'That's enough from you, old horse-face!' said the farmer, mighty put out. 'Honour be blowed! If I get back even the miller's company will be welcome. Still, it is some comfort to think that I shall be missing you both for a bit.' And with that he left them.
You cannot offer excuses to the King as you can to your neighbours; so lambs or no lambs, ploughing or none, milk or water, he had to get up on his grey mare and go. The parson saw him off.
'I hope you are taking some stout rope with you?' he said.
'What for?' said Giles. 'To hang myself?'
'Nay! Take heart, Master Aegidius!' said the parson. 'It seems to me that you have a luck that you can trust. But take also a long rope, for you may need it, unless my foresight deceives me. And now farewell, and return safely!'
'Aye! And come back and find all my house and land in a pickle. Blast dragons!' said Giles. Then, stuffing a great coil of rope in a bag by his saddle, he climbed up and rode off.
He did not take the dog, who had kept well out of sight all the morning. But when he was gone, Garm slunk home and stayed there, and howled all the night, and was beaten for it, and went on howling.
'Help, ow help!' he cried. 'I'll never see dear master again, and he was so terrible and splendid. I wish I had gone with him, I do.'
'Shut up!' said the farmer's wife, 'or you'll never live to see if he comes back or he don't.'
The blacksmith heard the howls. 'A bad omen,' he said cheerfully.
Many days passed and no news came. 'No news is bad news,' he said, and burst into song.
When Farmer Giles got to court he was tired and dusty. But the knights, in polished mail and with shining helmets on their heads, were all standing by their horses. The King's summons and the inclusion of the farmer had annoyed them, and so they insisted on obeying orders literally, setting off the moment that Giles arrived. The poor farmer had barely time to swallow a sop in a draught of wine before he was off on the road again. The mare was offended. What she thought of the King was luckily unexpressed, as it was highly disloyal.
It was already late in the day. 'Too late in the day to start a dragon-hunt,' thought Giles. But they did not go far. The knights were in no hurry, once they had started.
They rode along at their leisure, in a straggling line, knights, esquires, servants, and ponies trussed with baggage; and Farmer Giles jogging behind on his tired mare.
When evening came, they halted and pitched their tents. No provision had been made for Farmer Giles and he lead to borrow what he could. The mare was indignant, and she forswore her allegiance to the house of Augustus Bonifacius.
The next day they rode on, and all the day after. On the third day they descried in the distance the dim and inhospitable mountains. Before long they were in regions where the lordship of Augustus Bonifacius was not universally acknowledged. They rode then with more care and kept closer together.
On the fourth day they reached the Wild Hills and the borders of the dubious lands where legendary creatures were reputed to dwell. Suddenly, one of those riding ahead came upon ominous footprints in the sand by a stream. They called for the farmer.
'What are these, Master Aegidius?' they said.
'Dragon-marks,' said he.
'Lead on' said they.
So now they rode west with Farmer Giles at their head, and all the rings were jingling on his leather coat. That mattered little; for all the knights were laughing and talking, and a minstrel rode with them singing a lay. Every now and again they took up the refrain of the song and sang it all together, very loud and strong. It was encouraging, for the song was good ĘC it had been made long before days when battles were more common than tournaments; but it was unwise. Their coming was now known to all the creatures of that land, and the dragons were cocking their ears in all the caves of the West. There was no longer any chance of their catching old Chrysophylax napping.
As luck (or the grey mare herself) would have it, when at last they drew under the very shadow of the dark mountains, Farmers Giles's mare went lame. They had now begun to ride along steep and stony paths, climbing upwards with toil and ever-growing disquiet. Bit by bit she dropped back in the line, stumbling and limping and looking so patient and sad that at last Farmer Giles was obliged to get off and walk. Soon they found themselves right at the back among the pack-ponies; but no one took any notice of them. The knights were discussing points of precedence and etiquette, and their attention was distracted. Otherwise they would have observed that dragonmarks were now obvious and numerous.
