Slayer of Dragons – Sample Chapters

Chapter One

The dragon stirred in its gloomy lair. It yawned and stretched a foreleg, sending an old skull skittering across the chamber. Scratching its ribs, it felt loose skin where there had once been sleek muscle. How long had it slept? Planting both forelegs firmly on the ground, it pushed back, arching its back. Bones popped loudly. And then its stomach grumbled, even more loudly.

The dragon opened one dish-sized eye, blinking until its vision cleared. It sniffed the air. And sneezed. A small wooden chest caught the blast and burst into flames. Its sinuses cleared, the dragon sniffed again. Burning wood. Damp earth. Bat pee. And magic. Strong magic. It hadn’t been this strong in a long time. The magic had been growing weaker as the years passed, and the dragon had never expected to feel it like this again. But now it seemed to have returned.

It looked around its lair, expecting to see the familiar piles of gold coins and tarnished silver plates, but there was nothing, apart from a couple of old chests that had been smashed open, their contents looted. Those sneaky human thieves were getting bolder, taking advantage of the fact that its hearing wasn’t what it used to be. They needed to be taught a lesson. But first, dinner.

Great pale green eyes sought out the entrance to the cavern. Disoriented for a moment, it turned to where the entrance should have been, and saw only a pile of rocks. The dragon stared sulkily at the rockfall that had sealed it into its own lair, and blew smoke rings at it. Its stomach rumbled again, urging it to get out there and find something to eat. The dragon tried blowing fire at the rocks, but the heat bounced off them, singeing its eyebrows and making its eyes water. Then it tried pulling at a rock near the bottom of the pile, hoping it would dislodge the others. It did, and several of them fell on its foot, chipping one of the great black claws. But all that achieved was to create a small gap at the top of the rock pile, offering a tantalising glimpse of daylight at the far end of the tunnel. And a whiff of something edible.

The hole wasn’t big enough for it to crawl through, even if it was thinner than it had been. The blockage was only a few feet deep, the tunnel was clear beyond that, but the thought of shifting a couple of tons of limestone boulders made the dragon want to lie down and go back to sleep. But its empty belly gave it an even stronger desire to go out and hunt.

Running out of curses to hurl at it, the dragon turned its back on the rockfall, and began flicking rocks off the top of its pile with its tail. They went clattering off into the shadows.

*

“Not again!” Charlie Bothams groaned, as his stomach suddenly cramped. He quickly put down his sack, pulled down his breeches, and squatted in the long grass. On the ground in front of him, the sack had fallen open, and a dead rabbit stared up at him accusingly.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Charlie said. “I only set snares so townsfolk can have meat for supper. Big things eat small ones, that’s just the way it is.”

The rabbit looked at him blankly.

There was a sudden rustling in the bushes behind Charlie.

“Oh, bugger!” He said. Up here in the hills, there wasn’t much to fear. The worst thing that could happen would be for a couple of the boys from town to discover him wiping himself on a dock leaf with as much dignity as he could manage. He would have pulled up his breeches then, but he was wracked by another twisting pain in his gut.

“I ate chicken, not daggers,” he wailed.

The bushes behind him shook more loudly.

“I know you’re there,” Charlie said. “Show yourself.”

Behind him, the bushes were forced apart. Charlie looked back over his shoulder, and what he saw caused his bowels to loosen one final time.

A long, snaggle-toothed snout emerged from the shadows, nostrils twitching. Jaws opened slightly, a cloud of vapour was exhaled, and on contact with the air it ignited, becoming a jet of flame. As if in answer to a silent cry for vengeance from the lifeless rabbit, death swooped down on Charlie Bothams. And cooked him.

The dragon lifted its head, savouring the smell of roasted meat, and then took a step towards Charlie’s body. Glossy black claws, each bigger than a man’s forearm, raked the earth. Jaws opened wide, wider, and it began to swallow the dead man. Not biting or chewing, but slowly, deliberately drawing him feet-first into its maw. Then, when half of the corpse had been taken in, the beast raised its head skywards, rearing up and shaking its prey, front teeth grinding, cutting. Charlie’s upper body fell to the ground, while the rest slid down the creature’s throat, like a fish in the gullet of a bird. The head dipped again and teeth sank into the still smoking torso.

