“The Arrangement” by Ross Willard

The knight paused at the edge of the forest, peering out at the foothills that lay ahead of him, and the mountains beyond.

The knight was everything anyone would expect: tall, ruggedly handsome, muscular. Women swooned at his glance, and more than a few brigands were rumored to have run for the hills when this knight stared them down.

He carried a sword longer than his torso, strapped to a horse that looked like it could pull a castle behind it.

On his right, a man in a black robe rode on a black horse which carried a black saddlebag with a black staff hanging from it. The immaculately trimmed, black goatee seemed rather unnecessary. Anyone who couldn’t tell he was a wizard before he pulled his hood back had probably been kicked in the head by a donkey at some point.

On the knight’s left rode the kind of man who might introduce himself as a woodsman, but who was mentioned in private conversations in much less flattering terms. Scarred from head to toe, dressed in leathers so old they might well have been made for an ancestor he never met, and carrying on his person enough weapons to start a war, his sword and his hand were at the beck and call of whoever had the money to pay for them. The trophies hanging from his saddlebag proved that he’d hunted from one side of the continent to the other, while the marks on his belt suggested he’d killed men across that same area. He rode a large, powerful horse, but from the way it fought his hand, anyone could tell that the two had only recently met.

Thomas, the fourth and final member of the party, halted his nag a few yards behind his companions, waiting patiently.

The wizard leaned over to the knight, murmuring softly for several seconds.

The knight nodded, then leaned the other way.

His mercenary grunted a few words.

The knight nodded again. “We’ll camp here for the night.”

“But it’s barely past noon,” Thomas protested.

The knight’s lip turned into a sneer and his hand moved towards the hilt of his weapon.

The wizard placed a gentle hand onto the nobleman’s shoulder.

“His Lordship,” the wizard began, emphasizing the title, “understands that your people are suffering, but he also knows that if the dragon becomes aware of his approach too soon, he, his lordship that is, will be slain before he has a chance to relieve your people of their suffering.”

“Oh.” Thomas cleared his throat. “My apologies. Your lordship.”

The knight dismounted, refusing to look Thomas, the peasant, in the eye. “Set up camp, and find us something to eat. I’m tired of smoked deer.”

Thomas nodded and climbed off his horse. Evening preparations were something of a ritual. The mercenary occasionally helped him find food, and the wizard would usually start the fire. Other than that, Thomas was on his own.

That was to be expected. It was part of the unwritten agreement: A simple peasant, Thomas was the lowest ranking member of the group. All menial tasks fell to him. The knight and his companions had come to slay the dragon. That was their only responsibility.

Thomas began by removing the saddles and packs from the four steeds and feeding them. Even if it were not his responsibility, Thomas would likely have volunteered for this, if only because he didn’t think the knight knew the proper way to care for his animal.

The knight was the third son of a king. His education, though deep, lacked breadth. He’d been raised as a military man. His eldest brother would inherit a kingdom, his second oldest brother would marry a princess with no brothers, securing peace with their neighbor. But this brother, Sir William, had no prospects, so he’d been raised to die. Not that it had been explicit, but he’d been in every battle, at the head of every charge, since he was old enough to hold a sword.

Minstrels would have sung songs of his great deeds and heroic death, except that he didn’t die. The poor bastard was too good. A hundred or more men died by his hand in a dozen wars. But in all that time, he’d never had to take care of himself off the field of battle. Servants constantly attended to the details of his life.

The wizard, though not technically royalty, had to have come from a wealthy home in order to buy his way into the appropriate schools. His sense of entitlement didn’t have the violent edge of his employer, but there were many kinds of work that he simply saw as beneath him.

As for the mercenary, he wasn’t about to do any work he didn’t have to. He liked to kill things, and he liked variety in his diet, so he’d hunt; other than that, nothing.

At least, Thomas reflected as he worked, he had a little more time today. They’d ridden into the evening first couple of days. They did pause occasionally to recover and let their horses rest, but didn’t stop for the day until the sun began to set. Thomas had been forced to work faster then, barraged by the complaints that can only come from the spoiled.

It wouldn’t be much longer, now. They were less than a hard day’s ride to his village, and the mountain where the dragon lived.

