I ride into the clearing with my lance pointed skyward. My horse is already skittish. The dragon slaying business is always rough on horses, and I replace mine the way other riders do horseshoes. I didn’t even bother to name this one. But losing a horse always gives the story a little something.
I circle once. The horse growing more reluctant with every step. If he can smell the beast, the beast already knows I’m here. A cliff hems in half the clearing. It is a sheer wall of stone that ends in an ivy-covered ruin. On the other side, the woods are a dark bramble that slopes down into a fetid swamp. It could attack from any direction, but I don’t see any signs of a trap.
I remind myself to keep my posture firm. The tip of my lance can’t dip even an inch. This creature is probably smarter than I am, but it isn’t a human intelligence. It will attack if it senses hostility. But I also need to convey strength. I reign the horse in and give two sharp whistles.
The dragon takes its time emerging from the ruins, scuttling down the cliff like a lizard. Its scales are milky white, and they glow like alabaster when the sun hits them. The beast comes to rest on a a pile of stones. They were likely a wall, centuries ago. It stretches like a cat in the sunlight, and folds its wings over itself lazily before turning its great head toward me. It wants me to know that it can posture, too.
“Did you bring gold, Sir Tolo?” It hisses, and a puff of smoke follows the words across the clearing. I don’t freeze when it calls me by name, although my heart always leaps into my throat when it does. I wonder if it just assumes I have knighthood, or is it mocking me because it somehow knows that I do not. I reach into my saddlebags and pull out a large pouch. It jangles as I open it, then flip one gleaming, golden coin into the air. It sniffs greedily and I close my fist around it.
“Fair coin for promised goods, my friend. Show me what I am buying.”
The dragon pulls a crudely tied sack from beneath a wing and tosses is a few yards towards me. The wet, rotten rope doesn’t hold, and it spills a wealth of treasure onto the grass. I spot broken horns, chipped fangs, and even the bloody tip of a tail.
I notice that the dragon’s tail is quite whole and uninjured, but it isn’t my business where it came from. This is more than I was expecting. I might even claim to have killed two or three dragons from what is on offer. I nod, careful not to let it see how pleased I am. The last thing I want is for it to demand a higher fee. “This is acceptable,” I say. I urge the horse forward with my spurs, and it eventually takes a few reluctant steps.
The dragon tenses, every powerful muscle ready to pounce if I get too close. I toss the pouch towards the woods to its left, and it leaps after it.
When the horse is close enough, I dismount, keeping one firm hand on the reins. I repack the sack properly this time and tie it with my own rope behind the saddle. The dragon, for its part, sits on its bag of gold like a cat perched in a too small box. I’d laugh if the twenty-foot long monster wouldn’t attack me for it. I steel my expression and turn towards it.
“It is always a pleasure doing business with you. I will pass this way again in three full moons. If you have more like this, I will bring you more gold.” It looks up, and breathes twin plumes of smoke out of its nostrils. It bares its teeth to me, and if it is a show of animal aggression, or an imitation of a human smile, I cannot say.
“I shall wait.”
“Keep out of trouble.” I mount up again. The horse is only too happy to put distance between us and the dragon, and we’re soon speeding through the woods to the main road. He really is a fine animal, and I’ll be sorry to lose him. But once a horse faces a dragon, they never quite get over the fright.
There is a town I know about an hour’s ride away, and I arrive there about mid-afternoon. My reputation is good here, and I get a good deal for the horse, and its replacement. I spend a few days at the inn, inventorying the bundle and planning my trip through the kingdoms and freeholds this side of the mountains.
Dragons aren’t so numerous as they were in my grandfather’s time, but there are still plenty of places that will pay a good bounty to a dragon slayer, provided you show them proof of a kill.
It isn’t an easy life, being a traveling dragon slayer. But it can be comfortable, once you learn a few tricks of the trade.