It was dusk when Sir William Laurence rode into the town of Aldercrest on his palfrey, Reliant, with the sturdier destrier Allegiant following behind. It had taken almost a week's journey from Pentcoast, the seat of the Court. Under normal circumstances, a week of travel would be a relaxing trip away from politics for Laurence, but his journey had been plagued by a steady downpour of rain and more encounters with highway bandits than Laurence found strictly enjoyable. It was only this last day that the rain had stopped, and Laurence was looking forward to at least one night in a real bed.
The moment Reliant entered the town, Laurence was immediately on his guard. The town was unnervingly quiet. There were no animals roaming through the streets, not even a wayward chicken. At the very least, there should have been children skulking about trying to avoid their chores. Yet not a soul stirred.
There was, however, smoke coming from several chimneys, so Laurence made his way to the main tavern in the town square. A plume of smoke curled softly above its roof.
The door was barred shut. Pounding on the door and announcing himself as a knight only resulted in it opening a slight crack.
“Who are ye’, ye’ say?” a deeply suspicious voice questioned. Laurence repeated himself.
“Are ye’ sure?”
Having lost his patience at this point, Laurence grabbed the edge of the thick door with one gloved hand and wrenched it open. The man behind stumbled forward, sprawling out on the ground.
Laurence looked down. “The town placed a request with the Court for a knight to handle a dragon or some such creature?” he asked dryly.
Realization finally seemed to dawn. “We did! We did! Come in, sir, the alderman is in this tavern.” He motioned for Laurence to come inside.
Laurence didn’t move. “I must insist that we see to my horses first - where may I put them away?” The man looked a bit abashed, but glanced around nervously. Seemingly satisfied, he led Laurence around to a stable in the back of the tavern. While he waited for Laurence to finish, he hopped skittishly from foot to foot. Laurence did not hurry; no knight worth his armor neglected his steed. When Laurence was satisfied and the horses had been fed and watered, he motioned to the man to lead on.
They entered through the back door of the tavern. As Laurence had seen from the square, the windows and doors were shuttered tightly. The main room was lit only by flickering candlelight and a fire on the hearth. At least a quarter of the town was inside. Despite the crowd, there was only a low murmur of voices, rather than song or laughter or any of the many activities Laurence had dragged fellow knights out of. Even those sounds died swiftly when Laurence entered. All eyes were on him.
As if sensing his cue, Laurence’s guide suddenly lost his nervousness and announced to the room, “This here’s a knight sent by the Court to slay the dragon!”
Laurence instantly missed the silence as questions and chatter exploded.
“So is he the only one then?”
“Poor fellow, he’s going to get eaten.”
Laurence coughed and projected over the crowd. “I was hoping to gain some additional information as to the nature of the problem,” he said. “The letters received were - unclear.” Which was the politest way to describe missives filled with alliteration and over-blown metaphor, overall lacking in grammar, and underscored with panic. The phrases “black blasfemous beast” and “slyme slythering sypent” had been repeated at least five times each.
“Bring the good knight over here,” called a voice by the fire. An elderly man was seated there, wrapped in a shawl. Laurence was quickly ushered over and a chair was vacated. He found himself surround by an eager chorus of townsfolk narrating their woes, orchestrated by the elderly alderman at the center.
“Our plight began, Sir Knight, when hell itself opened up and spat out the egg of the black blasfemous beast, though we did not know it. The baker’s boy found it and brought it home as a curiosity. How could the silly boy have known the fires of the bakery nourished it and the rock broke! Out sprang a slyme, slythering sypent, fully formed! The family was terrified.” The alderman shook his head heavily. Others chimed in.
“The unnatural beast spoke in tongues!”
“It’s devouring livestock!”
“Menacing young maidens!”
“Causing wanton destruction of property!”
“Disturbing the peace!”
“It even kidnapped a monk and pillaged the monastery library!”
“Blasphemous beast dares to challenge the Light!”
It was the second to last that caught Laurence’s attention. “It has a hostage?” That would make things more difficult.
“Ah, no, not anymore…”
“It killed a man?” Laurence’s concern mounted. If it had a taste for flesh, things could get nasty quickly.
“The monk barely escaped with his life!”
“Did the monk mention any potential weaknesses? How did he escape?”
There was some hesitation, but it was quickly overcome. “It seems to have… gotten bored with him? Who knows the mind of such a capricious and dangerous creature!”
Laurence switched tack. “How does it inflict damage?”
“It is the terror of the skies!”
“Monstrous strength that can break stone!”
“Wicked white teeth!”
Laurence sighed. He could feel a headache forming at his temples. While such descriptors lent a certain flair to the story, they gave him little to assist in any real preparations. Wings, claws, carnivorous, probably doing much less damage than it was capable of. “No lives have been lost?” he confirmed.
“Only by our constant vigilance against the beast!” Was the reply.
“Yes, you’ve done well,” Laurence placated. He had never fought a dragon before, but the records were quite clear that a few wooden walls and thatched roofs were unlikely to hinder their destruction in the face of malice or rage. There was too little real damage - speaking of which. “How much livestock has it killed?”
“All of the pigs! Several cows, and most of the chickens!”