There weren’t many dragons left in the world, but those that remained were old, dangerous creatures. A knight who killed one became a legend. He also became quite wealthy. Dragons hoarded gold, as everyone knew, but even ignoring that, the body of a dragon was worth a king’s ransom. Alchemists paid hand over fist for their scales and blood. Chefs would beg on bended knee for the meat. Magicians would sell their beards for dragon eyes and organs. A warrior would swear fealty to a man who could provide him with a dagger made from dragon bone.

The third son of a king couldn’t do much better for himself than killing a dragon.

Still, this one had bitched and moaned about it, offended that Thomas’s village couldn’t offer him a bounty for the creature.

“Have you seen it?” The mercenary stood only a few feet away. He’d made his approach noiselessly.

Thomas twitched in surprise, but kept his voice level as he replied. “Several times.”

The professional swordsman glanced over his shoulder at the lounging knight before turning his attention back to the serf. “Most people go a lifetime without seeing one of those. And most of those who do encounter one only see it for the last few seconds of their life.”

“Everyone in my village has seen the beast.” Thomas replied. “It hasn’t bothered us yet. It eats our flocks, and our horses, but it doesn’t seem to care much for people.”

“Interesting.” The mercenary scratched his face. “Usually they prefer people.”

“I can’t speak to that.” Thomas moved away from the horses, gathering sticks from the forest floor. “I’ve only ever seen the one.”

The mercenary nodded. “So why do you want it dead? If it’s not killing anyone, I mean.”

Thomas shook his head. “I didn’t say it wasn’t killing anyone, I said it wasn’t eating anyone. It eats our flocks. Without those, we have only our crops to pay our taxes with, which doesn’t leave us enough food to eat. Make no mistake, we’re dying.”

“So why don’t you leave?”

“Leave?” Thomas blinked at the killer. “Leave our homes? Leave our farms? Do you know how long it takes to build a town? Dig the wells? Till the earth? Build houses? And all that time there would still be mouths to feed, and the nobles would still demand their taxes.”

“I suppose.” The mercenary leaned against a tree as Thomas continued to work. “But why travel so far? You have your own king, why not go to him for help?”

“We did,” Thomas replied with a sigh. “The first time, he sent a few men, promising them that whoever came back alive would be knighted.”

“And?”

“None of them came back. So he sent us a few of his more seasoned knights.”

“They were all eaten as well?”

Thomas nodded. “He sent another group after them, but we’re pretty sure he was just using the dragon to get rid of a few bothersome nobles.”

The mercenary whistled and glanced back towards the knight. “Does he know?”

“He knows he’s not the first.” Thomas’s hands were getting full. He tucked some of the wood up underneath his arms and grabbed a few more sticks. “He didn’t ask for the details, so I didn’t mention them.”

“And what will you do if he fails?” The mercenary asked.

“There may not be many dragons left in the world, but there are plenty of knights,” Thomas replied. “I’d just have to find another one with something to prove.”

The killer let out a low chuckle. “Something to prove. I like that.”

Thomas smiled politely and carried his stack of wood over to a clear patch of land and began to build the pile for that night’s fire.

By the time he turned around the mercenary had rejoined the other two, and all three men were deep in conversation.

They’d be at it for hours, the farmer knew; that left Thomas to come up with food for the evening. Something fresh, if he wanted to keep the knight happy. He’d seen some rabbit scat a little earlier, if he could find the warren, catching one wouldn’t be too hard.

***

The next day’s ride was the slowest yet. They’d finally entered the dragon’s territory, and from their behavior, Thomas could tell it was a first for all three men.

They insisted on stopping every mile or so to examine a section of scorched earth, or gouges in boulders. The wizard measured everything, referencing one of the many tomes in his saddlebag as he attempted to calculate the size and age of the creature in question. The mercenary would run his hands in the grooves made by the monster’s claws and smile faintly, as if the thought of fighting such a powerful creature was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

The knight had only one question.

“How much gold will he have?”

The wizard shook his head without looking up from his book. “I told you, sire, it’s impossible to know. But it will be enough. This thing is old, seven hundred years, at least, and it will have kept every precious metal it’s ever gotten its claws on.”

“Magnificent claws,” the mercenary muttered.

“But there should be droppings.” The wizard muttered, flipping through his book and scanning the area. “As much time as he’s obviously spent here, there should be droppings.”

