The Shanachie II: Tempered by dragonfire



            “It happened in the land of Ipsnad,” the Shanachie began, projecting his voice. He was sitting on the ground in a corner reserved for beggars with his hat open in front of him.  The market around him was modest, a place where the residents of a small, forgotten farming village sold spare crops and simple crafts.  The old man paused and waited as the market provided what audience it would.

            “Sir Reginald and the score of men with him were hunting.  He rode his prized charger as fast as he dared over the rough ground between Marga Castle and Garnad.  He and his men were a sight.  Each of them wore a full suit of armor, the sort tailor-made by a smith that only the wealthiest of warriors could afford, under cloaks of the sort no man could buy and only the bravest could earn.  Sir Reginald, his men and all their horses wore emerald and sky blue dragonhide over their armor, as Sir Reginald of Lenton was known to be the finest of dragonslayers.

            Reginald removed his helmet and turned to the old woman next to him. She was gray of hair but vigorous, with a far-away look in her dark eyes.  ‘Is the beast in thy sight, mother?’

            She nodded in silence and then pointed to the east, toward the shire of Greensnad.  The head of her common brown riding horse turned to look.  Although she wore no armor and was dressed as a servant, a common black dress with a rope for a belt, Sir Reginald’s mother was leading the company with her son by her side.  Reginald’s men followed, with a few trusted servants behind, riding in a supply wagon and a cart covered by a dragonhide blanket.

            The company turned toward Greensnad and smoke could be seen on the horizon. Cathleen, as Reginald’s mother was called, did lead the company to an old road and they were able to quicken their pace.  Before long, they came to the cluster of modest cabins where the good people of Greensnad made their home. The people were rushing too and fro with buckets of dirt and well-water, struggling to put out a fire that burned and sputtered in a field of golden wheat, threatening to consume it all.”

            The Shanachie paused.  Everyone in the audience looked concerned, for the people of a small farming village knew what it meant to lose a crop.  The Shanachie knew he had them.

            “Nobody saw as Cathleen halted her horse and watched, nor did they take any notice when Sir Reginald joined her.  Reginald did assess the situation with a glance.  A teardrop-shaped fire was burning in the heart of the people’s most precious planting, arrows of the sort used for hunting game could be seen, some of which, having struck the ground, stood at an angle and a few frightened animals stood outside their fences.  It seemed that the dragon had come to steal a fattened pig or lamb and the people had fought back using the only weapons they would have, hunting bows and perhaps scythes or pitchforks, weapons that would be of no more use against the scaly armor of a dragon than a club would be in chopping down trees. The cruel beast had then retaliated by breathing its hellfire breath into their best wheatfield before departing with its meal.

            Sir Reginald blew his horn and his men were on the move.  As the people took notice of the company of strangers, they halted their work and came together, not knowing if the newcomers were friend or foe.  Using his horn, Sir Reginald had given a command that his men knew well.  He and his men removed their cloaks and rode forth, into the burning field.  As one, they threw the dragonhide garments over the fire.  A trio of servants came, carrying the blanket that had covered the cart they had been riding in, exposing what it carried to the wondering glances of the people.  Reginald’s men turned and rode their chargers onto the pile of dragonhide and the horses stamped out the flames.  The fire’s death was complete.  With another note from their commander’s horn, they dismounted, retrieved their cloaks and led their horses out of the field with care not to do further damage.  The awestruck silence of the people was broken by cheers of gratitude.

            ‘Good people of Greensnad’, Sir Reginald began.  The people quieted themselves and listened.  ‘I would be Reginald of Lenton and I am seeking a dragon.  With your kindly permission, my company would water our horses here and I would hear all you know of a beast with a back and head of white and a belly of sky blue!’  Reginald waited.

            An elder spoke up.  ‘You may water at my trough,’ he declared.  Another man said, ‘Mine as well!’  The elder turned to the people around him.  ‘Would any here refuse kindly Sir Reginald and his men?’  Silence followed.  The old man waited as Reginald gave his horse to a servant.

