The day the miller’s daughter came home after slaying the Great Wyrm of Kalhern, not a soul in that place recognised her but one.
At first it was hardly surprising. When last they had seen her, three years before, she had worn a simple, woollen dress and walked the packed-earth streets carrying nothing more threatening than a basket of bread. She had always been a strong girl – years spent shifting bags of grain had seen to that – but in a village of farmers and shepherds there was nothing remarkable about her strength.
Now she wore plate armour forged by Laughing Gorin, who might have been a man or a woman or a god, no one was quite sure. It still gleamed in the sunlight, though it was marked heavily by scuffs and, in one place just below her left shoulder, a dent deep enough to bruise her through the gambeson’s padding.
Now she rode a great bay horse with a lustrous coat, a gift from the centaur Hrrghn, who had judged her throat too soft to master the equine language but had taught her to ride anyway. Now she carried upon her back the broadsword whose use she had learned from Sir Swythn himself, grim swordmaster to the queen, and whose good steel was stained forever into oily rainbows by the mark of dragon’s blood.
The villagers of Bordton poured into the streets to welcome their saviour.
“No longer will the Great Wyrm burn our houses, or our crops in the fields!” whooped her brother.
“Thank the gods, at last our girls are safe from that foul creature’s ravages!” cried her mother.
“Cry huzzah! for the Dragonslayer!” shouted her father, and the village cheered as one.
The last time the miller had shouted at his daughter, whose name was Rosa, it had been for letting the millstone run too fast and ruining the grain. So who could blame her for laughing wearily to herself, or for choosing to leave her visor down awhile? It was stuffy in the helmet and smelled like stale sweat, but the plume of blue and red feathers on top waved grandly down at people, and the children of the village were dancing and turning cartwheels around her horse.
She could not shake the feeling that she had ridden into a painting. The cottages with their thatched roofs, the homespun clothes and ruddy faces of the people, and beyond, the rolling fields of wheat and barley, all belonged in the quaint pastoral scenes that hung in the halls of Queen Catherine’s palace: peaceful visions of places she ruled but would likely never visit. It was hard to remember what it had been like to actually walk these streets, not just look at them worked in oils. Had the houses always been so small?
Eventually, she knew, she would have to take off her helmet and break this beautiful, brushworked spell. People would have questions. Probably recriminations. She had, after all, disappeared three years past with never a word to anyone. It was only fair that her family should want to know where she had gone, and what had prevented her sending word, and above all why?
The thought of their displeasure made her cringe a little in her saddle, and consider riding straight on to the next dragon. It was absurd, to be fretting like a child over what her parents would say. She had shed the last vestige of childhood in that stinking hole in the mountains, seen it chewed up by yellowing sawteeth the length of her forearm.
And yet. She looked at her father’s face, relief softening the familiar lines, and remembered how his massive forearms could wrap a girl up in a hug that would squeeze porridge from oats. She looked at her mother’s tired smile and recalled how whenever she made bread, she always gave the first slice to her daughter, hot and soft straight from the oven. She looked at her brother’s rangy slouch, arms and legs grown twice as long as she remembered, and wondered if he could beat his sister yet in a footrace.
They didn’t feel like memories; more like rosy dreams of someone else’s childhood. She was a child no longer. But oh, how they called to her.
So she did not ride on. She let the villagers escort her to the inn, though her eyes were on the shingled roof of the millhouse. The innkeeper’s boy took her horse, and her family was left outside with the rest of the village as the innkeeper – Mr Davies, whose booming voice had frightened her as a child – escorted her to his best room and poured a steaming, mallow-scented bath “for the Hero of Bordton.” His wife helped her out of her armour, and neither of them so much as blinked when she took her helmet off. The Hero of Bordton sank bewildered into the steaming water, the herbs first stinging and then soothing her aching muscles.
It unnerved her, this feeling of being looked at but not seen. Over the years, she had wondered often what it would feel like coming home. Hiking unknown roads under solemn stars, lying awake in the loft of the queen’s stables, even crawling through that sulphur-stinking hole in the mountains, she had imagined for herself a hundred different homecomings. But now that she was here, it only felt like she had come to the wrong place.
This was her town, though. These were her people. She had not come to the wrong place; had only come home the wrong person.
