I knew who I was, and I knew my
place. I knew why the king’s chattering courtiers cast me sly
looks from the corners of their eyes when I walked past; I knew
why the king’s brave knights fingered their daggers when they
looked my way.
I was an assistant to a junior
deputy archivist in the moldy, dusty rooms full of books and
maps the king called his library. I was sixteen years old. My
mother died at my birth.
At dinner, the great hall of
the king was always loud with talking and jests, the tables
slick with grease and spilled wine, the rushes underfoot
crawling with vermin. On the walls, smoke-clotted tapestries
displayed the crimson-threaded death of the last dragon at the
hands of the king.
At the highest table, King
Kenneret sat surrounded by his bravest knights and most gentle
I sat at the lowest table, and
I had already spilled a goblet of wine down the long,
embroidered sleeve of the lady sitting next to me. She glared;
I didn’t bother apologizing. Amid the noise, I sat quiet,
reading a pocket-sized copy of Volume XXXII of The
Looking up from the book, I
noticed a peasant enter the hall, escorted by a guardsman. I
squinted through the smoke to get a better look. The guard was
half drunk, of course, but the peasant glanced around wildly,
frightened--as he ought to be--stumbling over the rushes until
he stood before the high table. He was ignored by His Royal
Majesty, who was trading jests and toasts with his knights.
The drunken guard whispered to
a servant, who scurried to a more senior servant, who in turn
pulled the sleeve of the king's counselor, Prickett, who rose in
white-bearded state from his place at the high table, went to
the king, and bent to whisper into his ear. The king paused in
the midst of a bellowing laugh. He listened. He nodded, then
I found myself leaning forward,
straining to hear. The lady beside me was laughing shrilly; I
gave her a nudge. "Shhh." She shot me a venomous glance and
edged away from me on the bench.
But silence was passing in
waves over the great hall. The king shifted his bulk in his
chair, then spoke to the waiting peasant, his deep voice
rumbling through the growing quiet. "We are told you bring us
news. Our counselor says it warrants interrupting our dinner.
What say you?"
The peasant bowed, gripping a
shapeless hat. "Y-your Majesty," he quavered, bowing again. "I
am the headman of West Cornhold."
The king shrugged. "What news
do you bring us from West Cornhold?"
The peasant fell to his knees
on the rush-covered floor before the high table. "Your Majesty,
it is a dragon!" He dropped his hat to gesture widely with his
hands. “We-we’ve seen it, My Lord! Huge it is, breathing great
gobs of fire, shining in the sun, flying over our fields and
houses, sharp c-claws, teeth, and--“
“Silence!” Prickett shouted.
In a sharp voice, he continued. “To talk of dragons, sirrah,
living ones, in the court of King Kenneret Death-of-Dragons, is
to talk treason. It cannot be a dragon.”
The peasant stared. “It bloody
well is a dragon,” he shouted, climbing to his feet, spittle
flying from his lips. “Claws! Wings, great wide wings, like
sails! Stealing sheep, and--“
“That’s enough,” ordered the
“--And goats!” the headman
Well. There was going to be
trouble. The court held its breath and stared at his Royal
Majesty. Someone was for the headsman’s axe.
The king, his face flushed from
the wine he’d drunk with dinner, pushed himself to his feet and
looked around the hall with a display of great good humor, as if
selecting somebody to be the butt of an excellent joke. The
court let out its breath in relief. The king had decided not to
be offended. “Who shall slay me this Cornhold Dragon?” asked
I leaned forward to see what
the knights and nobles at the high table would do. My elbow hit
the lady’s wine-filled goblet and over it went. She leaped up,
shrieking, brushing at a blood-red splash down the front of her
The counselor’s gaze fell upon
me, sharpened. He leaned over to whisper to the king. After a
moment of hesitation, the king nodded. “Your Majesty,” Prickett
said loudly, “a dragon of such doubtful provenance should be
dealt with by the very least of your knights.” He extended a
long, bony finger.