            ‘We know little of dragons, only what we see,’ the elder did say to Reginald with a smile.  Reginald nodded and the elder continued.  ‘The dragon you seek has made victims of us and our neighbors. It comes and takes what it will. This time it swallowed a sheep and carried off a pig.  We fought and it did this.’  The elder’s gaze surveyed the burnt field.

             ‘And t’was not long ago,’ Reginald observed.  The old man nodded.  ‘In which direction did it depart?’

The elder pointed. Reginald thought for a moment. The dragon’s behavior was nothing strange to his mind.  Such a beast would typically stay in an area that lacked defenses sufficient to halt it and continue to steal what it would.  Having eaten, t’would seek a remote place to rest.  ‘Many thanks friend, my company must make haste,’ Reginald declared before blowing a note on his horn.

            Soon, Sir Reginald’s company was assembled with their horses freshly watered and their supply wagon refilled.  They did make haste in the direction in which the elder had pointed and did seek their quarry, but were unable to find the beast.  After a night in the wilderness, Reginald led them to Garnad.

            The town of Garnad rests by the Ipsnad River, in a place that is convenient for local farmers and woodsmen to meet trading ships, and does contain the home of many a merchant and shopkeeper.  T’is a rich boon for he whom the king would name Duke of Ipsnad and t’is a tradition for the duke to inhabit the keep that is within the town. There was no Duke of Ipsnad at the time when Reginald and his company did arrive, for the thieving dragon that Reginald sought did plague the town and the duke had been slain by the beast.  Garnad did not lack defenses.  There was a high outer wall and an inner wall protecting the keep, manned by soldiers and defended by trebuchets and catapults.  More than adequate protection from attackers on the ground, but of little use against an assault that came from above, as did the dragon, and as is so in many towns, the townsfolk’s’ homes were vulnerable to fire.  T’was the king who had enlisted Sir Reginald to slay the beast and the king had given him the right to appoint a steward of Garnad to command the town’s defenders and keep order until a new duke could be named.

            As Sir Reginald led his men into town, the sentries opened the gate without question and the townsfolk came to see as the company rode down the main avenue to the keep.  The commander of the town guard did arrive as Reginald and his men were taking their horses to the stables and Reginald did show him the contents of the cart.  T’was a ballista of ancient design, made to hurl javelins with force and accuracy.  The device would be of inconsequential use against an armed force, when compared to catapult or trebuchet, but it did possess the trueness of shot needed to strike a dragon on the wing.  The two commanders had soon decided to hitch two fine carriage horses to the two-wheel cart that the ballista was bolted to, station a guard to act as driver and assign two of Reginald’s men to use the weapon.  Thus the ballista would be always ready if the dragon were to show itself.”

            The Shanachie’s attention was drawn to a father and son in the audience who were conversing quietly.  He acknowledged them with a nod and a smile.

            “What is a Ballista?” the child asked as his father encouraged him with a smile.

            “T’is a siege weapon not unlike a crossbow in design, half again as long as a man is tall.  When bolted to a cart, a ballista is aimed by turning and using a leaver to tilt the device and loaded by drawing the twine with a hand crank.  T’was a weapon used by the Caesars’ legions, which many have forgotten in latter times.”

            The Shanachie paused with a far-away look before continuing.  “Having met with the guard commander, Reginald decided to remove his armor and went into town, wearing but a simple woolen cloak and hood.  The commander had told the tale of Garnad’s woes, but Reginald wished to see the signs of dragon attacks for himself.  T’was indeed true as Reginald could see.  There were signs of dragonfire and many a wounded building was being repaired.  Reginald’s trained eye could see that the beast had perpetrated more than a few attacks over several months, breathing fire and, sometimes, striking with tail or claw.

            While examining signs of a recent fire in a poor part of town, Reginald came upon a raucous scene.  A girl of a half-score and two years or so was the center of unwanted attention from three slightly older boys.  Reginald stood out of sight but not far away as the three boys taunted the girl. They delighted in saying how ugly she was and that no man would have her.  They addressed her as ‘Crispy’, as her face and one arm were badly scarred in a way that was all too familiar to Reginald.  Burnt she had been.

