DARK AGES

Chapter 1 (Sample)

“A poor thief is a poor thief.”
                                       
- Blue Fingered Hobbe     

Grint wasn’t a hero.  It wasn’t a concept he dwelled upon as he pulled his coat’s thick, leather collar against the chill biting the back of his ears.  Heroes did brain-addled things like saving people or going on long winded quests.  And their motives were always thick with steaming piles of altruism.  That wasn’t Grint.  He was a thief an exceptional one if you asked him and a taker who enjoyed stealing coin as much as spending it.  If he could just get the butterflies out of his gut, tonight would be a marvelous night for larceny.


Grint leaned against the inn’s window.  The splintered wood framing creaked against his weight as he wiped a sleeve across glass tarnished with soot.  Firelight burned within, sliding its warm light across a face described as both rugged and handsome with a youthful appearance that dared one to guess his age.  With a free hand, he rustled a mane of shaggy red hair and scratched the stubble of a beard that never quite grew no matter how long he went between shaves.


“Wolves are active tonight,” an old man said as he walked past.  His torch flickered in the wind as he peered into the dark woods, listening.
 

“They sound scared,” Grint said.  Their yelps had been echoing through the trees since he stepped outside.      
 

“Ayup,” the old man said, still looking into the dark.  “There’re outhouses behind the inn.  This is a respectable town.”
 

“Ayup,” Grint replied.  Aping the old man’s accent was an instinctual response, a bit of cheek that flavored most of how Grint interacted with the world.  The old crow deserved it.  He wasn’t relieving himself.  He came out hoping the mountain air would quell the thieves’ gut and let him get back to his business.  Hobbe always said he didn’t care how good a thief someone was, they all got the thieves’ gut.  That was true to a point, but Grint was sure it was worse for him.
 

Besides, the spot gave him a good view of the card game he stepped out on.  It was unusual to get up in the middle of a hand, but Grint needed the air and losing a few hands would help with appearances.  Maybe one of them would slip up and peek at his cards.  It wouldn’t matter if they did.  The first part of the job required them to accuse Grint of cheating.  But ferreting out someone’s proclivities was a great way to survive another day.
 

“Are you one of the logging boys?” the old man asked, satisfied that the wolves weren’t coming in to town to eat their livestock.  There was a downturn to the man’s mouth that Grint didn’t appreciate.  Was it a permanent feature or directed at him?
 

Kambar was one of a dozen small hamlets along the mountains of Upper Anghor.  The fifty-odd families who lived here were self-sufficient and traded among themselves, seldom seeing anyone from the capital.  As remote as they were, the towns maintained a few establishments for the logging companies that worked the steel oak forests saturating the mountain slopes.  The loggers were under contract by Duchess Aerienne to farm the towering oaks which could rise as tall as two hundred feet.  The trade of steel oak kept Upper Anghor independent from Greater Anghor to the south, but such political motivations were uninteresting to Grint.  What intrigued him was the coin the loggers earned each month when they met their quotas. 
   

“Have a good night,” Grint ignored the question as he stepped onto the porch that ran along the front of the nameless inn.  Two loose chains hung from the eaves and swayed in the breeze.  The discarded sign, splintered and worn clean, leaned beneath a window.  Grint hadn’t bothered to inquire further to the name, knowing it would be an infuriating play on words: The Oak-Inn Shield or the Kambar Mount-Inn.  Blind madness, he thought.
   

A small flame sparked to life illuminating a thin man of a sallow complexion wearing a black, woolen arming cap.  The suddenness of it made Grint flinch, pulling him from his thoughts. 
   

“The Mother Moon is full,” puffs of smoke rose from the pipe as the stranger spoke. 
   

“Uh, and the night is…dark,” Grint responded with a shrug.  A disapproving clucking sound followed Grint through the doorway.
   

