‘Is this where you tell me what you really want?’ Jane kept her voice low and even, forcing herself to be calm.
‘Perhaps,’ Robert had become very still. His eyes locked on hers. Jane had trained for such a moment, and used that training before. Some weeks ago she had confronted a group of three bandits, she’d walked into their field camp, believing them to be traders on their way to the castle market. They had circled her, all smiles and laughter, holding out a sample of produce to prove their story, a sealed flagon of ale.
Jane had laughed along with them, accepting the offered flagon. Before taking a sip, she had passed it round the group, assessing each man in turn as he laughed and took a drink. Which to take out first? That was the key question. Every group is a creature, Jane, cut off its head and it will flail about blindly. The bandits and Jane were in a play of their own making; a piece of theatre, assessing and planning the next act. It had been foolish to give Jane an earthenware flagon, Sir Ivon had trained her to use it as a weapon.
‘Hard to draw a blade when you’re seated in a tavern. You must learn to wield whatever’s to hand, lass, and use it well.’ Jane did, as the group of bandits quickly discovered.
Now here she was again. Watching. Waiting. Sir Theodore’s patient instruction returning like a whisper in her ear.
The greatest danger you face will be giving in to panic. Prey animals panic and it serves them well enough, for they live in a herd. They only have to be faster than one of their kind. A warrior, on the other hand, must be a predator, a hunter. If a hunter should panic, they become the prey.
‘Who are you, Robert?’
‘I am my father’s son,’ his eyes glittered in the firelight. ‘Beyond that, I don’t know. But I hope to find out. It’s why I’m here.’
Jane’s dagger was tucked into her waistband. If she reached for it, she would lose the moment. Her arms were pressed to the ground beside her, tight as springs, with one push she could roll left or right, leap up and THEN pull out her short blade.
‘Your father was dragon slayer.’
‘He aspired to be,’ for a moment the glitter left his eyes, as if doused by water. Then it was back. ‘Bravo, Jane. Was that a guess?’
‘So then, are you your father’s son?’ She watched his face; his eyes; waiting for that one flicker of distraction she could use. Would he glance down at her dagger, or to the pool of shadow behind him where a large rock concealed the cave floor from the firelight? What weapon had he stowed there?
‘I know that look,’ Robert’s eye’s didn’t move. They shone like mirrors. He smiled. ‘You are about to attack me. Yes?’
‘Yes.’ Jane pushed up with her left hand, throwing a handful of cave gravel at Robert’s face as she rolled to her right. She rolled twice, clear of any swinging blade, then she leapt to her feet, drew the dagger from her waistband and bend to a ready crouch. Robert was gone.
Maggots! Jane cursed quietly and stared into the pool of shadow behind the boulder. There was nowhere else he could be. What had he stowed there. A bow? A throwing axe? To engage without knowing would be a death sentence. To her right was a stalagmite, thick as a tree and broken off at waist height. She raced to it, pressing herself into its shadow. Then she used the blade of her dagger like a shard of polished crystal to reflect a strip of firelight into the pool of shadow. Nothing glinted back at her. No metal. No eyes. Nothing but shadow.
‘This way Jane.’ His voice came from the far side of the cave. ‘I have no plans to kill you today. Unless you force my hand. Bring a branch from the fire, this is what I brought you here to see.’
Jane stared across the cave. Cursed, and crossed back to the fire. Her training and her instincts were at odds, and she wondered if curiosity might, after all, be the end of her today. Carrying a flaming branch would light her up like a target.
‘Walk backwards to me, arm out like a scarecrow.’
‘You really are hard work? Do you know that?’ Robert stepped back into the field of light from the campfire, his arms stretched out to his sides. ‘A predictable dive and roll by the way. And unnecessary, you were wrong, AGAIN Jane. How depressingly tiresome for you.’
‘Better to be wrong than dead.’
‘More borrowed wisdom from Sir Theodore?’
‘No. Gunther, surprisingly.’
‘We take our lessons where we can. Now stick your dagger in my back or take a branch and follow me across the cave so I can show you why I have expended so much effort to bring you here.’
‘Why do you keep provoking me? For the sport of it?’
‘Would you like a glib answer of a more considered one?’ He turned to face her, holding his hands out to show they were empty. ‘In truth, Jane, I am getting a little confused myself.’
‘Confused about your own intentions?’ Jane circled the fire, placing it between them, and kept a firm grip on her dagger.
‘My intentions, yes. My intentions regarding you. In this I am becoming more confused by the minute. Can we go?’
