A hard jostle brought Moribus to his senses. Thoroughly exhausted, he had passed the afternoon dozing in his saddle. To keep from slumping off his horse, he had knotted the arms of his cloak around its neck, forming a sort of body sling.
“Rise and shine, boy,” Lord Manerion said. “You won’t want to sleep through this next part.”
Moribus glanced around groggily. They were in an oval clearing hemmed in on all sides by tall, narrow pines.
The knight had already dismounted. With his helmet tucked under his left arm and his right hand resting on his sword hilt, he looked the picture of a gladiator surveying the arena where he was about to face his adversary. “Yes, this will do nicely,” he said. “Fetch my gear, boy. We’ve got ourselves a dragon to slay.”
Moribus disentangled himself and flopped unceremoniously out of the saddle. Limbs still prickling from lack of blood flow, he set about unpacking the camp equipment. When a bag of pots and utensils clattered noisily to the ground, Lord Manerion turned to see what all the commotion was about.
“Dragon gear, boy. Even I can’t slay a dragon with a fornicating stew pot.”
With a start of surprise, Moribus realized the knight could only be referring to the mysterious bundle lashed to the back of his saddle. At three feet long and just over a foot wide, it was hard to conceive of any weapon it might contain that would be formidable enough to injure a dragon. His curiosity piqued, Moribus unlashed the bundle and presented it to the knight.
Lord Manerion seated himself on a log where he slashed through the ropes and set about unpacking its contents. When he had finished, an assortment of odd paraphernalia lay spread out on the ground before him: a pair of disassembled crossbows with a dozen steel-tipped shafts, a looking glass, a shiny brass bugle, a couple small pouches, and a plum-sized object wrapped in wax paper. “There it is, boy,” he said with pride. “The tools of the trade.”
The contents left Moribus even more confused. How was this collection of mismatched items supposed to give them a winning edge?
Lord Manerion set to work on the crossbows. With a series of deft movements, he extended and secured the flanges, threaded the bowstrings, and adjusted various bolts and screws with the aid of a small pry bar. In no time at all, he was holding a fully assembled, double-shafted crossbow. “You might want to move away from that tree,” he said, loading a bolt into each chamber.
Moribus had barely managed to step aside before the bolts thunked home. The second one sounded a bit hollow compared to the first. Frowning, Lord Manerion made some more adjustments to the crossbow. Satisfied at last, he sat it aside and began work on the second one.
“You intend to shoot the dragon with those?” Moribus ventured. He had always assumed the knight’s formidable sword would be his weapon of choice.
Lord Manerion grunted ambiguously.
“But where? The eyes?”
“Eyes are too risky. Unless you put out both, all you’ve done is make it angry. Even if you blind it, that won’t keep it from hearing or smelling you.”
“Where then? The wings?”
“The wings…” Lord Manerion chuckled. “Ord’s fjords, boy, where do you get such addle-headed notions?”
“The cross bolts will pierce scales?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Even a giant spear-thrower won’t pierce the scales of a full-grown dragon.”
“But the dragon’s got scales everywhere else.”
Moribus conjured up an image of a dragon in his mind and probed at it for hidden vulnerabilities. There were the critical organs like the flame gland, the three hearts and, of course, the brain—all of them protected by impenetrable layers of bone and scales. Could the knight be referring to the muscular nexus that joined the wings to the torso? The long serpentine neck? The reproductive organs? What did a dragon’s gonads look like anyway? None of his secondhand information had covered that aspect of dragon physiognomy.
Lord Manerion tested the second crossbow and placed it next to the first. “Give up yet?”
“Where then?” Moribus surrendered.
“Not even a dragon has scales on the inside of its mouth.” The knight tilted back his head to press a thumb against his upper palette. “Put a cross bolt right there, and it will pierce straight through to the brain. The dragon won’t know it’s dead until it wakes up in Ord.”
Of course! Moribus thought. There was only one problem. “How do you get the dragon to open its mouth so you can take a shot at it?”
Lord Manerion tossed him a pouch. “Take a good whiff of that, boy.”