The tavern offered a warm embrace, most welcomed after the autumn chill.  Embers danced from shifting logs within the dominating stone hearth.  Dark flagstone walls, chipped from years of wear, cast odd shadows from the flicker of candles set in pockets.  The rafters shook as a trio of musicians played a tune about a farmer becoming a king.  Loggers and townfolk alike laughed and clapped along, stomping their feet in appreciation.  The smell of roasting chicken, ale and sweat sat thick upon the air.  Grint smiled.  Backwater, filthy taverns made him feel alive.  
   

By the end of the night, I’ll have every coin in this room.  The queasy feeling faded as he imagined a pile of gold cupped in his hands.  Thieves’ gut was no match for succulent gold and savory silver.  He’d spend that money or gamble it away because there was always another job.  Marm always had interesting contracts if he meandered over to Tan Tan.  Or the Barlabee Brothers down in Dook.  No chains on my ankles, Grint sang in his head to the tune the band played.
   

“Another ale?” the svelte serving girl shouted over the noise.
   

Grint nodded, trying to recall her name.  The buzz from a half-dozen ales made mundane details slippery, but Grint wasn’t here to make friends.  Not with the business planned.  Another ale can’t hurt, he thought as he cut his way through the crowd.  The room was bursting with patrons, ten to twelve to a table, except for the solitary table in the back corner where a woman being called ‘cold’ and ‘best not to bother’ sat.  She watched the room over steepled fingers and a flagon of wine.  Her appraising stare focused on the card game, and that was what unnerved Grint.  Was she a thief catcher?  An adventurer on some Kry-damned quest?  When the fighting started - and it would, that was how it always played out - would she join in?
   

The tavern’s owner, Nigel, an aging man of medium build sat in front of the bar chatting with the logging captains as they drank flat ale from chipped, wooden tankards.  Behind the bar was an array of shelves lined with cups, bowls, mugs, hunting trophies and an ugly, twelve-inch tall statue of what appeared to be a woman with a triangular head and four snaking arms.  What the artist wanted to convey eluded Grint, but he appreciated that it was carved it from jade.

    

“Took you long enough,” Toothless said as Grint sat down at the table littered with coin, cards, dice, and mugs of ale.  A fat brown cat curled around one of the table’s legs, waiting for any mice daring enough to come sniffing around for crumbs swept off the table.  The game was a popular variation of Fiddler’s Fair called Cheat Me, and they had been at it for several hours.  
   

“I was trying to give you a chance to steal back the coin I’ve fleeced you for,” Grint answered with a winning smile.  Elti, the only woman at the table, threw back her head with laughter.  She had been reticent to say much about herself but had the look of a south sea pirate with cooked skin, tattoos, and a swath of shaved scalp on the right.
   

“You raised seven silvers while outside,” Black Samuel sneered as he licked his lips.  The fat-fingered oaf sat across from Grint, a pair of cards mashed against his mud-stained vest.  Yet this slovenly appearance, with greasy, unkempt hair and bits of cheese tangled within his dark beard was purposeful.  The stains were even and brushed on.  The crumbs were impossible; Black Samuel hadn’t touched a bite of cheese all day.  That ill-temper he radiated was quite real so Grint kept quips about a passing relationship with soap to himself.
           

Grint peeled up the corners of his dog-eared cards and looked at the three and seven cards in his hand.  “Seven silvers, you say?  That was very generous of me.  Why don’t we make it twenty though?”
           

As Grint shoved the small stack of silver coins into the pot, the priest beside Black Samuel whistled and folded his cards.  “No faith, Valun?” Toothless asked.
   

“I have faith in wine,” Valun said.  The priest was a follower of Petra, Goddess of Harvests, a broad definition that included the harvest of wood. Valun had been traveling with the loggers, blessing their camp.  Typical priests of Petra were drunkards who found worship at the bottom of a cup.  Valun did not contradict the stereotype.
   “If you want me to think you have twenty-four points in your hand, you’re a pitiful liar,” Black Samuel said, pointing a meaty finger at Grint.
   