Deep in the old silver mine, the dragon had smelt Charlie Bothams. The gamey scent of his greasy rabbit-fur jerkin had made it think there was a succulent goat within spitting distance of the mine entrance. It had dug through the fallen rocks, and dragged itself towards the smell.

The dragon blinked and looked down at what remained of its meal. Charlie’s head stared blindly back. If it had not woken with its empty stomach grumbling, the hunter might have recognised its prey. But age affects the eyesight of even the most noble beast. And dragons. The hunched form in the grass had looked like a scrawny, filthy goat.

As it reflected on its error, the dragon felt something like regret. Was it sorry that it had killed a man, unprovoked? Or just sorry that it hadn’t roasted a plumper one?

There were those in the little mountain town of Drake’s Spur who regarded the reawakening of the dragon as an ill-omen, and they would later point to Charlie Bothams’ death as the first link in the tragic chain of events that befell their town. And even those without the gift of second sight soon came to suspect that having a ravenous, fire-breathing dragon in the hills above them did not augur well.

Chapter Two

Anton Leyander stopped and stared up at the white peaks of the mountains. Every day for weeks now he had seen these jagged purplish rocks grow larger as he made his way towards this northern-most boundary of the kingdom of Thurlambria. Now they filled the horizon. He had spent months trudging up here, increasing the distance between himself and his past. Roads had given way to dirt tracks, and now he was on a rocky path used more by goats than men.

The path followed a ridge above a great lake, and the little town of Drake’s Spur on its southern shore. He had chosen to avoid the town completely, and head straight for the mountains. In places, rain had carried away parts of the path, exposing loose shale that tumbled down the hillside, a frozen waterfall of white limestone.

Staring up into the cloudless blue sky, Anton realised that his journey was almost over. All that faced him now was one final choice.

“Do I climb the highest mountain peak and hurl myself from the summit?” He asked himself. “Or should I continue beyond this rocky barrier to the turbulent coast beyond, where fierce sea-monsters churn up the waves, and throw myself in?”

Death had always been his destination. Or so he had believed. He had thought to end his life with one final, dramatic gesture. But now that he was finally here, it seemed a bit… anticlimactic.

“That’s because you are not actually there yet,” he said. “You have another day’s travel before you, and more if you decide to go on to the coast.”

He drew cold mountain air into his lungs and strode on.

The ground suddenly shifted beneath him. The grass and topsoil slid sideways like a rug, tearing and exposing loose scree beneath. Anton scrabbled to regain his footing, but his boots only loosened more shards of rock. Stones bounced down the hillside, clacking against one another and whirling off on wild new trajectories. Above him the ground opened like a wound, spilling a cascade of stones like blood.

Anton tried to keep up with the rock fall, stepping sideways like a man walking down a sand dune, but he couldn’t keep pace. His legs were swept out from under him and he went tumbling down the slope. He tucked his knees up and wrapped his heavy travelling cloak around him, rolling with the fall and hoping that his spine would not come into violent contact with one of the rocky outcrops below. To come so far and then die in a fall seemed too cruel an outcome to contemplate.

His fall slowed, until finally he lay exhausted on the scree, small stones clattering down around him. For a while he dared not move, afraid to discover what damage his body had suffered. Catching his breath, he tested each of his limbs and was pleased to discover them still attached and unbroken. He sat up and surveyed his surroundings. He could hear water splashing among the boulders to his left, and below him, the town and the lake seemed a lot closer than they had been a few minutes ago.

Anton crawled carefully away from the loose rock and clambered over the boulders until he found the stream. He knelt and dipped his hands into the icy flow, washing away the dust and blood from his skinned knuckles. He cupped his hands, splashed water on his face and then drank deeply.

A small pool of still water lay in the rocks beside the stream. It reflected the sky above, a bright blue circle of light. Anton leaned over the pool and studied the face it showed him. Thick, ragged beard. Hair long and unkempt. Skin pale with purplish shadows under the eyes. And the eyes themselves – why, they were the eyes of a madman! Except they weren’t, not really. They were his own ordinary grey eyes. And though he wanted to say that the face he was looking at wasn’t the face of the man that had left Raensburgh half a year ago, he had to admit that it was just his face. But scruffier. And thinner. The exertions of daily travel had caused the excess flesh to leave his bones. But beyond that, he was pretty much the same man.

“So much for adventure changing a person,” he muttered to himself. He had expected to arrive here a different man. But a shave, a bath, and a haircut, and he would be what he had been before.

