The Dragon's Apprentice

Finnvi was laying in wait when the rich man finally rounded the corner. She could hear the coins in his purse jingling and clinking together even from her seat on the roof, and wondered if they would feel as warm as the stone in her hand.

When he strode toward her she caught a glance of his face, the neatly-trimmed beard framing his soft mouth set in a complacent smile.  A moment later it disappeared from view as the man passed. All she could see now was the back of his head and his fur cap with the two white feathers.

Her eyes searched the alley below.

Where was Draz?

As soon as she had muttered it to herself, her friend appeared out of a narrow gap between two houses a few yards ahead of the man. He did not look at her, but she knew she only had a few moments before their chance would be gone.

She crouched on the edge of the roof, grasping at the reeds despite the unpleasant prickling sensation to hold her balance while she took aim.

After it had left her hand the stone made three sounds in quick succession – a soft thump as it hit the man’s fur cap and knocked it off his head, followed by a clatter when it met the wooden planks at his feet, and lastly a plop when Drazhan’s foot sent it off the walkway into the water.

The man stumbled and for a moment she was afraid she had hit him in the head, but that was not possible. She never missed.

He caught himself and patted his own head as if expecting to find the hat there, the gesture looked so confused she almost burst out laughing.

Drazhan crouched swiftly to pick it up and offered it to the man with a subservient smile.

„Here you go, Mister. Winds are strong today.“

She saw the man nod slowly as if still trying to figure out what had happened. His deep voice did not carry up to her high seat, but she could hear Drazhan’s reply.

„Not a problem, Mister, always happy to – oh!“

Just before the other could grasp it, Drazhan let go of the cap and it tumbled to the ground again.

„Oh, I am so sorry, Mister –“

The man waved off his stream of apologies and bent down to pick it up himself. Drazhan swiftly stepped closer, his hands flitted to the man’s hip and away in the blink of an eye. He had tried to teach her, but she was never quick enough to cut the leather strap holding the purse to the belt and then hide it behind her back before someone saw. He in turn could not throw a stone in a straight line to save his life, so they had decided to keep dividing up the work as they had always done.

The man placed a hand on Drazhan’s shoulder, thanking or consoling him, she could not tell. The boy gave a docile shake of his head.

„I don’t have no home, Mister. My parents drowned when I was just a babe…“

She wanted to hiss at him, what are you doing? That’s not even true. And more importantly, stop making sad eyes at the man you just thieved from and get out of there! Unfortunately she was still sat on a rooftop and could only watch as her friend sniffled and whimpered like a real orphan.

Gritting her teeth, she crawled a little closer to them until she could finally understand what the man was saying.

„ – no other relatives at all? You poor thing. You must feel so sad.“

„Aye, Mister, I cry every night before I sleep in the straw of Broni’s storehouse over yonder, between the crates…“

Were those real tears? She could not help feeling impressed.

The man took a step back, suddenly looking uncomfortable. „Well, that is just too bad – here, take this, with it you can sleep in a bed for a few nights at least…“ He reached for his purse.

Finnvi held her breath, unable to do anything but look on as the man patted around his waist. Confusion turned into suspicion, then outright anger.

„You little rat!“

Drazhan had frozen too, he only started to struggle when his arm was already in the man’s tight grip. She felt her heart thrash against her ribs like a trapped animal, desperate to squeeze through a gap and fly away.

„Oi! Up here!“

The man turned his head toward her. Drazhan kicked his shin, slipped out of his loosened hold and darted away, coins clinking.

She scrambled up to the gable, cursing at the reeds cutting into her naked soles. Fortunately it had not rained in some days, so the moss growing everywhere was not as slippery as usual. Still she stretched out her arms and took care not to run too fast.

He had seen her face only for a moment, it was unlikely he would remember it. And she was above him, above everyone else, light-footed and going wherever she pleased by paths only she knew. It would be fine.

The jump from Broni’s storehouse to the top of the Merchants‘ Hall came easier to her than on most days. The slender columns supporting the roof of the hall made for a comfortable sliding pole. She liked to admire the delicate, intertwining lines carved into their surface on the way down.

She sighed in relief when her feet touched the wooden planks again. Now to find Drazhan and give him a good tongue-lashing for his stupidity. If he wanted to be an actor so badly, he should have left for the south with one of those wandering troupes.

She turned and came face to face with a beast; even in its death-throes and with an arrow sticking out of its belly, the dragon on the hauberk of the Laketown Guard looked fearsome still.

„Now hold it just a moment, my boy.“

The heavy hand clamping down on her shoulder told her she was the one being held, though the guard’s voice was not unkind. He stooped down to her level so she could stare at his face instead of the emblem on his hauberk. She found it a welcome change. Adults normally just expected you to crane your neck when they wanted to talk to you.

„Where’s your friend?“

She shook her head. Even though this was all Draz’s fault, she was not going to betray him.

„I’m not going to hurt him, I just want to get the man his money back. What were you going to do with it, anyway?“ The man’s eyes looked gentle, even though his dark beard was scruffy and much less well-trimmed than the rich man’s had been.

She opened her mouth to say, buy a bolt of that beautiful red linen because my mother looked sad when her friend came by in a new dress, oh and maybe trout, I like trout, when another dragon appeared. They never came alone, maybe they were scared someone might shoot them with arrows from a dark corner.

„Leave it, Grigor.“ The other guard stood tall and proud, the tip of his long spear glinting in the light while he looked at her with disdain. „I know that one. Scum like the rest of her brood. You’re not going to get anywhere with them without a good beating first.“

„You’re a girl?“ The man named Grigor pushed some of the hair out of her face and inspected it. He smiled. „Should’ve known. Haven’t seen such a light gait in some time. How do you know her?“ he asked, turning back to his companion.

