Sigurd was passing under a rowan tree when he heard the wings overhead. He froze in place, standing like a statue and listening. He dared not turn his head to look, but soon enough he saw the great scaled beast, the dragon, sweeping ahead, flying low over the land. Within seconds, it disappeared over the horizon. His heart rose to his throat as he realized that the creature was headed straight for the capitol.
It had been a long, slender dragon, proportioned like a serpent, with narrow wings as wide in span as the creature was long. The emptiness of the sky around it made judging its size difficult, but it was clear that the thing was huge. Sigurd turned toward home and began to jog.
He found Hilde waiting for him. She said not a word, but fell into his arms and began to weep. He enfolded her trembling form, but with a wary eye on the skies, pushed her back through the doorway into his house and shut the door. It was a large house, but simply furnished. Curtains hung inside the windows, with light streaming in through the shutters. Through one low arch was the kitchen, and beyond it the maid’s room; through another was his own room, where his bed was framed on one end by a trunk and on the other by a wardrobe. They were in the dining hall, where a dozen wooden chairs ranged around the walls and a table. Next to the door there was a small shelf, and next to the kitchen there was a much larger shelf for bottles, which stood empty at the moment; Sigurd had entertained no guests for over a year, took no strong drink, and allowed his servant none either.
“There was a dragon, sir…. ” she began, twisting her hands in her apron.
“I saw,” he said, striding to his bedroom.
“It crossed the whole sky so fast, sir….” she held a hand to her own trembling jaw.
“I saw,” he repeated, opening the trunk at the foot of his bed. His fingers left marks where, accidentally, they wiped the accumulated dust from its lid.
Hilde winced. “I’m so sorry about the dust sir, but you said…”
“Don’t be sorry,” he replied matter-of-factly. “You did just as I asked. Thank you, Hilde.”
“I … ” she dropped her hands to her sides. “It’s over, isn’t it?” A tear crawled slowly down her cheek.
Sigurd glanced at her, uncomprehending. “What do you mean?” He withdrew his sword from the trunk and began to unpack his armor onto the bed.
Hilde turned, her gesture taking in his room, the kitchen beyond it, the hall where sometimes guests were entertained. “This,” she said. “This peaceful little life.”
He considered her for a few moments, then nodded his head. “Yes. For now anyway. It’s over. That dragon was heading for the capitol. And a dragon that big, is old and smart and knows what a capitol is and what it means. It knows what it wants there. Whatever it does, the King – if he survives – will send for me. If he doesn’t, then his heir will. The message will reach here in two days, I think. By that time I hope to be halfway to the Capital myself. I can’t match the relays, because I have to stop for food and sleep and to rest my horse. But a knight can’t keep the King waiting.”
“What … sir … um.” She grimaced and courteseyed, withdrawing into the kitchen. “I’ll make you food for the journey. May I … ” she trailed off, blinking, with a tiny jerk of her head to the side, then turned away from him and strode toward the fireplace. “May I … ” her voice broke. She cleared her throat and tried again, pouring water she’d fetched from the well that morning into a kettle for soup. “I’d like to eat at the table with you tonight, if I may sir.”
“No reason not to,” Sigurd replied distractedly, buckling his breastplate down to make sure it still fit. “I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony with servants, you know that. And tonight is … ” he looked up at her. “Tonight is the last night I’ll be here before my journey.”
“Yes,” she said. “Your journey. You … you could wait here until the summons arrives… ”
“Damn!” Sigurd replied. “I’ll need new straps and stuffing for these.” The old leather that had held his breastplate and greaves was dry and cracked from its years in the trunk, and the thick wool felt that had lined his helmet had been eaten away by moths. He tossed the items in a heap onto the bed. “Can you do the straps and things after dinner, Hilde?”
She looked up from the carrots she was peeling, at the bed, then at the man, then at the bed again. Her lip quivered and for a moment it seemed that she had a question to ask. Her cheeks colored, then slowly, she nodded. “Yes sir,” she replied quietly. “I have wool in my sewing basket, and I can take the leather from the ox’s harness out in the barn.”