“This is going to be a day filled with disappointments,” he said aloud.

Anton looked down at the little town in the valley below. Drake’s Spur, northern-most town in the land. Supposedly, it took its name from an outcropping of rock that, from a certain angle, looked like a dragon. He looked around him, but couldn’t see anything that resembled a dragon.

“It probably crashed down into the valley years ago,” he thought.

His gaze wandered back towards the town. Timber-framed buildings clung to the rocky slops and spilled down onto the shore of a great lake that was formed from the snow-melt running down from the mountains. Then he turned back and looked towards the jagged peaks, which were now a good hundred feet further away than they had been before his fall.

“Back up the hill and hurl myself to my doom? Or down the hill in search of a barber and a hot bath?”

This should have been a dilemma requiring careful consideration; a major turning point in the story of his life. But it turned out to be much ado about nothing.

“I must have crushed my self-pity when I fell,” he thought. He shrugged. “Bollocks to it!”

Anton set off down the hill towards Drake’s Spur, a new spring in his step. And a slight limp in his left leg.

“This looks like an ideal place for someone seeking peace and rest after a long journey!”

*

“Good day,” the gatekeeper said as Anton approached.

“You could well be right,” Anton said.

“You have travelled far?” The man looked from Anton’s muddy boots to his dusty cloak, and his untidy hair and beard.

“To the depths of despondency and back again,” Anton said. Seeing the gatekeeper’s frown, he smiled. “A fair distance indeed, and I am in dire need of a haircut and a bath: perhaps you could recommend…”

“Look out!” A young voice behind Anton and some way up the hill.

“It was your fault, pudding-head!” A second voice.

“Stand clear, stranger,” the gatekeeper advised. “The Fletcher twins. Trouble.”

Anton stood aside and watched the two blond-haired boys dashing down the hill, chasing some kind of ball that rolled and bounced some yards ahead of them. The ball hit the road with a hollow thunk and rolled to a stop between Anton and the gatekeeper.

The two men looked down at it, and Anton wondered if he’d perhaps chosen the wrong town for a stop-over: the twins’ ball was a human head.

The Fletcher boys had found the head mid-morning. They were supposed to be out picking mushrooms for their father’s breakfast, and had at first mistaken the pale mound in the grass for a large fungus. Realising what it was they had found, the twins then kicked it all the way back to town, by which time it was barely recognisable as Charlie Bothams.

“I’d better send word to Sheriff Pagett,” the gatekeeper said.

Chapter Three

Miriam Pagett watched the girl from the shadows. In the market, the mayor’s daughter, Olivia, flitted from stall to stall like a butterfly. She smiled at the stallholders, convinced that she was just like them, and she didn’t see their expressions change as she moved on.

You’re a spoiled little bitch, Miriam thought to herself. Skipping about with your pink cheeks and golden hair, making all the men stare at you. How I would love to bring you down a peg or two. And then she smiled.

Olivia paid for a wedge of cheese and place it in the basket beside the bread. It wasn’t the large, sensible basket a mother or housekeeper would carry, but the sort of thing a child might take on an errand. The girl only shopped when the fancy struck her, taking something tasty back to share with her father at midday. She would have to be taken in hand and properly trained, if she was going to make someone a proper wife.

The Council House, like most buildings in Drake’s Spur, was built with thick oak timbers cut from the forest that filled the valley to the south. The white plaster between the dark timbers was kept in better condition than other buildings, and it had been repainted during the summer months. The two-storey building dominated one side of the town square.

Miriam had never set foot inside the building, but she had made herself aware of its layout. The mayor, Edric Soren, and his daughter Olivia had comfortable lodgings on the upper floor. At the back on the lower floor was the kitchen, and accommodation for the old housemaid and the cook. At the front on ground level was the town hall itself. Miriam had looked in through the diamond panes of the leaded windows and seen the scarred oak table, around which meetings of the town council were held.

She had seen the mayor sit at the head of this table, as he did most weekday mornings, with papers spread across the table, his fingers stained with ink and a quill behind his ear. Miriam knew the mayor also sat in judgement as the local magistrate, but he had to do this only occasionally: there was little crime in Drake’s Spur. She had spent some time acquainting herself with the responsibilities, and the privileges, of the mayor’s office.

The mayor’s daughter hurried up to the iron-studded oak door of the town hall, wanting to get inside while the loaf she had bought was still warm. Miriam Pagett watched Olivia disappear inside, and wished she could follow her in and listen to the conversation that was about to take place.