At me. I was not a knight; I
was a librarian. Slowly, I got to my feet.
The nobles at the high table
tittered; the gentle knights fingered their daggers.
I offered a bow, and with
typical grace knocked my book from the table into the rushes on
“Yes, very good,” said Prickett.
“You will go and slay for the king this Cornhold dragon.”
Four days later, as a chill sun
rose behind a veil of sober clouds, I readied myself to ride out
from King Kenneret’s castle on a swayback, piebald horse named
Rosie, wearing a few bits of rusty armor, a helmet two sizes too
large, and a sword newly sharpened by the castle blacksmith.
I didn’t expect to use the
sword. Not against a dragon, at any rate. I had read every
book in the archive about dragons, and they all agreed that
there were no dragons left in King Kenneret’s lands.
As I fumbled with the straps of
my saddlebags, the king’s counselor crossed the courtyard to
speak with me. Prickett’s wrinkled face was pale in the early
light. He wore a dusty grey robe and slippers, as if he’d come
straight from his bed. “So you’re going.”
I looked at him over Rosie’s
back. Obviously I was going.
“Hmmm. Kim, is it? Your
mother was Lady Darlyn, I believe.”
I nodded. Rosie shifted, her
hoofs scraping the cobblestones.
Prickett pursed his lips and
narrowed his eyes. “A great favorite of the king at one time,
was your mother, as I recall.”
So I had surmised. My
waterskin had a leak; there was a wet patch on the saddlecloth.
“Hmmm,” Prickett said. “Well,
no matter. All that matters is this: There is no dragon.”
“What?” I looked up.
“No matter what you find in
West Cornhold, there is no dragon. To suggest otherwise would
be treason against the crown. Do you understand?”
No. There was no dragon; the
king had killed the last one twenty years ago, a fact verified
by every book in the castle library. On the maps, here be
dragons was crossed out.
“What am I supposed to do,
then?” I asked.
“Ride out,” the counselor
said. “Come back when you’ve been away for long enough.”
I watched Prickett make his way
across the courtyard. He didn’t actually think there was
a dragon, did he? I shook my head and climbed onto Rosie’s
After I gave her a few kicks in
her ribs, the horse ambled toward the main gate of the castle.
The guards sniggered as I passed. I’d just crossed the bridge
onto the main road leading out of the city, when the castle’s
witch accosted me.
She was an ancient crone with a
face like an apple with a bite taken out of it and then left to
rot. I pulled Rosie to a halt as the witch scurried out into
the middle of the road.
“Beware!” she shrieked. She
looked over her shoulder and then laid her finger aside her
nose, coming closer. “Beware, young knight!”
“Yes?” I asked. “Beware what,
my lady?” Surely it was best to err on the side of politeness
when speaking to a witch.
“Beware the compelling spells
of the dragon,” she replied with a cackle. “The dragon will
spin around you a web of words. It will weave around you a
tapestry of words until you see not the real world but a vision
of gold thread and flying banners, knights a-horseback doing
great deeds, fair princesses with white hands and welcoming
As I rode along the rutted
roads that led away from Kenneret’s castle, I considered the
witch’s words. The compelling spells of the dragon.
Interesting. But I knew well enough that dragons and great
deeds and welcoming smiles existed only in books, and not in the
muddy, cold real world.
So I would ride to West
Cornhold, identify the wolf or crafty poacher who had been
stealing the farmers’ sheep, and then ride back to the castle
and my dusty books and maps.
In the meantime, I had plenty
of mud and cold to deal with. The armor, rusty chain mail made
for a bigger man than I was, chafed, and it was heavy. The
helmet kept slipping down over my eyes. The sword, scabbarded
on my saddle, bumped against my knee every time Rosie took a
lumbering step. And then the rain began.