“Why do they call you Black Samuel?” Grint asked before draining the last dregs from his mug.  “Or did you call yourself that?  Did you wake up one morning, see that shag of black hair and decide…black hair?  ‘Black Samuel!’”
   

“It’s because his teeth are black,” Elti said.  The woman had her feet up on the table and was picking bits of chicken from her teeth with a two-pronged metal fork.
   

Grint leaned forward, squinting his steel-gray eyes.  “Why yes, I see that now.  I doubt I’ll be able to look at anything else all night.  How unfortunate.”
   

“Enough about my teeth,” Black Samuel said, keeping his mouth hidden.
   

“You bought none cards this hand,” Marcus, the final player at the table said as he looked over at Grint.  The kid was on the edge of manhood yet holding on to childlike awkwardness with his mannerisms and soft-spoken nature.  Valun vouched for him, saying he was the fastest logger anyone had seen.  With those skinny arms, Grint would make a Goblin’s wager he wasn’t.  
   

“I bought too many,” Marcus added as he folded.
   

“Just you and me now,” Black Samuel said with a black-toothed smile.
   

“Are you going to run your mouth or ante up?” Grint asked.  The serving girl swayed over and set a new mug beside Grint.  Anya?  Artis? Andee? Grint worked through a list of names, trying to remember hers.  Instead of leaving, she leaned against him and ran her fingers through the tangles of his hair.  The warmth from her body was pleasant.
   

Beads of sweat sprang to life on Black Samuel’s forehead.  As they trickled down, they gave his waxy complexion an awful sheen.  Licking his lips was his tell for a winning hand and that tongue was wagging like a happy dog’s tail.  Yet there was doubt.  To see Grint’s cards he would have to go all in.  He could bark at Grint all night but now had to back it up with coin.
   

“Would you hurry,” Valun leaned against an elbow as he sipped his mulled wine.  “I would like to play another hand tonight.”
   

“You shut up,” Black Samuel growled, but it lacked any conviction.
   

“Which cards are worth twelve points?” Grint leaned in to (Arielle’s?) body and whispered the question so that everyone could hear.  Elti and Valun snickered.
   

“The howling hounds,” she replied, furrowing her brow, trying to connect how someone was winning at a game without knowing the rules.  
   

“Oh,” Grint said playing off her confusion and peeking down at his cards again - a three and a seven.  “Can I take my bet back?”  This elicited a few more laughs and even a wild bark from an onlooker at the next table.
   

“You’re always so funny,” Black Samuel said with no amusement.  “Let’s see how you laugh your way past two stars.”  He slapped his cards on the table and shoved a pile of coins forward.  Both cards depicted bright stars with the number eleven inside.
 

“My cards don’t laugh,” Grint smiled.  “They howl at the moons,” and turned over two skeletal hounds barking at a night sky.  The number twelve painted within Effulg while the shard of Nacinth stabbed towards her.  The proportions were off, but those sorts of imperfections spoke to Grint.  They were from his personal deck, swapped while everyone watched Black Samuel shovel his coin into the pot.
   

Valun whistled and Elti grunted as she took her feet off the table.  Black Samuel stared at the two dogs with a vacant, dumb look, trying to work out what just happened.  All the while his jaw opened and shut trying to form words, but none tumbled out.  Grint raked the pitiful amount of coins toward him, waiting for someone, anyone to call him out.  So far, only young Marcus had the wherewithal to look confused as he glanced at the discard pile.  
   

That’s right, kid.  Put it together, Grint thought.  “I’d give you all a chance to win your coin back, but I doubt there’s two coppers left in this town.  Not that your, uh, quaint mountain village is poor,” Grint finished with an apologetic glance at Attila?
   

A loud, cracking slam made the table shudder and the coins jump.  A few pieces of copper continued spinning as Grint beheld the large, black bladed knife jammed in the center of the table.  Black Samuel took his hand off the hilt revealing intricate threads of black and silver wrapped in a crossing pattern.
   

“Onion-eyed pignuts!” Grint eyed the blade, noting that the length of the blade was on scale with a man’s forearm.  “Is that a knife or a sword?”
   