            Reginald watched with interest from under the hood of his cloak.  The girl was silent and still as though armored against their cruel words and her gaze accused her tormenters.  ‘Now Crispy is giving me the evil eye!’ one boy exclaimed, laughing.

            ‘Beware the hideous witch, or be turned to stone!’ taunted another.

            ‘Be gone!’ Crispy shouted.

            ‘By what penalty?’ one boy asked.  ‘A pathetic creature like you can bear no wrath against us!’

            Crispy did stand her ground as the boys surrounded her, her knuckles white on the handle of the simple basket she carried.  One boy slapped the basket out of her hand and the others laughed, but the girl showed no fear.  Instead, Crispy lashed out with her other, burn-scarred hand and did slap the boy’s face.

The boy’s demeanor changed to that of a cat about to pounce upon a mouse, prompting Reginald to step into sight.  ‘Three,’ he said simply in a commander’s voice.  The boys halted, uncertain.

‘It takes three to subdue one girl?’ Reginald scolded.  ‘She must be powerful in deed.’

The boys’ eyes were on the ground.  ‘We seek only to rid ourselves of a pest’, one boy said weakly.

‘And one who bears scars is but a pest?’ Reginald asked with soft derision.  He drew back his hood and the boys stared, for Reginald had learned years ago, in combat, that no matter the quality of one’s armor, the only way to be safe from dragonfire is to cover oneself with the hide of a dragon.  His head and back bore the scars of that lesson and not a hair grew above his neck. ‘And how would you be rid of a pest such as myself?’

‘We have spoken not of you, stranger!’ one boy protested in a voice filled with fear.

‘So you fear to deny that t’is an honor to show the scars of battle when addressing a man, but would be so bold only when confronted by an unarmed young lady.’  Reginald waited with a look of expectation as the insult sank in.  The boys were silent and Crispy seemed uncertain.  Reginald did take a step closer.  ‘You have spoken of the need to rid yourselves of those such as us, Reginald sneered.  ‘Pray tell, by what penalty would you be rid of me?  Pathetic creatures like yourselves can bear no wrath against Sir Reginald of Lenton. Be gone!’

The boys fled and as soon as they were gone, the girl began to weep.  Even in tears, she did stand tall and unashamed.  Reginald walked to her and knelt.  ‘At your service,’ he said gently.  The girl smiled and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.

She composed herself and acted as any commoner was expected to behave toward one of noble position.  ‘My privilege to escort you to your home,’ Reginald prompted.

            The girl pointed to what had once been a modest abode before the structure had been consumed by fire.  She was still quiet and submissive.  Reginald could see that there had been an attempt to reconstruct living quarters within what remained of the home.

            ‘Kin seeks you not?’ Reginald asked, sad of face.  The girl shook her head and looked sadly at a patch of ground nearby, where three small, makeshift wooden crosses stood.

            Reginald did rise.  ‘T’would be a sadness to abandon home and kin, but there is room for you in Garnad Keep if you would have it.’

            The girl gasped in disbelief and Reginald nearly chuckled as he did up his cloak and hood.  ‘Come’, he said softly, with a reassuring smile.

            Before long, Reginald and the girl did arrive at the keep.  Along the way, he did converse with her and, once she had become comfortable, she had given him her name and her tale.  Her name was Alice.  Her family had been humble but not in misery as her father farmed another’s plot of land and her mother spun clothing of wool to sell in the market.  Then the dragon had come.

            Once inside, Reginald did instruct the servants to give Alice a room, accompany her as she settled in, give her access to the library, read to her if asked and to notify her when meals would be served.  He then departed to the main hall, where his men were relaxing.

            As he entered, his mother came to him.  She was mirthful of countenance and he knew that she had been using the sight.  It bothered him not as he was accustomed to her witchy ways.  Through most of his life, she had hidden her gift, as many would believe that such things are of the Devil.  Her kin knew different.  Some do have commerce with the Prince of Darkness to acquire gifts, yes, but on occasion, t’was different with the sight.  Some were born with it and passed it on to offspring, the firstborn daughter in her case.  Reginald’s grandmother and sister had the sight as well.

