“Senyor Jordi,” he gagged.
“Almost there, boy.” The knight slowed his white stallion with a gentle pull of the reins. He covered his mouth and suppressed a cough as he sat up erect. “Ready to see what this is all about?”
Jaume didn’t think he had much choice. “Yes, Senyor,” he grumbled, hopping off Nano to tether the horse to a brittle wooden post.
He turned around to see his master struggling to dismount. His hands gripped the saddle’s horn and his stick arms shook from the strain of lifting his body weight. The breastplate under a white tunic rattled as Senyor Jordi swung his left leg, brushing Anici’s rump.
Jaume ran forward to catch his master in case he lost his balance.
“Back off, boy,” the knight growled, one hand on the horn, the other on the back of the saddle. He took a deep breath. His body relaxed. He pushed off his horse, landing with a thud. “Jaume,” he sneered, rising from his crouch to face the squire. “My body might have been ravaged by war and torture, but I have been dismounting horses by myself since before your parents were betrothed to each other and I will continue doing so. Is that understood?”
The chastised teenager gulped and nodded.
“Good.” His master turned to his horse and brushed its silver mane as he spoke softly into its ear. “You never doubt me, do you?”
Anici replied with a neigh, a spit and shake of the head.
“Right,” the knight barked, strolling to his stallion’s side. He grabbed the dyed-green hilt and unsheathed his trusted long sword, Ascalon, from its wooden scabbard. The glistening metal blade sliced through the air, catching the light from the house’s small windows. A fiery beam soared toward the heavens as the knight stood there in his threadbare white tunic, crossing red lines on the front and back, his weapon raised high above a crested helmet.
“Let’s go,” he commanded, sheathing Ascalon in the scabbard tied to his belt. The uniform grayness, which had shrouded them since entering the forest, returned.
“Yes, Senyor.” Jaume shivered and followed his master up a set of crumbling steps to a door. The knight pounded it with his fist. A few seconds passed before the hinges swung in and a blast of the warm blew past the squire’s exposed knees.
“What do you want?” snarled a scowling woman, in a dress as black as the few wisps of long hair on her head.
El Senyor Jordi gave his name and claimed Montblanc as his home, sounding chipper despite the woman’s harsh tone and appearance. “And this is my trusted squire, Jaume” he added, patting the teenage boy on the back.
“Who?” the woman snapped.
Senyor Jordi repeated his name and asked, “How could you not have heard of me? I became the Emperor’s most trusted and valued knight until he asked me to renounce my beliefs and kill my men.”
“Who is in favor with his Highness the Emperor and who is not means little to us.” The woman pointed a scabby finger at empty pens where oinking pigs had once rolled in their own filth. “As you can see, we are facing a fate worse than any edict he could order.”
“Yes, Senyora.” A visibly concerned knight nodded. “Please, tell me, what has brought such misery upon my village?”
“A dragon,” she deadpanned.
“Yes.” The woman paused and eyed Senyor Jordi with suspicion after his shocked reaction. He was obviously wealthy enough to have a squire. She had met other country gentlemen who had claimed to be knights, but the only beasts they battled were the dragons in their minds. “It lives in the lake from where we draw our water,” the woman continued, her wary expression unchanged. “At first, it only charged us a sheep and then a pig, but it soon grew bored of our animals’ taste.” She cast her glistening eyes to the ground and her voice dropped to a hush, “Then it ordered us to bring our daughters.”
“Please, tell me you didn’t,” the knight blurted.
“Of course we didn’t,” the woman snapped. “But our refusals only angered the beast and it rose from the lake to roar such a roar that all the birds and bees left, never to return.”
“Does the dragon breathe fire?” Jaume inquired.
“No. Worse. It breathes pestilence and death, killing all of our crops and flowers.” The woman’s eyes welled again and she sniffled. “When we still refused the beast’s orders, it slayed all our livestock, leaving us only their rotten remains on which to feed.”
“The cry we heard?” asked the knight.
“That was the queen.” The woman explained how the dragon had told the king his privileged status didn’t exempt him from the suffering and ordered the princess next to be sacrificed.
“It’s got a point,” Jaume quipped.
“Nonsense,” the knight belted. “No one should have to sacrifice a child to eat and drink.” He turned to the old woman and put a gloved hand on her shoulder. “Senyora, I promise to rid you of this ghastly beast.”
“Please, don’t try.” She shrugged off his reassuring gesture. “I do not want to imagine what the dragon will do to us when you fail.”
The knight stepped back in surprise at her defeatist attitude. “Senyora, one must have faith,” he said. “What can be worse than this?”
“Death,” she declared, slamming the door.