The other man scoffed. „I don’t, really. But I know she’s one of them. Same stench as her brawler brother.“

She clenched her fists and imagined they were as big as Liudevit’s; if the guard had ever truly gotten in trouble with her brother he wouldn’t talk so lightly of it.

Grigor sniffed once, then twice. „I don’t smell anything.“

„Don’t try to play one of your stupid tricks on me. I don’t find them funny. She’s the tanners‘ daughter, I know it. You stomp around in piss all day, the fumes do something to your mind. That’s why she thinks she is a little bird sometimes.“ The guard smiled menacingly. „But not anymore. I’m going to lock you in a dark and mouldy cage, my little bird, until you tell us where the money is.“

Despite trying hard to hold them back she felt tears welling up in her eyes. Liudevit had told her about the cells below the Town Hall after she had embarassed him in front of a pretty girl at the market. The bottom was already in the water so you couldn’t lie down and sleep, and if you stayed in there too long you would begin to rot from your toes upward until there was nothing left of you.

„Stop that.“ Grigor’s voice was deeper than his companion’s and his kind eyes could flash with a sudden fire; for a moment she thought the dragon on his breast might come alive with a roar and melt the smug grin right off the other’s face.

Not unlike the rich man earlier, the other guard suddenly looked like he had gotten in over his head. Then he puffed himself up and pounded the end of his spear on the planks twice.

„Fine. You can deal with her. I am going to Town Hall to give a report. I am sure the masters are going to be pleased to hear you could not find the money.“

Grigor gave him a curt nod before abruptly turning and marching her down a series of walkways and out of sight. She was so glad she would not have to go with the cruel man and into the water cells that she did not try to run, even though she was sure Grigor could not have squeezed through most of her favourite escape routes.

He stopped in front of a ladder, and she gave him a confused look.

„Up you go, and don’t try to slink away. I caught you once, I can do it again.“ He hoisted her onto the ladder and climbed up after her. It led to a small platform without railings, just above the heads of any passerbys. She hung her legs over the edge and wondered if you could walk on heads, if the people were to stand very still and not too far apart.

Grigor settled next to her with a slight groan. „No rain for a week, and still my legs are sore. You don’t get any younger.“ He smiled at her. „Now. What’s your name?“

„Finnvi,“ she said in a small voice. „How did you know where I would go?“

He laughed. „I ask one question, and you immediately have one too! It’s a fair trade, I suppose. I know all the nooks and crannies of this town, all the shortcuts – even the aerial ones. Used to spend a lot of time up there.“

„But you’re old. My grandfather says the old town was different than this one, before the dragon came and burned it down.“

She frowned when he kept laughing.

„Do I look like your grandfather to you? You wound me, little one.“ He had taken off his helmet and absentmindedly twirled some of his long, dark hair around his finger, looking displeased when he found a few strands of grey in it.

„Why did you want to take that man’s money?“ he asked. „I’m sure your parents wouldn’t want you to go thieving.“

She hung her head. If she told him that Drazhan had been stealing from visiting merchants since his father started drinking again she would have felt relieved, but also a traitor. „It is… fun. We are good at it. And we only take from the stinking rich Dale-folk.“

He seemed to understand that while it was not the whole truth, neither was it a lie. „You knock their hats off with a stone, and he robs them while they’re distracted? Not the worst technique I have seen. You must have good aim.“

„I have!“ she said proudly. „My brother says I could hit a water strider from a mile away, if I had his arms.“

„He is right, what you lack is strength… I bet you five copper you can’t hit that left shutter over there.“ He handed her a small linen pouch. She reached in and retrieved a handful of chestnuts.

Grigor sighed. „Friend from the mainland sends me an enourmous bag every year… I don’t want to tell him he has been straining his back for nothing all this time, because I don’t even like them. Now, soldier – take aim or you owe me five copper!“

She deliberately made a sloppy throw and still hit the target. He did not look impressed. „Ten copper for the sheet hanging from the window.“

They went on for a while. He would bet higher amounts on ever more difficult challenges, and she continued to master them without fail.

Finally he cleared his throat and pointed to a basket someone had left out on a balcony across the street.

„Twenty silver.“

She hesitated. It would be difficult to get the chestnut to fly over the railing and still fall into the basket. But twenty silver sounded like a lot. She figured it would be enough for many yards of red linen and at least a week of eating trout.

She fixed her eyes on the target, aimed for a nice high arc… and hit the railing. The chestnut disappeared down into the shadows of the alleyway.

She turned to Grigor, alarmed. He raised an eyebrow and opened his hand.

„Where are my twenty silver, soldier?“

„I… don’t have them.“

His eyes looked serious, disappointed even. Yet the corners of his mouth were twitching.

„But you know who has them.“

She wailed at him. „You tricked me!“

He broke out into laughter. „A bet is a bet! You got overconfident.“

Her heart sank. „I can’t. My friend needs it,“ she said, feeling like she had to force every word out of her constricting throat. „I won’t run though.“

Maybe Liudevit would break her out of her cell before she was covered in mould from head to toe. She felt her eyes fill with tears once more at the thought of her brother, trying and failing to force the bars apart while she was slowly devoured in the green-tinted darkness.

Grigor ruffled her hair. „Don’t you worry. Twenty silver is not all that was in that purse. You get back the original with twenty silver in it from your friend, and I will see to it that it is stocked up to the amount that went missing.“

„You swear?“

„Only if you swear I won’t catch you thieving again.“

„But you said I had good aim,“ she said weakly.

He nodded. „I wasn’t lying. I have a much better idea what you could use that talent for, though.“

He tapped on his chest, and her eyes wandered back to the dying dragon with the arrow sunk deep into its fiery innards.

„Finnvi – how would you like to learn the noble art of archery?“