"I'm not a dragonslayer, El. There aren't dragonslayers anymore, because dragons almost never come down from the Wall these days."
"You're the sheriff, honey," El said, rummaging through a shelf of crowded jars bound in different colored ribbons. "People expect you to deal with this kind of thing."
Peter sighed. The worst he usually had to deal with was drunken farm kids causing mischief, and the occasional brigand or highwayman. Dragons -- dragons were an entirely different thing. There should be specialists to deal with them. And maybe there were, in other parts of the world. Beyond the mountains in the capital, there must be specialists in everything, including dragonslaying.
If only they had time to send someone to the capital to find one. They'd dispatched a message with the most recent silver caravan through the mountains, but the dragon had set upon the caravan, stolen its cargo and set fire to the wagons. Several caravan guards had been killed.
The York Valley had a very serious, very clear and present dragon problem, and everyone expected Peter to deal with it.
The last dragon to stray into the Valley had come down from the north a generation ago. It had destroyed entire herds of cattle, burned fields by the score, and left a number of casualties before a contingent of soldiers from the capital had arrived to kill it.
Thus far, this dragon hadn't been terribly destructive. The destruction and casualties at the silver caravan had been its worst predations. Otherwise, it had killed some sheep and cattle, and terrorized the silver mines, which were the valley's main source of income. A few people had come to Peter claiming that the dragon had stolen various items of jewelry and precious keepsakes, but that was completely ridiculous -- yes, dragons were well known to like shiny things, but the idea of a dragon trying to amass a treasure hoard one necklace at a time was just silly.
However, the silver mines were clearly its target. The mine owner had hired extra security, but the dragon somehow got around them and made off with another few days' worth of smelted ore anyway. So far no one had been killed at the mine, but this was clearly down to luck and chance. At this rate the mine would soon be cleaned out, the Valley would go bust and all the little towns scattered up and down its length would soon be nothing but crumbling walls and fields going back to forest. And that was assuming that the dragon didn't take things into its own claws and finish them off before economic hardship could do it. There were still abandoned, overgrown farms at the north end of the Valley, burned along with their owners by the last dragon to come south from the Wall.
Something had to be done, and as usual, Peter was the guy who had to do it.
Peter knew for a fact that he couldn't go up against a dragon and survive. He wasn't bad with a cudgel, and his boyhood on a farm at the edge of the forest had made him a good shot with both sling and shortbow. None of which would be any use at all against a dragon. He'd read up on dragonslaying in the Valley's limited supply of books, but most of the methods detailed in the books seemed to be long on flashy style and short on practicality.
Luckily, he had El. The advantage to being married to the best herb-witch in the Valley was that she had a potion, spell or powder on hand for every problem.
"Aha! Here it is." El pressed a jar into his hand. Peter looked at it dubiously. "This will put anything to sleep instantly. Even something as big as a dragon. And then," she looked sad, "you can kill it."
"Don't start feeling sorry for the dragon, El. It's a dragon. They're vicious killers."
"Well, obviously if it's the dragon or you, I'd rather it be the dragon." She leaned in close and kissed him.
El helped him buckle on his old, battered leather armor -- as oiled and polished as she could make it, which, given what she had to work with, still wasn't terribly impressive. Then she rubbed him down with a cloth dipped in something that she said would kill his scent, a formula that she often made for hunters.
And finally, she doctored his knife and some of the arrows for his shortbow with a poison that farmers sometimes used when they had to kill wolves that were preying on their sheep.
Peter told himself that it would work. It had to work.
"Come back to me," El whispered, and wrapped her arms around him. Her voice was firm, but he could feel her trembling.
As dusk settled on the Valley, Peter took up his position inside the silver mine, and waited.
No one knew how the dragon was getting in and out of the mine. Presumably it had discovered some hidden entrance to the maze of caverns that made up the depths of the mine. Dragons were big, but they were also very long and sinuous, capable of sliding through openings that even a man could hardly get through.
The mine workers had planned several ambushes for the dragon in the past few days, but it had always avoided them. Peter wasn't surprised; dragons were as intelligent as any human, according to his books, and a mob of farm boys with cudgels, spears and torches was hardly subtle and easy to miss. Which was why he'd refused their offers of assistance; a group of people hiding in the mine would only scare it off. One man, hidden in the cave where the day's silver diggings were stored, might have a chance.
