Moribus paced outside the stone overhang with drawn sword, awaiting his master’s return. Though the morning sun was blazing, it remained bitterly cold on the hilltop, and his breath frosted on the thin air. He held up the blade to regard his reflection in the pitted steel. Lack of sleep had left him looking red-eyed and feral. He breathed out heavily, clouding it over. The edge of the blade had some fresh chips from the duel. It was a wonder it hadn’t shattered. Don’t be rash, he counseled himself. Bide your time and continue to play the loyal squire. When you return to Alvaron with the dragon’s bounty, it will have all been worth it. But when he flipped the sword over, his haunted reflection returned. Is this what Pagun thought before he died? Is Lord Manerion just using you for dragon bait?
His overworked mind flipped between conspiracy and conjecture. So the knight had misled people into thinking he had slain hordes of dragons. Where was the harm in that? True, he had seen him kill a man in cold blood, but the injured Marduke had already been on death’s doorstep. Was the death of his former squire really so suspicious? Accidents happened all the time, especially in a business as perilous as dragon-slaying. The hillside massacre was proof of that.
The quest was starting to seem impossible. To survive, he would not only have to face down a fire-breathing monstrosity, but he would have to avoid falling victim to the knight’s machinations. Once the dragon was slain, what use was Moribus to him? So many perils, and so few paths that led back to Alvaron and safety. What tormented him most was the fear that he might never again lay eyes on Meglinda. He could picture her standing beneath the laurel oak, her almond eyes radiant in the sun. Had he stroked her pearly skin for the last time?
He was still wrestling with these thoughts when the knight came around a bend in the path below, whistling a spritely tune as he tossed a stone in the air. Moribus felt something rigid inside him lock into place, and he knew his course was set. He could endure the knight’s insults and squally tempers, had grown used to them in fact, but this new jauntiness in the face of tragedy and danger deeply unsettled him.
Moribus blocked the knight’s path, holding his sword out before him. He had spent several sleepless hours composing a damning soliloquy for the occasion, but in the light of day, the words seemed overwrought and silly. “Stay where you are,” was all he could manage.
Lord Manerion kept coming. “Have you lost your wits, boy? What is the meaning of this?”
“I said stay where you are!” Moribus cocked the sword. “Or so help me Rhojë, I will strike you.”
“Easy there.” Lord Manerion halted and spread out his palms in a placating gesture. “If it’s more lessons you want, I’m afraid the time for lessons is over. We’ve a real dragon to slay now, and that little tickle-stick of yours won’t be of any use. So how about you just put it down and go about your chores like a good little squire.”
“I don’t want any more lessons from you,” Moribus said, marshaling his resolve. The knight sounded too calm, too reasonable, too much like his own inner voice urging him to back down. “I’m not putting down the sword until I get some answers.”
“I see.” The knight rubbed his thumb against the stone as he coolly digested the situation. “Gone craven on me, is that it? Caught your first glimpse of death, and now you want to go crawling back to a warm bosom. Not that I blame you. Why, if I had a lovely damsel like that, I would make a tent out of her skirts and camp inside them.”
The knight had picked the wrong time to make a bawdy jest. Moribus thrust the point of his sword underneath his chin. “How dare you speak of the Lady Meglinda like that!”
Lord Manerion raised his chin to expose more of his neck. “Go ahead and finish it, boy. Just make sure you get in a good, clean strike. I can’t stand messy work. Just tell me one thing. What was your price? If it was any less than a thousand crowns you were bought for too cheap.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t play me for the fool, boy. Who are you working for? Lord Tracheron? Lady Brandywine? The Legateen council?”
“No one. You think I’m…” Moribus considered, “an assassin?”
“The thought did cross my mind.”
“I assure that I’m not. This isn’t about money or anything else. I just want answers.”
“We all want answers, boy. Why do flowers bloom? How do birds fly? What drives men to do treacherous deeds?”
“I think you know the sort of answers I’m talking about.”