I am done with the Dragonslayer, she told herself. I am done with the Hero of Bordton. Let the water wash her away. When I get out of this bath, I will be simply Rosa again.
A bone-shaking thump rattled through the inn’s sturdy walls. She lurched halfway out of the bath, reaching convulsively for her sword – too far away, how had she been so careless? – before she recognised the noise of the long tables being dragged together, and that metallic clanging that filled her head with swords, that was the spit. They were throwing a feast in her honour. She sank back into the water, traitor heart still racing, and wondered with horror whose pig was being slaughtered to feed her. She could only pray they would forgive her the loss.
She still owned a single dress spun by her mother’s hand. She took it from her pack and held it up, wondering if it would fit. But through the window she could smell the rising scent of roasting meat and hear fiddles being tuned and the first piping notes of a flute. Bordton was putting their all into celebrating their hero. Wearing her mother’s dress felt somehow like an insult.
So she threw on a tunic and breeches and the tabard, blue and red, that she had worn over her plate mail: the Dragonslayer’s colours. To wear her armour would have been ridiculous, and yet without it she found she felt too vulnerable, too exposed, so she strapped on the rainbow-stained broadsword in its scabbard. It straightened her back as she stepped out into the cooling twilight air. The village green had been transformed into another picture-perfect scene – Springtime Feast in Oils – and here she was, the final detail to complete the tableau: a wandering hero, straight out of a story.
When the faces turned towards her – neighbours, childhood playmates, and there, in the middle of it all, her family – she was almost expecting it. They looked on her, each and every one, without a hint of recognition.
Mr Davies boomed, “Here she is! The Dragonslayer!” and everyone burst once more into cheers.
The feast went by in a numbed blur of food and music and dancing and endless chatter. Around her, villagers talked about whose goats had trampled whose vegetables, whose roof needed mending and why they hadn’t done it yet, who the widower Burn had been seen walking with lately and what it might mean. Every spot of gossip was met with earnest attention and giggling enthusiasm, as if it were the most important thing in the world. Rosa couldn’t find it in her to care, couldn’t remember if she had ever cared.
It didn’t matter. No one was talking to her. They twittered like sparrows amongst themselves, treating the glossy raven in their midst to awkward looks and shy smiles. Her own face felt frozen, but they didn’t seem offended when she didn’t make conversation or return their smiles. Perhaps a grim stare was what was expected from a Dragonslayer.
Mr Davies, seated to her right, eventually turned to her with a forced smile.
“I don’t suppose you’d know much about farming, Dragonslayer, what with your line of work, but everyone’s saying it’s been an uncommonly bad year for wheat just gone. It’s the heat, is what it is. Unseasonably warm winter, it’s been.”
“That’s the Pyrantes,” said Rosa without much thought.
Mr Davies blinked at her. “Eh?”
“The fire giants,” she explained. “They live to the north of here. All year they’ve been holding a festival of flames to celebrate their thousandth year of freedom.”
“Oh aye?” said Mr Davies, smiling but mopping his brow. “I suppose that must be what it is, then.”
Rosa remembered watching distant gouts of fire shoot into the sky in the shapes of fantastical birds and bat-winged beasts, the heat nearly overwhelming though she was miles from the Charred Plain. But Mr Davies didn’t look like he wanted to know about that, so she let the conversation die.
Across the crowd, her family sat surrounded by friends and neighbours. The lines of strain on her father’s face had grown deeper these past three years. Her mother’s smile was pinched, and she sat half-turned away from her husband. They did not look at one another, did not touch. Her brother had left his parents to sit with a gang of boys his own age. His gestures, the jutting of his chest, the sharp tilt of his head spoke of an aggression she did not recall.
Were her memories of them too old, too rosy? Or was this what losing a child did to a family? Her heart ached with guilt, with longing, with fear.
And then Mr Davies was calling for a speech from the Dragonslayer, but there was only one set of words in her head, so she stood, unsteadily, and into the hush that spread through the crowd she blurted them out.
“It’s me. It’s just me. I’m the miller’s daughter.”
The silence fell on her ears like a bell. Two hundred blank stares impaled her.
“How can you be my sister?” demanded her brother. “Everyone knows she was eaten by wolves three winters past.”
The heat rose in her cheeks. “I wasn’t eaten by wolves. I just ran away.”