I slopped into West Cornhold
muddy to my eyebrows, planning to see the headman, to ask him
where the depredations of sheep and goats had occurred. It was
late afternoon, and the rain had brought on an early twilight.
The village was quiet but for the squawking of chickens and the
patter of raindrops on the thatched roofs. I knocked on the
nearest door to ask my questions.
A dragon? No, young sir,
we’ve seen no dragons here, certainly not, of course there are
no dragons because the king killed ‘em all. But if you were to
seek one out, you might try the river where it runs through the
And not one of the villagers
offered me a place to stay for the night. I sighed and turned
Rosie toward the Stalkfleet Forest.
I had read about forests like
this. Moss grew on the trunks of trees that looked like
hunched, ancient crones reaching out with gnarled, clutching
fingers. Fog crept along the ground. The air smelled of
swampwater. The forest was quiet but not peaceful. It was
Rosie and I went on, her with
her eyes rolling and ears twitching, me with my eyes wide and my
hand on the pommel of my sword. The path was narrow, and
moss-draped vines hung down across it and the bushes crowded in,
brushing Rosie’s flanks.
Then I saw, on the trail ahead,
a wide, deep impression in the mud. I climbed out of the saddle
and clattered to the ground, clinging to Rosie’s bridle until I
found my feet. Squelching through the mud, I went forward and
knelt down to look closely. It was the length of my arm, with a
deep well in the middle and four slashing gouge marks. A
footprint of some kind; a clawprint, rather, of some strange
I looked up, and quickly
around. The forest kept absolutely still. Slowly, watching the
undergrowth, I went back to Rosie and climbed into the saddle.
As the night drew on, the
forest grew darker. I leaned forward, over Rosie’s neck,
peering through the gloom. At last, she stumbled to a halt.
I was tired, too. Fog rose
from the ground and surrounded us.
“All right,” I said, and my
voice sounded quavery and thin. I climbed down out of the
saddle. “Come on, Rosie.” Pulling her by the reins, I led her
along until we came to a place where the path widened into a
clearing. I looped Rosie’s reins around a bush and unsaddled
her, and rubbed her down with a fistful of moss; then I wrapped
myself in my holey blanket and, leaning against a tree, went to
In the morning, when I woke up,
Rosie was gone, my blanket was gone, and I was pinned to the
muddy ground by a huge, clawed foot. One talon was thrust
through the shoulder of my over-large chain mail; another talon
was plunged into the mud, right next to my neck. I blinked the
sleep out of my eyes and, heart pounding, looked up. And up. I
saw the claw itself, cracked and knobbled, then a muscled,
dull-scaled leg, and up to a huge head: a narrow, gap-fanged
muzzle, deep-set smoldering eyes, and a horned crest. A wisp of
smoke trickled from one nostril.
The books and the tapestries
and the maps were wrong. Kenneret hadn’t killed them all, had
The dragon gazed down at me. I
wriggled a little, to see if I could get free, and it leaned
forward, its claw pressing me further into the mud.
“Keep still,” said the dragon.
Its voice was hollow and rumbly-deep, like a shout in a
I kept still.
It brought its head down
closer, looking me over, first with one eye, then tilting its
head to look with the other eye.
“Well, well,” it said. “Say
they still Childe for Knight?”
I didn’t answer. In the old
poems, though, the knight was always called Child, or
“They do, I suppose,” the
I gathered my courage and
cleared the fright out of my throat. “Where’s my horse?” I
The dragon blinked, first a
membrane flicking across its deep eye, then an eyelid sliding
down and up. “The horse has been eaten,” it said. “You would
be, too, Childe, were you a bit more plump.”
My sword occurred to me. It
was not far away, on Rosie’s saddle--poor Rosie--where I’d left
The dragon huffed a
foul-smelling breath down into my face. “But I shall not eat
you today, Childe. For I have a curiosity about the world
outside. What say you? Wish you to talk with me a while?”
“If you run away,” the dragon
said. “You will be caught, and you will be eaten.”
