A thin strip of red lined the far horizon as Jane ran up the stone steps onto her turret roof. She was in her patrol outfit, strips of calf leather stitched over linen, each strip pointed like an arrow head, layer upon layer like lizard scales. Sir Theodore had commissioned it from a leather worker in the town. It was based on a design he had seen in the far east. The King had made a great fuss when presenting it to Jane, a gift to celebrate her entry into the Royal Guard.
Her personal addition to the outfit, one which had infuriated her mother, was the strip of cloth tied around her head to keep her hair in place. Her mother had gone to considerable lengths to persuade the King that Jane should manage her hair by braiding it. The King had agreed, and Jane had relented, after making a great deal of fuss.
‘This is ridiculous! My head looks like a tangle of snakes.’
‘Better that, than an unsightly nest,’ her mother had chided. ‘You cannot wander the Kingdom looking like a windblown scarecrow, child, you represent the king, AND you are still my child. Please respect my feelings in this matter.’ Jane did, and wore the braids for a full week, at the end of which her face was a patchwork of purple bruises.
‘Who did this?’ demanded the King when he caught sight of Jane late one evening.’
‘Mother,’ said Jane.
‘She beat you? That is intolerable!’
‘No, you majesty, she insisted on these braids, yet they whip me like a dozen ropes when I fly on patrol.’
‘No braids Jane! I won’t have it. No braids!’ And that was the end of it. Since then she had taken to using a strip of cloth cut from the leggings she had worn throughout her years of training. The leggings had been a gift from Jester. They were too small for her now, but like the ornaments in her room, she had grown attached to them.
At the top of the steps Jane paused to fasten the front buckle of the sword sheath she wore slung at an angle across her back. This was not the patrol sword Smithy had recently repaired, this was her dragonblade.
‘Surprise, surprise,’ Jester grinned at her from across the roof. He was sitting at the far end, his back to the low battlement, his face to the Eastern horizon with its pink promise of another hot day.
‘What are you doing up so early?’ Jane crossed the roof and stood over him. ‘You and Smithy traded drink for drink last night.’
‘All paid for by your performance.’
‘You are most welcome,’ Jane dipped her head in a mock bow. ‘And you side skipped my question. What are you doing?’
‘You have to ask? I don’t, I know exactly what YOU are doing.’
‘Dawn patrol, the same as always.’
‘No. Far too early. Unless your patrol takes you beyond the borders to, say ..erm, I don’t know …the Rust Mountains.’
‘Alright! Yes!’ Jane sat down beside him. Jester was the kindest, smartest person she knew, and her dearest friend. It was Jester alone who had taken her ambitions seriously. He had gifted her a small suit of armour when she had declared her intention to train as a knight. ‘I intend finding those caves, What’s the harm?’
‘I don’t know, yet, and neither do you. Have you sought leave to go?’
‘Sir Theodore approved, so long as it doesn’t interfere with my duties. I will make it part of today’s border patrol.’
‘That would be a very creative interpretation of what he said last night. I was there, remember. And what of Haroldus? Do you trust the man?’
‘Trust has to be earned. He has done nothing to win or to lose my trust.’ She stood up. ‘Here comes my ride.’
‘About that,’ Jester stood too, and watched as Dragon covered the distance towards them, his wings beating the pink sky as though it was a dusty tapestry. ‘How does Dragon know to come so early? You didn’t summon him. I would have heard.’ He gestured to the dragonblade strapped across her back.
‘I have no idea,’ Jane smiled at her friend. ‘Sometimes I only have to picture my intentions. If I see something clearly enough, or dream of it in my sleep, or determine to do it, he seems to know. Dragon laughs at the notion. He believes we arrive at the same set of intentions because we share common information and common goals.’
‘Life is full of mystery,’ said Jester. ‘That, my dear Jane, is the simple truth of it.’ Then he ducked his head as the last living dragon flew over his head and landed heavily on the turret roof behind them.
‘Oops, faceplant!’ said Dragon as he tumbled across the roof, hit the far parapet, rolled off and dropped to the courtyard below.