‘Very well,’ Robert dropped his arms, let out a long-suffering sigh and closed his eyes as if gathering his thoughts. When he opened them again, they looked tired. His smile was gone and he looked less intimidating. Even vulnerable. ‘So, more of the plain speaking you enjoy so much, yes?’
‘I set out on this endeavor with very clear intentions. I came to win your trust.’
‘In that you have failed.’
‘Clearly.’ For a moment his smile was back, then it faulted. He was unsure of himself. Jane saw it clearly for the first time. This man, whoever he was, had planned this adventure very carefully. From the first moment she had set eyes on him he had radiated a confidence, almost a swagger of self-assurance. That had gone.
‘Win my trust to what end?’
‘Two reasons. Firstly I need your help.’ Robert took a step to the side, then another, circling the fire towards her. ‘I need you to join me in a treasure hunt. I intend to find something that is, I believe, of great significance to us both.’
‘The lost book of your scholar king.’
‘There’s no such book. I would have come across it, I have had access to the King’s library my whole life. He has never spoken of a lost book, no-one in court has spoken of it.’
‘Nevertheless, it exists.
‘Stop circling the fire, I feel like a child learning a new dance.’
‘For half of my twenty-four years, I have been working to this end. My father died when I was twelve. His obsession became mine.’
‘To be a dragon slayer?’
‘My father sought the truth about dragons, Jane.’
‘You said there were two reasons. The second?’
‘I needed to test you. From what I have pieced together you came upon your dragon by chance.’
‘Not by chance. It was my decision. Dragon swooped down on the castle and took the prince to his lair; I rode up and rescued him.’
‘I’m familiar with the ballad, Jane. I believe some aspects are true, and some are the embellishments of the countless singers who have taken ownership of the tale.’
‘What you choose to believe is of no concern to me.’
‘On the contrary. What I believe will become of great concern to you. You established a bond with him. I know you have become close friends. All that is clear to me. What is not clear, is whether your dragon chose you.’
‘Ah, that is the problem. Dragon has befriended you without knowing why. Everything about the two of you is wrong, it doesn’t fit with the way these things have been done for countless centuries. He might have chosen wisely, or instinctively, or you might simply be a temporary convenience. That is what I have come to discover.’
‘Well, one thing is clear to me. You pretend to know far more than I do about all this.’
‘No pretense. I do.’
‘And yet you profess confusion?’
‘Yes. I came to test you in order that I might understand you, and make a decision.’ Robert began to circle the fire again.
‘No,’ he put his hands on top of his head, exposing his front to her attack. ‘You may plant your dagger in me if you chose. I have no idea how to gain your trust, I simply ask you to lay aside your training for one moment and trust your instincts.’ He had come full circle round the fire. Jane stopped retreating, she held the dagger out in front of her and let him walk up to it. He stopped as the point of the blade touched his tunic.
‘Here is my problem, Jane. I will put it as plainly as I can. I came here to test you and have found the process to be, how can I put this, unexpectedly intoxicating.’
‘What?’ Jane kept the tip of her blade to his stomach, but took a step back.
‘Too strong a word? Beguiling, then. I have never come across your like before, Jane. Is that plain speaking enough for you?’
‘Far too plain! You would not fare well in our court. They all deal in insults and inuendo.’
‘I fear I have unsettled you. Good. I am unsettled to such a point that I am losing objectivity. I regret that I have become enamored of you.’
Sir Theodore finally had Dragon’s full attention. How Jane managed to interact with this creature every day without being driven to distraction was a marvel to him.
‘So, tell me about Jane,’ they were standing together on the turret above Jane’s room. It was the one space in the castle grounds where they could talk freely, an open rooftop where all approaches were visible. A place where difficult conversations could be conducted with discretion. ‘Is she safe?’
‘Yes, she is safe?’
‘No. She is not safe. I told her I didn’t trust him. Would she listen? No! You know Jane, stubborn as a buried splinter, so into the cave she went, following a shortlife.’
‘Excuse me.’ Dragon sat back on his hind legs, lifted his head, and folded his arms. ‘One teeny tiny point of social order here. I am not yours to command, Creaky Legs!’
‘Noted. Now describe him, or I will punish Jane on her return by banning her from patrolling with you for ten days.’
‘You ARE a leader. Impressed! So, let me think,’ Dragon closed his eyes and made a great show of serious thinking. ‘Ropey hair and sparkly teeth. Oh, and he spoke a great deal like Floppy Hat, up and downy musical voice.’
‘He spoke like Jester?’
‘Yes. A singsong voice. Without the song.’
‘I see,’ Sir Theodore frowned. This was troubling, the description was a good fit for the insolent forester Jane had bested in the tavern.
