Chapter 1    Dragonslayer

 

Men should fear to speak your name, in case you hear them.

The Dark Lord’s Handbook

 

Children can be cruel, especially when it comes to names. The kid with the weird name was an easy target. Names like John Smithson, or Rose Tanner, were easy to bear, indicating solid family professions. Then there were kids like Eric Bastard (pronounced Bast-ard rather than –erd) and Gregor Death (pronounced Dé-ath), which were odd but not that bad. Hal Dragonslayer thought so, anyway. He cursed the name he had. No matter how often he was told of his proud lineage, which stretched back hundreds of years to a time when dragon slaying was an honourable profession—not to mention lucrative given the number of dragons which needed slaying—he often wished he had been born Hal Cooper, or Hal Shepherd. He would have settled for Hal Knobmaker and all the dick jokes that would have gone with it. But no, he was Hal Dragonslayer, the butt of spiteful teasing and worse.

The problem was there were no dragons, so how could he be a dragon slayer? It didn’t help that he didn’t look like a dragon slayer, or have the temperament. He was tall and gangly, not built like a barbarian, and was well-spoken, well-behaved, and well-mannered. He had none of the traits a ruthless dragon slayer should have and few that served him well when it came to defending himself from the bullies.

While growing up had been tough, things had changed. As a grown man, he suffered the odd snigger in the pub when someone heard his name—but even that had ended, for now there were dragons. Morden Deathwing had announced himself at Bostokov in impressive fashion. For a while, the pamphlets had been rife with Morden, the Dark Lord, and his progress eastward.  The citizens of Krixos, knowing they were next in line to be conquered, had welcomed Morden. They petitioned him to turn into a dragon and terrify them—a petition he had duly obliged, and which the populace instantly regretted when they experienced the marrow-melting fear when faced with a Deathwing dragon.

And then he was gone, seemingly chased across the sea by Count Vladovitch and his army, who had swept up the Dark Lord’s temporary conquests and returned things to normal. For Hal, though, life could never be normal again. There was a dragon in the world and he was a dragon slayer. The end of his line. He had a lineage to uphold and an opportunity to make good his name—if he could get the time off work.

“Hal. Hal! Stop that daydreaming and bring me up another sack of flour.”

“Yes, Father,” said Hal. Dreams of dragon slaying disappeared as he brought himself back to reality. He was a baker’s son. He had asked once why they hadn’t changed their name and been harshly reproached for the question. ‘We’re Dragonslayers’ had been the reply from his father, though clearly they were not. They were bread makers, sometimes confectioners, with a good line in patisserie, and had no experience in dragon slaying.

Hal went down to the cellar to fetch the sack. He hefted it easily onto one shoulder, no longer the impossible weight it had been when he’d first started working with his father. Growing up he had been dismayed by how physically tough it was being a baker: hauling sacks of flour, pushing oven bellows, kneading dough. It had been a wonder his father was so fat—until he had realised he was doing all the hard work and his father was doing the baking. Apparently, he was serving his apprenticeship through hard labour and not through dough and pastry. He also thought himself old, at twenty-three, to still be an apprentice. It was true, his father let him do some baking, but only once all the laborious chores had been done. He didn’t mind though. He was lucky to have such good parents. Others were not so lucky, like Sam Crapper. Now that was an unpleasant family to be brought up in.

Hal climbed the stair back to the kitchen and dumped the sack on the floor. His father was taking the first of the day’s loaves out of the ovens, each one a masterpiece. The Dragonslayer loaf was the best to be found in the city.

“Make up the next batch of dough,” said his father over his shoulder, “there’s a good lad.”

“Yes, Father,” said Hal. Though kneading dough was hard work, it was baking and Hal was happy at the prospect.

He had just split the sack of flour when there came a rap from the front of the bakery. It sounded like one of the night watch beating on the door with their baton, but it was still early for them to be dropping in on their way home to pick up a warm loaf, as they often did.

“I’ll go,” Hal said. His father was laying out the loaves from the oven to cool. “It’s probably Zara knocking off early again to get the freshest bread.”

“If it is, it’s not the loaf she’s after,” said his father. “It’s your breadstick she has an interest in.”

Hal’s father chuckled at his own joke. Hal was not so amused. He’d known Zara since childhood and they were no more than good friends, like brother and sister. In recent years, his father had become convinced otherwise. He said the way she looked at Hal was not like a sister to a brother. Hal was sure his father was wrong. When he’d asked her, she’d told him not to be ridiculous; though she had blushed, but who wouldn’t? Those matters were embarrassing. Zara Headcracker was a good friend and a member of the city watch, as her family, the Headcrackers, had been for generations. That was all. She was pretty though. He couldn’t deny that.