“Still sore over that mercy killing yesterday, is that it? The sorry bastard deserved a few more hours of suffering, I’ll grant you that.”
“That’s not the murder I’m interested in.” Moribus twisted the tip of the sword into the loose skin of the knight’s neck. “Tell me about Pagun.”
“Pagun? Pagun who?”
The knight snorted disdainfully. “What could you possibly want to know about that pisspot? He’s dead. You’re here. You should thank your lucky stars. A lot of lordly brats would sell their manhood for a chance to squire for a famous dragonslayer.”
“Answer the question. How did he die?”
“I’ll answer your questions, boy. But do you think you could, um…” His eyes flicked toward the sword at his throat.
“If you try anything—anything at all, I’ll kill you. I mean that.”
“Sounds like we’ve got ourselves an understanding, then,” said the knight.
Moribus backed away a step but kept the sword poised between them.
A trickle of blood ran down the knight’s neck. He wiped at it with his fingers then licked them clean rather than stain his woolen skivvies. “I must say, boy, you’ve got more spunk than I gave you credit for. I didn’t think you had it in you for this sort of thing. Say, have you got any water handy? It’s a fair hike up this mountain, and my throat is right parched.”
“You don’t suppose I could at least sit, then? That boulder right there would do nicely. If you don’t plan on using it.”
Figuring that it would be easier to keep an eye on the knight if he was sitting down, Moribus nodded his consent.
Lord Manerion took a seat on the boulder and folded his hands in his lap, looking perfectly at ease.
“Drop the stone,” Moribus said.
“What, this little pebble?” Lord Manerion tossed it aside. “I should warn you, boy. I can spit poison at twenty paces.”
“Stop stalling. Tell me about Pagun.”
“What do you want to know? The boy was the craven son of a dung beetle.”
“If you hated him so much, why not just dismiss him from service?”
“If only it were that simple,” the knight sighed. “Insect that he was, he had the misfortune of being the son of a very powerful and wealthy dung beetle that ruled the dung pile. None other than Lord Tracheron himself, head of the Merchant’s Guild. Lord Tracheron was very fond of the brat, you see. Fancied he had the makings of a dragonslayer. Problem was, the boy had a heart the size of a chicken liver. A born coward, yellow as the day is long. He nearly got me killed once. We were making our way through the woods when the dragon passed right over top of us—”
“Stop!” Moribus caught the knight reaching for his ankle with his right hand. “What are you doing there?”
“Got an itch, was going to scratch it.”
“No scratching.” Moribus brandished his sword. He suspected the knight of having a small weapon concealed somewhere in the thick woolen undergarment.
“Very well.” He placed his hand back in his lap. “Where was I?”
“Right. We were deep under cover of the trees when the yellow-belly brat goes and craps in his pants. And no, I don’t mean in the figurative sense. If it hadn’t started to rain just then, the dragon would have caught the scent and fallen on us for sure.”
“So you killed him for being a coward.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. If I went around killing every coward I came across, there wouldn’t be but two souls left in the city.”
“But you did kill him.”
“When the boy realized he wasn’t cut out for the dragonslaying business, he figured he would try his hand at another trade. Treachery.” He leaned forward to spit in the dirt.
“He was going to ruin you,” Moribus followed. “He knew about the skulls, didn’t he? He knew you didn’t slay all those dragons.”
“You give him too much credit,” Lord Manerion said. “He wasn’t a first-rate guesser like you. The boy was a born fool. By himself he was perfectly harmless. His father, though…” He whistled through his teeth. “Now there was a viper. When the boy blabbed his trumped-up lies, Lord Tracheron hatched up some plans of his own. With me out of the way, he figured he could install his bratling in my place. So he bribed the High Council to start an inquiry into my lineage. He presented them with lies, terrible lies,” he grimaced. “He even hired some whore to pose as my wet nurse.”
“Certainly you could supply proof of your lineage?”