“All right” I said. It was a
The dragon leaned close again
and put its eye up to my face. I gazed into it. The eye was
like a still pool of water with a flame burning deep within.
“It is a strange kind of knight you are,” the dragon breathed.
I wasn’t a knight at all, of
The dragon leaned back and took
its foot off my chest, the claws pulling out of the mud with a
Slowly, I sat up, then inched
back to lean against the tree. The dragon hunkered down,
lowering its belly to the ground, folded its wings flat along
its back, then rested its muzzle on a foreclaw. Its head alone
was as big as a horse, and its flanks were like a muscular
wall. Its spiked tail curled around behind me; I was encircled
by the dragon.
“Well then,” the dragon said.
“Childe, from whence do you come?”
I considered lying. But
somehow, lying was not appropriate. “From the court of King
The dragon lifted its head at
that and stared intently at me. “Well. From the dragon
slayer.” Its voice stayed even; it didn’t sound angry. “Were
one to judge the state of Kenneret’s court by the knight sent
here by the king, one might draw certain conclusions.”
I had no answer to that. The
dragon was perfectly correct, after all.
“So, so, so,” the dragon said,
and snorted out a puff of grey smoke. “Dragons, Childe, are
interested, above all things, in genealogy. So I begin with
this. What is your name, Childe?”
“Kim,” I said.
“Kimmmm,” rumbled the dragon.
It gave a slow double-lidded blink. “Kim. Is there more?”
I shook my head.
“There must be more,” the
dragon said. “What is the name of your mother?”
The early morning air was cold
and clammy. To stay warm, I pulled up my legs and wrapped my
arms around my knees. “Lady Darlyn. Her family was from Far
“Ah.” The dragon shifted, its
belly scales scraping against the ground. “Her family but not
yours. And the name of your father?”
I shrugged. I didn’t actually
want to answer that question, at least not for this particular
The dragon talked with me for
the rest of the day. I grew stiff, sitting huddled by the tree,
so I got up to walk along the dragon’s massive haunches and its
belly stretched out along the ground, then gingerly past its
toothy snout, and past the tail and around again. I knew a lot
about dragons, from my reading. This one was an Evetrix
Gloriosa, the noblest of all dragons. Its scales, I noticed,
were dull, and it had patches of moss growing on its back. Its
claw and foot-joints were knobbled with age. Every now and then
it shifted, as if in pain. On one of my circuits I paused and
rested my hand against its leg; its scales felt cool and
In its compelling voice it told
me stories of great kings and queens, and glorious waving flags,
and ladies with white hands beckoning their knights home after
The dragon, I realized, was
very, very old.
At last, as the sun set and the
grey clouds gathered overhead, it grew tired. My own voice was
hoarse from asking questions, and answering them.
“Well,” the dragon said. “I
will sleep now, Childe.” It cocked a bristled eyebrow at me.
“And I do not think you will run away. For on the morrow I
shall need you to do something for me.”
“I won’t run away,” I said.
The dragon sighed and laid its
head on the ground, closed its eyes, and went to sleep.
I was cold, and damp, and I
hadn’t had anything to eat since the day before, and my horse
was dead. I leaned against the tree all night, thinking,
wondering what the dragon wanted from me, exactly. Someone to
listen to its stories? They were wonderful stories; I would
listen as long as it wanted to tell them. As the sky lightened,
I fell asleep.
When I woke up, the forest
around us was quiet and a light rain sifted down through the
brown leaves, dropping from the ends of twisted branches.
The dragon was watching me
through half-lidded eyes. “Know you, Kim,” it said, “how
Kenneret became king?”
I sat up and rubbed my eyes.
My stomach growled. “I--Yes,” I said. “He slew a dragon that
had settled at the castle. The last dragon that ever lived.”
“You know this how?”
“I read it in the Encyclopedia Draconis. ‘And Kenneret brave, killed the foul
beast, that clawed serpent, who ravaged the land.’”