“At least, it had better be taking place,” Miriam muttered, frowning. She had given her brother, the sheriff, very clear guidance, but she was always doubtful about his ability to perform as required. With a final, covetous glance towards the Council House, Miriam turned her back and strode off in the direction of her own house.

*

“Father,” Olivia said, bursting into the council chamber, “I have some cheese that is so sharp it will bite your tongue… oh, I am sorry.”

Olivia had thought her father was alone, but there was someone standing in the shadows near the fireplace. The bloated figure was dressed entirely in black, so only his pale doughy face was visible. Thick, dark eyebrows met in the middle above pale watery blue eyes. A thin moustache clung to his upper lip, like the first down of youth, and pink fleshy lips provided the only colour in his face. Olivia watched him wipe a meaty palm across his scalp, smoothing the sparse hairs that had been plastered across his skull to try and hide his baldness. The gesture made her think of a damp albino toad she had once seen down by the lake.

“Sheriff Pagett,” Olivia said, then looked towards her father. “I did not mean to interrupt.”

“It is no interruption, daughter. Our civic duties have been dispensed with.”

Her father’s formal language made Olivia frown. He had been spending too much time in the company of this south-lander, who always squeezed two large words into a space where only a small one was needed. Pagett had been appointed to the office of Sheriff by the King and sent up from Raensburgh. His clothes and manner of speech seemed strange here.

The mayor smiled his wide, gap-toothed smile and beckoned his daughter in to join them. He was still wearing the gold chain of office over his smart blue velvet tunic, but the table had been cleared of papers.

“We were just chatting,” her father said.

Olivia’s eyes flicked nervously towards the sheriff. He was looking down at the hands clasped across his broad belly. His fingernails seemed purplish against the pallor of his skin. Was he blushing? There was no colour in his heavy cheeks, but to Olivia he looked distinctly uncomfortable.

“I should leave you and the sheriff to conclude your discussion in peace,” she said. “I will return later.”

“Please stay,” Pagett said, not looking up.

“Yes, indeed,” her father said, “the matter the sheriff – Gideon – and I were discussing concerns you directly.”

Olivia felt her throat constrict, and for several heartbeats wasn’t able to draw breath. To her, it seemed an age before she could find her voice again, but the two men did not seem to notice.

“I have done nothing that displeases you, I hope, sir,” she said to the sheriff.

“Very much the opposite,” Pagett said, eyes now on her, and his lips twitching into a half-smile.

“It would seem that Sheriff Pagett is quite taken with you, my dear,” her father said. He stroked his white beard, watching her reaction carefully. “He wishes to pay you court, and has sought my approval.”

Olivia stifled a sound in her throat, unsure herself whether it was a cough or laughter.

“I am sure I am not yet ready for the attentions of a suitor,” she said. “I am too young.”

“Your mother and I married when she was only a year older than you are now,” her father said.

“You speak of marriage already?” Olivia’s eyes filled with tears. “I stepped out only long enough to buy bread, and return to find myself betrothed!”

Pagett looked up, alarmed by her alarm.

“Not betrothed, no…” His thick-fingered hands rasped together nervously, and he moved down the hall towards Olivia, thinking to comfort her.

Olivia nervously edged towards her father, keeping the table between herself and the sheriff.

“I cannot marry the sheriff, father,” she said. “I do not love him.”

“What do you know of love?” Pagett said, his mouth twitching into a sneer.

“Nothing, sir, except that one day I hope to find it,” she answered, not daring to take her eyes from him.

“You may grow old waiting,” Pagett said.

“I will not be here to look after you forever, Olivia,” the mayor said. “Please understand that I want to ensure that you are provided for, after I am gone.”

Olivia was at her father’s side now, and clutched his arm.

“Do not speak of such things! Many years must pass yet before we need to consider that.”

“Death may come upon any of us unexpectedly,” Pagett said in funereal tones.

“That may be true, but this is not the time to talk of such things,” the mayor said.

“Perhaps your daughter already has a lover?” Pagett said, his eyes boring into Olivia. “Trysts of which you are ignorant, sir?”

“Father!” Olivia said. “Please ask this loathsome man to leave our house.”

“I meant no insult, madam.” Pagett bowed his head. “I wished only to learn whether I have a rival for your affections.”

