“Master Ranulf, there is a customer,” Marta called.
I did not stop to lay down my quill or straightedge as I replied: “Is it Master Prembert of the Merchants’ Guild? Tell him his map of the Mountains of Despair will be ready next week, as promised. And tell him he’ll have it sooner if I’m not interrupted!”
“No, Master Ranulf,” Marta said. She shook her head, sending dandruff flying in all directions. “It is Sir Athelstan the Bowlegged.”
Knights! They never buy anything interesting from my cartography shop. Merchants need maps of trade routes, sailors need charts of coasts and lords needs maps of their domains. When knights come to my shop, it is usually just for something pretty to hang on their wall. As long as the lands are brightly coloured and the anthropomorphic north wind is fearsome they don’t care how badly distorted are the projections.
“Sell Sir Athelstan something suitable and leave me be,” I shrugged.
Marta scratched her acne. When her parents commended her to me as an apprentice, they had rightly praised her skills as a draftswoman. What they’d neglected to mention is that she had the social skills of a boiled turnip. “He says he did buy a map,” she said. “He says he wants a refund.”
My quill slipped from my hand. As a cartographer I am an artist and a scientist both. As such, I do my best to be high minded about material things. On the other hand, I have a business to run… and to a man of business can there be a word more horrifying than ‘refund’?
Muttering, I rose from my stool and made my way to the front of my shop. Sir Athelstan stood fuming at the counter, his face red and his aristocratic nostrils flaring. He had one of my maps open in front of him–a big gaudy one, naturally.
“Ah, Ranulf Mapmaker. Would you care to explain this?” With a dramatic gesture, he jabbed at the map with a gauntleted finger.
“Why, that is the western part of the Endless Steppe, sir.”
“It… is… a… lie!” he thundered, his huge blonde moustache quivering.
“Indeed, sir,” I said. “The Steppe is not endless. It is bounded on the west by the Mountains of Stone and on the east by the Vexatious Sea. However, the name does seem to have stuck, so…”
“No, sirrah, I mean this!” he pointed again, this time tapping one of the decorations.
“You mean where it says ‘Here be Dragons?'”
“No there bloody aren’t! Not one!”
I looked at Marta, who shrugged unhelpfully.
“Good sir knight, the Endless Steppe is quite featureless,” I said. “Rather than leave an ugly blank spot on the map, it is customary to decorate the area in some way…”
“Aha! So you admit there are no dragons?” Athelstan said, trembling with fury. “I have just come back from a two-year expedition to the Steppe. I had hoped to return with the epithet ‘the Dragonslayer’…”
“That would be better than ‘the Bowlegged,'” Marta said.
Athelstan glared her into silence and continued: “Instead I have nothing to show for my adventures but saddle sores and disappointment. Give me my money back!”
“Sir Athelstan,” I said, in my most ingratiating voice. “Maps such as this are more decorative than functional. Observe, if you will, the bold lines! Examine the delicate colours…”
“Enough!” he cried. “I’d like to settle this in the duelling arena! What do you say to that?”
“I cannot imagine that I could be a match for a renowned warrior like yourself,” I said.
Athelstan folded his arms and smirked.
“After all,” I continued, “I am not as young as I was. It has been many years since I served in the army of King Throbek the Conqueror. The five medals that I won are covered with dust and tarnish…”
“As I said, I would like to fight you,” Sir Athelstan said, turning white. “However, as you are a mere tradesman, it would be beneath my dignity to meet you in an honourable duel. Good day!”
With that, he strode out of my shop.
“Takes all sorts,” I said.
“He has nice shoulders,” Marta said. “Pity about his legs. Wait, didn’t you serve in the King’s quartermaster corps?”
“Yes,” I said, my eyes misting over. “That’s where I won two medals for good conduct and three for penmanship. Good times! I shall not see their like again.”
Nor did I expect to see Sir Athelstan again. But a week later, I received a summons to appear before the local court. There, Sir Athelstan brought suit against me for false pretences and breach of contract.