Moribus loosed the drawstrings and pinched out a bit of rust-colored powder. When he raised it to his nose, his sinuses immediately began to burn and run. He sneezed, then sneezed again.
“Crushed red pepper,” Lord Manerion said. “Gives dragons fits. Throw some of that up its nostrils, and it’ll sneeze its head right off. You better believe it will open its mouth then.”
Still sneezing, Moribus returned the pouch. “Seems like you would have to get pretty close to throw powder up its nose.”
“Ah, now there’s the tricky part.” Lord Manerion took a deep swig from his waterskin. “You ever see a dead-snake?”
“Plenty. There are lots of snakes where I come from.”
“Not a dead snake. A dead-snake. The Twilling Plains are full of them. Whenever they feel threatened, they roll over and expose the yellow underside of their bellies. They’ve even got these red bands that make it look like they’re all cut up. Quite an act they put on. When a scavenger comes along, say a rat or a crow—” He squeezed out a jet of water from his waterskin, causing Moribus to jump. “They squirt juice into your eyes from a gland in their tail. Nasty stuff. Stings like the devil. And while you’re weeping like a ravished virgin, the fornicating thing goes and bites you in the heel.”
Moribus brushed water from his legs. “You’re going to play dead, is that it?”
“Weren’t you listening? Dragons kill their own prey. They won’t touch old meat. I’ve got to let it kill me first. Then, when it thinks I’m good and dead, that’s when….”
“You throw red pepper up its nose.”
“Why, we may turn you into a dragonslayer yet,” the knight patronized.
“What’s the bugle for?”
“Before you can kill a dragon, you have to get its attention first. Fortunately, dragons have exceptional hearing. They can hear a fish burp on the bottom of a lake. If it’s anywhere close, you can bet it will hear me when I blow it a fanfare on this here bugle.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier just to make a fire? The dragon would see the smoke column, right?”
“Fire would get the dragon’s attention all right, but the last thing you need in a pitched battle is a lot of smoke blowing around or for the grass to catch fire around you. Also, I’d just as soon not attract other bounty hunters.”
“What about the looking glass?”
“To flash it in the eyes. It works better than the bugle on sunny or windy days.”
“And that other thing?”
“Oh, that.” The knight’s grin was almost gleeful as he unwrapped the wax paper and removed a tallow-colored glob. “Taffy.” He began to roll it between his hands.
“Taffy?” Moribus repeated in surprise.
“It doesn’t feel like a proper hunt without taffy. When the master would go out hunting, all the servants would gather in the kitchen and have taffy pulling contests. I happen to hold the record for the longest pull. Over thirteen feet. Pulling taffy isn’t just a matter of being strong. You have to pull slow, smooth and steady so it won’t lump up or tear on you. It’s important to limber it up real good first. Rolling it around in your palms does the trick. Holding it under your armpits works even better but doesn’t help the taste.” He bit into one end of the glob with his teeth and began to tug, straining with the effort. The taffy stretched for over two feet before snapping. He fed the ribbon into his mouth and chomped into it with gusto. “Want thome?” He held out the remaining glob.
“No thanks,” Moribus declined, not knowing what to make of this boyish display. “Why this dragon?” he asked. “There are other dragons out there, aren’t there?”
The knight’s jaw muscles bunched as he strained to pry them apart. They finally came free with an audible crinch. “Of course there are others. If I slew all of them there would be no need for dragonslayers, now would there? I picked this one for a simple reason. Lord Tracheron’s bounty is measured out by the weight of the dragon’s head, and it so happens this dragon has the biggest head of any known. Needless to say, it has an enormous body to match. It’s something of a legend, actually. Why do you think these hills are so deserted?”
Moribus hadn’t given much thought to it before, but he could see now that the knight was right. Apart from the dead band of bounty hunters, they hadn’t seen another human soul since back at the Elyddon Road over ten days ago. “Have you ever killed a dragon this big before?”
“Can’t say that I have,” Lord Manerion replied, wrapping up the leftover taffy and setting it aside for later. “No one has.”