The sound twanged and echoed across the walls of the chamber like a truck of bouncy balls falling into world’s biggest guitar amp. The artefacts and structures that used to rest on the precipices of the dragon’s collection avalanched down the slopes. The birds that dwelled in the crevices of the hole of the cavern’s roof fled their nests and squawked in terror as the hanging branches they rested on swayed and bent.
But it wasn’t the AAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGHHHH of menace or the AAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGHHHH of pain that Mrs Grinn and her fellow theatre troop heard. It was the distinct and wholesome AAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGHHHH akin to a schoolkid pulling off the sickest kick-flip in front of all his mates. It was so startling it made the handful of prisoners in the cavern stand-to and pretend they weren’t doing anything suspicious, despite not actually doing anything suspicious in the first place.
‘News guys! News!’ shouted the dragon through a mouthful of material as she came to rest on a mound of inn and pub signage. She spat the sails and splintered masts onto the floor and placed two thin, longboats beside them with her front claws. ‘The South-Fold Adventurer’s Guild has a new range of rigging out and it is cool as heck. I mean, look at this!’
She held the sail aloft with her front claws. The sail was a smart navy hue inlaid with a silver patterning that wove and danced around the central image of a sleeping coiled dragon.
‘They’ve got this proper early-colonial thing going on, which is so my niche right now, I love it. Everyone’s doing retro now. Also, big dragon on the front? Yes please! Very yes please! Dragons are always awesome. Also, also, the figurehead matches. Nice!’'
‘Very good Kezra’ said Fllegm meandering with difficulty over a jumbled heap of siege tower mechanisms. ‘Where did you acquire such a find?’
‘I was actually literally just hunting some horses; I didn’t mean to pick anything up. But then is saw there was dragons on it and there was no way I was not taking them. If I wasn’t already a dragon, dragons would be my spirit animal. For sure.’
‘They are large ships mighty Kezra’ said Becca. ‘There must have been many men guarding it. I imagine it was a fierce battle.’
‘To be honest, it was actually pretty easy. I got super lucky. They had only just finished building them at the dockyard. They hadn’t even broken the bottle on them yet. So, yeah, as well, forgot to say, these are technically mint condition.’
She nudged the splintered mast into a more upright position, but the tangled rigging prevented it from moving too far.
‘Well, near-mint. Slight wear-and-tear is fair enough. Ships are difficult to carry. Oh, I forgot to ask earlier. Are you doing the tavern version of The Cyclops King or the historically accurate version this week?’
‘The historically accurate version your greatness’ said Fllegm.
‘Good. I was going to say, I think the tavern version is loads better, but it would mess up the continuity completely. Ooh, I’m pumped to see it. Can’t wait. Eee! Oh, where’s my witch?’
‘Here Kezra’ said Mrs Grinn sat upon the round side of a great chunk of amethyst. ‘My wagon’s still in one piece, right?’
‘Oh yeah, a horseless wagon!? Not gonna let that one go. Can’t tell you where I put it of course. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just to remove any temptation to betray me, you know?’
‘Very wise of you Kezra’ said Olen.
‘I know it is isn’t it? It’s because I’m a dragon’ said Kezra. ‘Dragons are wise’ she added. ‘Anyway, there was still a vat of dye they used for the sails left out so I’m gonna go back and dip my tail in it. I’m going to a dragon-meet later and we’re dressing up as dragons of history and I’m gonna go as Braegar Bluetail.’
‘A fine choice oh mighty Kezra’ called Beccus.
‘Thanks’ said Kezra. ‘I make great choices because I’m a dragon. Dragon’s are cool. Though Braegar’s technically a wyvern so I’m gonna to have to fold up my legs to pull it off. I’ll look a complete goon hobbling about the place on my back feet, but it’ll be worth it. Anyway, best let you carry on rehearsing then. Oooh, I’m so pumped for it! There is only one way to break iron…’
‘…that is to beat it with a hammer until it shears!’ echoed her captives in the deep gravely tones the Cyclops King supposedly spoke with.
‘Love it’ squealed Kezra. ‘See you later mortals!’
Everybody relaxed. And then fell beyond relaxation into self-pitying lethargy.
Mrs Grinn watched the dust smatterings trickle and scatter like pixies in the spotlight breeze that came through the opening where the dragon had left. Too high to leap, too sheer to climb. Out of reach, like her wagon and everything inside it that made her a witch. She felt mortal like she had never done before, and by that she meant her back ached.