            Cathleen whispered quietly to her son.  ‘A new companion you have acquired.’  She paused not for response.  ‘Her destiny is yours to decide, as is the fate of Garnad.’

            The two of them turned to the long table and the company rose and took seats by rank.  Reginald’s men knew their places, with Reginald at the head of the table, Cathleen to his left and a grizzly old warrior named Markus to his right, as he had served longest. Tactics they did discuss as the servants brought a dark brew.  T’was soon decided.  They would wait in Garnad for three days and three nights in the hope that the beast would show itself.  While the town guard manned the outer wall, Reginald’s company would patrol just outside in shifts and the ballista-cart would be kept ready.  After three days, they would resume seeking the dragon.

            They did converse on other matters as well and t’was soon time for dinner. That first dinner was formal and Reginald, along with his mother, had been seated with the guard commander. When a servant presented Alice, Reginald motioned for her to join him and Cathleen moved to make way, causing all on her side of the table to yield.

            ‘Alice,’ Reginald began when she was seated.  ‘You know the streets of Garnad.  Tell me, where would the placement of a single ballista gain the most advantage for the town’s defenders?’

            Alice thought for a moment, ignoring the deprecating look form the guard commander. ‘On the roof of the university, lord,’ she said quietly.

            The guard commander interrupted.  ‘Not on the outer wall?  This girl knows noth...’  Reginald did silence him with a raised hand.

            ‘Why the university?’ Reginald prompted.

T’is a large, flat roof atop a building of stone, where one can see more of the town than any part of the outer wall, lord.

            Reginald turned to the commander.  ‘The university would be the cluster of buildings shaded by a stone roof born by decorative columns of ancient design, yes?  We do need a wide ramp to take up the cart.’

            ‘You lend an ear to this girl who has seen neither sword nor battle?’

            ‘Need I remind you that I act in the name of the king?’  Reginald asked.  ‘Have you such a ramp?’

            The commander averted his eyes.  ‘Yes, Sir Reginald.’

            With that, the subject was changed to other matters.  That very night, Reginald did find a stout ramp of wood and, with the help of his men, moved the cart to the university roof.  Alice and Cathleen watched from the street as the girl’s advice was followed.  Reginald found that t’was sound advice indeed, as he could see nearly the whole town from where he stood.  Also, the square roof was as wide as five men were tall and quite flat, with ample room to turn the cart quickly when aiming.

            By night, the university stood empty but by day t’was inhabited by many a professor and philosopher.  In the morning, teachers and students alike did notice the ramp leading to the roof, where a ballista and three warriors, decked out in dragonhide over well-made armor, did make an impressive sight.  T’was soon decided that the university would be abandoned for three days, so as not to hamper Reginald’s men.  One might surmise, also, that the thinkers sought to avoid injury, were the fight to commence.  Reginald did congratulate Alice on a splendid idea and ask for more of her intuitions.

            Alice’s countenance did brighten at the request.  ‘Dip the points of each javelin in the leavings of a cow,’ she did advise.

            Reginald did pause, surprised.  Cathleen nodded with revelation in her eyes.  ‘T’would sicken the beast,’ she agreed.  ‘Even with a slight wounding.’

            Reginald ordered the ballista’s ammunition dipped and reckoned the times for his company’s duty shifts.  Two days hence, the dragon did show itself, in the light of day no less.  T’was a beast of remarkable size, even for a dragon.  A back of white it had, over a belly of sky blue, and t’was as long as ten horses from nose to tail.  T’was lizard-like of body, serpentine of neck, borne by leathery wings and had a pair of horns on its head as long as a man is tall as well as two rows of spines down its back and tail.  The beast’s orange eyes were upon the town and its teeth, each as long as a man’s hand, shown from inside a lipless mouth that did seem to be forever sneering.  It did soar in the sky, too high to be touched by anything earthbound, until over the town t’was.  Then did it dive, its head aiming for a hapless milk cow.