“This is not how it happened,”
the dragon said.
No, I supposed not.
“Hmmm,” the dragon hummed. It
sighed and flexed a claw. “You did not run away during the
“I said I wouldn’t,” I said.
“You are very brave.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t
brave; I was a librarian. I was just too tired and hungry to
run away. And I wanted to hear more stories.
“An issue could be made of your
paternity,” the dragon said.
I blinked. “What would be the
point?” I asked. I knew my place in the court of King Kenneret.
“Ah,” said the dragon. “Brave,
noble, knowledgeable, wise. A perfect knight you are. It is
good that you were the one he sent.”
I was none of those things.
“You expected him to send a knight?” I asked.
The dragon flexed its claws.
“Sheep I have killed, and goats, too. This would be noticed, I
So the dragon had wanted me to
come. Or, not me, but somebody.
“So now,” the dragon said, and
it stretched its neck along the ground before me. “The knight
you are, sent by the king. You must slay me.”
I stumbled back until I was
pressed against the tree trunk. “No.”
“I am old,” the dragon said.
“And tired. A knowledgeable Childe are you, Kim. How must
I knew the answer to this
question. Dragons did not die naturally; they just grew older
and slower and wracked with pain, and they died only when they
were tracked and killed by knights. And the knights who killed
dragons, often enough, became kings.
“Kenneret did not adequately
slay me,” the dragon said. “And you must finish it.”
I shook my head. “But you’re
The dragon blinked. “Think you
so? Kenneret’s kingdom is small, Childe. Many are the dragons
of the world.”
Many? I thought of all the
dragons I had read about in the Dragon Chronicles, and in
the Kingdoms of the Wyrm, and in the Encyclopedia
“And this dragon’s time in the
world is past,” the dragon went on. “My fires are going out and
I grow cold. You must release me.”
I didn’t want to do it. But
the dragon’s hollow voice compelled me. I stepped away from the
tree and crossed the clearing to fetch my sword. Then I went
back to stand before the dragon. Its neck was surprisingly
slender, just a sapling of a neck; a sharp sword could cut
through it in two, maybe three, blows.
I laid the bright edge of my
blade against the dragon’s neck.
“A little to the left, dear
Childe,” the dragon said.
I shifted the blade to the
I closed my eyes, and I saw
myself lift my sword and bring it down on the dragon’s neck,
chopping off its head, and after the blood drained away and
stood in great stinking pools on the ground, going back to the
village for a wagon, then returning to the clearing with a few
stout men and loading the head--after shooing off the carrion
birds--into the wagon bed, then trekking four days back to
Kenneret’s castle, the head a stinking load, the flesh melting
off the bone, the scales dull with death, the eyes sunken pits.
And at the court, what? Joy
and welcome? Would the king mount the dragon’s head on a spike
over the castle gate? Would there be feasting? Would I go down
on one knee to feel the blessing of the king’s sword as it
tapped first one shoulder, then the other, and rise a knight?
Opening my eyes, I lifted the
blade and brought it down. The edge bit with a meaty thunk deep into the dragon’s neck. Carefully I raised
the sword and struck again. This time, crunching through the
neck bones. Black blood gushed out, splashing over my boots. I
struck once more, and its head was freed from its body. Its
tail twitched and its great hump of a body shifted, then settled
After wiping the tears from my
face, I took off my rusty chain mail and piled it on the ground;
then I knelt and laid the bloodied sword before the dragon’s
I walked out of the clearing.
At its edge, I stopped to look back. In the dim light, the
dragon had already become part of the forest, its moss-covered
back blending with the undergrowth, its tail like a fallen
tree. I bent and wiped my bloody hands against the mossy
ground. Then I walked out of the Stalkfleet forest, and I
walked away from King Kenneret and his castle and his brave
knights, and instead I went out into the wider world, to find
the places where the dragons lived.