The large precious stone did not feel precious to sit on, and it was sending her posture a weird way. She got up and stretched, following the pattern of stretches that Mrs Berrit had taught her…
If Mrs Berrit were here, she would have sniffed out the compass in no time at all. They’d have been out doing their usual business like there had never been a dragon in the first place. She should have never insulted her in the first place.
The witch shuddered.
So, this was what it felt like to learn that you were wrong? This was why most of her customers were so salty when Mrs Grinn taught them the error of their ways. It was absolutely horrible. If the other witches knew that learning a lesson as a supposed adult felt so insulting, they would change their ways in an instant. Curses and magic have nothing compared to the injury of moral pride.
She could almost feel the cat judging her now, sat upon the mound of jewels beside her. She flinched. Upon a second glance, a large amethyst to her side now appeared almost cat-like in shape. Light glimmered in two little pockets where two eyes could have been (if said cat’s facial features weren’t too symmetrical in formation).
‘Shush you’ snapped Mrs Grinn at the stone’s notched purple surface.
The stone judged her all the same.
‘Right then’ said the bard Fllegm, as he rose from his own personal stupor. ‘From the top Olen, Kenneth. Let’s get this fight sequence tightened up. Positions everyone.’
‘We’ve been through it a dozen times already’ groaned Olen as she lay her head against the cone-shaped turret of an old castle tower buried in the debris. ‘We have it good enough. Can we not just rest?’
‘No, no. We have until tomorrow to get this perfect. Look now, Sir Kenneth’s what, forty times your age? You don’t see him laying down when there’s a job to be done do you? What say you Kenneth?’
The old knight stood motionless; his head rested against the hilt of his broadsword like a tripod.
‘Kenneth?’ said Fllegm.
The Lady Beccus approached the knight and gently shook the plate of armour on his shoulder.
‘What, sorry?’ said Kenneth raising his head. ‘Is someone speaking to me?’
‘I was just remarking how you’re still on your feet sir’ said Fllegm.
‘Oh, so I am’ noted Kenneth. ‘My joints have seized up again. Able to assist an old knight in finding a seat my lady?’
‘Of course, Kenneth’ said Beccus.
Olen chuckled. Fllegm responded with a scowl. Beccus eased the knight to sit on one of the steps before the tilting stage.
‘That’s it then!?’ chirped the bard. ‘We’re going to go into the performance with only half of the final battle planned out?’
‘You could just cut that scene out’ suggested Olen.
‘It’s the climax of the confrontation Olen, you can’t just not have it.’
‘Cliff-hanger’ said the orc.
‘Except it’s not going to be a cliff-hanger is it? It’s a historical piece, everyone already knows the how it ends up.’
‘What if you rewrite the ending? Keep it historically accurate but change what gets shown’ called out Torra from afar.
‘Re-write the ending? Re-write the ending!? Great Idea Torra!’
‘Thanks’ said Torra. ‘I knew we could come up with a solution if we – ’
‘It sounds so easy now. Re-write the ending in two days. Tie up every loose end in a way that makes sense, keep all plot threads consistent, retain the character arcs I spent weeks forming. So, so easy. Let me find my pen. And for those that are too far away to see the sarcasm in my face, know that I am being very, very, sarcastic.’
‘My father said that anything can be achieved with enough determination’ said Torra.
‘I’ll tell you what Torra:’ laughed Fllegm in the complete opposite way of what a laugh should sound like. ‘You find me a pen. And bring it to me right here, and I’ll write that script. How’s that?’
The cavern paused.
‘You’re mean’ replied the voice.
‘Ey’ said Mrs Grinn, walking up to the frothing bard. ‘It’s not her fault you made the play too long to remember.’
‘My job is to produce a compelling, historically accurate story, and that’s not very easy to do while the entire cast sits idly and refuse to learn their lines. And you, Mrs, have no right to criticize my work. I haven’t seen you do much witching.’ He poked her sharply on the shoulder. ‘How much help have you actually contributed since arriving here?’
‘Bit harsh. I’m on my own here, it’s normally a team effort.’
‘Yes well, we can see who pulls the weight in your enterprise can’t we?’