“I’m calling you a cheat!” Black Samuel’s face darkened with each word.  The music quieted as everyone watched the table, including the proprietor, who appeared displeased by the brewing conflict and large knife penetrating the table.
   

The clay mug had a rough texture, but the ale inside was smooth.  Grint drank deep and sighed as he put the mug down, “Why is it that whenever someone loses coin they call the winner a cheat?  We’ve all lost our fair share of hands tonight.  Calling me a cheat now is so…so…” Grint snapped his fingers, trying to remember one of the ten-coin words that Hobbe loved throwing around.
   

“Clitch,” Toothless added, nodding with satisfaction at his answer.
   

“Yeah, clitch…wait, what?  No, it’s not clitch,” Grint said shaking his head.
   

“What kind of word is clitch?” Elti asked as she looked around.
   

“No such word,” Valun added.
 

“He means cliché,” Nigel said as he tapped a massive, bloodstained cudgel against the knife’s hilt.
   

“Right, cliché.”  Grint kept his eye on the cudgel.
   

“Don’t know what neither of those words mean,” Black Samuel’s voice was a mumble as he retrieved the blade.  Under the scrutiny of the owner, the divot left behind by the blade looked much larger than it was.  A long moment stretched out as Nigel weighed the damage against the possibility of a full-fledged brawl.  His bouncers, two large pieces of muscle named Tahr and Grag, who up to this point had been sitting behind the bar eating chicken legs and playing a game that involved slapping one another across the face, were making their way over.  
   

“Maybe we wrap this game up,” Nigel said as more of a command than a suggestion and shouldered the cudgel.
   

It was at this moment the serving girl picked up Grint’s winning hand.  “I didn’t think our dogs were skeletons,” she said.  That small comment was enough to light a fire in Marcus’s mind and he rummaged through the discards.  When he found what he was looking for, he slammed it face up on the table: a twelve-point, gray fur hound, howling at Effulg with no sign of Nacinth.
   

“Cheater!” Black Samuel roared as he shook a fist in the air.  Elti slid a spiked set of brass knockers over her knuckles as she stood.
   

“You have a good explanation for this?” Valun asked, his friendly demeanor vanishing.
   

“Let’s not be hasty,” Grint said.  Holding his hands out to soothe the growing hostility, he let the pocketed three and seven cards fall from his sleeve.  The slip of the cards looked accidental as intended.  That was all part of the con.
   

Chaos erupted ith everyone shouting, pointing fingers, and waving daggers.  Black Samuel was past civility and flung the table aside.  As it shattered against the flagstone wall, the brown cat hissed and darted off.  Black Samuel was a good head taller than Grint and wider by a mile.  As he advanced, Grint planted his feet and prepared to disarm that gorgeous blade from Samuel’s hand.  The fight was a necessary part.  Getting stabbed to death was not.
   

The fracas ground to a halt as the two meatbags, Tahr and Grag, intervened.  The first stepped in front of Black Samuel, shoving him back, while Grag wrapped a thick fist around each of Grint’s arms.  “You’re going nowhere,” his hot breath, smelling of eggs left to sit in the sun, enveloped Grint’s face.
   

“Out of my way,” Black Samuel yelled.  “I plan to open that runt up and see how many more cards spill out.”
   

“Not unless Nigel says.”  Tahr stood a head taller than Samuel and leveraged that size to quiet the gamblers.
   

“I have no desire to fight,” Grint offered to anyone willing to listen.
 

“No?” Valun mocked.  “Shouldn’t have stolen from us then.”  
   

The loggers gathered around, cheering for blood, and chanting for a fight.  None of them cared who had cheated as long as there was blood.  Black Samuel was drinking in their adoration and strutting about, miming what he planned to do with his knife.

  

“How about we call it even and walk away?” Grint had no expectations anyone would accept the offer, otherwise he wouldn’t have made it, but it played up appearances.
   

