One look at the other side of the river told Thaoryn that she’d arrived just in time. Panting, she leaned on the bridge’s wide parapet. Her sword tapped sharply against the stones as she relaxed her hand. She let her head hang and listened to her breathing, which almost drowned out the buzz of the approaching crowd.
Movement in the near darkness under the bridge caught her attention. A flag garland had been carried away on the currents, getting ever more entangled in the reeds. Could the festivities really have been only that afternoon? The images seemed miles away, replaced by whistling air, cries of distress, fire.
Her helmet pinched. She pulled at the strap and put it down beside her, her gaze lingering on the drowned flags below her and the scraps of memory tumbling through her mind. Only when an excited shout and the quickening of many footsteps made it clear that she had been spotted, she reluctantly pushed herself upright. A group of people approached by the path along the water; silhouettes against the red glow that lit up the smoke clouds above the village.
Thaoryn clasped her sword in a sweaty hand and absent-mindedly rubbed the stains on the blade, which were already drying up. Before she knew it, she was laughing out loud. She had shown them what she could do. Villagers, traders, party-goers: no one in Rukasford would ever forget this day.
Four figures had separated from the group, and Thaoryn didn’t need light to know who they were. “You’re alive!” Mainar called. His messy curls danced around his head as he ran. “We saw you fall from the sky, we thought, I thought…”
The four came to a halt a few paces away from her, the bald, potbellied Jal last. “Didn’t look like a fall you just survive like that,” he grunted through his beard. Thaoryn grimaced. No, that part hadn’t gone entirely according to plan.
The new one, a red-haired teenager whose name she didn’t remember, raised his eyebrows at Jal. “Well, looks like it wasn’t all that bad after all.” He tried his best, but couldn’t stop his voice from wavering.
Behind the lanky boy stood the man that had been called by his headgear so often that no one knew if he even had a real name. In the dark, only a hawk nose was visible under the rim of his straw hat. He gave her an approving nod while carefully loosening the string of his longbow, as if it was only now that the danger had passed. Hat had seldom opened his mouth back in the day, and it looked like that hadn’t changed.
He wasn’t the only one carrying a weapon in the disorderly semi-circle that was forming around her. Thaoryn saw at least one other bow and a couple of crossbows, as well as knives, a sledgehammer, and all kinds of agricultural tools. Unnecessary, but she could appreciate these people’s initiative—until she met the eyes of the man with the sledgehammer. He glared at her almost disappointedly, and Thaoryn realised with a shock that he would have preferred her falling to her death. Rather an eccentric, tragic heroine than the dangerous anomaly that was now looking down at him, alive and kicking, with her too-black hair and strangely shaped face.
She sought support with the rest of the group, but most of them avoided her gaze. Someone to the side made a sign against misfortune. When she took a step towards her old friends, they shrank back, and it took great effort to convince herself that it must be because of her suddenly grim expression.
“Is… Is all that from the dragon?” the redhead asked with something between horror and awe.
It took a while for Thaoryn to understand what he meant. Then she wiped a hand over her sleeve, looked at the blood on her fingers, and chuckled with relief. Her grim expression plus the sinister state of her cloak and gambeson. “For the most part,” she answered.
“So it’s really dead?” asked a skinny man with a manure fork in a shrill tone.
She grinned at him triumphantly. “As a doornail.”
There was a cautious cheering, and even the man with the sledgehammer began to look happier. Rather a black-haired anomaly than a fire-breathing monster. Thaoryn straightened her back and relaxed the arm that still held her sword. This was starting to look more like the reception she had hoped for.
“Say, forgive me if this is a stupid question,” began a tall woman holding a hoe as if it were a halberd, “but weren’t all dragons wiped out I don’t know how long ago?”
“More than seven centuries,” Thaoryn said. “The last one right here, close to Rukasford.” In fact, the number of villages where the last dragon was supposed to have been killed could not be counted on two hands, but that wasn’t what the Rukasfordians would want to hear. “Yes, I thought the same thing… until I encountered this one.”
“When was that?” the man with the manure fork asked.
His face looked familiar: he had been there in the afternoon when this same story had been met with jeering. She decided to forgive his forgetfulness. “Some three weeks ago. I lost track of it, but then I heard the rumours here at the festival.”
A few people nudged each other and laughed. “Go figure,” someone said. “Every year there’s some drunks claiming to have seen a dragon—who’d have thought there’d be truth in it one day?”
“I thought I saw a big shadow, this morning at the stable!” a voice from the back called, and suddenly everyone wanted to be the first to have caught a glimpse of the dragon. Thaoryn listened with half an ear. Some of the stories sounded like they might be based in truth, but it didn’t matter anymore.
“Wow,” Mainar said. “I never… You… It’s…” He gestured helplessly. “Wow,” he finally repeated.
Jal punched his side and snickered uncomfortably. “You? Speechless?”
Thaoryn laughed along, barely able to believe what she had done herself. She wiped her sword on her gambeson, which didn’t make any noticeable difference. For a moment her gaze wandered over the red-smeared blade. It was high time to clean it, but not here. She still wanted to show her face in the village and she couldn’t stay too long.
The discussion had shifted to the question of how big exactly the dragon had been. Thaoryn grabbed her helmet and set the sword against her shoulder, grimacing as it hit a bruise. “I don’t know about you,” she said, raising her voice, “but I need a drink!”
“Me too!” the lanky redhead exclaimed wholeheartedly.