Mrs Grinn had nothing to answer back with. The stare of the rock that wasn’t Mrs Berrit was pulling her attention away from any sort of rebuke that could be made. Fllegm flapped his arms in indignation and stormed off. While Beccus picked up her skirts and chased after him, Mrs Grinn approached the purple stone.
He’s right you know; the amethyst would have said, had it indeed been Mrs Berrit.
‘Don’t you start that, you’re not even here’ snapped the witch.
Good point; Mrs Berrit may have smirked at this point; Are you really so useless on your own that you have to conjure an imitation of me to help you?
Mrs Grinn huffed and pressed closed fists on her sides. ‘Well go on then, if you’re so smart, how would you get out of this predicament?’
The purple stone was still for a moment, almost as if it was thinking, but most likely because it was just a stone.
Well, Kezra seems to like dragons, yes?’
So, she’d likely enjoy a play centred around a dragon. At least that’s what I’d imagine. Do you know of any?
‘Well, not any plays, no. But there are a few ballads and legends and a couple more recent tales I’ve heard. Everyone knows the fate of Braegar Bluetail for example. Took five of the best warriors of the era to take him down. I doubt Olen would fancy dressing up as a dragon though.’
Not Olen, no. I was thinking someone else…
‘Fllegm!? Well, he’s got the temper for it.’
No, not Fllegm either.
If you don’t know, don’t guess; the stone said; I’m referring to Kezra, idiot. I would think a dragon would very much like to take on that role, don’t you?
Mrs Grinn slapped her leg. ‘Oh, you canny sod. That’s it! Though, I technically came up with that idea, not you: you’re not here.’
Yes. You did it all on your own. Well done.
‘Ey. No need for the sarcasm, now’ snapped Mrs Grinn whilst pushing the rock over so that cat-shaped side of it clapped to the floor.
A few hundred miles away, Mrs Berrit was having one of those strange false notions that someone was calling her name. Her ears twitched and turned, listening out for voices.
The storehouse was empty beyond doubt, and there were no footsteps in the rooms adjacent, the shop was closed today. As well as that, how would anyone local have learned her name? She had never been here before. It was impossible.
Dismissing the notion with an internal shrug, she returned to eating her pastries.
The blueberry and cream pastry folds were easily the best edibles she had found in the room. There were originally only three, but through a series of abdominal stretches and focused convulsions, she had managed to enjoy them fifteen times over. The cheeses were the next on her list, and of these there was a copious amount. She had already licked every different type ahead of time just to better decide which one she wanted to eat most. After another round of licking just to be sure, she had decided on the pale looking brie on the third shelf on the back wall. Then, she would set her sights on the range of salted meats that dangled from pins and screws. She had all the time in the world to herself, and as much food as she’d like to fill it with.
Gods was she bored.
Idleness and apathy were no way near as rewarding now that she had the time for it. It was no fun to be lax when there was no job to be doing in the first place. She needed someone to ignore. She needed Mrs Grinn.
She looked towards the compass which now lay on the floor under a fine layer of crumb and cat hair. The motion of the journey back to wherever the wagon was would likely make her vomit. She hacked her throat on the dish before her to save her the trouble, picked up the compass in her not quite dry mouth and rolled up the wall and out the window.
‘This is really the place then?’ asked Kezra as she surveyed the torn and broken ruins on the cliffs edge. Any safety fence that had once separated the paths from the sheer drop into the sea had since been worn away by the winds of the coast. It was one of those high craggy peninsulas that seemingly magnetically channels a relentless buffet air to follow every ledge and drop that had the potential to be fatal. Mrs Grinn had to anchor herself to a rock to make herself feel that she had any autonomy over her own movement whatsoever.
‘It is indeed’ said Mrs Grinn. ‘That mound there was where Braegar was slain, you can still make out the stone they put there as a marker. His body was thrown off the cliff into the sea just over there.’
Kezra bounded up and down in glee causing the witch to brace her knees. From the vibrations she made a rather precariously held wall finally succumbed to its old weight and tumbled down into the sea.
‘I’m definitely gonna take a piece of something home with me tonight’ declared Kezra. ‘Maybe that tower.’
‘That’ll be the weapons hold I imagine’ said Mrs Grinn, looking at the direction the dragon was crooning.
‘Ooh, you think? I’m gonna check out what they’ve got.’ And she flew along the cliffside to peak through open side of the turret.