‘What did this young man want?’
‘He wants to swap smoke with her, I can tell.’
‘Exactly. The cave was too small for me to follow so she asked me, very politely, to come back and inform you.’
‘You left her, knowing her to be in danger?’ Sir Theodore studied Dragon’s face. Since Jane had first befriended this creature, every day had delivered a new insight. Watching them grow together had been a confusing privilege.
‘Yes. But what type of danger? Not the danger of being chopped up into little chunks of shortlife meaty bits. Danger from information. I mean, what will she do when she finds out the truth about dragons? I DO want to know everything, but…’ Dragon twiddled his fingers to show uncertainty,’ …I also want things to stay the way they are.’
‘Nothing does, that is the nature if things. Every passing moment is a gift, replaced by the next. So, Dragon, embrace this time you have with Jane. It will never come again.’
‘Is this what happens when shortlives get old and creaky? They start blabbering nonsense?’
‘Mostly we get short of temper and stick swords into whatever irritates us. Now, as you have delivered your message. Please return to her, or must I send Gunther and a spare horse?’
Dragon raised an eyebrow, said nothing, and took off. Sir Theodore watched him for a while, then set off for the main keep. Neither of them paused to glance through Jane’s window. If they had, they would have seen Jester drop his head onto his chest, and give in to his tears. Sir Theodore might not have understood Dragon’s remark about swapping smoke, but Jester had, and the words had punctured his heart as surely as the thrust of a dagger.
He had come there from the tavern just moments before. One glass of ale had given him the courage to break with etiquette and search Jane’s room without permission. He had manufactured a vain hope that Jane might have left a note before her departure early that morning. It had put him in the one place in the whole castle where a conversation on the turret roof could be overheard.
‘Oh Jane!’ His tears were a mix of intense relief to know she was alive, and overwhelming heartache that the forester with the black braids, winning smile, broad shoulders and undeniable charm, was right now, as he sat there weeping, in the process of flirting with her!
What exactly happened next, neither Jane nor Robert could remember with any degree of certainty. Whether Jane had pushed him back, or Robert had stepped backwards himself, the end result was the same. Robert was on fire.
He shrieked in alarm, leapt off the campfire and threw himself on the floor, rolling in the cave dust as he slapped at his boots and leggings.
‘Maggots!’ Jane circled the fire and joined in, throwing handfuls of dust onto Robert’s legs.’
‘This is becoming a habit,’ Robert sat back and stared at the last tendrils of smoke curling from the burn marks on his leggings. ‘First your dragon, now you! I shall remember to carry a horn of water with me whenever we meet.’
‘Are you hurt?’
‘A little. Skin burns I think, nothing deeper.
‘We must get you back to the village. How far down to your horse and companions?’
‘I sent them away when I arrived. I planned to leave here on your dragon.’
‘I see.’ Jane had been helping him to his feet. She let go of his elbow and stepped back. ‘How exactly did you imagine that would happen?’
‘By invitation, naturally.’ Robert stepped over to the firelight and bent to look at his legs. ‘When you have seen what I brought you here to see, your dragon will want me to return to the castle with you. Yes, as I thought, the skin is burnt in places, nothing deep. But we will need to get the wounds dressed. Are you ready?’
‘Please keep up. As I have said, a dragon chooses a shortlife companion to undertake a very specific duty. I came here expecting to find a strong minded, but misguided young lady, one schooled by a very capable Sir Theodore, a well-intentioned, but equally misguided player in this drama.’ Robert picked a flaming branch from the edge of the campfire, held it up as a torch and set off across the cave. ‘Come on. We must walk as we talk.’
‘I repeat my question.’ Jane selected a branch and followed him. ‘Ready for what?’
‘Ready to have the veil lifted, Jane. It lies on the far side of this cave. I have built a second fire there.’
‘This is becoming irritating. A second campfire. Why the need for the first?’
‘I had to be sure. That was an opportunity for you to turn back. And yet here you are, pulled deeper into this adventure because something is driving you, something that is competing with both your training and your common sense. I needed to see that. Why I needed too, will become clear on the far side of this cave. Now, where was I?’
‘A fable about a young lady and an old knight.’
‘Yes. I came here expecting to find that this old knight, your noble Sir Theodore, had provided this misguided but well-intentioned young lady with all the skills she would need to endure her role should her dragon require it of her.’
‘This role you keep talking of?’
‘The role, yes. It involves the blade tucked into your waistband.’
‘How many times, Jane. It is not a dragonblade,’ Robert eased himself through a set of stalagmites that stretched across the cave floor like bars on a window. ‘A dragonblade is something else entirely.’