“Enough gold?” The knight glowered at his wizard. “As if there’s such a thing as enough. I don’t want enough to retire on, I want to buy a kingdom, and an army.”

“Yes, sire.” The magician kept his voice respectful, but from the expression on his face, the royal knight was beginning to annoy him.

Thomas took advantage of the frequent breaks to stretch his legs. At one stop, late in the afternoon, next to a section of trees, blackened by fire, but still standing, Thomas climbed on top of a particularly large rock. He scanned the area briefly, watching the knight and his companions discussing the damage that their target had done.

The boulder he stood on had a large divot at the top, and a number of smaller stones lay in it, along with black, chalky bits of wood.

Thomas picked up one of the larger pieces and drew a large circle on top of his boulder, then two curving lines inside, like the reptilian eyes of a dragon.

“What are you doing up there?” The knight called up.

Thomas rubbed the charred bit of wood against the stone, filling in the middle of the eye. “Waiting, my lord.”

The large man’s expression turned ugly. “Are we slowing you down, peasant?”

Thomas repressed a sigh. “My lord, I’ve seen all of this, many times. While it may mean much to you, to me, it’s just a reminder of the suffering of my village.”

The knight snorted. “Well, get down from there and make yourself useful. Build a fire, or something.”

“We’re stopping already?” Thomas grimaced at the knight’s expression. “My lord.”

“I want to be refreshed when we meet the beast.”

Thomas worked his way off the rock. “As you say, my lord.” The farmer removed the saddles and saddlebags from the horses, glancing around at the blackened trees and scorched earth as he did. “It may take a little while to get the firewood, my lord.”

“Obviously.” The knight settled down with his back against a boulder. “So get to it.”

***

Thomas carried several large pieces of wood over his shoulder when he returned to the campsite. The knight and his companions were nowhere to be seen. Their horses were gone as well. Thomas rubbed his nag’s nose for a few seconds before walking to the middle of a section of blackened earth and dumping his wood into a pile.

That done he walked over to the saddles and supplies he’d removed from the horses and began sorting through them.

Behind him, a soft whuffing sound preceded the crackling of burning wood.

Thomas turned around and looked into giant, reptilian eyes.

“Sorry it took so long.” Thomas began. “I tried to hurry them up, but apparently being a king’s son means you get to decide how fast everyone moves.”

“Royalty, huh?” The dragon grinned, revealing rows of sharp, bloody teeth. “I knew one of them tasted different.”

Thomas chuckled and went back to sorting the supplies. He paused, holding up the knight’s saddlebag for the dragon’s inspection. The artwork on the leather was exquisite, with small silver design woven and pounded into it.

The dragon nodded greedily.

Thomas tossed the bag onto the pile of metal. The leather wouldn’t last long in the dragon’s cave, which was a shame, but the agreement was that the dragon got all the metal.

“Any other problems?” The dragon queried, pulling a whole thighbone from between his teeth.

“The wizard did notice the lack of droppings,” Thomas answered as he dumped out the wizard’s bag and studied the books. The dragon had no need for books. He’d lived history, and he was magic. Thomas, on the other hand, couldn’t read. But one of the old women in his village could. Maybe she could teach him. He moved the books onto his pile.

“Do you want me to relieve myself here for a while?”

“No. Let them wonder.”

Alchemists and wizards and soldiers, they could bicker and fight over the body of a dragon, but farmers knew the value of their leavings. Dragon scat made the best fertilizer one could ever hope to find.

The dragon reached up to the top of the boulder Thomas had climbed, and rubbed away the mark he’d left. Their signal. “Next time, try to bring a few more men. I don’t mind filling up on horse from time to time, but I prefer human flesh.”

Thomas nodded. “I know. And I do try, sir, but royalty can be a bit funny about people like me making demands.”

“And dragons can be funny when people like you fail to live up to your side of an agreement.” The dragon smiled again, this time with more teeth, and less humor.

Thomas swallowed the lump in his throat, and nodded. “Yes sir.”


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About the Author

Ross Willard, a Colorado resident, has been writing speculative fiction in one form or another for as long as he can remember. A longtime member of the Penpointers critique group, Ross can often be found reading or writing at his local independent bookstore, or working on his website, www.rosswriter.com.