Or maybe he'd just get himself incinerated. Dragons were cruel and vicious and placed no value on human life. The attack on the silver caravan had proven that. His only chance was to be as fast as possible, attack with El's potion before the dragon could get the jump on him, and behead it before it could recover.
In the meantime, all he had to do was wait. Peter had asked the mine owner to leave an oil lamp in the storeroom, turned down low as if someone had forgotten it. The dim, uncertain light filled the room with flickering shadows. Huddled behind an ore cart, Peter tried to keep himself out of sight.
He'd brought a book to read -- not that he hadn't read it before, he'd read every book in the Valley's limited supply, but at least it would give him something to do. Peter was not most people's idea of a bookish man -- he was big, athletic, equally good at hunting and at busting heads when the farm kids got out of control on a holiday night. But his mother had taught him to read, and it was actually because of a book that he'd met El ...
The light wasn't good enough, though. So all he had to do was wait, with his bow propped up against the ore cart, the jar of sleeping draught in one hand, and his heavy knife in the other. A sword would have been better, but no one in the Vally owned a proper one; the closest thing they had were the big knives that were more often used for hacking brush in the fields than for self-defence.
What could have brought a dragon to the Valley? Dragons were rare. In the past -- hundreds of years in the past -- they had been a common threat in the north country, but over the last few generations they had grown much less common, and now, only a handful of far-ranging herdsmen and hunters ever saw them, circling high in the sky near the impassable rampart of mountains and ice known as the Wall. Maybe they were dying out, or maybe they had moved on to hunting grounds far from humankind. In any case, Peter had never thought he'd see one in his lifetime.
Well, think, he told himself. A dragon was a big, smart predator, but it was still a predator like any other, and should behave similarly. Wolves didn't come and hunt the sheep for fun; they came down from the mountains in harsh winters, when there was nothing else to prey on. Sometimes a wolf or bear would venture into the Valley when it was driven out of its own territory by a bigger, nastier bear or wolf, or when it was old and injured, and could not hunt properly anymore.
Something must have driven this dragon south. Starvation? An even bigger, meaner dragon taking over its hunting territory? The surviving guards from the silver caravan had said that it was a big dragon, but then, any dragon probably looked big when it was attacking you, and some of the old histories said that dragons could get very big indeed. Or maybe young dragons wandered, like a lot of young animals, in search of new places to hunt and live.
Some writers theorized that a dragon's most basic drive, even more than its innate viciousness, was its craving for treasure. They stole it from humans or from each other. Perhaps this dragon had come to the Valley because of the silver mine, thinking that it would be easier than stealing a hoard from another dragon. It might be a young dragon or one that couldn't fight very well. Except for the time that it had openly attacked and destroyed the silver caravan, the dragon had tried to steal silver from the mine through stealth rather than attacking the guards and taking it directly. It hadn't even been seen, except by a few herd-boys watching their flocks at night, until it had attacked the caravan. The only signs of its presence had been clawed footprints, the occasional missing sheep or cow, and of course the missing silver.
The attack on the silver caravan was anomalous in a lot of ways, actually, Peter mused. It had happened during the daytime, for one thing. It was the only time the dragon had not attacked by night; it always hunted in the fields under the cover of darkness, and all its assaults on the mine had been at night, also. Perhaps the lure of all that silver had been enough to drive it out of hiding, but --
There was a rustle from the far end of the cavern.
Putting his musings aside, Peter held his breath and peeked around the ore cart.
Something was moving in the shadowy entrance to the cavern. Something low-slung, slipping along with predatory caution, one step at a time. It raised its long, spiked head, and Peter felt as if his heart had frozen in his chest. He could only see its silhouette and the occasional gleam of its scales in the darkness, but there was no mistaking it.
A dragon. A real live dragon.
Before he had time to let himself become terrified, he lunged over the ore cart and threw the jar. Peter had a good throwing arm, another legacy of his farm-boy upbringing. The missile arced across the room and the dragon raised its head reflexively to snap at it. The jar shattered, as it had been designed to do, and splashed the dragon's snout with green-tinted liquid. The dragon hissed, choked and then its neck went limp and its head smacked to the floor, followed by the rest of it.
