Jane and Dragon had been pacing around the dragonblade for a while. Two planets around a dangerous little star, Jane moving in tight inner circles, hands behind her back, Dragon striding around them both, drumming his front claws like fingertips.
‘What will it do Jane? What will it DO?’
‘How can I know? And if I did, would I be pacing like this to settle the dreadful anxiety that threatens to launch itself up from my stomach again?’
‘Think first, act second. Your words Jane, I’ve been hearing them for …as long as …too long. Do not rush into everything, Dragon. Take a moment to think, Dragon. It is very difficult to apologize to a blackened, roasted, crispy shortlife that you have just turned into charcoal, Dragon. Your words Jane.’
‘So we need to stop and think about this. That shortlife in the cave who may, or may not, be black and crispy, told you to open the handle. Why? And how does he know what it will do? Why does he even care. Why, why, WHY?’ Dragon dropped down onto his belly and started thumping the ground with his front paws. Jane stopped pacing and stood in front of him and folded her arms.
‘Firstly, I don’t know. Secondly, it’s good to have you back, my over-theatrical friend.’ She reached up and stroked the tip of his chin.
‘I was worried; your normal self, this one, the irritating one who always seeks attention like a spoilt child, had been replaced by a dark and very thunderous one. You were all clouds and no sunshine.’
‘I was angry,’ Dragon sat up. ‘It is very hard to be light of mood when you have been forced to disgorge a perfectly good meal. Now, I just feel …odd.’
‘You mean scared.’
‘Excuse me, little shortlife who I could squish with one flick of my paw, dragons do not know fear.’ He paused, Jane said nothing.
‘Anxiety, all right, not fear Jane, an itsy-bitsy bit of anxiety. So what shall we do?’
‘We turn the handle of the sword. We find out. We don’t know what will happen, but we do know what will happen if we just keep walking around it and staring at it. A big nothing!’
‘It might kill you! It might have poison smoke inside.’
‘Poison smoke? Where did that come from. Why not tiny little goblins with sharp teeth who sleep in there and get impossibly angry if you wake them up.’
‘Tiny goblins!’ Dragon took a step back. ‘Do you think?’
‘NO! No smoke, no goblins.’ Jane took a deep breath. ‘What I DO think is that this dragonblade is not going to hurt us.’
‘Oh, really, that dragonblade lying there? The one that was forged in dragon fire specifically so its blade can pierce a dragon’s hide. THAT dragon-slaying sword not going to hurt us.’
‘Hmm. Your point is well made. Let me put it another way. That sword is not going to hurt ME, Dragon. I know this for certain in the same way I know Jester would never hurt me or that Smithy would never hurt his pig. Whatever this is about, it has to be connected to the history of dragons. Uncovering that history is what I pledged to do, and I think it’s why we are both sick to our stomachs. We are not scared of something springing out and hurting us, we are scared of discovering the true history of dragons and what it will mean for us.’
‘All I know is...’
‘That you said all that without stopping for breath. Which means you are recovered and back to your annoying bossy self.’
‘Good. So, are you ready?’
‘Me too,’ Jane bent and picked up the dragonblade. ‘Robert said I must turn the windows to reveal the runes for love, birth and death.’
‘In that order?’
‘Oh!’ Jane closed her eyes and tried to remember. ‘Yes, I think so. And we have to do the same three runes, in the same order, on both layers.’ Jane held the sword out in front of them and turned the notched wheel plates connected to the two cylindrical sheaths that revolved within the handle. Each rune clicked into view on the outer layer. Love. Birth. Death. Then she repeated the process with the inner sheath, revealing the same three runes, in the same order.
Nothing happened. Dragon sat back and folded his arms.
‘You got the order wrong.’
‘Typical,’ Dragon raised an eyebrow. ‘Did you even listen?’
‘I was vomiting.’
‘Vomiting …and listening?’
‘Yes!’ Jane started to turn the wheels again. ‘Do you want to help, or do you want to stand there making me so angry that I might well stick you with this!?’
‘I can’t help. My claws are too big, that dragonblade was made for teeny tiny shortlife fingers. Which, by the way, makes no sense at all. Why would a dragon, long ago, forge a blade with dragon fire for a shortlife to use? A blade that can cut open a dragon. Madness!’