            On the university roof, Reginald’s men were about their work.  One man held up the dragonhide blanket, ready to cover the weapon if needed, while another worked the lever, tilting the weapon up, and a third put his back into turning the cart.  The second man did say ‘clear’ before pulling the trigger.  With a mighty twang, the ballista shot a feathered javelin.  Miss! The attack did not go unnoticed by the beast and it landed on the hind feet that it had been about to pluck the milk cow with.  The hapless cow hurried away, crying in terror.  All in town took cover as best they could and the three warriors did reload the ballista with haste.

            With mighty flaps of his wings and a bellow of rage, the dragon rose again into the air.  It dipped, gaining speed, and then rose, driving itself toward the university.  The warrior holding the blanket did throw it over the weapon with haste and all three sought safety under the cart.  The dragon cocked its head and exhaled, breathing a column of fire that bathed the university roof, but t’was to no avail.  Men and weapon alike were shielded from the flame by the blanket.

            The dragon did pass overhead, soaring fast as the three warriors hastened to uncover and aim the ballista.  The weapon twanged a second time and that shot did strike the beast’s leathery wing.  The dragon gave a sharp cry and turned away.

            The beast rose high into the air, moved over the university and dove.  The warriors did cover the ballista and take up their lances as it seemed the beast, its fiery breath thwarted, sought to fight with tooth and claw.  The men did kneel and aim the heads of their lances toward their foe while bracing the hind ends against the roof.  As the dragon saw the trap that had been set for it, it spread its wings and turned, swooping over town to set alight two of the fine homes near the university out of pure spite.  The warriors aimed the ballista and took a third shot, but the dragon had hastened away before the javelin flew and the shot was a miss.  One of the three did blow a note on his horn.

            Outside the wall, Reginald was patrolling on horseback when the dragon had come.  He heard the horn, though there was not truly a need for the signal.  He could see the dragon.  As the beast departed, Reginald and the two men who were with him did follow.  He blew his horn as he rode, giving the command for his company to join the chase.  Fine as his charger was, the steed could not match the speed of a dragon on the wing and, after a day’s pursuit, Reginald did find a suitable place to camp and blow his horn to assemble his men.  Soon, the company was assembled and the ballista cart and supply wagon had found them.  After camping for the night, Reginald and Cathleen led the company to seek the beast.

            Four days they did spend traveling with Cathleen finding the path.  The dragon had raided a sheep farm and made for the northern hills to find a place to rest, as its wing still bore a wound. Find the beast they did at long last. It had been sickened by the dipped javelin and woke not when the company arrived.  T’was no chore to slay a beast in such a state and soon t’was destroyed and the company was riding back to Garnad.

            The town guard did see Reginald’s company coming and that one warrior bore the dragon’s horned head on a lance as proof of their deed.  Townsfolk lined the avenue and cheered as the dragonslayers made a parade of traveling to the keep.  There, a celebration was planned for the next day and invitations were sent to many a prominent resident.

            That night, the keep was open and the townsfolk did feast and exhaust their supply of drink.  In town, word spread quickly and the streets were soon crowded with revelers.  Inside, what began as a formal affair soon became raucous.  The dragon’s head was brought forth and the prominent folk did line up to insult the creature as though t’were still alive to hear.  Amid the celebration, Reginald did see that Cathleen was there with Alice.  The old woman had taken upon herself the duty of looking after the girl.  Men of Reginald’s company did congratulate her and compose many a toast in her honor, but the prominent townsfolk did ignore her as they would a beggar.

            Reginald’s attention was drawn by a commotion.  Musicians had been hired and the guests had been dancing, but the revelers had formed a ring around three men.  One was the commander of the guard, another appeared to be a professor and the third had the fat and well-dressed look of a merchant.  All three were a bit inebriated and were arguing over who would be steward, as each man coveted that position.  As each put forth his case at once, the merchant drew a dagger from his belt and advanced on the commander, a foolish act indeed as the commander was in uniform, which consisted of a sword and armor.  The commander stiffened his stance and placed a hand on his sword.

            Reginald did step forward.  ‘Stay,’ he bellowed.  The argument ended immediately and all eyes were on him.  ‘The steward is for me to name, in the name of the king, and I’ll name not any fellow who would take the title by arms.’