It was almost a year later, when Marta and I finally crossed the Mountains of Stone and arrived at the Endless Steppe. I had never travelled so far in my life. Even in the army, the furthest I’d ever been was the Siege of Bridgefordport, ten miles from home. A dull battle, the strategists said, but I found the logistics fascinating.
If I had learned nothing else on my journey, it was that most geographical features seem very different up close, compared to the way they appear on maps. Mountains are grander and more solid, rivers are more subtle and changeable, and forests are darker and more impenetrable.
The Endless Steppe was the first exception I had seen to this general rule. It was every bit as flat and featureless before my eyes as it had been, pinned between the pages of an atlas.
“Do you see any dragons, Marta?” I asked.
Marta was puffing too hard to answer. I had to give her credit: for such a small woman, she could carry a surprisingly large pack. With some effort, she got her breath back.
“Perhaps, Master Ranulf, you should simply have paid the compensation,” she said. “Pointing out in court that Sir Athelstan could not prove the absence of dragons on the Endless Steppe seemed clever at the time…”
“Yes, yes, but how was I to know the judge would order me to find a dragon to prove my maps reliable?” I sighed. “It’s far too late for second thoughts. We need to find a dragon, and we need to find it here. And yet I see no creature even so large as a goat.”
For days we wandered across the Steppe, guided only by the sun and stars. There were no landmarks other than the occasional narrow stream, almost invisible until you were right on top of it. We ate nothing but the berries and tubers I found, and the rabbits that Marta hunted.
“You’re quite a handy hunter, girl,” I said one night, as I tucked into my fiftieth consecutive meal of rabbit-and-tuber kebabs in berry sauce. “Honestly, I thought you might prove a liability when the judge ordered you to come along with me.”
“Yes, Master Ranulf,” she sighed, picking a morsel of rabbit out of her teeth with a pen-knife. “In retrospect, I should not have called that judge a diseased osprey with a gangrenous beak and gouty feathers and a cheap toupee.”
“It was an imaginative line of attack. Though I doubt your insult would have had quite such an effect, had you not mentioned his toupee. At any rate, your aim with a sling is far better than your aim with words.”
She shrugged. “Aiming is easy. It is finding the rabbits that’s hard.”
I frowned as I pondered this. Marta was a city girl. She had come to this desolate wasteland with no more experience in hunting rabbits than I had in sponge-diving. “So how do you find rabbits?”
“It’s not easy. The rabbits are hard to see against the grass. But the lizards hunt them too, and they’re easier to spot. If you follow the lizards, you can find the rabbits.”
“Lizards? How interesting! I admit I have not seen these creatures. I must keep my eyes open.”
It was several days more before I spotted one of these reptiles, its head down and drinking at the same creek from which I was fetching water. As I watched, I saw a line of ripples in the water, headed towards the little creature. After a moment, a huge pike poked its head out of the water, making a grab at the drinking lizard.
The creature pulled back its head, avoiding the fish’s snapping jaws. Adding injury to insult, it breathed a jet of flame into the fish’s face, sending it diving back into its element.
For myself, I simply stood gaping, until Marta happened by.
“Lizards!” I cried. “Lizards? Why did you not tell me these lizards of yours are tiny dragons?”
“They are not, Master Ranulf,” she said, shaking her greasy head. “Dragons are of the genus Draco while flame-lizards are technically Theratherms. If you consider the shape of the pelvis alone…”
“Enough!” I felt as if I had been beaten around the head with a bag full of idiocy. “They have scales and they breathe flame. It will be enough for the judge, and Athelstan hasn’t the brains to summon a scholar of dragons as an expert witness. We need but capture one of these creatures, and we can go home!”
The following day, Marta lead me to a nest of the dragon-lizards. A little pack of the creatures were snuffling around between the tufts of grass surrounding their burrow. All of them seemed to be hunting and scavenging–all but one. This one last dragon stood on its hind legs on a small mound, scanning the plains around it. It saw Marta and me and eyed us with distrust, but didn’t make any move.
