by David Turnbull -
When Pa came in through the cottage door, Wil looked up from the messy scribble that was his homework. Pa hung his coat on the hook and took a seat by the fire.
“They’re finally going to do something about that dragon up on the High Hill,” he said.
“About time too,” said Ma, stirring the broth that was bubbling away on the range.
A log burning on the fire sent a cinder hissing onto the hearth. Pa reached across and stubbed it out with the tip of his shepherd’s crook.
“What are they going to do?” asked Wil.
Normally dragons lived to the north, where the Far Tundra met the Serrated Mountains, but this one had ended up in Low Counties and had made its lair up on crags of the High Hill. It had been a nuisance for months now, scorching crops in the fields, damaging church spires and, worst of all, leaving huge mounds of dragon dung piled up everywhere.
Wil had actually seen a mound of dragon dung in his neighbor’s back yard. Remembering the awful stench of it he screwed up his nose.
“There was a big meeting,” Pa told him. “All the mayors from all the villages across all of the Low Counties.”
Wil pushed his homework to one side. “They decided what to do about the dragon?”
“Eventually,” replied Pa. “None of them have ever dealt with a dragon crisis before. But from what I heard they agreed straight off that fetching a dragon slayer from Tennanbrau City would be too expensive.”
“Quite right too,” agreed Ma, setting the soup bowls out on the table. “We pay enough taxes as it is.”
Wil didn’t like the idea of a dragon slayer. The dragon might be a pest, but that was no reason for someone to go after it with a lance or a blunderbuss.
“Laying traps in the fields was another suggestion,” said Pa. “But then it was pointed out that sheep might wander into them.”
“And what about the children?” added Ma. “What if Wil accidentally stepped on one?”
Wil smirked to himself. He had his wits about him. He wasn’t likely to go stepping on a dragon trap.
But Pa agreed with Ma.
“It would have been negligent to say the least,” he said. “So the mayors argued all through the night. For every suggesting there were at least two arguments against.” He stretched out his legs and warmed his socks in front of the fire. “Eventually they concluded their only real option was to send a team of hunters up to the High Hill with their dogs.”
“That’ll cost money too,” said Ma. She ladled the broth into the soup bowls and beckoned them both to the table.
“Not as much as a professional dragon slayer.” Pa took his seat and tore off a hunk of bread from the freshly baked loaf that Ma had set down earlier. “I said they could use our old barn as a base.”
Ma placed the soup pot back on the range and swung round. Her face was red. “You did what?”
“I said they could use our old barn,” repeated Pa. “Our farm is the nearest to the foot of the High Hill.”
“I hope they’re not expecting to be fed,” said Ma.
“They’ll bring cheese and biscuits for their breakfast,” Pa assured her.
Wil lifted up a spoonful of his broth and blew on it to cool it down.
“When are they coming?” asked Ma. She looked even more flustered.
“This evening,” replied Pa. “They want to make a start at first light.”
Ma wiped her hands on her apron. “They can’t come this evening. The place is a mess. I haven’t had time to tidy up. Wil, you’ll have to help me.”
“They’re only going to use the old barn,” laughed Pa. “They’re not coming to the house.”
“Well I hope not,” said Ma, finally taking her seat. “I don’t want people gossiping in the village that the Redcap’s keep an untidy house.”
Wil swallowed down a mouthful of broth. Turning to Pa, he asked the question that had been churning in his mind since the first mention of the hunters. “When they go up to the High Hill can I go with them? I’d like to see them catch the dragon.”
“Certainly not!” cried Ma. “It’s too dangerous. You’d get yourself burned to a crisp.”
“Besides,” said Pa. “They’re not going to catch the dragon. They’re going to kill it.”
Later that evening Wil snuck around the side of the old barn. Ma was reading her book by the fireside while Pa sharpened the blades of his big scissors on the whetstone, getting them ready for the sheep-shearing season. Both of them thought Wil was in his room finishing his homework.
Half an hour earlier he had watched the red-bearded hunters arrive, their crossbows slung over their burly shoulders and their dogs straining against their leashes. Now he desperately wanted to listen in on what they were planning.
Through a space in the wooden slats of the old barn Wil could see the dogs lying down in a group just beyond where the hunters sat on a pile of old wool sacks, bathed in the flickering glow from their night lamps. They were talking about what trophies they would take once they killed the dragon.
“I’ll have the wings,” said one. “I know a man who makes excellent umbrellas.”
“I’ll take the skin,” said another. “It’ll make a fine leather jerkin for the winter.”
The third hunter rose to his feet. He took up his crossbow and loaded a bolt. Wil felt his heart quicken. Did they know he was there spying on them?
The hunter shouldered the crossbow and took aim at something at the far end of the barn. Squinting his eyes, Wil could just make out they had chalked a crude outline of a dragon on the far wall of the barn.
The hunter released his bolt with a loud thump...