Jester remained on the turret roof as Jane ran down the steps. He felt a familiar knot in his stomach, and took a deep breath to relax it. This never got any easier, watching Jane setting off for patrol. Why did love have to hurt so much?
Last night in the tavern it had been bearable. Jane had put herself in harm’s way – again, but her friends had all been there, each and every one of them would have thrown themselves into the fray if the situation had escalated. These patrols were different. Jane had Dragon of course, and his devotion to her was beyond question. In a fight the creature was a match for anyone, so long as he was paying attention; and THAT was the problem. Dragon seemed to live in his head all the time, lost in some universe of thought that was unique to him. Jane made light of it, always, laughing off the consequences of every distraction.
He watched as Jane climbed onto Dragon and swung herself into her seat. That’s what she called it, a place high on Dragon’s neck, a gap between two of the plates that ran the length of his spine.
Dragon took three bounds across the training yard, and with a great deal of wing flapping, launched himself into the sky. It wasn’t elegant, Jester thought the wings looked far too small to lift all the creature’s weight, and yet away they flew, clearing the roof tiles of the knight’s quarters by a whisker.
Jester watched them till their silhouette was a small dot on the horizon, then he set off for the kitchen. Jane had been right about last night in the tavern; he had definitely overdone the ale. All he wanted now was a mug of hot milk and a few hours’ sleep. There was only one problem - Lavinia. Could he make it to the kitchen without being waylaid by the princess who often wake early and scoured the castle in search of a playmate?
‘How did you know?’ Jane asked, dipping her head to one side so her mouth was inches from Dragon’s right ear. It was the only way she could speak to him when they were flying at speed.
‘Know what?’ yelled Dragon. He did need to shout, otherwise his voice was carried away on the river of air they pushed aside.
‘How did you know I wanted to set off this early. I said nothing to you last night.’
‘I did not.’
‘You called. I came. Simple.’ Dragon turned his head slightly to look at her, which was impossible, as she was sitting behind his head and holding his horns. But he would often do it anyway, rolling his big eyes back like a horse in a silly pretense at seeing her.
‘Hardly simple, and please face the front, you dip to the side when you twist you head round like this. And to be clear, I did NOT call you. Though I did have a dream that I needed to call you.’
‘And I had a dream that you did call me. Which is something else we need to talk about. It’s very rude, creeping up on people in their dreams.’
‘You are not people.’
‘Rude again – interrupting. Creeping up and prodding them till they wake up. I was having a wonderful dream about a donkey and a rabbit. Want to hear it?’
‘So where are we going?’
‘You tell me,’ Jane squeezed with her legs as they flew into a draft of warm air that lifted Dragon like a leaf on a rising wave. ‘If I was creeping about in your dreams I must have told you.’
‘Somewhere brown. Or orange. Orangey brown.’
‘Is that so?’ Jane wasn’t surprised, this had happened too often for that. ‘We’re going to the Rust Mountains.’
‘Rust. So, orangey brown. Dreams, Jane. Trust your dreams.’ ‘And did I tell you why we were going there?’
‘No. But Prince Pouty Face did. He was in my dream too, also very rude, and very uninvited. He said you were going to the orangey mountains to stick a pin in in a butterfly.’
‘A pin? What pin?’
‘Our pin, the one on your back.’
‘Interesting, and completely wrong. We are going to the Rust Mountains to look at some Dragon Runes.’
‘But first we need to stop for some breakfast at Three Sister’s Farm. The sisters have been petitioning the King for weeks but it’s a small matter and the King hasn’t placed any urgency on it.’
‘Yes. The urgency is my need for a good breakfast.’
‘And what do they need help with? Oh, I know. All three sisters have gone flowers and honey over the same man. What is it with you shortlives and lovey love, love?’
‘It’s not about love. Their problem is bats. Lots of bats.’
‘And thus it was, that Boudica led her army of Iceni warriors and took Londinium.’ Jester closed the book and smiled at Lavinia.
‘What happened next?’
‘Next! Well I believe the noble Jester finally stormed the gates of Pepper’s kitchen and rescued his share of bread and honey.’