“They’ll be walking away,” Tahr waved a hand to the other players.  “You?” his jowls swayed back and forth as he shook his head.  Grag squeezed Grint’s wrists, and he clenched his teeth to swallow the pain.
   

“There’s still time to reconsider,” Grint said trying to convey more bravado than his strained voice would carry.  “I am very dangerous.”
   

Black Samuel threw his head back and let out a booming laugh, echoed by the onlookers.  As the rich sound subsided, he stepped forward, waving his knife back and forth in front of Grint’s face.  “You won’t be doing nothing dangerous.  Not with your arms in those vices.”
   

A slow smile split Grint’s face and the deep, mirthful malevolence within the expression gave Black Samuel pause.  “He only has my arms,” he said with a wink.
   

Black Samuel frowned as he worked out the puzzle, but Tahr solved it first and shouted, “Grab his Kry-damned legs!”  
   

Grint kicked, and the toe of his hard-soled walking boot connected with the hilt of the Black Samuel’s dagger.  The blade flew free and stuck in the rafters with a metallic twang that reverberated in the stunned silence.  Black Samuel looked up, exposing himself to a second kick.  The blow caught him beneath the jaw and he stumbled into the crowd.
   

Planting his feet, Grint threw his head back into Grag’s face.  There were several indistinct groans over the meaty, cracking sound of the bouncer’s nose shattering.  Warm blood drenched the back of Grint’s neck.  Grag’s hands fell away as he dropped to his knees, clutching the ruin of his face.  Free from his fleshy restraints, Grint picked up a chair and put his back to the wall.  Goose pimples rose along his arms as the chill from the stones bled through his coat.  The crowd formed a semi-circle, caging him in and remaining out of reach.  Grint jabbed the chair towards anyone who ventured too close, but it was a flimsy, pathetic deterrent that wouldn’t last long if anyone rushed him.
   

“Enough,” Nigel shouted, and the crowd parted to let him pass.  Any concerns over property damage fled as he swung the cudgel round, smashing the chair into splinters.  Grint imagined how ridiculous he must look standing there with only a shard of wood in his hands.  The crowd’s roar was appreciative and Grint prepared to duck the next swing, but Nigel changed course and punched the head of the cudgel into his gut.  Grint choked for air that wouldn’t come as stars, vast and brilliant, danced across his vision.  Falling to his knees, his face was flush with fire as lances of pain radiated out from his stomach.
   

“I will kill that man,” Black Samuel proclaimed, but the voice sounded disjointed and thick, like he was speaking with a mouth of honey.
   

“There will be no killing without my say,” Nigel said, quieting the cries for blood.  Five sweaty digits snaked their way through Grint’s hair and yanked hard, directing his gaze.  Their faces were close so that as Grint’s vision returned, he could make out the imperfections in Nigel’s green eyes and the deep pock marks hidden just beneath his gray beard.  
   

“We have a right,” Toothless whistled his r’s, a sound that trailed off as Nigel turned an icy stare on him.
   

The innkeeper stood, pulling Grint to his feet alongside him.  “We all have a right and we’ll exact our toll this night as Petra demands!”

    

“That’s blasphemy against Krypsie,” Grint said, regaining his breath.  It burned his throat to speak, but he couldn’t help himself.  “I’m telling the Papality.”
   

Nigel pressed the end of the cudgel into Grint’s neck and stared at him sideways.  “Annabelle, dear, fetch me some rope.”
   

“Annabelle,” Grint snapped his fingers.  “Her name is Annabelle,” he continued under Nigel’s cold gaze.  “I was way off.”
   

“Don’t want him hung,” Black Samuel growled.
   

“And he won’t be,” Nigel pointed the cudgel in Samuel’s face, who quieted as he leaned away from the weapon.  “We’ll tie him to the rafters and take turns hitting him with Glory.”
   

“You call your stick, Glory?  That’s adorable!” Grint laughed.
   

Refusing to respond, Nigel twisted Grint’s hair as he dragged him towards one of the support posts.  “Tahr, take the rope from her and toss it over those beams and help me with your brother.”
   

