The sun waited below the horizon, the eastern sky a delicate pink. Another hot day was coming. The royal family were still asleep, their windows closed to the cacophony of castle life. In the distance, gulls cried as they greeted the fishing boats arriving at the wharf with their overnight catch. Closer by, turkeys squabbled in the market square amid the scrape and squeal of carts as traders set up their stalls. Closer still was the rumble of a giant green dragon snoring on the battlements, a gentle reminder to the whole castle of the price it paid for hosting the creature.
Not far from the sleeping dragon, a group of young friends were sharing breakfast. Their table stood in a small courtyard outside the door to the castle kitchens.
A tall youth, thin as a barley stalk, tapped the table with his spoon. He was the royal gardener, and his name was Rake. Sitting beside him, a young woman opened one eye in response. She had a main of red hair, and was something of a celebrity among the young staff who served at the castle. Her name was Jane Turnkey, and she was a Knight of the King’s Guard. Rake tapped his spoon again.
‘What?’ snapped Jane.
‘You were asleep,’ said Rake.
‘Maybe.’ Jane replied.
‘While you were eating!’
‘Your point being?’
‘Just an observation, Jane. You work too hard.’
The kitchen door opened behind Rake, and Pepper stepped out, cradling a pot of fish soup. She was smiling. Pepper always smiled, no matter what problems the day might bring, the young staff knew they could rely on Pepper to keep their spirit up. She was a stout young woman with bright eyes, a pale face and jet-black hair that hung in a thick ponytail down her back.
‘Who wants a second bowl of stew?’
‘Me.’ Jane pushed her bowl towards Pepper.
‘Second?’ laughed Rake. ‘Try fourth! Where do you put it?’
‘Mouth, stomach, dung pit,’ said Jane. Pepper laughed, and ladled stew into Jane’s bowl, filling it to the brim. There were two others at the table with Jane and Rake. Smithy the blacksmith, a powerful young man with bleached white hair, broad shoulders, and a shy manner. He was softly spoken and rarely looked up, as if the ground held a special fascination for him. Next to Smithy sat a jester in his full court outfit. If he had a real name, no-one knew of it. For as long as they could remember he had gone by the name of Jester.
‘Four bowls!’ Rake said again, shaking his head.
‘Well, I take Jane’s appetite as a compliment,’ said Pepper.
‘Jane’s like my forge,’ said Smithy. ‘Burns hot. Needs lots of fuel.’
Everyone stopped eating and stared at him. Was that an idle thought, or was Smithy flirting? It was impossible to tell with him. Jester kicked him under the table at the same time as Jane reached across and slapped Smithy on the top of his head.
‘Ow! Just saying! Sword’s ready by the way. Want to see?’
‘Yes, good!’ Jane lifted her bowl to her lips and drained the last of the stew. ‘Right now, come on.’ She jumped up from her stool and kissed Pepper on the top of her head. ‘That was top table, Peps.’
Smithy eased himself up from the table. He was only eighteen, but he was massive. The last few years at his anvil had forged his body into iron. If he grew any bigger, they would have to banish him from their table.
‘News, everybody. News!’ They all turned as Gunther came sprinting towards them from the stables. Gunther was the same age at Jane, sixteen years, and the son of the wealthiest merchant in the town. Like Jane he was a knight of the Kings Guard, but he was not a member of the castle staff, nor was he welcome at their informal table. For years Gunther had been a thorn in Jane’s side, challenging her at every turn, questioning her skill as a knight, questioning her right even to train with the other knights. Jester rolled his eyes as Gunther came across yard and perched at the end of the table.
‘What news, Gunther,’ he said. ‘Has your father finally told you all about the birds and the bees?’ Everyone laughed except for Rake, he seemed perplexed by the remark.
‘Most amusing, Jester.’ Gunther folded his arms. ‘I pray you have better jokes for the next banquet. Half the Court fell asleep at your last performance.’
‘You should have come to me, Gunther,’ said Rake, ‘Anything you need to know about the birds and the bees, particularly bees, I’m rather an expert.’ Everyone turned and looked at Rake. Pepper raised an eyebrow and grinned.
‘You certainly are,’ she said. Rake looked confused for a moment, then realizes his mistake.
‘Oh! No! I meant the actual birds and bees, I didn’t mean...’
‘I did,’ said Pepper. Rake turned from red to beetroot.
‘Spare him,’ said Gunther. ‘Indeed, spare us all. Now, to my news. Haroldus is on his way to the castle as we speak.’
‘That IS good news,’ Jester thumped the table, ‘we might get some intelligent conversation for a change.’
Over on the battlements, Dragon opened his eyes and turned to look down at the group.
‘It’s not good news for my pig,’ sighed Smithy. ‘I shall go and sit with him a while.’
‘Pig will have forgotten,’ said Jane, ‘it must be two years since Haroldus was here.’
‘Three,’ laughed Pepper. ‘Remember that funny little creature he brought with him.’
‘The monkey,’ Rake nodded. ‘I do, he was rather rude. He did his business in my sprouts.’
