She was the only one who knew he’d left the dragon alive. And every time she ran with his other children to be swept into a big bear hug, and every time she sat at his table and had good food for the first time in years, the grief of that knowledge weighed her down.
He’d found her in the dragon’s cave six months ago, a little seven year old child with a head of golden curls, sitting on a pile of gold behind a half-burned ribcage. He crouched down to her level, a bearded, weathered man with friendly crinkles around his eyes and rough comfort in his voice. “Now this is a treasure indeed,” he said, smiling at her. “I bet there’s not a dragon in the world with something so dear. Does old Grimaud treat you well, child? Would you rather come and be safe in my home? My wife would love you.”
There had been others who had come to kill Grimaud, and she hadn’t shown herself to them, hadn’t trusted them, but she sized up this man with eyes shrewder than the average seven year old, and marched straight out to him, holding out a hand to shake as her mother had taught her. “My name is Aurea,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”
He’d brought her back to the village, riding on his shoulders as the wreak and smoke from the (supposedly) destroyed dragon boiled up into the air behind them. He hadn’t said much as the villagers celebrated and congratulated him on the destruction of Grimaud, which they assumed was due to his natural humility. Aurea knew the truth, though, and she read a silent apology in his eyes when he looked at her.
So she came to live in his house, with his five children and laughing, merry wife. She loved them all. She loved baking bread with his wife, she loved playing at war and house with his children, running around shrieking and barefoot all over the village. She brought the man his boots when he got up in the morning (having grown accustomed to being up and about early before the dragon rose) and sat with the other two youngest children when he told them stories at night.
But the dragon was not dead, and she was part of the dragon’s hoard. Someday unless Grimaud was killed, she knew the crafty old beast would do much worse to her friend than simply take her away. But she said nothing, because she had seen him fight the dragon. And she had seen him lose.
She still had nightmares sometimes about that fight. Grimaud had come back just moments after her friend had found her and gotten her out of the cave. The dragon had descended like a meteor, flaming and raging and unstoppable.
In the stories, Aurea thought, the hero is always almost outmatched, but in this case, there was no almost about it. No matter what the ridiculous stories of knights may say, the bravery of a single man cannot stop a grown dragon in full charge. He had an old sword and buckler that he had some skill with, yet moments after the dragon’s attack, he had lost both and was tumbling down the hill as the dragon’s breath ignited the trees around him into a blazing inferno.
Grimaud slammed a scaly forepaw onto the ground and caught him by his hauberk just before he tumbled over a cliff near the edge of the cave. “Hmmm,” the dragon rumbled, “Just a single human man. I was hoping for something more bear-sized for my dinner party. Still, I suppose you’ll make good hors devours.”
Then she’d heard his voice, shaking with terror, not a strong warrior any more, just a scared man.
“If you let me live, I-I can be useful, I can do something for you! Just let me take the girl and I’ll raise her for you. She’ll be more beautiful if she’s raised by humans. A good addition to your hoard!”
Grimaud smiled a slow smile that showed every one of his two hundred and fifteen teeth. “There will be a reckoning, you know. I don’t loan out my hoard for free.”
“Just let me live.” Her friend begged, “Let me take her with me. I’ll give her back better than before, I promise.”
And amazingly, the dragon agreed. But Aurea looked back at him on her way down the mountain and saw his eyes glittering in the darkness of the cave and the razor sharp edges of his teeth still showing in a smile.
You might have thought that Aurea would object to her friend using her as a bargaining chip. But she was, as mentioned, an unusually canny seven year old, and besides, she understood all too well what it was like to rendered powerless, grabbing for straws to survive. She also knew he was fond of her and guessed that he had no intentions of giving her back to Grimaud.
At any mention of the dragon, her friend changed the subject as if the threat would go away if he didn’t talk about it. But Aurea knew that as long as she, a piece of the dragon’s hoard, stayed in the village, Grimaud would consider himself within his rights to burn the entire place to the ground, to eat the livestock and burn the people to regain her. She woke up during the nights, crying from visions of her playmates, her friend, and his wife, all dead, burned, and eaten.
So every single day, she got up early, put on her cloak, and slipped out the door into the grey morning mist. An hour later she’d be back and standing at his bedside with his boots. She’d sit beside him while he put them on.
“You need to kill Grimaud.” She’d say, quietly, so his wife wouldn’t wake up. Then he would look at her with despair in his eyes because they both knew he’d already tried.
He knew she went out in the mornings, but he didn’t ask her where she went or what she did, because though his family loved her, the two of them understood that she did not belong to him.
Then one morning she brought him his boots, his sword, and his buckler, a grim expression on her face, and her eyes big and solemn under the mass of blonde curls. “You must kill Grimaud today.”
They looked at each other for a long time, her small will striving with his. Finally, he put on his boots, slung on his sword, and went out to make the long, slow walk up the hill towards the dragon’s cave. His shoulders were bowed. Aurea followed behind him, almost invisible in her cloak.
At the entrance to the cave, he straightened up, sighed, and said, “Grimaud.”
The dragon slithered out, circling round the man to demonstrate the awesome length of his armor-plated body, the way the morning sunlight glinted off his scales and his teeth, and purred, “Well, this is a surprise. Suicidal, much? Returning the girl now is hardly holding up your end of the deal. She’s not even an inch taller! I may just go burn down your village anyway”
Without preamble, the man raised his blade and swung. Grimaud lifted one lazy claw to spear the man straight into the ground. Instead, the sword caught on the claw and he found his arm jerked to the side by the force of the blade’s shove.
Shocked, both the dragon and the man looked at Grimaud’s claws. They were filed down to nubs, nubs with little hatches in them that a blade could easily catch on and unbalance the dragon. Dragon and man looked up at each other, and for the first time, there was a spark of alarm in Grimaud’s eyes. “You’re still just a weak human!” Grimaud howled. “I don’t even need claws to kill you!”
He attacked. But even with his extra weight and size, the man’s sword kept catching in the hatches, jerking the dragon off balance, ruining everything. Grimaud whipped his head around, catching the man on the jaw and sending him flying. The sharp plates of his armor tore the man’s hauberk and left bloody tears in the skin underneath. The man fought on, sweat dripping into his eyes, muscles aching, wounds burning. But this time, the fight was not impossible.
Flustered and irritated, Grimaud had had enough. He swelled up, preparing to burn the man alive. He’d been rather cold over the past week, and had the sniffles, but a little head cold wouldn’t stop a belly full of fire from leaving this hoard-thief a charred shish-kebob. He opened his jaws and roared, sending out a jet of
—a trickle of—
No jet of fire.
Grimaud screamed in fury, opened his mouth once more, feeling the familiar burn spark to life in his belly again—nothing quenches dragonfire for long—and in that moment the man summoned up all his courage, ducked under the rows of sharp teeth, leapt into the damp, hot mouth, and plunged his blade into the dragon’s throat.
Grimaud died that day.
When it was done, Aurea’s friend sat down on the carcass of the dead dragon with a thump expressive of shock, relief, and complete befuddlement. A head of golden curls popped up from behind the dragon. Aurea straddled its neck and kicked her legs.
She grinned. “I’ve been sneaking ice water into him for weeks.” She said. “And filing his claws.” She slid down the side of the dragon’s neck and stood in front of him. “I don’t think Grimaud killed my whole family when he stole me, and I need to find them. Will you tell your family goodbye for me?” She threw her arms around him. Then she scampered away, golden curls visible, shining in the sunlight, for a long time as she vanished down the trail.