            The professor smiled with humility.  ‘I drew not a weapon, sir.’

            Reginald nodded.

            The commander spoke up.  ‘After my years of service, I would be next in line!’

            ‘And who did donate the funds you and your men needed?’ the merchant asked.

            From among the onlookers came the voice of a woman with the look of a rich man’s wife.  ‘Name a steward and have done with it!’  Other voices from the crowd did give assent.

            ‘That I will,’ Reginald said quietly.  ‘Alice, come forward.’  With Cathleen’s prompting, a nervous and confused Alice stood before him.  ‘This lass did know how the dragon could be slain!’ Reginald declared, gesturing to the creature’s head, which lay on a table in the center of the room.  ‘Young though she is, she has shown wisdom and bravery.’  Alice smiled but said nothing.

            ‘She is but a beggar, sir,’ the professor said with annoyance.

            ‘Surely you would not have me and my charges take orders from a fatherless child with no deeds to her name!’ the commander added, shocked.

            ‘Alice,’ Reginald prompted.  ‘Have you no deeds to your name?’

            Alice looked down and shook her head.  ‘Modesty is a virtue that will not serve you well tonight,’ Reginald did advise.

            Cathleen stepped forward.  ‘Tell the men how you came to be fatherless.’  Alice gasped, but then her demeanor changed to that of a determined survivor.

The room was silent as she spoke, not in the subdued voice of a peasant among lords, but strong enough for all to hear.  ‘I lost my kin when that... monstrous devil burned our home and all inside! Standing before you I would not be had I been at home.  It happened in the evening, a dusk like any other.  Father was resting after an honest day’s work while mother was spinning and minding my brothers and sisters.  All of you know what that creature did time after time.  It did fly low and set alight homes, ours and our neighbors’.  This I witnessed and not from afar.  I flung open our door but save those most beloved to me I could not when the thatched roof of our humble home did fall, burning, to the floor.  I failed to fling aside the burning debris while their screams filled my ears and not a one was saved by my efforts!’  Alice had the look of one about to shed tears, but not a one fell and she continued.  ‘I did what was left for me to do, which was bind my wounds in wet cloth and bury the dead near where they lay, with only me to dig and only me to mourn.  I did live in our home and did tend their graves and, yes, I did beg for what little my neighbors could spare.’  Alice did turn to confront the professor as she uttered the last sentence.

            The professor did speak after a pause.  ‘A sad tale, but not one that provides a reason to make of her a steward.’

            ‘The steward is for me to name, in the name of the king,’ Reginald did remind the man.  ‘I would name young Alice as steward and, if his majesty is kind enough to lend me his ear, I would petition that she be called Duchess of Ipsnad.  Hear objections I will, though I’ve no duty to explain myself.’

            The merchant did speak.  ‘I must object to the naming in this time and place, sir.  Perhaps we would all have clearer heads in the near future, on an occasion when less beer and wine has been served.’

            ‘The time and place was chosen by you three and your quarrel over stewardship,’ Reginald quipped.  ‘And not all have been served as much drink as yourselves.’

            ‘The steward should be one who has training in the art of war, to protect the town and command the guard,’ the commander did object, quietly.

            ‘Had we not leant an ear to this girl, the dragon’s serpentine neck would surely still have a head upon it and, doubtless, t’would return to trouble the good people of this town again and again, as it so often did on your watch!’ Reginald scolded.

            ‘If you wish not to be commanded by one such as me, your resignation would be accepted,’ Alice did decide.  Not a word of objection came from the audience that watched in fascinated silence as a drama unfolded before them.

            The guard commander, however, stiffened at the rebuke.  ‘Perhaps I and all my men should resign and leave you with no one for the steward to command’.

            ‘In that event, my company would take up the duties of the town guard until the steward is able to assemble replacements,’ Reginald did declare.  He turned to the audience, in which his men did mingle.  ‘If any of my men would refuse a command from the rightful Steward of Garnad, speak now!’  Silence.

            ‘All guards are welcome to continue service, perhaps at a higher rank due to the resignations of others,’ Alice added after a pause.  Reginald did grin and Cathleen did chuckle softly, as did many in the audience.

