[Part 1 | Part 2]
A great flapping of leathery wings overhead jerked Gris out of a sound sleep. Thomas was curled against his stomach, and they both looked up at the same time, catching a glimpse of green dragonhide through the branches.
“Bloody hell,” Mac breathed next to him. “We’re supposed to sneak up on that? It’s as big as any five horses together.”
Gris felt nothing but exhilaration. “Lookit it, Mac. Won’t that head look fantastic on my wall?”
“You’ll look fantastic inside the thing’s stomach.” Mac waved his arms. “Are you mad? Let’s just leave Thomas in the cave and go while its back is turned.”
“At least we’re close,” Dani said. “So let’s break camp and get this over with, yeah?”
After a breakfast of porridge and leftover rabbit, they did just that, mounting up and setting off. Gris stayed on full alert in the lead, but they were all nervous, jumping at shadows. The forest noises were louder and more alarming than before, even the bird calls portending danger.
Mac had taken up the rear position, and his horse suddenly squealed, its left hind leg buckling as an arrow appeared in its haunch. Gris wheeled his horse and saw Nash and his pair of minions galloping up behind them, shouting and swinging their swords. Mac threw himself from his falling mount, and a blade missed him by a hairsbreadth.
“Bloody buggering—” Gris snarled, unsheathing his own blade and riding at them. “Pick on someone your own size, you sodding cowards!”
Minion One’s eyes widened at the berserk barbarian, whom he hadn’t actually counted on facing. Gris’s battle roar thundered through the trees, and Minion One wisely turned tail and ran as if his life depended on it. It probably did, actually, but Gris was more intent on Nash.
He pulled up beside him and brought his sword down with all his might, which Nash barely countered with his own blade. The blow knocked Nash from his horse, but he rolled back to his feet, panting, teeth bared, sword at the ready. Furious, Gris rode past him, with a swing that would’ve cut him in half had it connected. Nash threw himself aside at the last moment, but the tip of the blade opened a nasty gash across his ribs.
Minion Two was made of sterner stuff than his cowardly companion, and he rode at Mac, whose injured knee had buckled when he landed. Gris caught that out of the tail of his eye and turned his horse, going after Minion Two with a bloodcurdling yell that jerked the man’s head around. He actually squeaked when he saw Gris coming at him, but he slashed at Mac in passing. Mac scrambled backward on his elbows, barely avoiding being trampled.
A roar from one side and a ki-yi-yi from the other told Gris that Nash had inadvertently brought company to their party, trolls and goblins adding excitement to a battle that already had plenty. He laid about with his sword, and limbs and heads went flying.
Dani, he saw, was making a good account of herself as well, as goblins tried to swarm her horse and she chopped at them. But he had his own hide to worry about, as his horse grunted and went down, nearly pinning his leg. He whisked it free at the last moment and ended up back to back with Mac, whose reach and sword were both woefully short. Not only that, but Mac had to use his off hand, because his sword arm was the one that had been dislocated and it still wasn’t quite right.
“This is a fine distraction,” Gris said out of the corner of his mouth. “You should take Thomas and make the best of it.” His blade hewed through a troll neck, sending the head rolling away with a surprised expression.
“And leave you and Dani? That’d be a nasty trick.”
“That’d be mission accomplished.” A throaty bellow from overhead made them both look up. The dragon had arrived to see what the fuss was on its mountain.
“Gris, you’re smiling. Stop it. It’s bloody disturbing.”
“You’ll never get a better chance, Mac. The dragon has left its lair. All you have to do is drop off a cat and fill your pockets.” Gris skewered a pair of goblins who really should have known better. “We’ll be fine. Go.”
“Bloody— At least get your back to something solid.” They fought their way to an oak, and Mac slipped away as the dragon landed, flattening several saplings. “Don’t die, you great lummox. And take care of Dani.”
Mac found Thomas up a tree, flattened on a branch and watching the battle with a twitching tail. “Time to go, Thomas,” he said. “The dragon’s busy, no time like the present.”
“I can’t believe you’re leaving them,” Thomas said. “Moggie said—”
“I’m useless in a fight like that. I have my own job to do, and that’s getting you to the dragon’s cave and grabbing a jewel to prove I did. Gris practically chased me away. So let’s go, yeah?”