There was another rap at the door. Its tempo suggested impatience driven by a growling stomach. The smell of fresh-baked bread spread quickly from the chimney at this time of the morning, enticing custom as it did. Another rap. This time urgency mixed with the impatience.

“All right,” called out Hal, wiping his hands on his apron. “The bread’s not going anywhere.”

Hal slid the bolt back and pulled the door open, expecting to see Zara tapping her toe. Instead there was a thin, pale-faced man with dark hair and a serious intent about him. His clothes were close-cut and expensive, though not foppish in nature—just extremely well-made, from the stitching and quality of leather. The man’s narrow features were set in a stern fashion that suggested he was not here for a bun. Hal opened his mouth to ask the man who he was but was too slow off the mark.

“I am Mr. Chidwick, Personal Private Secretary to Chancellor Penbury. Are you Karl Dragonslayer?”

“No, I’m Hal. Chancellor Penbury? What does he …?”

The man stepped past him and into the shop. He cast his eye over the counters of day-old cakes, some a bit older—some considerably older, in the case of the fruit cakes with inch-thick royal icing. “I was told I could find Karl Dragonslayer here. Was I told incorrectly?”

“No, he’s out back. I’ll get him.”

Hal ducked behind the counter and out to the bakery. This Chidwick looked like he meant business and, if he was who he said he was, shouldn’t be kept waiting. Chancellor Penbury was a renowned gastronome. This could only mean one thing: the fame of their cakes, pastries, and breads had at last reached the attention of the chancellor, and Chidwick was here to commission them to bake for the great man. This was fantastic. They could put the chancellor’s seal on the door. They would be famous. ‘Bakers to the Chancellor’—it didn’t get better than that.

“Who was that?” asked his father, looking up from the loaves he was individually tapping to ensure each was perfectly baked.

“Father, you’re not going to believe who’s out front.”

“Just tell me,” said his father. “I’ve no time for games, and nor do you. Plenty to be done.”

“It’s Mr. Chidwick. He works for the chancellor. He says he wants to see you.”

“Chancellor Levymore? What’s he want? I’ve paid my taxes.”

“No, Father. Not Chancellor Levymore.” Hal could hardly contain his excitement. “Chancellor Penbury. He’s come from Chancellor Penbury. He wants to talk to you. Father, you’ve done it. Chancellor Penbury wants your cakes. Your cakes.”

“Chancellor Penbury?”

“Yes!”

“Well, why didn’t you say?”

Hal didn’t see his father flustered that often, only while waiting on an exceptionally tricky bake. He was a big man and did everything in a precise and particular manner. His attention to detail, especially when it came to the finery of cake decoration, was something Hal still struggled to match. Now, though, he didn’t seem to know whether he was coming or going. He straightened his apron, brushed his hands against his side, smoothed his hair, wiped his hands again, and pulled at the apron strings so they were tight around his girth.

They found Chidwick bent over a cake, inspecting the pipe work closely. It was a unicorn with a candy horn and sparkles on its flanks, a popular birthday cake for younger girls, which sold well.

“Mr. Chidwick, sir,” said Hal. “This is Karl Dragonslayer.”

Chidwick looked at Hal’s father with an appraising eye. His thin lips tightened to a line. “Karl Dragonslayer?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Hal’s father.

Chidwick brought a finger to his chin and tapped it. “Not exactly what I had in mind.”

“Don’t mind these, sir,” said Hal. “These cakes here are mostly for show. My father does custom cakes, to any design the chancellor could want, and he knows every bread recipe there is.”

“Quiet, son,” said Hal’s father. “Now, Mr. Chidwick. What is it I can do for you? Anything you want, I can bake.”

Chidwick dropped his finger and twitched his nose. “If it was a good pastry I was after, I am sure that would be the case. But I am not. I think I have been misled.”

“What is it you wanted?” Hal’s father asked. The disappointment in his voice matched Hal’s own

“Why, a dragon slayer. But it seems all I have is a baker. A good one, granted, but a baker nonetheless. Never mind. I am sorry to have wasted your time, and mine.”

“A dragon slayer?” asked Hal’s father. “That’s just our name. I’m a baker.”

“Indeed,” said Chidwick. “And a busy one, I’m sure. If I could have this cake here, and a loaf from the back, I’ll leave you to it. How much would that be?” Chidwick indicated the unicorn cake.

Hal’s father shook his head as though to rid it of confusion. “Cake. Right. Hal, go and get Mr. Chidwick a loaf, one from the right of the batch, they’re the best. And no charge. It’s an honour to have you try my wares.”