When El made a sleeping draught, she didn't mess around.
Peter gripped his knife, picked up the lamp and crossed the room, his heart pounding. El had said that the sleeping potion's power would dissipate quickly in the open air, but in the confines of the cavern, enough of it remained to make his head spin as he bent over the dragon, looking at it.
It looked a lot like the illustrations in the books: spiky, long and slender, with a frilled ridge along its spine. It was glossy black with iridescent hints of blue, green and red, gliding along its polished scales in the lamplight. In sunlight, Peter thought, it would probably be beautiful, in a sharp, lethal kind of way. There was a white patch on its chest that made him think incongruously of a cat.
It was also very small. Either all the stories about dragons were highly exaggerated, or this was a little one. When it stood on all fours, its low-slung back wouldn't have been much taller than a man's waist. Peter doubted if it was much more massive than a pony, though it was much longer, of course.
As he stood looking down at it, the suspicion that had been percolating through the back of his mind finally burst full-formed upon him.
This wasn't the dragon that had attacked the caravan.
It just wasn't big enough, for one thing. That dragon had burned five wagons and killed three armed men along with several horses, all in broad daylight. He couldn't even imagine this dragon being capable of something like that, even with the element of surprise on its side.
And none of the facts fit. This dragon always hid in the daytime, only came out at night, and had yet to so much as singe a single hair on a herd-boy's head. If he were investigating a cattle theft or looking into malicious mischief in someone's barn, he wouldn't ignore that kind of evidence. And all the evidence pointed to the fact that this dragon was, well ...
Not harmless, exactly. That was ludicrous. It was a dragon, and everyone knew that dragons were about as harmless as starving wolves. Its serrated rows of teeth, plainly visible in the half-open mouth, provided abundant proof of that. (The fact that the dragon was also drooling gently on the floor made it look a little less intimidating at the moment, though.)
But there was another dragon out there, a much bigger and more dangerous dragon, and, Peter realized, the dragon lying at his feet would almost certainly know about it. That, too, he had learned from watching predators: a wolf always knew when another wolf was in its territory. This dragon could probably tell him where the other one had come from, and maybe even how to kill it.
No one talked with dragons much, if they could help it, but dragons did talk; the books were all very clear about that. And if it can talk, Peter thought, then I can interrogate it.
The trick would be interrogating it without having it incinerate him where he stood. There were very good reasons why most people, sane people, did not have conversations with dragons.
But most people weren't married to an enchantress.
Peter found some rope in a side room and trussed the dragon as securely as possible. Getting it into the ore cart took longer. He pushed it deeper into the mine, down into the cold, dank depths of the earth, and left it hidden in a little side passage.
The ropes probably wouldn't hold it if it woke up, but they made Peter feel a little better. He wondered how long the sleeping draught would last. Probably good to hurry.
There was an augmented contingent of guards around the mouth of the silver mine -- Peter had insisted that they keep the routines the same, since he didn't want to risk the dragon noticing a change and being scared off. They crowded around him, fascinated and curious. "Well? You kill it? You see anything?"
"No one goes in the mine," Peter ordered. "The dragon could show up at any moment." Not entirely a lie, especially if it broke free of its ropes. "I'll be right back. I need to get more magic from my wife." Everyone in the Valley knew El, and while there were some murmurs, no one tried to stop him.
El was awake, as he'd expected she'd be -- kneeling by the fire and parceling out pinches of ingredients into one of her mixing bowls. She dropped the bowl when he opened the door. "Not that I thought you couldn't handle it, of course," she said after flinging her arms around him and kissing him. Looking him up and down, and probably noticing the lack of dragon blood, she said, "What happened? Didn't it show up?"
"It did," Peter said.
Her mouth formed a small circle of dismay. "My potion didn't work."
"It worked beautifully. Exactly as you said. Uh ... how long will it last?"
Peter quickly sketched out his two-dragon theory. "But I need to ask this dragon questions, and I need to get back up there before either it wakes up, or the mine workers go into the mine and find it. I expect they'll probably kill it if they do -- admittedly the smart thing to do, but we will have lost our most valuable source of information. I need something to immobilize it and keep it from breathing flames at me until I can finish questioning it."