“Fine,” Thomas said, hopping down onto the satchel on his back. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Me too,” Mac muttered, setting off up the mountain. He looked back several times as the sound of the battle faded behind them, but clenched his jaw and traveled on.
They were closer to the cave than he’d thought, and he came upon it suddenly as a cat darted out and ran between his feet, nearly upsetting him. “Well, hello,” Thomas said, hopping down and sauntering toward the opening.
“Do be careful,” Mac said. “Yon dragon may have traps set up.”
“They’ll be traps for humans, not cats. It wants cats.”
That was so, and Mac was decidedly cautious as he sidled up to the cave mouth. But no tripwires awaited him, no evil befell, and he supposed that the dragon counted on folk being too afraid of it to invade its demesne.
Well, he’d be stupid not to be afraid of it, wouldn’t he? Which was why he was here while the dragon was busy elsewhere. He ducked through the opening of the cave, and stopped short in awe as his vision was arrested.
Great heaps and piles and stacks. Gold, silver, gems in all the colors of the rainbow and a few he was fair certain no one had ever seen before. Coins, statues, crowns, pendants, rings, other jewelry. It all glowed in the soft natural light thrown off by lichen on the walls, and he stepped forward as if in a dream and picked up a carven gold scepter topped by a ruby as large as his fist. This cave held enough treasure to keep him comfortable in the richest city in the world for a thousand lifetimes.
Captivated by the riches laid out before him, he took a few moments to realize that dozens of cats decorated every surface and played patty-paw with the baubles. Cats in every shape, size, color, and age, from kittens who had yet to open their eyes to doddering elders snoozing on piles of silk. None of them paid him any mind, and he’d lost Thomas in the mob. This, he suspected, was where the dragon’s actual treasure lay.
So he was careful not to disturb any of them as he filled his pockets and satchel to bulging. A gold and silver dragon-head statue the size of a half-grown kitten held pride of place in a glowing alcove. It had emerald eyes, and he crammed it into his pack. “I thought you were only supposed to take one jewel,” said a voice by his ankle, and he looked down.
“Oh, there you are, Thomas.” Mac gestured around, a little wildly. “How can I not take as much as I can carry? Look at all this.”
“Don’t see the appeal myself. Not like you can eat any of it.” Thomas batted at an eyeball-sized emerald. “They do roll nicely, though, and they’re sparkly.”
“You can get things to eat with it. I’ll never go hungry again. And I’ll be able to buy a house instead of renting a shabby little room I share with rats and roaches.” Perhaps he could share with Dani instead. He shivered at the notion of her finally noticing him, not sure if he was terrified or anticipatory. The satchel, by this time, was nearly too heavy to lift, and he heaved it onto his back with a grunt. “So, Thomas, is this what you hoped for?”
“Oh, aye,” Thomas said. His tail arched over his back, and he purred. “So many ladies, so little time. Thank you for bringing me, Mac.”
“You’re more than welcome, and I’ll leave you to it, old chap.” Mac saluted him with a little bow and cautiously poked his head out, taking a good look ‘round before he exited the cave and headed back down the trail.
His shoulder, knee, and ribs complained bitterly at him before he’d got too far, however, and he finally halted with a put-upon sigh. A moss-covered boulder sat off a bit from the track, and he decided it was as good a marker as any. Digging a hole on the side of it away from the trail, he buried the satchel and about half of what he had in his pockets as well, figuring to come back later with another sack to carry it all in.
After scattering leaves over the disturbed ground, he left his trove and made far better time. A few minutes later, a goblin charged around a switchback, gibbering in fear, and nearly bowled him over as it raced by. He stopped and listened, face going pale when he realized a battle—no, the battle—was headed right toward him. He’d rather hoped it would be over by the time he dropped Thomas off, but apparently not.
A troll with a missing arm and a chipped hide galloped past him next, clipping his bad shoulder and sending him spinning to the ground with a choked curse. Something else—it had to be a goblin, because a troll would have crushed the life out of him—stepped on his head and the small of his back before disappearing up the trail. He heaved himself to his feet and heard Gris’s happy combat roar and a scream of fury from Dani. At least they were still alive, then.
They rounded the corner next, backing toward him, covered in blue blood that wasn’t theirs and red blood that was. His stomach lurched, and he leaped forward to stand beside them. “Mac!” Gris bellowed. “Mission accomplished, then?”
