Art Pact 213 - The Puppet Dragon
Sir Cloister trod carefully into the clearing. Around him the smouldering skeletons of trees formed a perfect circle, as if they had once been distributed evenly throughout the glade but had backed away in horror from some disaster that had occurred in the middle of their ring. The air was quiet - no wind, just the distant call of a songbird high in the sky and the gentle crunch of undergrowth as the knight moved closer, ever closer to the ground zero in the centre of the empty area. There was the stone, just as the seer had told him, and beside the stone the great open mouth of the monster's lair, the den to which it had retreated with the princess, possibly with the gold it had inexplicably taken from the kingdom's coffers.
He moved as swiftly as he could without causing too much extra noise, and soon gained the relative security of the stone, which he placed between himself and the hole, although not without a certain nervousness about whether the creature were flying above him or perhaps waiting somewhere at the edge of the clearing to rush in when his attention was taken up with its front door. There were no noises, though, no heavy breathing or rustle of gigantic wings, and so encouraged he gathered his wits, unlaced his shield from his back and grasped it firmly in his right hand, with his left hand drew his sword from its sheath, and stepped forth.
He expected the cave to smell, the foul stench of decay from the carcasses of the many cows the dragon was accused of stealing, but there was no such smell. If anything, it exuded a slight odour of honey, not strong enough to be sickly but just enough to make the place rather homey, if anything. Heartened, he peered into the dark. It was possible to see about fifteen yards in, then nothing. He would have to draw the beast out if he were to have any sort of advantage against it, but it was unlikely to simply come out at his request. He would have to venture inside.
Inside, it was clear that although he still thought of it as a cave, it was really a burrow. The nearly cylindrical tunnel walls were made of nothing more than hard-packed earth, although they were reassuringly solid. The floor led down at about a thirty-degree angle - steep, but not so steep that he thought he would not be able to back out relatively easily - and was clear of any roots or other obstructions that might make for an embarrassing end to the battle. When he was about ten yards in the slope reduced slightly and began to curve to the right. Just before he reached the limit of the lighting, he heard - then saw - the dragon.
The noise it made was a repetitive grating sound, a monstrous snoring, and what he could see of it was the part of the dragon that was making the noise - two great nostrils, each as big as the ring that would have been made by touching his thumb and index finger together. The creature was obviously lying down asleep, head on the floor, and his heart raced with a sudden possibility - could he sneak up on the animal and deal the final blow before it woke?
It was naturally repugnant to him to take such a cowardly path, but there were other (smarter, perhaps) parts to Sir Cloister, and it was those that drove his train of thought as he stepped forward, leaning off the footplate to show that the diverging track ahead was as terrible on the more honorable fork as it was on the service they were providing. Since a great number of knights before him had come here (so he had been told), and none of them had succeeded either in slaying the dragon or in returning alive (or at all), the beast was clearly not a foe to be lightly dismissed. Thinking the best of his fellow soldiers he assumed that they had taken the honorable path of fighting the dragon fairly, or had perhaps been forced into it by coming upon the beast in the clearing, or in flight, or in some other situation in which there was not the possibility of a swift despatch. He was a confident soldier, but he knew that he was not the best fighter even among his cadre, certainly not one of the strongest warriors in the land, so the chances were not good that he was the best knight yet to have faced the dragon. If those better than him had tried the honourable path and failed it seemed unlikely that he would be victorious in similar circumstances.
No, terrible as it was, he had been given an opportunity by the gods and he would have to take it. They would not sing songs about his noble battle, but neither would they mourn his loss, and perhaps a farmer or two might give a brief thanks for the safety of his livestock. Hefting his sword, Sir Cloister stepped forward into the darkness, aimed for the point where the dragon's fiercesome head joined its long neck, and struck!
There was no blood. Instead, to his amazement, he heard a sound like lute strings snapping. The beast's head, half cleaved from its neck, twitched madly and its eyes - horrid great saucers - flew open. It made no move other than that, though, and bizarrely it kept snoring. Cloister struck again, this time cutting the head clear off. Again, more twanging of lute strings, but also this time a surprising sound - that of a woman's voice.
"Ow! What on earth did you do that for?"
The voice was coming straight from the dragon's belly. As Cloister watched, unable to believe his eyes, a rectangle of light appeared in the animal's side, hinging open to reveal itself as a hatchway lit from within. A head emerged, then a torso, and finally two legs in a long dress clambered free.
It was the princess.
"What time of day do you call this?" she demanded.