aura is negated by the horrible desolation it must create in the girl left behind. It would seem more fitting that we stumble home in darkness, battering our arms and legs on the stones as we fall, each bruise and cut reminding us of our own good fortune.
Now here I was, stumbling over her broken body, freshly aware of the horror her days here had been. Days spent oiling the dragon and keeping it endlessly amused while it taunted her with the worst her heart had to tell her. The distaste I had always felt at performing the job assigned to me ballooned into a terrible, cutting guilt.
The treaty stipulated that death was to be painless and quick. I'd always thought the king had scored us a win there. Oh, how the dragons must have laughed at us. The real torture had always been in the days that preceded death.
If I survived this night, I was never, ever going to prepare a girl for sacrifice again.
Limra must have known her end was near. She was in no shape to delight a dragon that demanded dances and clever songs. It might have finished her off tonight, if not for the distraction of me. That gave me some small comfort.
But it was all the comfort either of us would have; without water or food, the only thing I could do that might help her was find the spell protecting the lair. "Hang on, Limra," I whispered; then I forced myself to step over her fragile body and start looking for the dragon's magic.
I had brought a tiny pouch of risanite crystals with me; I knew dragon's magic was subtle, like searching for a drop of pink in a sea of red: look too quickly, and you miss it. It didn't help that I had no idea what I was looking for. Core magic? Perimeter magic? Sprites? But what I missed, the risanite would not; it would vibrate silently when it touched a source of magic.
I was more asleep than awake when the pouch of risanite trembled against my fingers. My eyes would never have found it on their own: six tiny stones, haphazardly scattered around an irregular smudge of black powder. A perimeter spell. There would be other groups of stones and powder, together enclosing the area the dragon protected. I didn't have to find them all; I just had to find the ones that marked off the entrance to the lair, far enough back to expose the dragon while it slept.
But first: Limra.
The beauty of perimeter magic is that it's static. It only works if the perimeter is closed. That means whenever you add or subtract a marker, for the brief instant when the perimeter snaps from its old configuration to the new one, it's useless. Which means you can move someone from inside to outside the perimeter without, say, waking a sleeping dragon.
Which meant I could save Limra now, whatever else happened.
I put the pouch of risanite in my pocket and felt my way back to her. Despite my aching body, I managed to pick her up; the faint light of dawn helped me creep, step by quiet step, to the mouth of the cave. Cal had told me the dragon would sleep until midday. I hoped she was right.
I sank to my protesting knees and rolled Limra onto the floor of the cave by the entrance. Then I pulled out the risanite and forced myself back to my feet. I found and disabled six markers guarding the entrance and the first several feet of the lair. Limra was now outside the new perimeter. I, by distressingly necessary design, was still inside it.
I woke to the urgent whisper of my name.
"Din! Open it!" Cal hissed, her eyes wide behind her visor. "I know you can; you got her out."
"After you take her home." My eyes fastened themselves to the water flask in Cal's hand.
"Are you mad? Let me in so I can take the dragon while it sleeps!"
"Her first," I wheezed, licking my lips.
Cal grunted in frustration. "You take her. I'll stay and kill the dragon."
"Look at me, Cal. I'm in no shape to reach the forest, let alone the town. You take her. If the dragon sleeps as long as you said, you'll be back well before it kills me." I closed my eyes and turned away. I heard Cal growl; then I heard soft scraping, as if someone dressed in metal was gently lifting something from a bed of stone. I had a fleeting moment to be proud of what I'd done; then sleep reached up with iron fingers and pulled me back under.
Cal returned and again woke me with my name. I pulled myself across the cavern floor and disabled a dozen markers one by one, well into the cavern along the wall furthest from the sleeping dragon. As long as I hadn't missed one, the perimeter of magic keeping Cal out now protected only the dragon's rearmost haunch. I dragged myself back to the mouth of the cave and gave Cal a thumbs up, then rolled onto my back with a quiet groan.
Cal tiptoed in and handed me a gloriously full water flask, which I drained. Then she gave me a hunk of cheese and some reasonably edible bread. "It was fresher the first time," she apologized.
"Ith delithuth," I whispered through my full mouth. Which was a terrible, terrible mistake.
I inhaled a crumb of bread and started coughing, which made me panic, which made me drop the empty flask I was still holding. It hit the floor of the cave with a cacophonous clang.
The dragon woke at once and was beside Cal in an instant.
"Well, well, what have we here? A slayer—and a female one at that." The dragon pushed its enormous snout against her armored chest, then pulled back and looked at her. "So eager to make your mark on the world. Too bad you’re such a disappointment to everyone. You always have been, even as a child. Your parents were relieved to see you carted off by the outlaws."
"Don't listen to it," I warned, but Cal was already charging with a dagger in her hand. She ducked and weaved with breathtaking finesse as it lashed at her, expertly avoiding both its claws and its tail, staying close so it couldn't flame her without burning itself. As I pressed myself against the farthest possible stretch of the cavern wall, Cal darted in and slashed at the dragon's underside. Then, breathtakingly, she jumped onto its forelimb and started climbing. The dragon bellowed and batted her against the stone wall. She saw it coming and raced upward, toward its neck, but the blow caught her square. She fell to the forecavern floor with a sickening crunch.
Fear flooded me, obliterating my body's pain, and I ran to her. Despite her helmet, she was bleeding from a gash along her face. But she was conscious. Barely.
"Take off her armor, worm," the dragon hissed. "Can't have her continue to flail about with her prickly little thorns."
"I'm sorry," I whispered as I loosened her armor with my good hand. Cal didn't answer; I thought she must have passed out. But as I removed her breastplate, she tucked her dagger into the sleeve above my bandaged right hand and winked before losing consciousness.