Nigel loosened his grip as the crowd parted to let them pass.  Grint leaned against a support post, his vision swimming, and marveled at the angry faces surrounding him.  The whole tavern was taking part.  Everyone except the cold woman who remained seated, and watched the proceedings from beneath her hood.  If she was a thief catcher, she was a piss-poor one.
   

“Stop being a baby,” Nigel slapped Grag whose moaning had reached a dramatic level.  “Annabelle, don’t just stand there.  Tie him up.”  The girl jumped at the sound of her name, her chin quivering in what might have been a shake of the head.  “Don’t worry now, he won’t try nothing.  Will you?”
 

“Wouldn’t dare,” Grint replied, bravado wafting off him in obnoxious waves.  Just minutes ago she was draping herself over his shoulder, but now hesitated to step close.  Her hands shook as she wrapped the rope around his waist in slow methodical circles, treating him like an adder that could strike any moment.  When she screwed up the courage to glance up, she found Grint smiling ear to ear.
   

“What?” her voice cracked.
   

“I had hoped we would tie each other up tonight.”  A few chuckles cut through the angry mutterings, which set Nigel off.  Storming forward, he grabbed Grint by the hair and tore a clump out with his twisting.
   

“Stop that,” Grint said, slapping at Nigel’s arm.
   

“I wanted to give Grag the first crack at you, but I think it’ll be Annabelle, considering your rudeness.”
   

“Rudeness?  That was foreplay!  I feel sorry for the women in your life,” Grint said, watching the innkeeper’s eyes bulge and face turn red.
   

“Someone bring me a gag,” he demanded through gritted teeth.
   

“Now you’re getting it,” Grint laughed.
   

“I’m tired of his flippancy!”  Nigel looked around and found that the entire crowd had their backs to him as they watched the hearth.  “Anyone?”  A loud, thrumming wind was beating against the walls from without, and the fires in the hearth were dancing in time, spilling embers onto the cracked, wooden floor.
   

“What is that?” Elti asked.  “That wail?”
   

“I don’t hear no wail,” Black Samuel sneered.  He opened his mouth to insult the woman, but then the sound intensified, and they all heard it.  It was a scream or screech not unlike a child who fell from some great height.
   

“That’s an unnatural sound,” Valun said as it continued to intensify.
   

“Tahr, go look,” Nigel commanded, but the bouncer didn’t move.  “Are you deaf?  Go look.”
   

“Not going out there with no banshee,” Tahr said, his fatty jowls shaking in time with his head.
   

“No such thing as banshees,” Toothless added.  “That’s a Sylph Queen!”
   

“That’s not a Sylph Queen,” Grint said.  He had untied himself and was throwing the rope on the floor.  “That’s a dragon.”
   

“No such thing as dragons,” Marcus stammered.
   

“Yes, there are,” Elti and Black Samuel said in unison.  Judging by the number of paling faces in the crowd, more than not knew what they said to be true.  
   

Torches blazed past the windows, back and forth they went as panicked shouts accompanied them.  Nigel took a few hesitant steps toward the door, and Grint wondered if the man would have the stones to go out.  The answer would remain a mystery as a townsman burst in, torch held high.  It was the old man Grint encountered earlier and his mouth was working, but no words came out.
   

“Mason,” the innkeeper called out.  “What in the hells of Asteros is going on out there?”
   

Mason looked around as if he was just now realizing where he was and shouted, “Dragon!”
   

An earth-shaking thud and a blood-curdling scream drowned out the old man’s proclamation.  Grint took a step back before the front wall of the tavern caved inward, burying old Mason amidst the stone and straw debris of the roof.  A mammoth dragon head swung round, knocking loose any falling beams as it uttered an ear-shattering roar.
   

The dragon’s head was the size of ten men, and was the only part of the beast able to fit inside the tavern.  Its long, serpentine neck stretched through the hole, obscuring a winged body larger than the inn itself.  Its blood-red scales glistened in the firelight as a forked tongue flicked out, tasting the human fear.  Golden eyes, alive with chaos, stared at the inhabitants who backed against the walls.
   