‘A rival dragon, perhaps. Kill the competition?’ Jane had all the runes lined up, except one. She paused and looked up. ‘Ready?’
‘For at least a hundred years, yes. Do it.’
‘Then here we go,’ Jane clicked the wheel one more notch. The last rune on the inner sleeve rolled into view. The rune for birth. There was a soft whirring noise and the sword shuddered.
‘Woah!’ Jane dropped it. The end of the handle opened, and the inner shaft dropped out attached to another, much shorter blade.
‘A dagger?’ Jane stared at it.
‘It’s had a baby!’ said Dragon. Jane picked up both blades. The handle of the dagger was the inner shaft of the main sword handle, and the dagger’s blade was housed in a hollowed-out core in the main sword blade. Jane peered down the empty handle. She could see light shining through the steel of the blade as if it was cut from fine crystal.
‘Smithy has to see this.’ Jane whispered. ‘The main blade is thin as glass, yet it can cut down a tree without a scratch.’
‘I was expecting …not this,’ Dragon leaned in and stared at the two blades, his head angling to one side as he tried to see the details.
‘They are so light,’ Jane took one in each hand and began to parry and thrust as if she was back in the training yard. The sword was light enough when it was in one piece, now, it was like sparring with darning needles. ‘So if the long blade is for slaying dragons, what do you suppose the short dagger is for?’
‘Trimming my toenails?’
‘Good idea. They need it, look at them.’
‘How about a little trim of one untidy claw?’
‘How about a little toasting of one untidy head?’
‘Enough of this.’ Jane stopped. ‘I need to get in that cave and make sure Robert is still alive.’
‘This is not a discussion, Dragon. There are secrets in that cave. Secrets Robert wanted to show me if I could trust him.’
‘We don’t trust him.’
‘I do. Now, anyway,’ Jane held up the two weapons. She put the short dagger back into the handle of the main sword and locked it in place. Then she reached over her shoulder and slid the dragonblade into the scabbard strapped to her back.
‘I am not happy about this, Jane. Not happy.’
‘You should be. This is your quest.’ Jane picked up the discarded rope, threw one end over the edge and handed the other to Dragon. ‘Do you feel sick to your stomach anymore?’
‘Neither do I. Do you know what else Robert said?’
‘Stupid question. I wasn’t here, remember? I was vomiting up a perfectly good breakfast a dozen leagues away.’
‘He said this sword wasn’t even a dragonblade.’ Jane grabbed the rope and lowered herself over the edge of the ravine. ‘But they do exist, and he said he would show me one if I proved worthy.’ She grinned at Dragon, and started down the rope.
Jester’s head was spinning. Why had Gunther suddenly decided to make him a confidant? There had to be a good reason, the young knight was a schemer like his father, the Merchant. He was not as bereft of virtue, but the two were definitely cut from the same cloth.
Jester and Gunther were crouched behind a stall in the village square watching Sir Theodore’s return to the castle. The old knight was leading a prisoner, his former colleague in arms, Haroldus.
‘Sir Theodore is furious,’ said Gunther, ‘look at his face. I’ve rarely seen it so dark.’ Jester had to agree, the old knight was angry, and something else. He was in pain. Had Haroldus put up a fight?
‘I fear he’s injured, Gunther.’
‘What!’ Gunther looked again, squinting against the harsh glare of the sun. ‘He masks it well, but yes, I agree. I must go to him.’ Gunther leapt up and raced across the square.
Jester watched him go. Ever since he had known Gunther, the young knight had been a pawn in his father’s complicated political games. Money and influence were the only coinage that counted in the Merchant’s world, the twin foundations that power was built upon. Then Gunther had been exposed to an alternative world view when he had started his training with Sir Theodore. The Merchant had paid for the apprenticeship, a pathway to becoming a Knight of the King’s Guard. Sir Theodore had accepted the assignment with good grace and a raised eyebrow. He knew, along with the whole court, that the King had taken payment for the apprenticeship.
