(( This is a short story I wrote a while back. 'Vignette' would probably be a better description. It connects into a larger series of stories that I write with a friend. Enjoy! ))
In her short seventeen years, Bennett Quint could remember being hungry only once. She had been very small and her parents still living, and though she could not quite remember their faces, she remembered that they had been hungry, too.
Now she lived with her uncle. Mathias Quint had taken her to an ancient northern forest, and though she was often cold, she was never hungry. He taught her to hunt and trap and grow and preserve green things and fruits for the winter, and find new grass in the snow when their preserves ran out. She had a knack for finding things that her uncle called a kind of magic.
If there was nothing to be found, she could make a trip to the markets in the south and sell the goods they made from hunting. She had made a name for herself with the quality of her arrows, and they sold better than pelts and meat in the markets.
And for twelve years, Bennett had never been truly hungry. Until the dragon came.
At first, they did not know. They did not understand why all the animal tracks led to the north and west. Why most of the birds had gone quiet. Bennett and her uncle lived deep in the forest, away from towns, and saw people only when they went to trade in the market or met travelers on the road that cut close to their home. The first occurrence was rare and the second rarer still.
They managed for a time on dried meat and food from their little garden, until one day, when they had rationed their meat so carefully that Bennett’s stomach never quite ceased growling, Mathias said, “I’m going east to the River Avar. I’ll bring back fish.”
Bennett set aside her fletching tools. “Shall I go with you?”
He tapped his pipe against the stones of their firepit to empty it. “No. Go to town. Sell your arrows. And those wolf pelts.” He was silent for a time, and stared so intently at the fire that she knew there was more. “Get two or three pigs,” he said finally.
“Only if they’re cheap,” he replied, and because chickens would yield more food than pigs in the short term, Bennett stayed up half the night fletching arrows.
The town was burning when she came upon it, and a dragon lay stretched out on the grass in the pasture where the villagers once kept their sheep.
She watched it from a hill some distance away. It was long and sinuous, with red-brown scales and a surprisingly narrow head. Its golden eyes were very large, and set forward in its skull like a wolf’s eyes.
Bennett wondered if she could plant an arrow in one of those large eyes.
Her uncle’s fireside stories had taught her that dragon scales were nigh impenetrable. Swords, arrows, spears and even Draksili gunfire all failed to break through a dragon’s hide. Legends said that enchanted weapons could do it, and enchantments must work because men made armor from dragon scales, but she had no enchanted weapons, and her own magic was a small and only slightly useful way of finding lost things. But its eyes weren’t covered in scales.
Without quite thinking it through, she advanced slowly to the ruined town and hoped the smoke would cover her scent. All the while, she kept a wary eye on the serpentine form in the pasture, but the dragon did not stir.
Before she reached the edge of the town, she saw the dead horse. It looked fresher than the other remains she carefully did not look at, so the dragon had probably been too full to eat it. That was a good sign. A sated predator was strong but slow.
Then she saw the horse’s owner. A soldier, sprawled in the ashes, his eyes wide and blank and staring into nothing. She did not look at him long, but she saw his spears.
And she saw his sword.
Bennett picked it up carefully. It was a plain thing, with a simple leather-wrapped hilt and a lion’s head pommel. Standard issue, she thought. The balance was near perfect, and it fit her hand as though it had always belonged to her.
Her uncle had taught her swordplay, but he had only his own sword. They sparred with staves for an hour most mornings, and he made her drill with his sword so that her arm knew the weight of the real thing. But this sword was hers now. She held something that belonged to her, that seemed almost to want to belong to her. For the first time in her short life, Bennett knew she would not stay long in her uncle’s forest, and that knowledge set deep in her bones.
Then she went back to the soldier long enough to relieve him of his scabbard. “I will finish it,” she whispered. She sheathed the sword--her sword--on her own belt, took up his spears, and advanced on the dragon.
It is not huge, she told herself. Nowhere near the size of the ancient ones. And that was true. It was as long as three men end to end, and she thought it would be as wide as four or five men end to end with its wings unfurled.
She wondered if the wings would be more vulnerable than the rest of its body. She knew that if it got up into the air, it would kill her. She wasn’t quite sure she could put an arrow in its eye, but if she could cripple it somehow…
But that would mean getting close to it, and it would smell her long before she got close enough to cut its wings.
She was determined to be predator and not prey, and thought through what a predator would do. She could not be a wolf. Wolves traveled in packs, and some would distract it while the others attacked. She had no wings, and so could not be a hawk. She had seen one of the rare old giant cats once, with its long, sharp teeth, deep in the forest, and thought of how the cat would sit up in the trees and drop down on elk as they passed below, and sink those long, sharp teeth deep in its prey’s back. But that would not be enough either. How could she get it close to her?
She thought of herons, who sometimes tricked their prey with bright things to bring them closer.
Bennett looked back at the burning town. There was one structure still standing, made almost entirely of stone. She studied it for a long moment, and then made up her mind, and when she made it back to the town, she let out a long, hard, shrill scream.
As she heard the dragon roar and heard its wings beat on air, she ran for the building and, juggling her spears, began to climb. The stones were hot and almost burned her palms but there was no turning back now.
The dragon dropped into the center of the town as she climbed over the top of the wall and crouched on a beam, hidden by a bit of burning roof. The beam creaked, but the dragon didn’t seem to hear it.