            The professor spoke up using the voice of an orator.  ‘Shall we stand for this, good people of Garnad?  Shall we allow this outsider, knowing us not, to hoist a beggar-child onto the throne of our town?  I must object to this travesty!’

            Reginald was about to speak when Alice’s answer did head him off.  ‘I have lived my whole life in Garnad, as did my father and his father before him.  Can you say the same, professor?’

            ‘I have made this town my home for more years than you have lived, girl,’ the professor retorted, looming over her.

            ‘Yes, in the university, knowing neither market, street nor field,’ Alice answered.

            The professor paused and it could be seen in his face that he sought an answer to her words.  ‘To rule well, a steward should be an educated man,’ he said at last.

            ‘A steward does have the power to name advisors,’ Reginald interjected. Alice nodded.

            ‘Need she answer any other objections?’ Reginald asked of the room. No further objections were heard. Reginald drew his sword and did say in a most solemn voice, ‘kneel.’  Alice did kneel and wait while Reginald tapped her head and each shoulder with the flat of his sword.  ‘In the name of the king, I dub thee Lady Alice of Garnad and do grant thee stewardship of the town of Garnad and surrounding lands, along with the right to bear arms, accept fealty, make law with thy word and deliver justice as thou would see fit, so long as t’is the king’s pleasure that thou remain in his service.  But know that the welfare of the town, the payment of the king’s taxes and obedience to royal authority are thy responsibilities.  Doth thou accept?’

            ‘I do!’ Alice did speak up for all to hear.

            ‘Rise, Steward of Garnad,’ Reginald commanded.

            ‘And from this day on, she will bear arms in service of the king,’ the guard commander sneered.

            Cathleen did answer his comment.  ‘That she shall!’  She then called one of Reginald’s servants by name and instructed him to fetch her mirror-blade rapier.  When the man returned, he presented the sheathed blade with formality to Cathleen, who then presented it to Alice as a congratulatory gift and bid that she draw it. T’was a mirror-blade indeed, made of the purest steel, so pure that it did resemble the surface of a still lake.

            Lady Alice did draw the weapon and hold it aloft to be admired.  The guard commander gasped in awe as did any who knew swords.  None in Garnad had ever seen a weapon of such quality.

            ‘A most appropriate gift, mother,’ Reginald commented.

            On cue, Cathleen explained with a rascal’s grin.  ‘This weapon was tempered by dragonfire, the steel made hotter than any forge before being plunged into water.  The rarified metal was later made into a lady’s rapier, with a long handle for two hands and the sharpest of blades on either side.’  She moved her gaze to regard Alice.  ‘Such quality can only be achieved by that which survives the most dire of circumstances, that which has been forged using the deadliest of fire.’

            ‘Many thanks,’ Alice said, her voice soft with awe and her countenance reddening. She looked to Reginald and her eyes asked if she really could keep the weapon.

Reginald answered by turning to the guard commander.  ‘Keys,’ he demanded.  The man did relinquish the keys to the keep in the solemn silence of defeat.

            The next day, to the surprise of many, Alice did keep the title of steward with Reginald’s continued support of what some believed must have been a decision influenced by drinking.  True to her word, Alice did promote many a guard as the commander and a few of his most loyal charges did abandon the service of Garnad and the lower ranks were filled by young recruits, men of modest means who would better their circumstances.  Sir Reginald and his company did remain for a fortnight, but in naming a counsel of skilled advisors and ruling with fairness, Alice did come to enjoy much support.  Cathleen did act as her advisor and train the girl to use her rapier with skill and Reginald, as a commander, did make his advice available as well.

            The day that Reginald and company did depart was made festive, with the dragonslayers on parade and the streets lined with grateful onlookers.  Reginald did travel to see the king and collect the bounty on the head of his prey, which had been mounted in the dinning hall of Garnad keep.  Of course, word of the deed did reach his highness’s ears before Reginald did stand in his presence, and the ruler knew that the dragon was no more and who had been named as steward.  Having paid the bounty, his majesty did question Sir Reginald over a choice of stewards that was described as unprecedented.