“How can you be my daughter?” choked out her mother. “She was a good, obedient girl who would never just run off and leave us.”
She closed her eyes. “I had to, Mama. The Great Wyrm was making our lives awful, and the best solution we had was to feed it our prettiest girls every year and hope it wouldn’t destroy too much. I knew there had to be a better way, so I went away to find it. I didn’t tell you because I knew you wouldn’t let me go.”
She had imagined, over the years, a hundred iterations of this conversation. None of her imaginings had been as terrible as this.
“How can you be my daughter?” whispered her father. There was more grey in his beard than she remembered. “She was a smart girl, and I taught her good sense. She would never have been so stupid as to think she could take on a dragon.”
Rosa’s throat closed up, squeezing the breath out of her. Her vision blurred with the beginning of great, messy, childish tears. She turned abruptly, the weight of her broadsword stiffening her back, and strode away into the night.
When the moon rose, it found her hiding behind the millhouse. She had run out of tears for now, though the crying had left her feeling hollow and exhausted, and a little like she might throw up.
The great hero of Bordton, eh?
She huddled, her arms wrapped around her legs, her forehead pressed against her knees. Her body was spent, but her mind refused to still.
What’s wrong with them all?
What’s wrong with me?
Rough against her back was the oak tree among whose branches she and her brother had sat and talked, navigating the strange intricacies of growing up. In its shade, her mother had taught her to play fox and geese. One summer her father… would never have been so stupid… her father had carved her a flute from a wind-dropped branch.
She knew these things to be true, even if they felt like stories she told herself. Like looking in through a window at someone else’s life.
I want to go home now.
Why did I ever leave?
Stupid… stupid… stupid…
Rosa’s head shot up, her hand reaching automatically for her sword-hilt. Heart hammering, she stared around the empty courtyard.
Only once she lowered her face again did she see the cat.
It was rangy, half-fed, a mishmash mingling of greys and browns. One of the village mousers, belonging to everyone and no one. It sat beside her feet with all the dignity of a prince, tail wrapped neatly around its paws.
“Good evening,” it said again.
The miller’s daughter who had left Bordton three years before would have been shocked. But the Rosa here now had seen a great deal more of the world, so after a moment of adjustment she replied, “Thank you, sir, for granting me the honour of your conversation.”
The cat narrowed its eyes and looked pleased. “Indeed, it is an honour. Though how, exactly, do you know to call me ‘sir’?”
“Oh!” Rosa fumbled. “I don’t. I just thought-”
“It is very rude to presume another’s preferred address, if you have no reason to know it. But it is never impolite to ask.”
Rosa cleared her throat, embarrassed. “I’m very sorry. Please, how do you prefer to be addressed?”
The cat took the time to wash one paw thoroughly before replying. “‘Sir’ will do nicely.”
There was a pause. It might have lengthened into an awkward silence, had Rosa not found herself picturing this cat, or any other like him, curled up on the empty grain sacks out front of the mill – the best spot to catch the afternoon sun, at least until her father emerged and shooed them away. He would shout at them, laughing, to Come back when there’s no more rats in my grain store!
Tears welled up again.
“Now then,” said the cat. “That’s enough of that, young Rosa.”
Rosa swallowed her tears in a gasp. “You remember me!”
“Of course. You always scratched me in just the right spot behind the ears.”
Her mind raced with half-formed questions, so that it took her several seconds to register the cat’s meaningful look. The questions tangled together and spun apart. Mutely, she reached out and scratched.
The cat leaned his head into her hand; it was warm against her palm, his fur like worn velvet, minutely vibrating with silent pleasure. She closed her eyes and let herself for a moment be nowhere else, think of nothing else, than fuzzy warmth under her touch.
Quietly, the cat said, “You went away for three years. You learned to ride a warhorse, and to fight. You learned the ways of dragons, and not to be surprised if a cat chooses to speak with you. You faced down a monster in its own den. Did you really think you could do all that and then come back here and still be just the miller’s daughter?”
In spite of herself, another sob caught in her throat. “So I was a fool to think I could come home?” she murmured bitterly.
“A little, yes. But more a fool to want to.”
Scowling, she withdrew her hand. “My family is here,” she said coldly. “Everyone I have ever loved. Does that mean nothing to you?”