"Let me think, let me think ..." El took down a large basket from a shelf, and began hastily sweeping items into it. Turning, she took a deep breath. "All right, I'm ready. Take me to it."
Peter stared at her. "Uh ... I was hoping you could give me something ..."
"Yes, because I happen to have a dragon anti-flame potion sitting on my shelf? I don't think so. I'll have to improvise on the spot. Come on, honey, there isn't time to argue."
Peter ground his teeth, but she was already out the door, lugging her basket. All he could do was catch up. "At least stay behind me, all right? This isn't someone's lost puppy. It's a dragon. They kill people."
The dragon was where he'd left it. Peter tipped it out of the ore cart onto the floor; it tumbled out in a limp heap, whacking its head on the wheel of the cart. Peter tried not to feel sorry for it. El lit some candles and began sorting out her ingredients.
"The quickest thing under the circumstances is some sort of binding magic," she explained. "The spell I'm thinking of is used on livestock, occasionally. I've seen people do it to break wild horses to the saddle, or to tame falcons. It isn't normally done on intelligent beings, though."
"Will it hurt the dragon?" A gibbering mess of a dragon would be useless for questioning.
El shook her head. "No, but it might be troubling for it."
Peter stared at her. At his feet, the dragon twitched. "El, I'm less worried about the dragon's state of mind than about the dragon burning our faces off if it wakes up in the middle of this process!"
"Don't be cranky." El shook out an iron chain, about two feet long. "The binding is already laid on this chain -- it takes days to lay one properly, but this one is already prepared and ready to use. I just have to shape it for the task we want." She opened some bottles.
"Hurry," Peter said. He knelt and pressed his knee into the dragon's chest, and laid the poisoned blade at its throat. He could feel its heartbeat against his leg.
El used a small horsehair brush to carefully brush a sharp-smelling substance onto the iron links. "As long as the dragon wears this, it will not be able to use its innate magic -- it cannot fly or breathe fire." She blew on the chain and shook it to dry it. Then she bent over one of the dragon's back legs. Peter watched her nervously. He hated seeing her that close to the long, wicked talons, bigger than the claws of a bear.
El carefully sized the chain to the dragon's ankle. "Honey, do you see a hammer or mallet around here somewhere?" She grabbed a candle and trotted off. Peter waited, heart pounding in time with the dragon's, as its twitching became more purposeful. One of its eyes cracked open and then closed again. Hurry, El, he thought, but then she reappeared with a massive hammer on her hand and a pair of shears tucked into the crook of her arm.
She snipped off the extra links, and pounded the chain shut in a ring around the dragon's ankle, just tight enough that it could not be slipped off over its clawed foot. Straightening, El held out the short length of chain that she'd cut off. "If it were a horse or a dog, anyone holding this would be able to give it commands. Since it's intelligent, you can still do the same, but you must win a battle of wills each time. It will fight back as you try to command it." El's lips pressed together into a tight line. "I'm not sure I like this, Peter. It feels like slavery to me."
"This creature would kill us in an instant, if it could," Peter reminded her. "We don't have a choice." He took the control chain from her and slipped it into a pocket. It felt warm in his hand, and slithered into his pocket as if alive.
The dragon blinked slowly. Its eyes were jewel-like in the candlelight, a deep sapphire blue with hints of other colors in their depths. A third eyelid flicked back and forth. It closed its gaping jaws, and the tip of a dark-colored tongue ran around its lips, moistening them in a disturbingly humanlike manner.
"You are a prisoner," Peter said. The dragon flinched. "I'm the sheriff around here. My name is Peter. I need to ask you some questions. Do you understand me?"
The dragon sighed. It was a very humanlike sigh. After a moment, it moved its head: nodding.
Peter took the blade away from its throat and stepped back. The dragon's head whipped up. It opened its jaws and hissed at them. Then it lurched as it tried to get up, but only succeeded in falling flat and banging its chin on the floor. Peter winced in sympathy.
The dragon's eyes had opened wide, again a very humanlike expression. It looked down at the ropes binding its body, then at Peter and El. Its eyes narrowed and its jaws parted.
Peter stepped in front of Elizabeth, his blade in front of them both -- for all the good that would do, if El's magic didn't hold. He found himself bracing for heat and pain.
But the dragon only said, in a peevish voice, "You tied me up! And hit me!"