Lord Manerion massaged his temples with the tips of his fingers. “Lost everything in a fire when I was a stripling. Big fornicating blaze. Burned up the entire estate along with my family, closest of kin, treasure and seals, everything. Only myself and the family name survived.”
“So it was your word against theirs.”
“Their gold against my honor, more like.”
“So you killed him. And the body… you mutilated and burned it to make it look like he’d been slain by a dragon.”
“Burned then mutilated, to be precise. Though I must confess that part was a bit theatrical. But the masses do love their theatrics, don’t they? His death was quite painless, I assure you. I suffocated him in his sleep. The burning and mutilation, that came after.”
Moribus felt a twinge of revulsion. “And the father, does he suspect?”
“He’s an aristocrat, so of course he suspects. But has he sent his assassins after me? Hard to say. When the boy came up dead, that presented a bit of a problem for him. Dragon still has to be slain, doesn’t it? Can’t have a nasty beastie going around and burning up highborn brats. Besides, people might get the notion he didn’t love his son if he didn’t see to it that his killer was avenged.”
“So what did he do?”
“He did what any coward with too much gold weighing down his pockets would do. He placed a bounty on the dragon, the weight of its head in gold. A most noble gesture, wouldn’t you say? But the rich old fool made a grave mistake. He’s never seen a full-grown dragon’s head. Oh yes, this is going to cost him dearly.” He grinned with relish.
“The Mardukes. They were after the bounty then?”
“I didn’t get a chance to ask them, but it’s a fair guess they weren’t hunting pheasant.”
“But you intend to claim the bounty for yourself,” Moribus realized.
“Someone’s got to part the old fool from his money and avenge his son.”
“Why bother with a bounty when you could just plunder the dragon’s lair?”
“Ah, yes, the dragon’s lair,” Lord Manerion chuckled. “Heard about that, have you? Caverns piled high with the hoard of a thousand kings. All you have to do is find the right cave in the right mountain and climb your way up to it without falling or freezing or starving to death in the process. Once inside, you better watch that you don’t lose your way in the winding tunnels or fall into a lightless chasm. After all that, if you’re still alive, you just have to carry the plunder back down the mountainside on your own back because no pack mule is going to make the trip. What could possibly be simpler than that?”
Moribus flushed in embarrassment. He was the one holding the sword—so why did it feel like the knight was still in charge? “So you intend to kill the dragon and return to Alvaron to claim the bounty?”
“Return to Alvaron?” Lord Manerion grunted. “Are you out of your gourd, boy? Lord Tracheron may be a fool, but he’s a dangerous fool with the ear of the king. Returning would be certain death.”
“If he’s that dangerous then why hasn’t he tried to kill you already?”
“Even Lord Tracheron is not so brazen as to have me killed where the eyes of the city are watching. Besides, why kill me now when he can kill me later, if you take my meaning?”
Moribus did. If Lord Manerion perished at the claws of the dragon then Pagun’s father would not have to sully his own hands. But if the knight prevailed against the beast, Lord Tracheron would see to it that he never reached the city to claim the bounty. “Where will you go?”
“Haven’t made up my mind yet. Kekkelan to the north or Orin-Usay in the south. Someplace where there are dragons to be slain and highborn ladies to be bedded.” He made another motion for his ankle.
“Uh-uh-uh,” Moribus said.
“Itches like a bastard.”
“The next time it itches, I’ll cut it off.”
Lord Manerion placed his hand back in his lap. “Fancy that, the itching stopped.”
“You’d leave it all behind?” Moribus resumed. “Your manse? Your servants? All your wealth?”
“Ah, the manse, now that’s a shame,” Lord Manerion said with apparent regret. “Couldn’t risk selling it with Lord Tracheron’s spies skulking about. As for my wealth, I daresay it’s not what it used to be. Turns out running an estate can be quite a drain on one’s accounts. But the bounty should be more than sufficient to strike out somewhere new and make a fresh start.”
“But if you’re not going back to Alvaron then how will you…” Understanding began to dawn at last.