The answer was certainly enthusiastic. Laurence glanced at a suspiciously fresh plate of pork and eggs, and decided it was not his problem. “Please do give the full account to the tax assessor when she arrives.” There was one last question that Laurence needed answered, and then he could get some rest. He hoped he might receive a more helpful response than the previous barrage. “Where can the creature most often be found?”
He was of course, bound to be disappointed.
After a decent night's rest and liberal dosage of powdered fretroot, Laurence set out to sort true gold from fool's gold. He put on light armor and headed out on Allegiant in the direction the dragon was said to arrive from, but he angled his path of travel towards the monastery. After the utter lack of reliable information from last night, he had sought out a half-elf hunter named Tharkay to help in tracking down the dragon. They set off at a vector between Aldercrest and the Dawn's Light monastery. It was immediately apparent that Tharkay was a skilled woodsman. Tharkay was also a sardonic, tight-lipped man and did not share whatever insight he may have had, but Laurence thought they might be headed in the direction of an old guard outpost. It certainly wasn't manned anymore - the kingdom was rounding out a decade of peace and prosperity, and the Court wasn't likely to finance it. If the dragon was as enamored of books as he thought, that would be the best location for it to create a lair.
Allegiant was a steady grey destrier that never shied, but as they approached the outpost, Laurence sensed him begin to tense with nerves. Allegiant's tension confirmed Laurence's guess - there certainly was something out of the norm in the area. What he didn't see was evidence of a monster of great size. They had yet to find any large trees uprooted or askew.
When they found the outpost, it became evident why.
Though it was long abandoned, the woods surrounding the outpost had been cut to create a large clearing for an unobstructed line-of-sight. The stone structure had been constructed near to a small stream for convenience, and it was here that Tharkay led him to the dragon, with a dramatic wave.
It was a very small dragon.
The dragon was indeed black; its body was indeed long and serpentine; it probably did have teeth and claws, but Laurence was not in a position to see them. In all other respects, however, the reports were vastly exaggerated. It was at most the size of a very small pony, and in general did not appear to be terrifying at all.
This impression may have been influenced by the fact that the dragon appeared to be taking a bird bath in the stream, and was reciting poetry to itself. A large book lay a careful distance from the stream and the splash of water.
After giving his thanks to Tharkay, Laurence threw caution to the gods and walked directly out into the field. Allegiant followed nervously behind. As he approached, he caught part of the dragon's recitation. Its voice was surprisingly clear and oddly childish. Laurence would never claim to be a great scholar, but he could catch the irony in its choice.
"If þay in clannes be clos þay cleche gret mede;
Bot if þay conterfete crafte & cortaysye wont,
As be honest vtwyth & inwith alle fylþez,
Þen ar þay synful hemself -"
The dragon broke off as it noticed Laurence's approach. "Oh! Who are you?" It bounded with startling swiftness out of the water and shook itself off, before making directly for Laurence for a closer inspection. Allegiant danced nervously beneath him, and Laurence laid a steadying hand on his neck. "You seem to have scales?" it asked. "None of the other people had scales."
Laurence found himself confronted with a pair of great blue shining eyes not a pole's distance from him. The dragon did not seem to need or expect him to answer, however. "Are you a knight? Is that your shining armor? Your valiant steed?"
At this point, Laurence had no true idea of how to proceed, and so fell back on courtesy. "Greetings, I am Sir William Laurence, of Allondale, and I am a knight as you say. May I have your name?"
The dragon's excitement was sidetracked by the return question. "I do not have one, I think. Do I need one? Does 'black blasfemous beast' count? Only it is not exactly accurate, nor very kind."
It was Laurence's turn to be at a loss. Clearly the dragon had been within earshot of the townspeople. Equally clearly, no one had been harmed. "All rational creatures in the world have a name, true or otherwise. And I would say that is more correctly an appellation or descriptor, than a proper name."
The dragon considered this. "The books say that names are given. But no one has given me a name."
Helpless, Laurence offered, "Then you might choose one for yourself? Most creatures are too young to know enough to choose their own. I heard you reciting one of Sir Pearl's works - might you draw some inspiration from literature?"
This garnered him more enthusiasm, but alas, the topic was once again lost. "Do you know Sir Pearl? Have you read all of his works? My very favorite is Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight, which is why I was ever so excited when you came! And of course the villagers were always saying things like 'wait until the knights get here, they'll teach you!', only monks also are supposed to teach and the monk I found was not very interested in teaching at all. That was very disappointing, because I very much do want to learn, and books can say many things but they never talk back to you, of course, or answer the real questions. Neither do any of the people in the town. So, will you?"
This was rather more information than Laurence had been looking for. He had lost track of the question. "Will I what?"
The dragon's voice had a very hopeful note to it. Laurence's heart twinged. "Will you teach me? And give me a name? It is too difficult to choose."
He sounded both terribly young and lonely. It struck Laurence all at once that, dragon or not, this was a child. He had childish misunderstandings, and equally childish enthusiasm for knowledge. This was a child that was alone and shunned, that was feared and reviled. This was not a human child, William Laurence thought.
But he was not a monster.
Laurence looked down at that brave little dragon, and he asked, "My dear, how do you feel about the name 'Temeraire'?"
And that, my friends, is how Sir William Laurence was kidnapped by the Slyme Slythering Sypent of Aldercrest. We don't have time for any more. Perhaps next market day, at the tavern with a couple of pints, eh?