“Please, Pagett, leave us,” the mayor said.

The sheriff bowed stiffly.

“I am your servant, sir.”

Olivia shuddered as Pagett closed the door behind him.

“I could never marry such a repulsive man, father. Please do not force me…”

Seeing the tears in his daughter’s eyes, the mayor smiled and shook his head.

“My only wish is for you to share a long and happy life with someone,” he said. “I want you to know the happiness your mother and I had.”

“I will, father, I am sure,” Olivia said. “Someday soon I hope I will meet a man with whom I can spend the rest of my life, but that man is not Gideon Pagett. Do not worry, father, I have no wish to end my days a spinster.”

Her father held up his hands in silent surrender.

“Show me what you have in that basket of yours,” he said. “I smell fresh bread, and it makes my stomach grumble.”

Olivia smiled and began to set out their luncheon on the big dark table.

*

Sheriff Pagett walked slowly across the square and down the street towards the town gate. He did not like to hurry, even though the gatekeeper had sent his message more than an hour ago. People moved aside to let him pass, and some of them stared at him, and this was exactly as he thought it should be. Pagett knew that most of the townspeople still regarded him as the ‘new sheriff,’ even though he had been in post for over a year. The previous incumbent, Duncan Brunston, had held the position for the best part of twenty years, so many people hadn’t yet gotten used to the idea that he had been replaced.

Sheriff Brunston had died from an infected wound, Pagett had learned soon after he arrived in Drake’s Spur. This fact had bothered him, until he discovered that the wound had been self-inflicted, and that Brunston had done it with a corkscrew. If that was the level of risk he faced, Pagett was not going to complain.

Being an outsider, and a representative of the king, meant that local people tended to keep their distance. This suited Pagett perfectly. He enjoyed his position of authority, and the benefits it afforded him, but he liked to think that he was neither a greedy nor a cruel man, and that as a result he was neither feared nor despised. If this meant that the people did not greatly respect him either, then he felt this was an acceptable price to pay. Given his previous notoriety, Pagett preferred to draw as little attention to himself as possible.

Only Pagett’s sister Miriam knew that he had been given the Drake’s Spur posting as a punishment. He had effectively been banished to this northern-most point, the furthest it was possible to be from Raensburgh while still being in the kingdom. Miriam hated Drake’s Spur, viewing it as cold and inhospitable. But Pagett found it infinitely preferable to the public flogging that had been suggested as an alternative to exile. And being this far north meant that there was little chance of news of the scandal he had been embroiled in ever travelling here from the capital. All things considered, things had turned out for the best, no matter what his sister thought.

The Sheriff of Drake’s Spur was charged with keeping order. Combining the offices of constable and bailiff, it was also his responsibility to oversee the Watch, a small band of civilians who patrolled the streets. They performed the duties that the King’s Guard carried out in larger towns. It was the sheriff who made sure that suspected wrong-doers were arrested and brought before the magistrate, who was also the mayor, and to see to it that any sentence handed down was carried out. The worst he had encountered so far was petty theft and drunken brawls.

Pagett entered the little gatehouse and found two blond-haired boys daring a stranger to poke a severed head with his finger.

*

The mayor leaned back and patted his stomach.

“Delicious,” he said.

“You have crumbs around your mouth.” Olivia smiled, reaching across to wipe the flecks of bread from his beard. Her father looked at her and smiled.

“What amuses you?” Olivia asked. She began tidying away the remains of their meal, reloading her little basket.

“I was just thinking what an attentive young woman you are,” he said. “Are you sure that there is not some young man you have been spending time with?”

“No! There is no one. I have never even given it a thought.”

The mayor sighed. He pushed his heavy oak chair back and rose slowly to his feet. His daughter passed him the stick with the silver knob in the shape of a dragon’s head.

“I had hoped that there might be someone,” he said, leaning heavily on the stick. “It troubles me that you have given so little thought to your future. That is why I feel I must intervene.”

“But not Pagett!”

The old man smiled sadly.

“Perhaps he is not an ideal choice,” he admitted. “But the selection of eligible bachelors hereabouts is not a broad one.”

“Please, let us speak no more of this for now,” Olivia said.

“Will you at least give some thought to Pagett?”

“I would sooner not,” she answered, “it would upset my digestion.”

“Olivia, despite appearances, the sheriff is a kind man and a successful…”

The mayor was interrupted by a loud hammering on the door, and it was flung open by one of the sheriff’s men.

