Is your kingdom bothered by a pesky dragon problem?
Need any giant monsters slain?
Are your own knights in shining armor unreliable or—worse—cowards?
Young Cullin, wanting to see the world, joins a band of renowned knights errant who will slay your dragon for a price. Satisfaction guaranteed!
The only problem is, it's all a scam. The "dragon" is no more than rumors and tall tales spread by Cullin and his gang, giant three-toed footprints stomped into the ground near strategically burned-down huts and charred skeletons (procured from the local graveyard). It's a great con job, so long as Cullin and company can take the money and run, move on to the next kingdom before anyone catches on.
But even con men can be caught in their own game. Clever, spunky Princess Affonyl doesn't want any part of the arranged marriage to an evil duke from a neighboring kingdom. And she realizes that a fearsome dragon, even an imaginary one, is the perfect cover for her escape.
It's one caper after another as these medieval dirty, rotten scoundrels try to outsmart one another. And they discover that the dragon business is more than just a game…especially if a real dragon might be involved.
"Love this story. Bulldozed through it the first time so taking it slowly second time around to appreciate it more."– Persis Gretna
"I enjoyed the modern writing style in a medieval setting, and the witty writing. Recommend."– Megan Wright
Ashtok's kingdom seemed as good a place to start as any. The land from sea to sea was a patchwork quilt of kingdoms, principalities, duchies, earldoms, baronies, and assorted ethnic neighborhoods. A person couldn't throw a stick without going over some border or other. Anybody who could afford a larger-than-normal house called it a castle and crowned himself king. It was a land of opportunities and a land of geographical confusion; kingdoms were always in flux, and mapmakers had job security.
The kingdom ruled by Ashtok was average; the people were average; the economy was average. His castle had crenelated battlements, stone turrets, and a shallow moat that was more of a landscaping conceit than a significant defensive measure.
On his interior walls, Ashtok displayed oil paintings of stern-looking nobles dressed in clothes from bygone days. The faces in the portraits bore no resemblance to King Ashtok; when questioned about this, he would admit that he had purchased the paintings in a clearance sale from another castle that was being torn down.
Ashtok was particularly proud of the parquet floor in his throne room, polished strips of wood inlaid in beautiful patterns and waxed every morning so that the entire chamber smelled of lemon oil and beeswax.
Ashtok was a slender, middle-aged man whose left arm ended in a stump. He had lost his hand, not in any great battle, but from an infected badger bite. The king had reached into a badger hole to retrieve a button that popped loose from his cloak, and the badger took offense at the intrusion. King Ashtok did not often tell that particular story.
One day while at court, Ashtok sat on his throne, bored. As a hobby, he had decided to work on developing his psychic powers. With his one hand, he would draw a playing card from the deck in his lap and try to guess the number and suit before he turned it over. After an hour with little success, the king decided that his psychic powers were better classified as "post-predictive," because when he tried to guess the card after he looked at it, he was correct nearly every time.
The throne room doors were thrown open with a dramatic flourish, and the court herald scurried in ahead of two unexpected visitors. Startled, Ashtok knocked the playing cards from his lap, and when he tried to catch the pile with his left hand, he failed because he no longer had a left hand.
The herald struggled to announce the visitors, but tripped over his words because he had forgotten to ask their names. "Sire, these two strangers from far-off lands request an audience with you. A knight and his squire."
A distinguished knight strode in with perfect posture and confidence. His pointed steel-gray beard was combed and trimmed. His chain mail had obviously seen many years of use but was well mended and maintained. A long sword hung at his hip, and a bright orange sash crossed his chest. A stiff cape of scales hung heavy from his shoulders.
He was accompanied by a young squire, a loyal, useful, and talented lad named Cullin. The squire moved forward, but his feet skidded on the fine parquet floor, because of the buildup of wax and polish. Catching his balance, he stood before the throne.
The knight bowed. "I am Sir Dalbry, Majesty, and this is Squire Cullin. I have come in response to the crisis in your kingdom."
"Crisis?" Ashtok asked. "What crisis?"
Dalbry regarded him for a long moment. "Then it is a good thing I am here."
The young squire piped up, "Majesty, brave Sir Dalbry is a renowned dragon slayer. Surely you have heard of him? The minstrels sing of him across the land."
Ashtok quickly covered his ignorance. "Of course, we've heard of him. I know the songs, though I can't quite remember how the tune goes right now."
In fact, there were no songs—not yet—but that was on Cullin's list of things to do. As he bowed before the throne, he saw his reflection on the gleaming floor—his mouse-brown hair, his handsome features, his youthful optimism, and his bright sparkling eyes.
"It's strange when you tell the story like that," says Prince Maurice.
"Like what?" I ask.
"I mean, referring to yourself as Cullin. It's jarring. Ruins my suspension of disbelief."
I hope he doesn't keep interrupting, because then I'll never finish the tale before last call at the tavern. Since the boy does a lot of reading, I try to explain in terms he'll understand. "All I did was switch from first person to third person. It's a perfectly acceptable narrative technique."
