(For reasons of inclusivity and representation, I have decided in the re-telling of this tale to change James into a trans female named Jay, and to replace his sister Anna with a girlfriend. 😀 )
“What are you doing?” The man standing before her wore a full suit of plate armour and was busy hefting a mighty sword over his head, ready to bring it smashing down.
“What?” He paused his swing, looking over his shoulder where she lingered at the edge of the clearing.
“I asked, what are you doing? What are they?” Jay pointed at the big black orbs on the ground. There were seven or eight of them, all clustered together on a patch of charred grass.
“Oh. Err… Dragon eggs. I’m a dragon slayer.” He lowered his sword and rested the point of it in the ground next to his foot. He looked at her, leaning on the weapon.
“You’re going to smash the eggs?” She put her hands on her hips.
“Oh. Well. Where’s the mother?”
“Killed her. Just over there,” He sniffed and pointed, and then tugged off a steel gauntlet and ran the back of his hand across his nose.
Jay looked over to where he pointed, but she could see nothing through the trees. She looked back at the man. He was reasonably tall, and all that armour made him seem muscular – but who knew what he was like beneath the shaped metal? Still, if he could lift that massive sword…
“When will they hatch?” She asked.
“They won’t. I’m going to smash them.”
“…Right. Well. Can I have one?”
“A smashed egg? Sure.”
“No, no – an unsmashed one.”
Jay walked up to take an egg, but the dragon slayer reached out and gripped her arm in his massive gloved hand.
“What do you want one for?” His suspicious eyes bore holes into hers.
“Well – to keep, obviously. I mean – they won’t hatch without the mother, will they? I thought I’d just take one, and put it on my mantel back home. It’ll make a nice ornament. A talking piece, if you will.”
He stared at her through thick brows, and then let go of her and shrugged.
“Go on then, just the one.”
“Mr. McCullough! Mr. McCullough, where are you?” Jay yelled over the noise of the billows and the hiss of white-hot metal in water. She nimbly dodged her way through the blacksmith shop, ducked beneath the counter and ran through to the back yard.
“Mr. McCullough! Rusty!” She yelled again, skidding to a stop and looking around between the piles of scrap metal, the crates and the barrels.
“Over here, lass!”
Jay turned to the voice and saw Rusty standing in the doorway of the woodshed. He wiped his hands with a dirty cloth and waved her over.
“What is it, girl? You look like you’ve run all the way from the Burning Marshes!”
“Almost,” She panted, resting one hand on her knee and lowering her head to gulp in air. Her other hand held tightly the bundle of cloths that she had carried back with her. She looked up at Rusty. He looked back down at her with one ginger eyebrow raised.
“I saw a dragon slayer!” She stood up straight again.
“You did? What was he doing?” Rusty scowled and threw his cloth onto the floor. He didn’t much care for dragon slayers.
“Well, when I found him – just off in the woods before the marshes – he had his sword up in the air about to smash some dragon eggs. But I got one! I got an egg, Rusty!”
“You got a dragon egg? From the dragon slayer?” The blacksmith’s eyes lit up, blue as the sky and sparkling in the autumn sun.
“Yes! Oh, I told him it was just for me to take home for an ornament, but I got one – a whole one! Rusty, will you help me hatch it and look after it? Will you teach me how?”
In his time, Rusty had been a dragon keeper. He had three dragons; most people only have one, and the most exceptional trainers only ever have two – but Rusty, he had three. Rusty was the best.
Rusty McCullough stared down at Jay, his red hair wild and streaked with black coal dust, his strong hands clenching and unclenching. His eyes drifted down to the bundle she clung to in her right hand.
“Is that it, Jay?” He asked quietly.
“Yes,” She said, her voice almost breaking with excitement. She held it out to him.
“No! Oh, no, don’t you offer it to me, girl. I won’t take it.”
Jay frowned, suddenly downcast. She should have known it was a lot to ask. She bit back her lip, and was about to apologise.
“No, I can’t take it. This egg is yours, now. Your hands must be the only ones that touch it.”
She dared to glance up at him. He smiled back down at her– a wicked, sly smile that only Rusty McCullough could pull of with such charm.
“So you’ll help me?”
“How long ago did you find the egg?” He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked down at her, full of gravitas.
“Well, it took me about ten minutes to run here – I guess I was talking to the dragon slayer for a few minutes before that. I think he’d just killed the mother when I got there, or not long before.”
“That’s close, but I think you’ll be alright. Now, go and throw that egg into the forge.”
“What?!” She tried to step back, but Rusty held her tight.
“Listen, lass. You asked for my help,” He spoke quickly. “That egg has been without its mother’s warmth for almost too long. Dragon eggs need to be kept fiery hot right up until they hatch. Now, go and throw it in the forge!”
Jay looked into Rusty’s eyes – deep into his eyes – searching for any sign that he was trying to trick her, that he was trying to destroy her egg and finish the dragon slayer’s job. Maybe he thought she wasn’t the kind of person who’d make a good trainer. Maybe he just didn’t want her to have what he didn’t have any more. But in his eyes, she saw only sincerity and fierce devotion.
She wrenched myself from his grip, ran back into the workshop, unbundled the egg and tossed it as lightly as she could into the gleaming coals.