Nigel crept forward, hoping to pull Mason from the debris, but the movement caught the dragon’s attention and it knocked them sideways with its monstrous head.  They soared like leaves on the wind, crumpling to the floor after striking the wall.  Grint could see the rise and fall of their chests.  Alive, if not a little broken.
   

One brave fool brandished a broken table leg at the dragon.  Its rebuttal was as swift as a bolt of lightning and before the man could move, two giant nostrils flared before his face.  The dragon exhaled, blowing the man’s hair back.  A hysterical scream broke the nervous silence before the logger fainted.  Bits of the thatch roof dislodged in great chunks as the tavern shook.  Men and women dove for cover from the assailing shower.  The dragon’s roars were triumphant…and hungry.
   

The dragon quieted, its eyes coming to rest on Grint, who leaned an arm against the beam, coils of rope at his feet.  Annabelle, hands over her face and cowering behind Grint’s legs, screamed.  It was a piercing sound that made Grint’s eyes water and the dragon shake its mammoth head.  The beast roared again and Grint could smell slaughtered sheep on its breath.
   

“I don’t want to die,” Annabelle cried.  It was a nice respite from the screaming, which returned once she finished speaking.  Grint hoped she would faint soon.
   

Soft thuds, much like the sound of rain drops against thatch, rang out.  First one, then three, and then a score in rapid succession.  The townsfolk were shooting arrows as someone shouted orders.  The folk of Kambar had dug out militia armor, unused for a decade, and mounted an offensive.  It wasn’t the brightest idea, but Grint had to tip the proverbial cap to them for not just rolling over in the face of danger.  The dragon cocked its head and something like amusement passed through its eyes.
   

A large spear bounced off the dragon’s neck, sufficient enough to garner the beast’s full attention.  More debris showered down as it pulled its head free.  Grint could hear the screams of a dozen men fleeing.  The dragon roared and spat fire, lighting the night as if the sun had risen and set again.  There was nothing that anyone in the village could do to stop the beast.  It would rage on until everything that remained smoldered in ash.  Grint’s knuckles popped as he flexed them.  It was time.
   

Black Samuel’s knife remained buried in the rafters.  Shouldering past Elti, Grint leapt at the blade, his fingertips brushing against the hilt as he came away empty handed.  Black Samuel laid with his hands over his head just a foot away, so Grint stepped on top of him and tried again.  This time his hand grasped the hilt of the dagger and his weight pulled it free.  In all Terragard, there were perhaps a hundred knives that might surpass this one’s perfection of weight, balance, and sheer beauty.  How Black Samuel had come to own it was a true mystery.
   

“What are you doing?” Toothless asked, standing a few feet away, his trousers wet with urine.  If Grint needed help, he wouldn’t find it here.
   

Annabelle’s shrill screaming rose above everything else, which was at least something Grint could remedy.  Walking over, he lifted her chin and pulled her into a deep kiss.  She tensed at first, shocked by the suddenness, but then returned it with fervor.  When he stopped, she looked at him with desire and confusion, uncertain of how she should feel.
   

“Wish me luck,” Grint said.
   

“With what?” she asked, terror and a scream building back up in her throat.
   

“This,” he said with a wink as he sprinted towards the dragon.  The creature was spitting fire above the homes as Grint reached the gaping maw that was the tavern’s front door.  An upended barrel rocked back and forth amid the wreckage and Grint used it to leap onto the dragon’s flank.  
   

Once there, the dragon roared and whipped its head about.  Horn-like protrusions jutted between the scales, and  Grint used them to climb out of reach of its razor-sharp teeth.  With an angry screech, the dragon spread its wings and in one great beat, rose toward the stars.  Grint looked down into the receding inn.  Annabelle held an outstretched hand toward him - and abruptly fainted.  
   

At least the screaming stopped.