            ‘Majesty,’ Reginald did reply.  ‘T’was that girl who knew how to slay the beast.  As thou knowest, I did follow the dragon for many a month but saw it not. When my eyes at last beheld it, t’was the strongest I had ever seen.  Fast as well, and worst of all, cunning.  Though t’was my sword that slew the dragon, t’was the girl who knew how to bring it down.  She knew where to mount a defense that did defeat an attack from above and how to weaken the beast and prevent another escape by air.’

            ‘So the royal messengers say as well,’ the king did reply.  ‘But steward?  Yes, the girl deserves a reward, but stewardship should be passed to a more acceptable choice.  Perhaps a relative with similar qualities.’

            ‘Lady Alice has no living relatives,’ Reginald did object politely. ‘I did name her steward, as I believe she will rule well, and would name her Duchess as well were it mine to decide.’

            ‘You would make a lady of a peasant girl?’  The king chuckled.

            ‘T’would not be the first commoner to be so rewarded after demonstrating quality,’ Reginald did answer with a smile.

            ‘True,’ the king said thoughtfully.  ‘Proven herself to you she may have, but proving herself to me is something she has yet to accomplish.  Your request I shall grant in a year’s time, if her rule pleases me.’ His majesty nodded to a waiting scribe. ‘So it shall be written.’

            ‘Many thanks, majesty,’ Reginald replied.  ‘I have confidence that she shall not disappoint.’

            While Reginald petitioned the king, Alice did hear petitions from her own people. As is customary, many of the poverty stricken did ask for assistance and Lady Alice had invited the victims of the dragon to make themselves heard.  In this way did she use her treasury to rebuild her town.  One family in particular drew her attention as they approached the throne, looking shabby.  They were a father, mother and son and Alice recognized the son.  T’was the boy who had tormented her on many a day, including the day she met Reginald.  In spite of his family’s need, he favored the girl with an evil leer.

            The boy’s father made an unconvincing argument that his market-booth had been burned in one of the fires the dragon had started.  Alice did know that the market in his part of the town stood intact and, even if the booth were no more, t’would take little effort to make another.

            Alice pointed to the boy.  ‘Have him ask,’ she commanded.

            The boy did laugh an unfriendly laugh at that.  ‘Simply give him the money, Crispy!’ he taunted.  ‘Steward you shall not be when the king hears that your baked backside occupies the throne and I need only wait.’

            At that, Alice did rise and draw her rapier.  ‘Wish you to live to hear the king’s decision?’ she asked.

            ‘And you would assault an unarmed man?’  The boy looked around for support.

            ‘Man?’ Alice spat.  ‘What would a coward who needs two friends with him to taunt an unarmed girl in street and hovel know of the ways of men?’

            ‘More than a pretender to...’ the boy did begin to respond before his father did take him by the ear and drag him back.  ‘Apologies for my son’s words.  Please stay thy hand, lady,’ the man did ask.

            Alice did sheath her sword, but kept a hand upon it.  ‘And whose place would it be to say how a son conducts himself?’ The father simply looked back as though taking offence.  ‘You and yours shall trouble this town no longer,’ Alice decided calmly.  ‘Guards, take them outside our wall.’

            ‘You cannot do this!’ the father shouted.  ‘You are only a stewardess!’

            But escort him out the guards did and he and his family never would return to Garnad.  Alice did keep the throne and, in a year’s time, was granted the title of Duchess of Ipsnad, as the people had come to love her and the town prospered under her rule.  She did marry and a ruler of her line does occupy the throne to this day.”

            The Shanachie stopped speaking and sat back, waiting.  As the crowd dispersed, audience members filled his hat with coins and the old man smiled and thanked his benefactors.  After the last of his audience had paid, he rose and examined the coins, transferring them to a pouch.  With a twinkle in his eye, he went to where a lame teenage girl sat with a bowl and made a generous contribution.  As he prepared his walking stick, he gave a look of challenge to three boys who stood nearby.  As they looked back, he knew they had felt his rebuke.



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