Maurice finishes his sweet cider. The brownish foam on top of his untouched tankard of ale has congealed to the consistency of meringue. "Still doesn't make me believe the story really happened. When I hear you talk about how handsome and intelligent you were, it makes you an unreliable narrator."
"Not unreliable whatsoever." I realize I must be sounding defensive, but I can't deny that the queen would probably agree with him. I wish he had shown some of that skepticism with the traveler selling rainbow-impregnated unicorn horns. "Just pay attention now."
Since Dalbry's and Cullin's boots were covered with mud, they left tracks on the parquet floor. Servants rushed in behind them with rags to wipe away the dirt, then they restored the shine with elbow grease.
From his high throne, Ashtok addressed the servants. "When you're finished there, pick up my playing cards. I need them back on my lap."
The servants hurried to do so.
Sir Dalbry faced the throne with a look of modest nonchalance as young Cullin sang his praises. "See here, Sire—his sash is orange because it reminds him of flames from the throats of all the dragons he has slain." The squire ran around and held out the edge of the knight's scaled cape. "And this is a genuine dragon hide, taken from a giant monster that nearly killed my master. He skinned the dragon after he killed it."
Sir Dalbry drew his sword and pointed to the polished black gems set into its hilt. "These are made of hardened dragon's blood, droplets that fell on the ground and petrified as soon as my reptilian nemesis was dead." He turned the sword so that Ashtok could be suitably impressed.
Cullin knew the gems were simple obsidian, and the "dragonskin" cape was the hide of an alligator sold to them by a swampland trader from far in the south. But Ashtok seemed convinced, and that was what mattered.
The one-handed king leaned forward on his throne. "But what does all this talk of dragons have to do with me? And what is this crisis you mentioned? Shall I call for my treasurer? In my experience, a crisis is usually expensive."
Cullin certainly hoped that the situation would prove to be expensive, but he and Dalbry had to set up their scheme further. "I mention dragons, Sire, in order to establish my credentials." Dalbry stroked his gray beard. "Your kingdom is currently being attacked by a bloodthirsty dragon. Are you not aware of the devastation the monster has already caused?"
Ashtok looked disturbed. "I … haven't read today's newspaper yet."
Although some distant lands had invested in the printing press, Ashtok's kingdom was not yet at the cutting edge of technology. His newspapers were painstakingly transcribed by a group of reporter monks, who took a week to write out the articles by hand and illuminate each edition of the daily newspaper, the Olden Tymes. Thus it was difficult for even a king to keep up with current events.
That worked in their favor, from Cullin's point of view.
Dalbry continued. "Peasant houses burned, livestock carried off. There are strange noises in the night, shadows across the moon." The ladies at court looked up from their embroidery. One young lady pricked her finger with a needle, then gasped as a drop of blood stained the white cloth and ruined the pattern.
Cullin hurried over to the girl, who had a very pretty face. "Might I have that, my lady?" He looked up at the throne, explaining to Ashtok, "Virgin's blood can be very useful in attracting a dragon." Cullin lowered his voice to a stage whisper, "You are a virgin, aren't you?"
"Of course, sir!" The other ladies looked away, muttering, shuffling their dainty feet. The girl dabbed more blood from her finger and handed him the bloodstained cloth, looking at him defiantly. "Surely you can tell the purity of a virgin's blood just by looking at it."
Cullin folded the cloth and tucked it into his belt. "Absolutely. The purest of the pure."
The court chamberlain admitted, "I have also heard rumors in town, Sire. The people are frightened. Something needs to be done before there's a panic."
"But why would a dragon decide to prey here?" Ashtok said. "My kingdom hardly boasts enough wealth to tempt a dragon."
"Who can comprehend the larger reptiles, Sire?" Dalbry said with a shrug. "I am an accomplished dragon slayer, references available upon request. I will use my expertise to rid your kingdom of the dangerous beast."
Ashtok set his chin on his stump. "And how much will that cost me?"
Dalbry gestured to Cullin, since the brave knight considered financial negotiations to be beneath him. "For his effort and to cover expenses, Sir Dalbry will require two sacks of gold coins," Cullin said. "I believe you call them durbins in this kingdom? I'm sure you'll find the fee to be quite reasonable."
Ashtok squirmed in his seat. "I can't very well have a dragon running around my kingdom, can I? I don't have enough extra knights that I can spare any to be devoured by a fire-breathing monster."
Dalbry lifted his chin. "None of your knights has the experience I possess."
Cullin piped up. "It's truly a bargain."
"Oh, very well. You shall be paid two sacks of durbins—but only after you have killed the beast and provided proof."
Dalbry bowed. "I vow to return here in five days with the dragon's head, or I shall never return at all." He turned around with a swish of his heavy dragonskin cape.
"We'll be back," Cullin assured the king before following the knight out of King Ashtok's throne room.
Behind them, the servants again rushed forward to polish the mud stains from the beautiful parquet floor.