‘Yes.’ Jane followed him through the row of stalagmites. ‘You also said the real one was here in the cave.’
‘And that you would show it to me.’
‘I shall. Very soon. This is the place.’ Robert leant down and set the tip of his burning branch to a much larger campfire that was set with tinder and kindling. The fire took hold, casting its flickering light across the floor and cave walls. Jane dropped her own torch in the fire, and began to explore. Robert sat on the ground and watched her in silence.
The walls were covered in runes. Hundreds of them. Some she recognized. Broken artifacts lay everywhere. There were clay pots, storage jars, pieces of armor, the bones of small animals. Rats? Jane glanced at them all, then her eyes settled on something else. The broken shell of a huge egg.
‘This is why you brought me here?’
‘In part, yes?’
‘And the dragonblade?’ She glanced around the walls. ‘Where is that? I see a spear and a helmet over there. But no blade.’ Jane went over to the fire and sat down opposite Robert. ‘So what then, is this?’ Jane pulled the dagger from her waistband. ‘This and the sword that houses it. I know the ballad about these blades. Every child does.’
‘Which ballad?’ Robert smiled, but Jane could see the hurt in his eyes. She needed to get him to the castle and have his legs dressed.
‘The ballad of the dragonblade.’
‘There are so many, I know seven at least. They hide the real truth in plain sight. Which version was sung to you as a child? Were the blades carved by a thunderbolt that struck a mountain of crystal?’
‘No. My mother sung a different ballad to me. I fear it is long and rather tedious. Now, how did it go? Jane closed her eyes, letting the melody play in her head. ‘I remember some of it, I think.’
She kept her eyes closed, and sang it aloud.
A bitter dragon, lost in grief,
Cursed a younger dragon thief.
Sick of heart and sick of mind
He sought to end his dragon kind.
Dragonblade oh dragonblade,
This is when the sword was made.
With his raging dragon breath
He forged the tools of dragon death.
These dragonblades, he gave to man,
So they might end his dragon clan.
Dragonblade oh dragon blade,
This was how the sword was made.
This is what the creature said:
‘Bring me every dragon head.
Every severed skull I hold
Will bring its weight in dragon gold.’
Dragonblade oh dragonblade,
This is why the sword was made.
‘That is early in the ballad,’ Jane opened her eyes. ‘From there on it becomes tedious, an endless description of every encounter as each dragon meets an ever more colourful and ridiculous end.’
‘Yes,’ Robert laughed. ‘That is a popular one. A mix of greed and betrayal with not a single hero in sight. There are more. The true tale is very different, and not for the ears of children.
‘So tell me.’
‘I can show you. Your dagger, or one very like it, was used right here, in this cave. Determine that use for yourself. Look around, the purpose of your dagger is written here, not in the runes on the walls, but right here. These shards of egg tell you all you need to know, and the nature of this cave itself.’
‘A dragon hatched here.’
‘Evidently. What else?’
‘It was raised here, these pots and.. oh!’ The realization struck her like a blast of daylight. ‘There is no way into this cave for a grown dragon to come in here. The egg was brought in by a shortlife,’ Jane paused as the full impact struck her. ‘Then the egg was opened with the only blade strong enough to piece it.’ She held up her dagger.
‘I believe so, yes. The longer sword blade is too unwieldy to use. That dagger was designed for this task - too carefully cut open the egg and release the dragon chick.’
Jane stared at her dagger as a long-lost memory came flooding back, a childhood memory of watching the king and his huntsmen returning from a trip to the forest. Their trophy was hanging across the lap of one hunter, a dead deer, killed by an arrow to its neck. Then Jane had seen the second wound, a slice in the deer’s belly where the creature had been cut open. Riding beside the huntsman, the king had a newborn fawn cradled in his lap, a tiny thing, freshly cut from its dead mother. Jane looked up from her dagger.
‘Then the long blade, the one that houses this dagger. That must be for cutting open the dragon’s belly?’
‘I believe so. Yes.
‘Why? To what end!?’
‘I don’t know.’ Robert shrugged. ‘I can speculate, but I believe the answer lies in the lost book of your Scholar King.’
‘So if the sword is not the dragonblade, what is?’
‘Not what. Who? The Dragonblade is a role, perhaps a duty. I have spent half my life believing my father’s story, that he was a Dragonblade. When he died, I took his quest upon myself only to discover I’d misunderstood my father’s purpose. He had been preparing me for this role.’
‘He believed you were this Dragonblade?’
‘He did, Jane. Now I believe it might be you.’