‘Yes, the two of us!’ Princess Lavinia jumped up from the floor and pulled Jester to his feet. ‘Come good sir, we will storm the kitchen and disembowel all who stand in our way.’
‘That would be Rake, and he’s far too skinny to have any bowels worth the spilling.’ He followed the young princess through the royal apartments, trying his best to keep up. He smiled and shook his head. Why did she always have to skip and twirl and bounce? The girl had more energy to burn than a winter feast. ‘Must you hop like that? Are you part rabbit?’
‘No, I’m part Boudica, I’m a legendary warrior just like Jane will be one day.’
‘I hope she will not, I know the end of the Boudica saga.’
‘Is it sad?’
‘Not if you’re a Roman.’
‘Don’t tell me! I will make an ending up for myself. Boudica takes her army and conquers Rome. Not a stone is left standing.’ Lavinia pushed open the door to the kitchen and raced down the steps. ‘Hello Pepper! We have come to liberate your bread!’
‘Have you indeed,’ Pepper was sitting at a work bench with Rake and Smithy. ‘Then you must earn it by solving this riddle.’ She pointed to the coconut on the bench in front of her.
‘What is it?’ Lavinia scrambled onto the bench beside her.’
‘That, your Little Majesty, is what we are discussing.’
‘And what have you concluded?’ Jester sat down and reached for a slice of bread and honey.
‘The thing is hollow,’ Smithy tapped it lightly with his spoon.
‘Hollow, but not empty,’ Pepper picked up the coconut and gave it a shake. A faint sloshing could be heard. ‘It’s full of water.’
The clatter of trotters on stone interrupted them. Pig was coming down from the garden in search of Smithy. She peered up at them and grunted.
‘No, Pig. Outside with you!’ Pepper turned and waved a finger at Smithy. ‘She knows better!’
‘Sorry Pepper,’ Smithy leaned down and scratched the bristly top of his pig’s head. ‘You heard the lady of the kitchen. Off you go.’ The pig grunted, did a slow circle under the table to check for crumbs, then waddled back up the steps to the garden. Rake watched her go, then turned to the coconut and clapped his hands.
‘Oh! Rotten radishes! I know what this thing is! A pig egg!’
‘A pig egg?’ Smithy raised an eyebrow.
‘Yes, exactly. It’s a pig egg!’ Rake reached for the coconut and picked it up. ‘It’s rough and hairy, just like pig. It’s filled with liquid, just like an egg. What else could it be?’
‘Rake, my dear friend.’ Smithy smiled kindly at him. ‘I grew up on a pig farm. Pigs have litters of baby piglets. They do not lay eggs.’
‘Not your pigs, I grant you that, not local pigs,’ Rake patted the coconut, then tickled it with his long, elegant fingers. ‘This came from beyond the Kingdom. This is from a foreign egg-laying pig.’
Smithy looked at Pepper for support.
‘Sorry Smithy.’ She grinned and shrugged her shoulders. ‘Do you have a better suggestion?’
‘About a hundred!’ Smithy looked at Jester.
‘No. I can’t help. I’m far too tired to think clearly,’ he reached for another slice of bread. ‘I’ve been laying waste to Londinium.’
‘If you will excuse me,’ Rake got up from the work bench, the coconut cradled in both hands.
‘Where are you going?’ asked Smithy?
‘The stables,’ said Rake. ‘To get some hay!’
‘Hay? What for?’
‘I know,’ Princess Lavinia jumped down from the bench and ran after the young gardener. ‘It’s for a nest!’
‘Bless him,’ laughed Pepper. ‘He intends to hatch it. Don’t you just want to hug him?’
‘Hug? No,’ sighed Smithy. ‘Beat? Yes.’
They landed in a tilled meadow a short walk from the huddle of farm buildings. Jane had learned the hard way never to arrive too close to any stock. Few animals reacted well to the sight of a giant green dragon dropping from the sky. They weren’t to know he only ate vegetables. All the local farmers knew, and would mark out crops for Dragon to eat when he was on patrol. They saw it as a small price to pay for the protection Jane and the Dragon afforded them.