Sigurd barked a short laugh. “Good thinking. Those leads are more than long enough, and besides, it’s me, and not the ox, who’s in harness now. But you’ve reminded me, I have letters to write. How long until dinner?”
Hilde looked quickly back down at the carrots as if surprised, fumbling for a moment. “It’ll be three quarters of an hour, sir.”
“Good,” Sigurd replied shortly. He took a sheaf of papers and a pen from the top of the fireplace in the kitchen, then a tiny jar of ink from the shelf next to the door in the hall. He sat at the table and began to write.
Next morning, he put a saddle and pack on his horse who, more accustomed to the plow harness, stamped uncomfortably. She was a brown mare with white patches on her left flank and forelock. Like Sigurd himself, she was still healthy and strong, but had a few years behind her. Her health and strength might have been nearer its end than its beginning. She had been born to the plow and harness, learned the saddle late in her life, and she had never been a warhorse. She had never been asked to carry a whole week’s supplies before, nor a man weighed down with armor and a sword and a pack as Sigurd was. But she didn’t complain.
Hilde had been up all night, mending and cooking – cleaning could come later – as Sigurd lay in his bed and pretended to sleep. Occasionally, she had looked in on him for a short while, but each time, she’d turned suddenly and gone on with her work.
Now it was morning, and she stood silently beside him as he took the reins and mounted his horse. He handed her a thick sheaf of papers, each folded and sealed with wax. “These,” he said, “are letters to people to settle up my business here in this town. I’m relying on you to deliver them for me.”
She stared at him, then at the sheaf of papers, each with a name carefully written below its seal. All of them were folded crosswise but one, folded lengthwise. “Sir,” she said, “Begging your pardon, but I can’t read.”
“It’s all right,” Sigurd replied. “Get Max – the baker’s boy – to help you. He’s learned to read, well enough. He can tell you who each one is addressed to. And Martin, who works for the blacksmith. Can’t read, I don’t think, but tell him to get his hammer and come with you and Max. If he balks, offer him five crowns. I want all three of you there together to deliver each one of these letters, you understand? This one,” he held up the one sheet folded lengthwise, “is for you.”
“But I … sir? I can’t …” In confusion, she held her palms up.
“It isn’t you who has to read it, Hilde,” he explained. “When you’ve delivered all the other letters, go to the Advocate-Solicitor’s office and let him read it and copy it. But don’t let him take it or touch it; it’s yours. It says you’re a free woman, and my heir, and that this farm with all chattels is yours,” he said. “Your indenture is discharged. If anyone tries to hold you under your indenture, show them the letter and if the law prevails, they’ll have to set you free. But don’t let anyone take it from you, not ever. Not even for a second, because the law doesn’t prevail everywhere.”
“I have a few debts here,” he went on, “but they’re small. There’s money to settle them all in a bag under the potato bin in the kitchen. Everything else is yours. But you have to sell this place, because you’re not safe here. This house, this farm, that ox, all of it. Sell this place and go to a different town. Doing it quickly is more important than getting a good price.”
She stood staring at him, in shock.
Sigurd shrugged. “I had no heir,” he said. “And while that dragon’s in the kingdom, I expect I’ll have no use for any property beyond what’s on my back. You’ve been faithful and helpful beyond reason or duty, Hilde, and I’ve loved you like a daughter. But now I’m leaving. It’s all yours, with my blessing.”
Like a daughter. Hilde’s cheeks burned. “But, but…. Aren’t you coming back?”
Sigurd laughed a genuine, heartfelt laugh and grinned into the rising sun, as though she had made a joke. “Hilde,” he said. “I was insanely lucky the first time. How likely is it that I could ever come back?”
She gasped as she understood his meaning, but before she could find a voice to protest, he spurred the horse and set off down the road at a canter. He was fifty yards away before she began to wail.
“It was never the farm I wanted, you great idiot!” she screamed through her tears.
He pretended that he was already too far away to hear her over the hoofbeats and the clanking of his armor.