To her side the four members of the involuntary theatre troop were hesitantly peering over the surrounding cliff faces, clearly noting the scarcity of directions to run (The dragon unfortunately wasn’t able to find Torra, despite how much she called out, so they had to leave her behind).
‘I have to say, I’m beginning to have some doubts in your plan Mrs Grinn’ said Fllegm as he creeped over the craggy shelf to her. ‘Do you really expect the dragon to commit to the act for long enough?’
‘Trust me, dragons are renowned for their patience’ said Mrs Grinn, placing a comforting hand on the bard’s shoulder. ‘Some can live for decades without moving a single inch.’
Fllegm took her hand away from him and pointed it towards the dragon. ‘Some dragons, yes, but this is Kezra we’re talking about. Do you really think she has the capacity?’
‘Guys! Guys! There’s morning-stars in here!’ There was cascade of bricks and mortar as Kezra lurched her head out of the turret through the ceiling. ‘Morning-stars!’ she added for emphasis. Part of an archer’s widow hung from one of her horns.
‘An excellent find Kezra’ shouted Fllegm. ‘They will be a magnificent addition to your blunt weaponry display.’
‘I’m not sure if they count as blunt, what given all the pointy bits. But I wouldn’t call them bladed, and they’re not spears. You know I’m probably going to have to reorganise again. It’s gonna need a bit of planning but…’
While the dragon rambled to herself, Beccus tiptoed between the witch and bard and clutched the latter’s sleeve urgently. ‘Fllegm, I’ve been thinking, we could always just pretend it’s an actual play, and do what Kezra expects us to do.’
‘No, no. It’s too late for that now’ said Kenneth clambering up. ‘We have our plan; we stick to it and face whatever consequences may come.’
‘Agreed. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?’ chipped in Olen.
‘We could die’ stated Beccus, simply.
‘Exactly’ said Olen. ‘Hardly a unique experience. Half the people I know have done it and I haven’t heard any complaints.’
Beccus frowned with an audible hum.
‘From my perspective there’s sticking to the plan, and there’s realising that it was all a false hope and the plan has no grounding whatsoever’ said Fllegm, trying both to yell and whisper at once, his eyes wide and serious. ‘She’ll work out what we’re doing, she’ll see it coming a mile off -’
‘Fllegm’ said Mrs Grinn, silencing him. ‘Everyone. Listen to me now. For the past few years you have been spending each and everyday rehearsing. You may not have all started as trained actors, but you are almost certainly among the best now. Or… at the very least you might probably be better at it than whatever you were doing beforehand. But this is it, right here. Every play you’ve done before is just the rehearsal; this is the real performance. Your time to put those skills to use. If you quit now, then the past few years of practice have been all for naught. Trust me, I’ve lived a while and seen a lot. If anyone can fool a dragon, it’s you four.’
Olen squatted down and combed her hand through her dirty white dreadlocks. Beside her, Kenneth tightened his grip on his sword and squared his shoulders, a glance across to Beccus, and she, gradually, stood just the same.
Fllegm’s hand was over his mouth, the conflict painted across his face.
‘That’s all well and good Mrs Grinn’ he said. ‘But how are we expected to hold up the charade if she -’
Fllegm did not finish his sentence, Kezra was making her return. There was just a brief moment for the group to make eye contact, a split second to choose their fate. Mrs Grinn looked from Fllegm, to Beccus, then to Olen and Kenneth. Silently, discreetly, it was agreed what they would do. Mrs Grinn smiled with uncertainty. Failing to acknowledge someone’s usefulness and skill was what got her in this situation in the first place, she was not going to let it be her demise, even if she did have to exaggerate her compliments a little.
‘So,’ said Kezra, ‘when are we doing it?’
From within her sleeve, Mrs Grinn drew her wand of winds, the one magical item she had managed to keep, now tuned and mastered, and traced little figure eights out of view. The clouds clustered around the sun, both dimming it and focusing it. A spotlight of light drifted onto the castle grounds, very much like that that came into Kezra’s home. As the sunlight condensed, the shadows of the rocks and crevices on the cliff deepened. More places to hide, or take cover, should the worst come about.
‘The weather’s quite dramatic at the moment’ pointed out the witch. ‘Now’s as good a time as any.’
‘Ace!’ chirped Kezra. ‘I’ll get in costume. Positions everyone!’