“That one is on the lookout for eagles and snakes,” Marta said, as she cleaned her ear with a fingernail. “I don’t think it recognises humans as threats. As long as we keep our distance and make no sudden movements, it will ignore us.”
I raised my spyglass, the better to see the sentry dragon. It was about eight inches high on its hind legs, with perhaps another five inches of tail behind it. Its skin was scaly — but its limbs extended downward like a beast, rather than sideways like a lizard. A tiny pair of vestigial wings extended from its spiked back. Its head was rather like a horse’s head in shape, and topped with a pair of curving horns, like those of a ram.
All in all, it looked like an illustration of a dragon from a children’s book. I found myself supressing an urge to pat it and feed it some of my rabbit jerky.
“This will do,” I whispered to Marta. “The court order said to find dragons. There was no stipulation that the dragons should not be cute.”
Two little gouts of flame rose from the creature’s nostrils. At Marta’s urging, I put down my spyglass. All the dragons had turned to look at the sentry, who was gesturing with his snout.
“That means they’ve spotted game!” Marta said, readying her sling. “This is where I take a shot at their prey. They won’t eat what haven’t killed, so if I’m quick I can nab the bunny.”
“Don’t shoot now. I want to see this.”
The dragons hid themselves behind tufts of grass. One of the lean, ragged yellow rabbits of the Steppe hopped into view. It looked around cautiously, twitching its nose.
As quick as a flash, one of the little dragons was on the rabbit’s back, trying to grab on with its claws. The rabbit rolled onto its attacker, trying to shake the thing off. For a moment, the two wretchedly cute creatures were locked in an adorable battle to the death.
The rabbit managed to get its strong hind legs between itself and its attacker. A quizzical look crossed the dragon’s big round eyes — and then the rabbit launched it through space. The little reptile fell, stunned, to the hard ground.
The rabbit righted itself, victorious. Only then did it notice what I had already seen. While distracted, it had been surrounded by the other dragons. At once, tiny spears of flame leapt from their mouths. The rabbit was too quick for its foes. It made a desperate hop for safety, and the dragons’ fire did nothing but set its cotton tail alight. In an eye-blink, the rabbit was away, racing through a tuft of grass to safety.
The dragons raised their heads and yapped their fury at their retreating foe. Then the sentinel dragon started leaping about, yipping at its fellows, gesturing with its snout at the now-burning grass tuft. Chagrined, the others ceased their display and kicked dust at the fire until it was smothered.
We did not stay to see what happened next. Marta and I were absconding with the dragons’ unconscious comrade.
It was long minutes before the thing stirred and coughed a little ball of smoke. Marta was away, fetching water from the creek, but I still found myself glancing about to be sure no one was watching. Once I was certain of my solitude, I grabbed the creature’s face in both hands.
“Who’s a good dragon?” I asked. “Who’s a good dragon?”
It gave no answer–so what choice had I but to answer for it?
“You are, that’s who! You are!”
The last time I had stood in the courtroom there had been few people to watch–handful of idlers and some apprentice lawyers, feigning attention. Now that word had spread that a litigant was to produce a live dragon as Exhibit A, the rickety wooden benches were packed with townsfolk.
The judge — who in all fairness to Marta did somewhat resemble a gouty osprey — seemed displeased with the crowd. He delayed my case until after the conclusion of a spectacularly dull dispute between two neighbours over a boundary fence, a mulberry tree and a washing line. This ploy failed to dampen the carnival atmosphere of the crowd, which simply grew more boisterous with each piece of purple-stained underwear introduced in evidence.
Finally, the judge had no choice but to rule in the other case, and call Sir Athelstan and myself before the bench. I took the opportunity to examine Sir Athelstan’s manner. I expected to see either quiet confidence of victory, or else imminent dread at being stuck with the court costs. He wore neither expression–just a thoughtful look.