“Oh, aye. I see our fight’s still. . .”
The words died in his throat as the dragon’s head, followed by its long, snakelike neck, and then the rest of the enormous body, followed it around the switchback. It slung the crushed body of a troll from its mouth and hissed like the biggest snake in the world. Mac tried and failed to swallow past a suddenly-dry throat as it reared its head up and looked at him. “Thief!” it bellowed.
“Well. Yes.” Mac tightened his slack grip on his sword. He was suddenly enraged, because he was hurt, and Dani was bleeding, and why in sodding hell did someone have to do this every year, anyway? “But only because you have a bloody stupid arrangement with the village!”
Dani’s eyes went huge through her mask of blood, and she put a hand on his arm. “Mac, what—”
He stepped forward furiously, waving his pitiful little blade. “Every year you demand that we not only bring you a cat, but that we also steal a gem from your cave and pray to the gods we don’t get caught! Every year we have to play this ridiculous game with you, and for what? So you can have another cat? You have dozens, and they’re always making more!”
The dragon’s nostrils flared and belched smoke. “You puny, insolent creature, I should roast you where you stand.”
“But you won’t, because I’m a very good thief, yes, I am, and not only are my pockets filled with your treasure, but I buried more, lots more, where you’ll never find it. Especially a certain gold and silver dragon head with emerald eyes.” The dragon’s head reared back, and it flattened its ruff. Mac stopped waving the sword and pointed it at the dragon’s face. It didn’t even shake. “So, if you want to see it again, you will let us go and concede that we accomplished what we set out to do.” He bared his teeth and stepped forward. “Not only that, but from here on out, if you want a cat, you can come to the village and bloody well buy one like a normal personage.”
The dragon blinked. “No one has ever dared speak to me like this.”
“Well, I’m daring. I have been battered, bloodied, and broken on this mad, stupid adventure, and I have had enough. It stops now.” He crossed his arms. “Or you can go ahead and eat me, and may I choke you on my way down your sodding gullet.”
The dragon lowered its head until its massive amber eye was even with his. “What say you two? Are you of an accord with your bold companion?”
Chin high, Gris stepped up beside Mac. “You ain’t eating me without a fight, but yeah.”
Dani ranged herself on his other side. “And I.”
“So be it.” Mac braced himself, prepared to sell his life dearly, but then the dragon said, “You have bested me. Tell me where you buried my treasure, especially the carving. It is the likeness of a long-dead mate, and I had it specially commissioned. Relinquish what you have on your person, save the one you need for the village—and I accede to your terms.”
“I think we should get one each, plus the one for the village. It’s little enough,” Mac said, “and I think we earned it.”
“One each?” And that was Nash, limping up the trail now that the shouting was over.
Mac growled. “Him, you are free to devour, your dragonness.”
The dragon swiveled its head around, and Nash backpedaled, rapidly, and fell on his arse. Scrambling to his feet, he hightailed it back down the mountain, much to everyone’s satisfaction—including Moggie’s. She hopped from a branch to land on Dani’s shoulder, purring.
“One each,” the dragon said. “One for your cat as well.”
“Right, then.” Mac was scrupulous about emptying his pockets, because he realized the dragon knew exactly what treasure it had down to the ducat and would come after him for anything missing. “In the lee of the moss-covered boulder by the trail, you’ll find a filled satchel and rather a lot of loose treasure as well.” Off Dani’s lifted brow, he said, “What? I’m a thief, luv, you know that.”
She eyed the jewels the dragon had given them. They’d be set for years, with these things. “Perhaps you won’t have to resort to such anymore.”
“And then he’ll be respectable enough for you to marry him,” Moggie said.
Mac made a strangled noise. “What?”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake. Humans.” She flicked what was left of her tail. “Let’s get off this horrid mountain, and you can hash it out later.”
“Yes, let’s,” Gris rumbled, and they took their leave. He picked up a troll head on their way home.
And Mac found Dani’s hand in his, while Moggie purred them down the trail.
JULIE FROST writes short SFF and lives in Utah with her family and a collection of anteaters and Oaxacan carvings. She whines about writing, a lot, at http://agilebrit.livejournal.com/