The dragon dipped her tail into the vat of ink she’d carried with her while the rest of the cast moved into their predetermined positions. They stood there waiting, kitted in their knightly armour, dressed as the same five warriors that had killed one of Kezra’s ancestors, one of the most famed dragonkind to have ever took wing upon Urph. The inaction was unbearable. Nothing but the sounds of the sea crashing onto the bluff below and Kezra’s awkward grunts and curses as she donned her harness and makeshift eyepatch to distract them from their impending doom. Mrs Grinn almost caught Olen laughing as Kezra got her rear leg got caught in her harness, but the orc restrained it into a snort. Nerves: That was all it was. She could see it in Beccus as well, as she rubbed her hands together and Sir Kenneth as he jogged from one foot to another. Fllegm, the only true trained actor amongst the group was already in his role, holding his halberd before him like a standard, stern faced and steadfast. It was Fllegm who was to play the famed knight Sir Wyatt, more commonly known as the Wyvern-slayer.
Mrs Grinn couldn’t help thinking that the legendry knight likely earned his name in a very different fashion to how Fllegm was about to.
When Mrs Berrit rolled through the window of the wagon, she wasn’t entirely sure which was up. She was forced to make an educated guess for which drifting, reeling panel was supposed to be the ground before she spat out the compass. She guessed completely wrong, but thankfully gravity was kind enough to point out her mistake. The cat was splatted onto the ground like a half full bean bag, legs splayed out in a cross. She rolled and flopped onto her back, exposing her soil knotted belly to the air.
Miss me? she said with her wayward eyes in the coyest way she knew.
The wagon was empty.
She yowled in fury.
Come, she said, come appreciate my presence.
Her belly remained un-scrubbed. She could smell it in the air. The witch wasn’t here. But someone else was.
‘Hello?’ said the voice who wasn’t Mrs Grinn.
A short haired dwarven woman with a yellow domed cap and a rucksack over her shoulders hopped in through the doorway. Her long red hair was braided into two long cords that would have dangled around her knees were they not tucked neatly behind her bag straps. When she saw the cat, lying on the floor belly-up her face lit up like excited headlights.
‘I found someone!’ she screamed, jumping up and down on the spot and making the carriage wobble. ‘Finally, I found someone! Well, something at least. I knew it would just take time and commitment. Just keep on walking, I told myself, and you’ll get there. Just keep on walking, and it worked!’
She squatted down with her elbows on her knees and fussed the cat’s mottled stomach while making cooing noises.
‘What’s your name then?’ she sang in a high-pitched baby voice.
The dwarf girl’s curling fingers stopped momentarily.
‘Wasn’t expecting a response from that, but okay. Hello Beatrice. My name’s Torra.’
Mrs Berrit had had enough attention now.
The dwarf girl flinched her hand away, looking very insulted as she did.
‘A bit unnecessary, I was only trying to be nice’ she said as the cat wandered to the doorway. The witch didn’t appear to be anywhere outside either. That being said, there was a lot of outside to look at in this broad junk-filled cavern. She could be hiding anywhere, waiting to give her a kick or something equally cruel or spiteful as she passed.
‘Say,’ Torra said, lifting the brim from her hat and observing her surroundings for the first time. ‘There’s a lot of magic looking stuff in here. Hey, this is that witch’s wagon isn’t it?’
There was a beetle trapped in one of Mrs Berrit’s fur knots right below her front leg. She tore the knot all in one and swallowed it whole.
‘Which would make you Mrs Berrit? She misses you know. Seemed very sorry for calling you names from what I heard. Very much in a mess.’
Mrs Grinn’s nicest tablecloth was folded and crumpled on the counter. Likely it had fallen from its hiding spot during the flight in the dragon’s claws. Mrs Berrit began scratching at it.
‘So, Beatrice the cat, don’t suppose you’d know how to get a young dwarven explorer girl outside of this cavern at all?’
Mrs Berrit stopped scratching and looked to the girl. She was tall for a dwarf, maybe even the height of Mrs Grinn herself. She’d been friendly enough, Mrs Berrit supposed. She nudged her nose in the direction of the saliva drenched magical compass on the floor. The dwarf girl squatted down and studied it.
‘This?’ she asked.
I’m not handing it to you. Pick it up yourself.
Written by Calvin Lowe
Concepts and ideas from the collective consciousness of Alastair Fleming and Calvin Lowe
The Vague Grinn & Berrit Chronology
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