“Sir! Sir!” The man shouted, his breath coming in ragged gasps. “The sheriff sent for you to come at once, sir. There’s been a killing, sir. A man’s head found.”

The mayor and his daughter followed the breathless messenger out of the chamber.

*

Olivia’s father wouldn’t let her enter the gatehouse with him.

“This is not something you want to see,” he said, and disappeared inside, closing the door firmly behind him.

Olivia found herself standing with a small crowd who had already heard about the killing, and were milling around trying to find out more. Some tried to peer in through the gatehouse window, but a burly watchman inside was standing with his back to the window, blocking their view. She saw a face in the crowd and waved. Jared Foweather, the blacksmith’s son, pushed his way towards her.

Jared had a mop of curly light brown hair, and his green-brown eyes were always bright with mischief. He was about the same age as Olivia, and the two of them had shared many childhood adventures. He had gone through a clumsy teenage phase, when he’d avoided her, and shuffled around with a surly look on his face. But more recently he seemed to have become himself again, smiling when he saw her. It was good to have her old friend back.

“Have you heard?” Jared asked.

“Only that someone was killed,” Olivia said.

“Charlie Bothams,” Jared said. “The twins found him.”

“My father wouldn’t let me in to see,” she said.

“Not much to see. Just his head,” he said.

There was muttering in the crowd, someone saying they’d heard it was a dragon attack.

“Do you think it could be?” Olivia asked.

Jared shrugged.

“Hasn’t been a dragon attack in fifty years,” another voice said. Olivia thought it was the innkeeper’s wife.

“Damn, there’s my father,” Jared said, ducking down. “If he asks you, tell him I went back to work. Ages ago.”

Jared winked at her, and pushed through the crowd, head down, away from his father.

*

Pagett, in his capacity as Sheriff of Drake’s Spur, interviewed Tommy and Timmy Fletcher in the Gatehouse. The battered head sat in the middle of the gatekeeper’s table, balanced on one ear, with Pagett sitting at one side of the table, and the twins at the other, eyes wide, blinking innocently up at him. Anton and the Gatekeeper stood in the corner, eager to hear the boys’ story.

“You didn’t kill him, did you?” Pagett asked.

The twins shook their heads in unison, as if controlled by the same puppeteer.

“You haven’t hidden the rest of him somewhere?” Pagett asked.

“That’s all that was left,” said Tommy. Or Timmy.

“The rest of him got ‘et,” said Timmy. Or Tommy.

“What do you think killed him?” The gatekeeper whispered. “A wolf?”

“A bear?” Anton suggested.

Pagett shook his head. He cocked his head to one side and looked into Charlie Bothams’s eyes, which were completely white and wrinkled, like those of a poached trout. “You didn’t roast the head over a fire, did you boys?” Pagett asked.

Again the twins shook their heads.

“We fount this too,” said one of the pair: he placed a rough object on the table beside the head. It was hard, shaped like a large scallop shell, but with a bright sheen on the inside, like mother of pearl, only green.

Anton and the gatekeeper exchanged glances.

“It is a scale,” Anton whispered.

“Dragon?” The Gatekeeper silently mouthed, eyes wide.

Pagett got to his feet.

“I must speak with the mayor on this matter,” he said to the gatekeeper. “In the meantime, I do not want a word of this breathed to anyone, I hope I can rely on your discretion, sir?”

“Yes, of course,” Anton lied.

“Do we get a reward for bringing back the head?” Tommy or Timmy asked.

“Can we keep it?” Asked the other.

*

“Send for the Slayer of Dragons!” The mayor ordered, as soon as he saw the roasted remains of Charlie Bothams.

“Slayer of Dragons?” Pagett said.

The mayor dismissed the sheriff with a wave of his hand.

This was a duty of the Sheriff of Drake’s Spur that Pagett had not been aware of: he must oversee the commission of the town’s official dragon killer. If it hadn’t been for the sight, and the smell, of Charlie Botham’s head, Pagett might have laughed out loud.

People told stories about dragons to frighten children, but there was almost no one alive who could claim to have seen one. There were paintings, of course, and skulls adorning the walls of castle walls, but no dragon had walked the earth for fifty years or more.

“Slayer of Dragons?” Pagett said again. He was alone in the gatehouse now, and there was no one there to hear him.