"Now come oil my back, worm," the dragon said. "Then I'll let you watch me kill her. I think a slow death will be most satisfying for one like her, don't you?"
I gritted my teeth and shuffled toward the foul, appalling thing. A vast fury kept me on my feet: fury at the dragon, fury at the townsfolk who shunned me, fury at the endless parade of bullies who had taunted me as a child. I lowered my head and clasped my left hand around my right wrist behind my back; with luck, the dragon would think me defeated. The dagger dropped into my hand. My stomach was sick with dread; I had no idea where to stab a dragon, and I expected to die. But I would die fighting a bully. I would die protecting a friend.
The stone rumbled again with the dragon's laugh. "Come now, little lily liver, you don't think you can use that dagger she gave you, do you?" Its tail whipped around faster than I could follow and knocked the dagger from my hand, ripping my breeches and rending a gash down my left leg. I cried out in pain, and the dragon laughed again. "That's more like it, little coward. Now come oil me, before I decide to kill you and keep her instead. So much lovely pain inside her."
I hadn't even the semblance of a chance to save Cal now. Every miserable ache rushed back into my body, and I stumbled. The dragon flicked its tail and whipped my legs. I lurched forward. Another flick and whip; I lurched again. I reached its vile forehaunch—how had I ever thought it beautiful?—and began to climb. Several thousand pain-laced millennia later, I reached its abominable neck.
My impotent fury reached its peak and I roared. I pulled at the neck spine beneath my hand, willing it to rip free, to cause this abhorrent snake some tiny measure of pain before it killed my companion for sport.
The spine held fast, of course, and the dragon rumbled with relish.
"Have I made you angry, lily liver?" it purred. "Well, here's your chance. Lift the middle scale between the bottom spines. See the orange spot beneath it? If you weren't such a useless mollycoddle, you could kill me."
I had taken the weight of the heavy scale onto my shoulder; now I stared at the glowing orange hide, thinned to a soft membrane here above its pulsing heart. If only I had Cal's dagger. Oh, I would use it. I would.
If only I were the kind of man to carry a knife, a letter opener, anything sharp enough to pierce that pulsing, tender skin. But all I had were two soft, fleshy hands—and one of those was broken.
"But you wouldn't dare, would you, my pathetic little coward?"
Then it came to me, as if Carsgrynd himself had parted the heavens and called down to me: I knew How to Turn Innocent Objects into Instruments of Terror. I started chanting under my breath.
The dragon wiggled, knocking me forward so the scale scraped down my shoulder and pinned me beneath it. "Stop your incoherent yammering and start oiling me, worm, or I'll slice another bit of you open." Its tail writhed upward and grazed my back.
I stopped chanting and pushed myself up, taking the heavy scale with me. "Oil THIS!" I shouted, and I plunged my broken hand through the gauzy patch of orange, into the dragon's fiery innards. The bandaging vaporized and I screamed as my fingers began to burn. The dragon roared and bucked. I catapulted from its back; just before the cavern wall slammed into my head, I shouted Cal's name.
I came to with a violent headache and a hand that hurt so badly amputation would have been a relief. Cal was leaning over me, her bloodied face inches from mine, and the naked fear there burned away the last of my muddled fog.
"Din?" she said.
"That's me," I croaked.
She let out her breath. "You're hurt."
I pulled myself into a half-sit with her help. "Nothing Smantsley's physicker and a bottle of Alberian shale whisky can't fix." I shifted and winced. "Well, perhaps a vat of the Alberian." I looked around the cavern. "Where's the dragon?"
She pointed to a gummy, blackened lake on the cavern floor. "Burned out, bones and all. The standard through-the-heart thing." She looked back at me. "Din, how did you do it? I didn't have time to tell you where to stab."
"The dragon told me." The fury I'd felt before rippled. "Insufferable beast. It was so sure I was harmless."
"It didn't know about the dagger," Cal said, nodding.
"Oh, it knew. It took it from me. But it didn't count on Carsgrynd."
Cal raised an eyebrow.
"A spell I memorized as a boy. It requires a length of muslin—" what else? "—and an incantation, and it temporarily turns whatever's wrapped in the cloth into an object as sharp as a sword." I let out a half-laugh. "Of course, I was never brave enough to use it."
"You were today," Cal said. "You killed a dragon, Din."
I grinned through my headache. "I did, didn't I?"
We sat there, smiling at each other like happy idiots. Then Cal said, "What now?"
"Bikasby," I declared.
She nodded and pushed herself up. "The library. Help me find a virginity spell that works, Din, and I'll be on my way. You've done more than enough to help me. More than I had a right to ask of you."
"Are you kidding?" I said. "Cal, I bested a bully today. This is the best thing that could have happened to me." I tried to stand; my charred fingers brushed against my shirt and I shrieked. "Well, aside from the pain part." I gave up on standing and looked at her. "I'll keep looking for a spell, Cal. For you. That is, if you want me to. But I didn't mean that. I meant let's go get Bikasby's dragon."
She blinked at me. "You did?"
"You bet." I grinned at her, and a smile spread across her face. "And, Cal... you're amazing. The way you fought the dragon—"
"Was ineffective." She glanced away and shrugged. "I spent all this time perfecting a whole new strategy, and it didn't work."
"It was phenomenal," I said. "Cal. It was grace and beauty in motion. You should have seen the dragon's face. It had no idea how to respond. Sheer luck that it had you in such a confined space. Out in the open, you'd have had him."
She looked up with a devilish grin. "I would, wouldn't I?"
I grinned back. "You know it. Now let's find that vat of Alberian before the pain really kicks in."
She came closer and held out a hand. "As you command, Sir Brokenhand."
I arched an eyebrow.
"Every good dragonslayer needs a name," she said, and she winked.
This story originally appeared in Curious Fictions.