‘No manners,’ said Jane. ‘Reminded me of Prince Cuthbert.’
‘He tried to ride pig,’ said Smithy, ‘Not the Prince, the monkey. Poor thing still has nightmares.’
Up on the battlements, Dragon raised his head.
‘Excuse me,’ he said.
‘Then we must hope he doesn’t bring it, Smithy,’ Jane pointed to the bread still sitting on Smithy’s plate. ‘Do you want that?’
‘All yours,’ said Smithy, and he set off for the stables.
‘Excuse me!’ Dragon repeated, and he tapped the battlements with one claw.
‘Forget the monkey,’ said Jester, ‘I just hope Haroldus brings his journal. I want to hear all his adventures; the man is a master orator.’
‘Here’s to that!’ Jane thumped the table, spitting breadcrumbs as she spoke. ‘He read passages from them in the tavern last time. Settled his bill with it. Great stories. Made me want to travel.’
‘Oy! Shortlives! Who do I have to burn to get some attention around here?’ Dragon lifted off and landed heavily on the flagstones by the table. Jane grabbed her cup of milk before it toppled.’
‘We are all ears, Dragon,’ said Jester, you have the floor, if fact I think you fractured it.’
‘Who is this Horrendous fellow you are all gabbling about?’
‘Haroldus,’ said Jane. ‘He is an old colleague of Sir Theodore, they fought together in the East many years back.’
‘The man is something of a scholar,’ Jester jumped up from the table and struck a pose, spreading his arms wide. ‘He travels the seven seas, charts new lands and discovers new creatures.’
‘And new vegetables,’ added Rake.
‘Boring!’ said Dragon. ‘I’ve done all that and more. If he was here two years ago, and such an entertaining little shortlife, how come I don’t remember him?’
‘You were sulking in your cave,’ said Jane.
‘I never sulk!’
‘For two whole weeks.’
‘I must have been… ruminating, on important dragon stuff.’
‘You missed some great stories,’ said Jane. ‘Haroldus is an inspiring orator. He had us hanging off his every word.’
‘Inspiring, got it! But can he do this?’ Dragon swung around and broke wind. Everyone yelped and went stumbling backwards, all except for Jane. She laughed and waved the air.
‘I’m sure he can. But without taking such pride in it.’
Jane hurried after Smithy. She had been waiting a whole week for him to fix her broken sword. Not her Dragonblade, nothing could damage that, except dragon fire itself. It was her patrol sword she had snapped.
‘How, exactly, did you do this?’ Sir Theodore had stared at her broken sword when Jane had returned from morning patrol seven days ago. Jane had gone to see him immediately. There was no point trying to keep the damage a secret from the old knight. He had a nose for deception, and it would have been wrong to ask Smithy to repair her sword in secret.
‘How ‘exact’ do you want me to be, Sire? Is it enough to say Dragon and I had a misadventure with it?’ Jane waited, and was rewarded with silence. Clearly that was not enough. ‘Dragon broke it by accident.’
‘Did he indeed.’ The old warrior looked from Jane to the sword, and back again. ‘You allowed Dragon use your sword?’
‘Not allowed, no.’
‘So, Dragon took it?’
‘Let me understand this correctly, Jane. And please answer with due caution to detail. Your colleague, with his very large front claws, managed to ease the sword from your scabbard without you noticing.’
‘Were you asleep, perhaps?’
‘On duty? No. Never! We were inspecting the damage to the ford at the head of the lake. Flooding had pulled one section away, so I asked Dragon to help me repair it.’
‘And is it repaired?’
‘Well, the flood had torn a great many river willows from the bank, so I instructed…’ Jane paused to correct herself, ‘I mean to say, I ‘requested’ Dragon to snap the branches off. We then wove them into the ford, the way Rake taught us with his basket work.’
‘And this is how Dragon snapped your sword?’
‘Hewing willow branches with it, like a common axe?’
‘No, Dragon stopped awhile to clean his teeth, he likes to use willow branches, as we do. Well, twigs for us, branches for Dragon.’
‘Young lady, I am well aware of the hygiene properties of a twig of chewed willow. Continue.’
‘Yes, Sire, well Dragon got a splinter jammed between his front teeth and he borrowed my sword to prize it out.’
‘A toothpick?’ Theodore bowed his head for a moment. Jane wondered if he was cross, or just hiding a smile. A little of both, perhaps? He looked up again. There was no smile. ‘He broke your sword using it as a toothpick?’
‘Yes, well… when you say it like that it sounds rather...’
‘Expensive, Jane. It sounds rather expensive. Every time your dragon breaks something I must find a way to register the cost on the castle books, and do so without it appearing ridiculous. Take it to Smithy, and please, for the sake of my sanity, simply tell him you broke it repairing a breach in the ford.’
‘Yes, Sir. Am I dismissed?’
‘You certainly are. And speaking of hygiene, please treat yourself to a bath before you reengage with the castle staff.’
‘That would be the dragon dung, we had a...’
‘Not interested. Dismissed, Jane.’
‘Yes, Sir Theodore.’