In the years that followed, the knight’s code of chivalry and duty had found purchase in Gunther’s heart. Jester could see that. He still didn’t trust him, but he had watched with admiration Gunther’s daily struggles to reconcile the two world views. So, was he still his father’s son? That was the big question.
Jester closed his eyes, him mind was racing, but the sun made it too hot to think. For hours his mind had been in turmoil, a storm-swollen river of imagined fears for Jane. There was no point chasing after Gunther and Sir Theodore. There would be an interrogation, and he had no stomach for that. Sir Theodore and the Vintner would find out what was going on. If Haroldus was behind Jane’s disappearance, Theodore would find out.
He watched as Gunther raced to Sir Theodore’s side. The old knight gestured to the young man with a slight dip of his head, but said nothing, and Gunther fell in beside him as the party crossed the drawbridge into the castle.
‘Ale,’ said Jester. He got to his feet, dusted himself off, and set off for the tavern. It wasn’t a drink he needed, it was shade, a place to sit and think. He would find a quiet table, stare at his drink, and let his mind do what it did best. Tell stories. To understand people he had to hear the stories they were playing out for themselves. Gunther was clearly acting out some drama he had written for himself, one where the young man was center stage.
‘You’re a surprise,’ said the taverner as Jester pushed open the door and headed for a quiet table in the corner. ‘Hardly ever see you, and now here you are, two days running. Problems, is it?’
‘One small energetic problem called Lavinia,’ Jester lied. ‘I need a place to hide. No matter where I go I the castle, she manages to smoke me out.’
‘Don’t place money on being safe in here,’ laughed the taverner. ‘That girl makes up her own rules on where she can go.’ He placed a mug of ale in front of Jester and left him in peace.
Jester took a sip, placed the drink back on the table and stared into the foam. Why, after all these years, had Gunther suddenly chosen to confide in him? And what was his father’s long game? Had buying Gunther’s apprenticeship been a steppingstone to a far more insidious future for both father and son? If a knight excelled in his duty to the king, if he proved himself in battle, he could earn favor and status. The King might grant Gunther lands one day. He might even make him a Lord. But marriage to Princess Lavinia? Such an ambition was unthinkable, even for Gunther’s father. Jester sighed and took another sip. It might take more than one mug of ale to get to the bottom of this ballad!
Jane crossed the floor of the ravine, bent down, and peered into the mouth of the cave. The entrance was low, Robert had needed to stoop when he’d first appeared. It was too dark inside to make anything out. Puss and pestilence! She would be blind in there, for a while at least, until her eyes recovered from the glare outside.
Jane turned and looked up to the cret of the ravine. Dragon was shaking his head like a bemused parent.
‘Must I think of every little thing?’ he yelled. Then he flapped his wings and took off. Jane sat down and waited. He would be looking for a dry tree branch he could ignite and throw down for a torch. Then he would spend the rest of the day bragging about it.
Jane used the time to unstrap the scabbard of her dragonblade. It would be difficult to brandish a long sword in the narrow throat of the cave, but a short dagger would do very nicely. She set the sword on her knees, lined up the runes and separated the two weapons again. Then she smelt smoke.
‘One flaming torch for the shortlife with the red hair and green brains. Do not thank me, it is enough to serve.’ Dragon had set fire to a small tree and was lowering it with the rope.
‘One branch would have been quite enough.’
‘I am a dragon, Jane. Dragons don’t do little branches. Though we accept gratitude when it’s our due.’
Jane grinned and crossed the ravine. The burning tree settled on the ground, she selected a long branch, hacked it free, and held the end into the fire.
‘Thank you, Dragon,’ she said with mock sincerity. ‘You are very smart for a large frog; I am quite sure you brought a second rope so I can climb out when this one has burnt to ashes.’
‘No need. I have a trained monkey who will separate this rope from the burning tree.’
‘At your command, froggy,’ Jane reached up and cut the rope free with one slice of her blade. Then she headed for the cave.
‘Now Jane, a few words of advice before you go in there.’
‘No need, your trained monkey has got this.’ Jane set the dragonblade down against the rock wall, picked up the dagger, and without waiting to hear more words of dragon wisdom, stooped down and entered the cave.