I learned three important things in the army. One: never pass up an opportunity to use the lavatory. Two: treat every trebuchet as if it is loaded. And three: if you see a knight looking thoughtful, get out of the way.
But it was too late now to flee. The judge glared at Athelstan and me. “Two years ago, you two disputed the veracity of a map,” he said. “It was agreed by all parties that if proof could be found that dragons inhabit the so-called Endless Steppe, then this would prove the case of Master Ranulf Mapmaker. If such evidence could not be found, it would prove the case of Sir Athelstan the Bowlegged.”
There was some giggling in the stands at this. In the two years I’d been away, Sir Athelstan’s legs had bowed further still. It now seemed as if he was walking on a set of callipers.
The judge continued: “And have you found your evidence, Master Ranulf?”
I nodded to Marta, who stepped forward and placed the covered cage dragon cage on the bench. The audience held its collective breath. Rather to my surprise Marta held the moment, milking the tension for all that it was worth, before whipping the cover off with a flourish. “Tah-dah!”
The audience gasped, and then — as with one voice — they cried out: “Aaaawwww”!
The little dragon looked about with no great interest, then sat upon its haunches and began licking itself in a most inappropriate manner. The creature’s new admirers gave a round of affectionate laughter, which the judge gavelled down.
“Sir Athelstan,” the judge said, “you have seen the evidence before you. Are you willing to concede Master Ranulf’s case?”
“Yes, my lord,” Sir Athelstan said. “I concede the case, I withdraw my claims to a refund and to damages, both actual and punitive. I also agree before this court to reimburse Master Ranulf for any reasonable expenditures he may have incurred as a result of his travels, and to compensate for the loss of his property.”
“Loss of what property?” I began. But before I was even halfway through the question, Sir Athelstan raised high his mailed gauntlet. With a mighty blow, he slammed it down on the cage.
“Dra-gon slay-er!” he exulted.
But his celebration was short lived, for though he had crushed the cage, the little dragon had avoided his blow. It scampered up the judge’s gown, taking refuge in his lordship’s toupee.
The uproar in the court was swift and furious. Townsfolk surged into the aisles to strike at the brute of a knight. I feel that this was the only reason that Athelstan did not pursue the dragon, even if it meant assaulting a judge. Snarling, he drew his sword to hold his attackers at bay.
By this point I had taken the better part of valour and I was hiding under a bench. I looked around for Marta, but she was nowhere to be seen. Then Sir Athelstan collapsed to the ground, felled by a sling-stone to the left ear, and I knew that my apprentice was all right.
Sir Athelstan got his wish, in a way. He is no longer called ‘the Bowlegged’. He is known to some as ‘Sir Athelstan the Animal Hater,’ and to others he is ‘Sir Athelstan the Utter Creep’. His fame has even spread beyond the seas. Just last week, I heard a sailor from a distant island call him the ‘Kawaii Samurai’, an epithet that occasioned much mirth amongst his fellow sailors.
Sir Athelstan did not respond. He has been deaf in one ear since the trial. You can call him whatever you like –- as long you stand to his left-hand side.
Marta remains my apprentice, but she has been broadening her horizons. Though fortunately the judge didn’t witness her precision strike on Sir Athelstan, one of his bailiffs did. That bailiff is a captain in the city militia, and he offered Marta the rank of corporal, on condition that she act as trainer to his slingers. She’s taken to her new role with gusto. One day a week, she has the time of her life bellowing orders at the only youngsters in town more awkward than herself.
The dragon was rattled by his ordeal, but recovered. He lives now in a big wire cage in the front of my shop. I’d like to let him run free, but even though his fire isn’t very hot, my stock is quite flammable. Besides, he seems quite content, standing on his hind legs and peering out my front window, watching for predators.
As for me? Well, travel is all well and good, but I prefer distant lands when they are neatly laid out on fine parchment, thank you. I’m quite happy in my little shop. If that seems unromantic, just look at the sign over my door. It reads: Here be Dragons!
And just beneath that it says: No Refunds.