“There’ll be a quarter share in it for you,” Lord Manerion said. “I think you’ll find it more than enough to see yourself happily bedded down and set up with a fine estate somewhere. They’ll have to think I’m dead, of course. Fortunately, a corpse won’t be too hard to come by. After a bit of burning and mutilation, they all start to look the same.”
“What makes you think I would agree to help you?”
The knight fixed him with a calculating stare. “Remember that first night at the campfire when you asked if I had any interesting stories to tell?”
Moribus felt a dark premonition. “I remember.”
“It turns out I do know an interesting yarn or two. There’s this one in particular that comes to mind. I think you’ll find it quite… illuminating. It’s about this boy. A peasant. A simple swineherd or stable-muck perhaps.”
“A farmer,” Moribus corrected.
“Yes, that’s right. A farmer. You’ve heard this story, I see. But maybe you’ve forgotten how it ends. Allow me to refresh your memory.” The knight’s speech took on a storybook cadence. “There was once a lowly peasant farmer that fell in love with the most beautiful princess in all the land. So smitten is he, he straightaway sells the very shoes off his feet and sets off for her castle to beg her hand in marriage. But alas, a lady as pure and divine as his beloved will settle for nothing less than a valorous prince. Being but a lowly commoner with no wealth, title or lands to his name, what is he to do? Why, slay a dragon, of course. When he returns at the head of a procession with the head of the magnificent beast, the princess will surely throw open her bower doors and spread wide the curtains to her maidenhood.”
As the knight spoke, Moribus saw his life unfolding before him like a mural. He knew the ending before Lord Manerion painted it for him in crude brush strokes.
“After a long and perilous journey, our young peasant-turned-prince returns at last. The princess spies him from her castle window and watches him approach with great longing in her heart. At long last, her virgin days of waiting are over. But wait! There is her prince, but where is the dragon’s head? Where is his brave traveling companion? Oh, why is the princess weeping so?”
Moribus could feel the black rage coming on, but instead of exploding forth, it passed through like a scorching wind, leaving only futility and resignation in its wake. “You scheming bastard.”
The knight chuckled. “That’s a different tune than what you were singing a few weeks ago. You seemed quite content then to masquerade as a prince and go gallivanting off in pursuit of glory. You see, boy, everyone has something they’re willing to lie, cheat and steal for.”
“A man does what he has to do,” the knight replied without remorse. “And if you know what’s good for you and that fair princess of yours, you’ll do what you have to do as well. Oh, and I wouldn’t think of betraying me as soon as you get back to Alvaron. It may be tempting to keep all that gold for yourself. Or maybe you’d throw your lot in with my enemies. You’d ruin yourself, of course, but you just might do it to spite me anyway. I’ve seen that nasty temper of yours. But would you sacrifice your little lady friend?” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m not one to place much store in rumors, but I’ve heard from certain reliable sources—now you won’t believe this—that she’s an imposter too.”
Moribus felt unsteady on his feet. Fear had sustained him in the absence of sustenance and sleep, but it was ebbing away now, leaving him hollowed out. He put a bracing hand against a tree. “So that’s the way it is?”
“That’s the way the world is, boy. You can go with the grain, or you can try to cut against it and be worn down in the end.”
“How can I know you’re not deceiving me now?”
A flash of steel whisked past his left ear to stick quivering in the tree.
“You’re still alive, aren’t you?” Lord Manerion said.
Stunned, Moribus turned to stare at the hiltless blade protruding from the trunk. A few inches to the right and it would have gone through his eye. He had suspected the knight of having a hidden weapon, but he had not expected him to strike out so suddenly—and with his left hand no less. In hindsight, he could see that the knight’s itches had only been a ruse to draw his attention to all the wrong places. Once again, Moribus had underestimated just how dangerous the man before him was.
Lord Manerion stood and brushed off the back of his woolen skivvies. “Consider your options, boy. I suggest you don’t keep me waiting long. I’m not a patient man.” He walked past Moribus and disappeared into the shadow of the stone overhang.