It roared. When there was no answering scream, it roared again, and she realized it was trying to spook her. She held her ground. It was not nearly close enough yet.
Sparks and ashes rained down on her back and in her hair, but she forced herself to stay still. The dragon had its back to her, moving slowly down between two houses. She wondered if she ought to scream again to draw its attention but suddenly it turned and it was as fast as a snake. It rammed the wall she had climbed. The wall buckled, fell inward, and the beam beneath her cracked, held a moment, and snapped.
She had only a second to react and she took it. She threw herself over the falling wall, lost one of the spears but held the other out, and was knocked back again when it glanced harmlessly off the dragon’s jaw. She landed among stones, and saw black.
She was unconscious for only a minute. The dragon could not see her in the dust and ashes thrown up by the collapsed building, and by some miracle it had not sprayed fire in her direction.
Bennett smelled blood. Hers, she knew. A whiplash of pain cracked along her back as she tried to sit up and she had to grit her teeth against it. She managed to turn around and saw that her bow lay in pieces on the broken stones. She didn’t know where her spear had got to.
She suddenly felt the blood dripping down her neck, and reached up to carefully probe her skull, but felt only a cut on the back of her head.
Only? she asked herself.
Yes, only, she thought harshly.
That was likely why the dragon hadn’t sprayed fire. It smelled blood and thought she was dead, or close to dead. She tried to stand up. It took a moment, but she managed and by the time she was on her feet, the dust and ashes had begun to clear.
She saw the long, serpentine shape first, and then the hazy glow of its golden eyes, and then she saw the real reason it hadn’t breathed fire on her. Its eyes were glassy, as though ramming into the wall had stunned it. It was, after all, smallish for a dragon.
But then it saw her and its eyes cleared, and it didn’t matter that it was a little dragon. It mattered that it was several times her size.
But Bennett was a natural hunter. She did not need to think that she could not outrun it or its fiery breath. She knew that.
Bennett ran straight at it. It roared in surprise--prey always ran away, didn’t it?--and snapped at her a second too late. She dropped to the ground and slid, and then she was beneath its bulk, grabbing its left front leg and hauling herself up its side.
Her sword came easily to her hand, and she savaged its wing from beneath. The first cut didn’t pierce flesh but somehow the second got beneath the smaller, more flexible wing scales. It rolled and stretched its long neck to snap at her again but she scrambled away. When it rolled again, she took a short, running leap and hauled herself up onto its back.
The dragon tried to launch into the air, but its wounded wing could not compensate for the strength of its good one. Bennett was almost thrown when it overbalanced but she hung gamely on.
It roared in rage, writhing and bending its long neck around to try and bite her, and each time she swung her sword at its head and hauled herself up a little further.
When she reached its head, one hand holding tight to the ridge over its right eye, the dragon rolled.
Mathias Quint heard the traveler’s words echoing over and over in his mind as he raced for the market town.
“Go west or north. There is a dragon pillaging the south and the riverlands.”
He smelled the smoke long before he reached the town. Heard the call of scavenger birds, the only animals who never fled a dragon’s devastation.
She will have gone home, he thought. She would see the dragon before she reached it.
But she hadn’t been home and he hadn’t met her on the way.
He saw the dragon stretched out in the town square and waited, watching. It lay unmoving, so he crept closer.
Then he saw her. She was trapped halfway beneath its neck. She still held the sword that pierced its eye.
When he reached her, he dropped to his knees to see if she still breathed. In the harsh foreign tongue of his homeland, he found himself calling her a foolish girl, an idiot, begging God to keep her alive but before he ducked his head to listen for a heartbeat, she startled him with laughter.
“Uncle,” she gasped. “Get this thing off me.”
He lifted the dead beast’s head. It was damnably heavy and he almost dropped it on her again but she had the wherewithal to roll away. “Get my sword,” she said. “I tried to get it out but my arms hurt.” Then she frowned, her brows furrowed, and added, “My everything hurts.”
He ignored this request, checking her over for wounds and broken bones. “Can you stand?”
“Not yet. I want my sword.”
“Be silent, you little idiot,” he said harshly.
Her amber-hazel eyes flashed. “I killed it, didn’t I?”
Mathias stopped and stared at her. He thought of her hand still clutching the hilt of a sword buried in the dragon’s eye. She had killed it. It had not really occurred to him when he first saw her. She had killed the dragon.
When the soldiers came, her uncle was methodically pulling the scales from the dragon’s body, and Bennett was cleaning them as best she could.
The soldiers looked to her uncle first, but he only shrugged and pointed to her. She saw with wonder that they believed her when she said, “I killed the dragon.”
But of course they would believe her. Her uncle was unscathed and she looked as though she had seen battle. She had, after all.
In the end, they tried to reward her with gold. Her uncle tried to accept but Bennett took only their supply wagon, and she used it to carry the skull and scales back to their home deep in the ancient forest.
By winter, the name of the dragonslayer had spread like wildfire through the peasant folk and the low-born soldiers in the king’s army. They named her a great hero and attributed great deeds to her that she had not yet performed, and some of them went seeking her aid.
When the first of them found the now legendary hero, he found a smallish young woman with raggedly cut dark hair and piercing amber-hazel eyes, who did not look like much at all except that she carried a new bow and a sword with a hilt bound in red-brown leather that matched the red-brown dragonscales of her armor.