Hal was dumbstruck. Mr. Chidwick had come here looking for a dragon slayer. It was a dream come true. Ever since he had seen those first drawings of the black dragon in the pamphlets, something had awoken in him. There was a dragon and it needed to be slain. That was it. There was nothing else to consider. Morden was a dragon. He was a Dragonslayer. It was what he had to do, and now the opportunity to make this happen had walked in the door. He couldn’t let it pass.

“Wait,” said Hal. “I’m Hal Dragonslayer. I’ll kill your dragon.”

Hal’s father and Chidwick looked at him, their expressions contrasting: one of consternation in the case of his father, and one of sudden interest, with a hint of bemusement, in Chidwick’s face.

“He’s your son?” Chidwick asked.

“Yes, but don’t be listening to him. Hal, go get that loaf and stop your chatter.”

Hal automatically moved to do as his father asked. He suddenly felt ridiculous. He was his father’s son, and his father was a baker. And so was he. Not as good as his father, but getting better. One day, this bakery would be his. That was his future, not going off on some dragon slaying adventure. While it was what he wanted to do more than anything, what chance did he have? As he stepped towards the counter, Chidwick raised a hand to stop him.

“Not so fast,” said Chidwick. “I didn’t know you had a son. Now, that’s more interesting. Hal, is it? You look like a strong young man. What do you know about dragon slaying?”

Hal was about to answer when the door swung open and Zara made her appearance at last. “Dragon slaying?” she asked, eyeing Chidwick in a manner that members of the watch were well practised in (which said whomever they were looking at better not be up to anything or their collar would be felt in short order). “Who are you?”

“This is Mr. Chidwick, Zara,” said Hal, hurriedly. He was about to go on but a raised finger from Chidwick silenced him.

“And you are?” asked Chidwick.

Hal could feel the tension. Zara’s eyes narrowed in that way she had when she anticipated trouble. “Zara Headcracker of the Watch, and I’m asking the questions around here. Is this man bothering you, Karl?”

Hal’s father shook his head. It was clear he wanted no trouble. The problem was that trouble and Zara were never far apart.

“Young lady, I am Mr. Chidwick, Personal Private Secretary to Chancellor Penbury, and I am here discussing a private matter, of no concern to you, or the Watch. I suggest you collect your loaf, or whatever it is you have come for, and leave us to further that business.”

Hal was not used to hearing Zara spoken to with such command and confidence. Even she seemed taken aback. Her eyes widened a notch.

“You said something about dragon slaying,” said Zara. “That makes it my business. Especially if there is a dragon around here.”

“It’s all right, Mr. Chidwick, sir,” said Hal as fast as possible. He could see this getting out of hand, and that could not end well for anyone, perhaps not even Mr. Chidwick. “Zara is a close friend. Now to answer your question, I know nothing about dragon slaying other than it’s what I was born to do. I come from a long line of dragon slayers. It’s in our blood.”

“Dragon slaying?” snorted Zara. “Your grandfather was a baker, and his father before him. You’ve never even seen a dragon, except in those pamphlets.”

“If you are going to stay, you will be silent,” Chidwick said. Zara’s mouth snapped closed. Chidwick’s tone chilled Hal, even in the warmth of the bakery. “You wouldn’t have an heirloom of any kind, would you?” asked Chidwick, addressing Hal’s father. “A sword, perhaps? No? Secret knowledge? In a book, or on a tablet?”

Karl Dragonslayer shook his head. “No. Nothing like that. All I have are my recipes.”

“Any of them mention killing dragons?”

“Sorry, no.”

“Very well. What to do?” Chidwick went back to his chin-tapping routine. “The last time I had this feeling was in a brewery, and I was right that time. So why not a bakery? Stranger things have happened.”

Mr. Chidwick was making no sense to Hal. It was true, he was probably the least likely dragon slayer to be found. He was a baker’s son, and was happy with his life. And yet, opportunities like this only came along once in a lifetime. Though he didn’t know where this path would take him, or how it would turn out, he did know he wanted this chance more than anything.

“I know I can do it,” said Hal. “I’m not sure the where of it, or the how, but I know it.”

Chidwick varied his chin tapping with some thumb strokes down one side of his perfectly shaved jaw. “You know, Hal, I believe you. I hate to do this twice, and I had much better cause the last time, but I think you’re what I’ve been looking for. I trust you. I trust your father.” He turned to Zara. “You, I don’t trust. You’re trouble. But that may be part of it. Perhaps you should go with him.”

Hal expected bluster and protest from Zara, and so was surprised when a smile spread across her face.

“Try and stop me. He’s hopeless enough as it is. I’ll look after him.” She put an arm around Hal’s shoulders and squeezed hard. “Now, where exactly is this dragon?”