They had come, indeed, to the places where Chrysophylax often roamed, or alighted after taking his daily exercise in the air. The lower hills, and the slopes on either side of the path, had a scorched and trampled look. There was little grass, and the twisted stumps of heather and gorse stood up black amid wide patches of ash and burned earth. The region had been a dragon's playground for many a year. A dark mountain-wall loomed up before them.
Farmer Giles was concerned about his mare; but he was glad of the excuse for no longer being so conspicuous. It had not pleased him to be riding at the head of such a cavalcade in these dreary and dubious places. A little later he was gladder still, and had reason to thank his fortune (and his mare). For just about midday ĘC it being then the Feast of Candlemas, and the seventh day of their riding Tailbiter leaped out of its sheath, and the dragon out of his cave.
Without warning or formality he swooped out to give battle. Down he came upon them with a rush and a roar. Far from his home he had not shown himself over bold, in spite of his ancient and imperial lineage. But now he was filled with a great wrath; for he was fighting at his own gate, as, it were, and with all his treasure to defend. He came round a shoulder of the mountain like a ton of thunderbolts, with a noise like a gale and a gust of red lightning.
The argument concerning precedence stopped short. All the horses shied to one side or the other, and some of the knights fell off; the ponies and the baggage and the servants turned and ran at once. They had no doubt as to the order of precedence.
Suddenly there came a rush of smoke that smothered them all, and right in the midst of it the dragon crashed into the head of the line. Several knights were killed before they could even issue their formal challenge to battle, and several others were bowled over, horses and all. As for the remainder, their steeds took charge of them, and turned round and fled, carrying their masters off, whether they wished it or no: most of them wished it indeed.
But the old grey mare did not budge. Maybe she was afraid of breaking her legs on the steep stony path. Maybe she felt too tired to run away. She knew in her bones that dragons on the wing are worse behind you than before you, and you need more speed than a race-horse for flight to be useful. Besides, she had seen this Chrysophylax before, and remembered chasing him over field and brook in her own country, till he lay down tame in the village highstreet. Anyway she stuck her legs out wide, and she snorted. Farmer Giles went as pale as his face could manage, but he stayed by her side; for there seemed nothing else to do.
And so it was that the dragon, charging down the line, suddenly saw straight in front of him his old enemy with Tailbiter in his hand. It was the last thing he expected. He swerved aside like a great bat and collapsed on the hillside close to the road. Up came the grey mare, quite forgetting to walk lame. Farmer Giles, much encouraged, had scrambled hastily on her back.
'Excuse me,' said he, 'but were you looking for me, by any chance?'
'No indeed!' said Chrysophylax. 'Who would have thought of seeing you here? I was just flying about.'
'Then we meet by good luck,' said Giles, 'and the pleasure is mine; for I was looking for you. What's more, I have a bone to pick with you, several bones in a manner of speaking.'
The dragon snorted. Farmer Giles put up his arm to ward off the hot gust, and with a flash Tailbiter swept forward, dangerously near the dragon's nose.
'Hey!' said he, and stopped snorting. He began to tremble and backed away, and all the fire in him was chilled. 'You have not, I hope, come to kill me, good master?' he whined.
'Nay! nay!' said the farmer. 'I said naught about killing.' The grey mare sniffed.
'Then what, may I ask, are you doing with all these knights?' said Chrysophylax. 'Knights always kill dragons, if we don't kill them first.'
'I'm doing nothing with them at all. They're naught to me,' said Giles. 'And anyway, they are all dead now or gone. What about what you said last Epiphany?'
'What about it?' said the dragon anxiously.
'You're nigh on a month late,' said Giles, 'and payment is overdue. I've come to collect it. You should beg my pardon for all the bother I have been put to.'
'I do indeed!' said he. 'I wish you had not troubled to come.'
'It'll be every bit of your treasure this time, and no market-tricks,' said Giles, 'or dead you'll be, and I shall hang your skin from our church steeple as a warning.'
'It's cruel hard!' said the dragon.
'A bargain's a bargain,' said Giles.
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