Want to Meet a Dragon? Suffering the Awe-full Handicapp of being Male? Why waste weeks, months or Years struggling to find your Way through Dark Caverns to the Hidden Valley, or Growing Old Awaiting the Final Confrontation? See Jaxon Hyle for the perfect, paineless Solution!
Lilla looked the Barbarian up and down, and then wished she hadn’t. This was not going to be easy. “There is the other way,” she suggested, tentatively, as one does to a six foot, hulking, barely-dressed brute with a very large axe and bulging biceps.
“No time,” he grunted. He motioned to the sign with its flowing letters. “I have the gold pieces. Do it now – or I’ll rip your head off.”
It clearly wasn’t the moment to argue, so Lilla nodded. “Jaxon,” she called, into the caravan. “Someone to see you.”
Her brother emerged from inside, pushing aside the red curtain over the doorway, his polite greeting-a-customer smile ready on his face, and then he stopped. “Right,” he said, taking stock of the customer in question. “This way, sir.”
“It’s Krow the Thundereater.”
“Mr Thundereater, then. Don’t worry,” Jaxon assured him. “We’ll soon make a beautifully convincing maiden out of you.”
Krow was never going to look like an attractive female, but his refusal to sacrifice any of his epic facial hair – neither the walrus moustache, nor the thick beard had gone – put the final seal on it as their most unconvincing attempt so far.
“Dragons are intelligent creatures,” murmured Lilla to Jaxon, as they watched the unlikely Barbarian in a dress head off through the crowded market place of the seaside town. “And he looks ridiculous.”
Jaxon looked at her. “You took his money,” he told her. “I suppose at least dragons are said to have a sense of humour.”
“They’ll die of laughter when they see him, then,” said Lilla. “Let’s hope so, and that they don’t rip him to pieces on the spot, or eat him.”
Her brother shrugged. “Don’t fuss, Lilla. Krow the Thundereater, and the dragons are big and scary enough to take care of themselves. Anyway, I keep telling you – all we offer these people is the disguise. It’s not our fault if they can’t carry it off. They at least paid for a valuable lesson.”
“There aren’t any short cuts in life,” said Jaxon. It was a line she had heard several times before, on the same topic of conversation, and the virtuous look that went with it was equally as familiar: it was something he could do well, with his fair good looks, blue eyes and slightly smug smile. “So – we should move on. Our work is done.”
“And we don’t want our heads ripped off when he comes back?”
“They’re all treasure hunters, and robbers,” she told herself, as she tidied away her belongings again, and removed some of the decorative hangings from the caravan. “Dragon slayers, cruel beasts, and pigs, and it would serve them right if the dragons did eat them.”
It was a good trade, she supposed. Times were hard – there was a Bad King on the throne and the land was wasting away in misguided but unhelpful empathy – and many people would be happy not to go to bed hungry. The business was steady, as there were plenty of adventurers, outlaws and questers around and most of them were male, and unwilling to spend ages lost in dark caverns in the hope of making it through to the Hidden Valley, where they would encounter the mythical beings. And, as girls were regularly picked up by dragons and flown away to the Offshore Island, disguising themselves as females instead wasn’t as crazy as it sounded. It had been her idea, even if she had told it to Jaxon as a joke, not a proposal for their next venture.
However, once the dragons refused to be taken in – they were always very intelligent, or certainly they had good eyesight and a keen sense of smell – and they had mocked, insulted, burnt or clawed the unhappy male in female clothing and Classy Wig (with Bonus Free Girdle), their customers tended to be annoyed, so she and Jaxon had been continuously on the move for years. They would soon run out of settlements around the Outer Ocean. What would they do next? She wondered, too, when her brother would realise that the effort he put into avoiding work was more effort than the work itself. Knowing Jaxon, that was unlikely to be soon. And she was tired of helping him attempt to beautify improbable heroes who rarely seemed to have heard of baths (which might, of course, be a good thing, given the potential consequences of unwary bath-taking).
Lilla thought again about what she would choose, and pictured a small cottage, not far from a thriving town, where she could grow valuable herbs for healing potions, and be useful. Not of course, that she had any Talent for healing. She was the wrong sort of person to have the true Talent for anything, with her mousy-brown hair, brown eyes and a complexion that was neither rosy nor interestingly pale. She would never be anything other than a bystander, and she would certainly never get to save the world. She wasn’t sorry for that – saving the world was a long, drawn-out and painful process.
She and Jaxon had once picked up a band of questers, but only briefly, as they had almost immediately been subject to an incident – an ambush. The questers had run off into the night, assuming that she and Jaxon were actually dead rather than simply playing dead, and that was the last they’d seen of them. (Probably because the questers had never asked their names, and everyone knew you had to introduce yourself properly to groups of travellers if you wanted better odds of survival – except, it seemed, Jaxon, who had been terrified of being hunted down by Fallok the Grandiloquent, who had been badly scarred on his encounter with a dragon.) Despite being traders with a caravan, they had avoided anything else of the sort since.