Peter told himself that he absolutely did not feel guilty about any of that. "You were going to steal someone else's treasure and then escape," he pointed out. "Right?"
The dragon didn't answer. Instead it bent its sinuous neck back on itself -- keeping one eye cocked at them over its shoulder -- and nipped the ropes, parting them one at a time. Its teeth must be as sharp as finely honed knives. Then it nosed at the chain around its ankle, and whipped its head around to look at the two humans, nearly overbalancing as it did so -- it wasn't very steady yet.
"What is this?" it demanded, in a very different tone: dark, silky and dangerous. Peter had to stop himself from taking a step backwards in an instinctive attempt to get away. According to the books, another power of dragons was the ability to hypnotize people with their voices. Even through the barrier of El's magic, he could feel that dark power tug at him.
"It keeps you from using magic," Peter said. "And as long as you're wearing it, you have to do what I say."
The dragon's head reared back in shock.
El smacked his arm. "You could be more tactful!"
The dragon blinked at them. Then it pulled itself to its feet, moving with slow, careful motions that reminded Peter of a drunk trying not to display his inebriation. Though he didn't want to admit it, even to himself, there was something that made his throat ache about its struggle to appear strong and not to show weakness to its enemies: him and El. It sat down on its haunches, curled its tail neatly around its feet and tucked in its wings, and regarded them levelly. "Well," it said. "Now what."
"I need to ask you some questions --" Peter began.
"Wait!" El said. She knelt and rummaged in her basket. To the dragon, she said, "You probably have a pretty nasty headache from my sleep draught."
"I should be able to heal it," the dragon said. "I can't."
"That's because my chain is blocking your magic. Here, this will help with your headache." She held out a clay bottle with a green ribbon wrapped around it and bound in a complex series of knots. All El's potions were marked according to the old system that her grandmother had taught her, a secret language known only to the herb women of the Valley.
Peter and the dragon both regarded her with equal disbelief. "You're giving it headache medicine now?" Peter said.
The dragon reached out its forepaw and took the bottle delicately in the tips of its claws. It sniffed at it.
"I'm not trying to poison you," El said. "If you're going to be our prisoner --" she gave Peter a dark look, which he thought was completely unfair under the circumstances "-- then the least we can do is make you comfortable."
The dragon pinched off the top of the bottle, sniffed again and then ate it bottle and all. El's eyes went a bit wide at that.
"I don't suppose you have anything to drink," the dragon said.
"I think I have a waterskin --" El began, rummaging in her basket again.
"Not water," the dragon said impatiently. "I mean wine. Good wine, if you have it. Or I suppose ale will do, in a pinch. If we're going to discuss things, we may as well do it like civilized beings."
Peter could feel himself rapidly losing control of his interrogation. "We're not discussing anything. You're my prisoner, because you broke the law." He wasn't sure if the law even applied to dragons, but he was on a roll now and didn't want to stop. "So I'm going to ask questions and you're going to answer them. Understand?"
The dragon rolled its eyes. "I'll answer your questions if I feel like answering them."
"Did you attack the silver caravan in the mountains two days ago?"
The dragon's eyes opened wide, a visible expression of surprise that announced its innocence more eloquently than words.
I'm right, Peter thought. "It was another dragon, wasn't it? Do you know about more dragons around here?"
The dragon's sapphire eyes went narrow, calculating. "What's the answer worth to you?"
All Peter could do was stare at him in disbelief. "You're trying to make a deal?"
"Yes." The dragon looked away from Peter and studied his claws in a pose of calculated, studious indifference. "You're a clever human, aren't you? You want information about the attack on the caravan. I have information. Let's make a deal."
"You're hardly in a position to be making demands," Peter said.
"What are you going to do?" the dragon said. "Torture me? Force me to answer your questions?"
Peter slipped his hand into his pocket and touched the chain. It was still warm, and throbbed like a heartbeat under his hand. Then he let it slither out of his fingers. No. Not like that. His stomach twisted with revulsion. El was right: that much power over another intelligent, thinking being was too much power to have.
Instead, he said, "Like I said before, my name is Peter. This is El."
The dragon looked up, wary and guarded. "Neal," he said after a moment. Peter suspected that it wasn't his real name -- seriously, a dragon named Neal? -- but it was something to work with, anyway.