20. Into the Frying Pan

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Moribus found the dragon-beset village easily enough. With a little persuasion, the dapper young knight he met along the way had been most helpful and informative. Promised a village ransom, the knight intended to ride in on his white charger and hack the dragon to bits. To cure him of this delusion and prevent his further interference, Moribus stripped him down to his skivvies and floated his armor down the river. Taking pity on him, he left him some coin. The white charger he kept for himself.

Even without the knight's directions, the village would have been difficult to miss. All one had to do was follow the trail of ash that shimmered on the air like black pixie dust. Humming merrily to himself, Moribus emerged a couple hours later into a low clearing that resembled the bottom of a cast iron frying pan. Jumbled spars of charcoal were all that remained of its houses and shops. He took note of claw marks and the occasional dragon scale glinting among the ashes. Small, mercury-colored pools gave the appearance of being wet but had long since congealed, turning hard as steel: dragon blood.

The dragon had been on the smallish side and sustained at least one injury. Moribus was a bit disappointed, but what could he expect? They couldn't all be frigate-sized monstrosities. Judging by the thorough job of burning, it had probably been on a treasure raid. While dragons didn't flame to kill, fire was a useful way of exposing metal objects concealed in wooden structures.

Moribus had learned much about dragons over the past few months from—where else? —the Alvaron archives. The tomes were ancient, and the words were as meaningless as insect trails to his eyes, but Borca had agreed to translate the essential parts. Combined with his firsthand knowledge, Moribus was probably the only practitioner of his trade that stood a chance of living to middle age—or so he hoped.

Having sized up his adversary, Moribus turned his attention to the makeshift pavilion thrown up at the far end of the clearing. It was a forlorn structure, jury rigged from drapes and linens that had been crookedly propped up on wooden stakes. As he reined up before it, several weathered-looking men poured out, forming up into a human wall.

Moribus could identify their trades by the implements they bore in lieu of weapons: a pitchfork for the farmer, a crook for the herdsman, a large hammer for the blacksmith, a cleaver for the butcher, and a wooden soup spoon—the man with the soup spoon looked down at his weapon in chagrin, ducked back inside the pavilion, and returned a moment later with a notched hatchet. Another man darted after him and angrily snatched it away. "Cowlick, you lickspittle! Get your own chorling hatchet, you stinking bag of rat-gut!"

A final figure emerged from the pavilion, moving slowly on account of his injuries. With his shirtless torso heavily wrapped in pus-soaked bandages, he looked like the result of a failed mummification. His right arm hung in a sling, and parts of his face and neck were rutabaga red, although that might have been a birthmark. Wounded as he was, he bore an air of command that caused the others to stand up straighter. Here was a man that had stood his ground in the face of a dragon, maybe even managed to strike it a serious blow. That would make him either a lunatic or a hero, perhaps a little of both. Moribus took an instant liking to him.

With his good hand, the burned man tucked a leafy wad of chewing weed under his lower lip. He sucked on it for a moment as he sized Moribus up. "You the dragonslayer?" he scowled.

Moribus vaulted out of the saddle and dropped a low, sweeping bow. "Moribus Ansol Polibdemus the Third at your service."

"I don't give a rutting fart what your name is. Are you the knight we sent for?"

"A knight—hells no! But if it's a dragonslayer you need, then I might be of some service to you."

The leader squinted at him disapprovingly. "You don't look much like a dragonslayer to me."

"Well, this doesn't look much like a town."

With a loud hock, the burned man spat out a brown wad that fell just shy of Moribus's feet. His wounds had not impaired his ability to expectorate. "You got a wild tongue on you, stranger," he said. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't have my boys here put a halter on it."

Moribus shot a conspicuous glance toward the pavilion where a pair of wide, blue eyes peered out at him through a narrow seam. "Why, then I wouldn't be able to woo your lovely daughter."

The burned man turned just in time to see the seam draw shut. When he turned back to face Moribus, his look was full of murderous intent. "All right, boys," he addressed his fellows. "Why don't we show this so-called dragonslayer how we welcome wild-tongued strangers into our town."

Moribus was ready for them, having already sized up the most dangerous. The slingshot appeared in his hand, and three stones flew in rapid succession, each finding their mark. Just like that, the farmer was out cold on the ground, and the blacksmith and woodsman were nursing head contusions.

Moribus had just enough time to slip another stone into the cradle before the remaining two assailants were upon him. Sidestepping an overhand hack from the shepherd's crook, he whipped his slingshot around to catch him underneath the chin. Jaws clacked together with the sound of a splitting walnut. Stunned, the shepherd dropped on the spot. That left only the butcher with his sharp but short-bladed cleaver. Snatching up the shepherd's crook, Moribus used its superior reach to clobber him about the legs and arms until he dropped his weapon and scrambled away.

Meanwhile, the blacksmith, bearing a large goose egg on his forehead, decided to charge him from behind. He might have had better luck had he not cut loose with a barbarian war cry. Dropping to his knees, Moribus pumped the crook backward at an upward angle to catch him full in the gut. Propelled by his own momentum and half-impaled upon the crook, the blacksmith soared up and over Moribus to land in a breathless heap on the other side.

The only villagers left standing were the burned man and the one called Cowlick, who remained fixed to his original spot, punching one hand menacingly into an open palm. When Moribus took a step in his direction, he scampered into the pavilion like a mouse into a crevasse. The whole skirmish had lasted less than half a minute. Belatedly, Moribus broke into a sweat.

The leader coolly appraised Moribus as he reached into his back pocket for a fresh batch of chewing weed. Meanwhile, a couple of his men were struggling to their feet and seemed to be considering the wisdom of a second attempt. "Joris. Dugan. That's enough," said the burned man. "If this stranger wants to try his hand with the dragon, I say we leave him to it. We'll see how sticks and stones fare against dragonfire. Either way, we're sure to be rid of one of them."

Moribus tucked away his slingshot. "Now that that's settled, perhaps this would be a good time to discuss the matter of my boon?"

"Your boon?"

"Where I come from, it's customary to offer a dragonslayer a reward upon rendering of services."

"I fear we've squandered all our gold on real knights," the leader said with a sludge-colored smile.

"Not to fret," Moribus replied, throwing a discreet wink toward the pavilion. "It's not your gold I'm after."

* * * * *

Moribus's firstdragon-kill was hardly the stuff of legends. The dragon was barely more than afledgling, fresh from cutting its claws on its clutchmates. A grown man couldhave wrapped his arms around its torso. Though quick and strong, it wasunschooled in tactics and hampered by an injury to its tail. Moribus, beinginexperienced himself, made sloppy work of it, treating the townspeople to arousing spectacle. It was a shame the makeshift pavilion caught fire in theprocess. That did not, however, discourage him from conducting a brief butfiery romance with the burned man's daughter.

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