Now Lilla thought again of her other idea, the one that came to her from time to time. Of course, it was foolish, because everyone said that dragons were dangerous creatures that could rip you apart or reduce you to a cinder; that they were devious and untrustworthy; they laid waste to the land (when a Bad King hadn’t already seen to that) and that they ate human beings. However, what she actually knew about dragons was that they were too clever to be fooled by disguises, even when they were good ones; that they had a sense of humour, and they hated men, although they didn’t seem to have killed any of Jaxon’s victims yet. Lilla couldn’t help but think that sounded better than an awful lot of the people she knew.
With a sudden thudding in her ears at her own daring, she left the packing, and hurried down the narrow, bustling street after Krow the Thundereater. She followed him at a distance, as far as the cliff tops, where he came to a halt, and waited, his white skirt flapping in the breeze, certain that a lone female in such a place would soon attract the attention of a dragon.
The dragon that arrived less than an hour later was one she had seen before on these occasions – a glorious, red-scaled being called Wingbeater that dwarfed even a giant of a man like Krow. What followed was a sight Lilla had certainly never seen before, since the dragon nearly did die of laughter on beholding the Barbarian in a dress.
Eventually, the dread creature picked itself up off the ground, still weakly coughing out plumes of thin, grey smoke as it looked again at Krow, who eventually gave up, and stormed back down the path – probably in search of Jaxon, thought Lilla guiltily.
Nevertheless, instead of running back to warn her brother, she emerged from her hiding place, and stepped forward.
“You are not so amusing,” said the dragon eventually, its unblinking golden gaze resting on Lilla. “You require a flight to the islands?”
Lilla hesitated, finding she was trembling on being so close to the creature. It was, after all, so very dragonish with its gleaming scales – those sharp, sharp teeth… “That depends.”
“Oh, these humans,” sighed Wingbeater. “If you do not wish to come, I shall leave – we have enough unwanted human females littering up our islands. Some of them weep and wail and beg to go home, and others are happy to stay – and gossip, and fuss. I do not know which is worse. Also I grow weary of the constant watch on the coastlines for more of the silly creatures.”
“Then the males of your kinds; they come robbing and plundering – there is hardly a night when one does not awaken to find a sword at one’s belly and a hand grasping for gold. Now there are also foolish males who try our patience with games – such as that one.”
“I thought the Offshore Island was a distant, unreachable place, with no people at all. Isn’t that true?”
The dragon stretched itself. Some of its talons were nearly as long as her arm from elbow to wrist, she noted with unwilling fascination. “They used to be, but no longer, I regret. Our Hidden Valleys are rarely so well hidden these days, either. There seems even to be a beaten track to my cave itself.”
Lilla put aside her idea. Her brother might be right with his borrowed wisdom, despite everything: there were no short-cuts in life. Escape, after all, was rarely that simple. She did, however, have another idea, and it was something that she and Jaxon could be very good at. She smiled at the dragon, and raised her chin, growing bold as the idea grew inside her. “I believe I can help you.”
“You help me?” it said. “Why, you are amusing, after all, child.”
“I think I can give you back your peaceful Island, and your Hidden Valley,” she declared. “Are you interested?”
“Of course we can do it,” said Jaxon, when she explained later, after she had tracked him down, hiding in a dark alleyway. Krow had been arrested by the townspeople who assumed that a Barbarian could only be in disguise for the purposes of sneaking in through the town gates in daylight, and then opening them at night to an invading horde, and even though it would have been a very long way for a Barbarian horde to travel, there was no moving the town authorities. “We’ll have tales and songs over half the continent and more before spring – the Ballad of the Last Dragon’s Flight! I can hear it now. But what would be in it for us?”
Lilla faced him across the table in the bustling tavern, stirring her stew while he looked in annoyance at his overly-foaming flagon that might or might not have some actual ale in it somewhere. “Dragons, Jaxon, are known for one thing more than anything else. They love treasure. They are fabulously wealthy. And they would be very, very grateful if everyone believed they had ceased to exist. Once the Ballad is out there, they think it will even free them from their obligation to snatch away unwanted females. They’d pay us well for it – and we’d insist we have at least part payment before we could begin, in case they were feeling devious.”
“I know that people believe in songs, but even so -.”
Lilla rested her chin on her hands. “Well, obviously we shall have to start by taking the news to the marketplaces.”
“Why, that Krow the Thundereater has driven away the very last dragon from these shores, of course.”
“Lilla, he didn’t. Not in that dress, anyway.”
“I know that, but I don’t think he would argue about it, do you?”
Jaxon leant back, and considered the suggestion again. “You know, you may be onto something, Lilla. We can play the part of troubadours again as we travel, and I do believe I’ve missed that -.”
“You can, not me,” said Lilla, who, of course, was too ordinary to have any true Talent of her own, even when it came to singing.