Over the years, Dragon had announced which vegetables he preferred, and the rural settlements and homesteads competed for his favour, growing new varieties of pumpkins or turnips to ensure Dragon would patrol close by at least once a week.
‘These look good,’ said Dragon. They had landed beside a large pile of white turnips, freshly dug from the ground.
‘We ask first. No eating, not till I give the signal.’ Jane set off towards the farmstead, leaving Dragon to smell the turnips.’
The three sisters must have seen them arrive, for they were lining up at their front door as Jane crossed the cobbled yard that served the house and its cluster of outbuildings.
‘Jane, how wonderful,’ one of the sisters stepped forward, took hold of Jane’s hand, and shook it vigorously. ‘At last the King has send you.’ She paused. ‘He did send you, yes?’
‘The King read your petitions,’ said Jane. ‘And coming here was on Sir Theodore’s list.’
‘Ipso facto?’ The second sister tipped her head sideways.
‘Exactly.’ Jane beamed at the three faces. All identical. The women were triplets, identical in every way; it was rumoured that not even their parents could tell them apart. The sister’s knew this, and had played games with the confusion, especially with suiters. But not today. Their names were sewn on the linen bonnets they wore for their trade – they were a family of cheese makers, and the girls had been named Rennet, Curd and Whey.
‘Would you breakfast with us?’ asked Whey.
‘I would LOVE to breakfast with you. And can Dragon have a few turnips?’
‘As many as he needs,’ said Rennet. Jane turned to signal her permission to Dragon, but he was too busy stuffing the white turnips in his mouth to notice. She thought about going back and rebuking him, but the smell of breakfast wafting from the farmhouse won the moment, and she hurried after the three sisters.
It was hot in the small kitchen, so they took breakfast outside in the shade of an ancient pear tree that was so close to the wall it had fused to the stones. The kitchen window was open, the wide sill acting as their table. There was a platter piled with thick slices of hot bread and toasted cheese. Jane ate three slices, washing them down with a mug of apple juice as she listened to the sisters’ petition.
‘Let me be sure I understand this.’ Jane stood up and wiped breadcrumbs from her tunic. ‘There is a cave set in the hill behind the farmhouse. It’s where you put your rounds of cheese to mature.’
‘Yes,’ said Curd. ‘It’s been our cold store for generations. The farm was built here to take advantage of it. We have steep pasture for the goats, fresh water from the hills and the deep cave to store our rounds of cheese till they are ripe and ready for market.’
‘And now you have bats?’
‘We do,’ said Whey.
‘Lots and lots of bats,’ sighed Rennet.
‘Who make a great deal of bat gong,’ said Curd, waving her hand in front of her nose.
‘So move them,’ said Jane. ‘Why ask the King for help, just smoke them out. Why, only two months ago I helped the castle staff to smoke bats from one of the towers and…’ she paused. ‘When did the bats arrive here?’
‘Two months ago.’
‘Ah! Right.’ Jane shook her head. So that’s why the sisters had petitioned the King. They sought his approval before they chased the bats out of the cave and, possibly, straight back to the castle.
‘How many are there?’
‘Hundreds,’ said Whey. ‘Come and see for yourself.’ Jane followed the sisters through the farmhouse which backed directly into the steep hillside. A short, narrow tunnel led from the back of the house and into the cave.
‘Woah!’ Jane reached up and pinched her nose. The smell of bat gong was intense. The sisters had done their best to keep the rounds of cheese from being splattered. Yards of linen lay draped across them like bedsheets. Rennet pointed up.
‘Look at them! Hundreds!’
Jane looked. Indeed, there were hundreds of bats hanging in clusters right across the ceiling of the cave.
‘I think we can resolve this,’ said Jane. ‘Dragon has a very large, and very empty cave. I’m sure he can find space for them.’
‘Will the King instruct him to do this?’
‘No. The decision will be Dragon’s alone. All I can do is ask, though that feast of white turnips will certainly have helped your cause.’