“Very little,” admitted the cat, resuming washing. “But it clearly means something to you. Why, then, did you leave?”
The broadsword lay discarded on the ground. “I had to kill the Great Wyrm. So my family and everyone else would be safe.”
“Really? How very… selfless of you.”
Rosa reddened. “It’s true!”
“It may well be.” The cat yawned, then startled Rosa by looking her straight in the eye. “But it isn’t the whole truth. You humans – always talking around your selfish motivations, as if there is something so terrible about being selfish. Your self is all you have; how is neglecting it a virtue?”
His eyes were yellow-streaked green, his pupils huge in the moonlight, and she had the strangest conviction she was looking up at him, rather than the other way around.
“So I’ll ask again: why did you leave?”
The town of her childhood was a painted fancy. The memories of her family felt unreal. Yet when she considered the emotions that had fuelled her departure, they welled up in her as sharp as if three years had been a day.
“Because I couldn’t stand it any longer. Everyone going about their ordinary lives under the Wyrm’s shadow, living always with that fear in the backs of our minds and acting like there was nothing to be done about it, like that was just the way things were and we’d be crazy to try to change it. I couldn’t keep on like that.”s
She laughed, a harsh choking sound.
“And do you know the stupidest part? When I finally faced it, the Great Wyrm was big and it was fierce, but it was a slow and simple beast. If everyone here had just gone after it with hayforks and sickles, they could have killed it years ago.”
The cat made a sound that was almost sympathetic. “It is easy for you to say that, being who you have become. Those who remain here find it easier to be afraid than to slay dragons.”
He pushed his head back under her hand. “Because fear is a comfort to them.”
Rosa was strapping on her sword, the morning sun warming her face, when the innkeeper’s boy found her. The night before, the cat had curled up beside her among the tree roots and his furry presence had soothed her to sleep on the worn earth – more comfortable to her now than a real bed – and for once, blessedly, she had slept without dreaming. She had woken to find him gone, but she couldn’t begrudge him that; it was the nature of cats.
The boy was wide-eyed and panting. “The Skinners are coming!” he wailed.
The Skinners were a band of raiders from across the Winter Sea, who periodically attacked villages along the coast. They had never ventured as far inland as the foothills of the Kalhern Mountains before – but then, until now the mountains had been home to a dragon. News travelled fast.
Rosa heard the anxious babble of the villagers before she even entered the green. They were all there: her neighbours, her childhood friends, her family. In the distance, over the rooftops, she could already see a cloud of dust thrown up by the hooves of many horses.
The commotion hushed to awkward murmurs in a slow wave that rippled out from her point of entry. Two hundred pairs of eyes turned towards her, filled with desperate hope.
Her sword was on her back and her blue-and-red tabard shone bright in the morning sunlight. The Defending Hero At Dawn.
“The Skinners are fierce, but small in number,” she told them. “They are too many for me to handle alone, but if you take up arms beside me, we can defend this town and drive them away.”
Faces turned from her, to one another. Feet scuffed the ground. The silence grew stale, but no one seemed to want to break it.
“We aren’t warriors,” spoke up her brother, at last. “It takes training to be a warrior, and real weapons, and armour. What can we do without those?”
“The Skinners are dangerous criminals,” cautioned her mother. “It isn’t safe to anger them. If we try to stand up to them, they will only take more from us in retribution.”
“It’s important to know our limitations,” advised her father. “Besides, we don’t even know they will attack us. If we hide in the fields and don’t draw their attention, they may pass us by and ride on to a more prosperous town.”
All around him, heads were nodding. The relief was palpable in the air.
They were terribly reasonable considerations, every one. Rosa knew she could make counter-arguments to each of them. And she knew, all at once, that however many arguments she made for the village to stand and fight, they would have still more terribly reasonable reasons to hide away and do nothing.
She looked from one face to another, sparrows twittering amongst themselves, and found that she no longer recognised them.
Her already-aching heart gave one final shudder. But when she spoke, her voice was steady, her back straight. “Very well, then: go and hide in your fields. Perhaps you will be safe.”
Amidst the scurry of villagers evacuating the green, Rosa turned towards the inn and its stables. A small hand caught her breeches. The boy and girl staring fearlessly up at her could neither of them be older than eight; too young to remember the miller ever had a daughter.
“Well?” she asked.
The boy made urgent signs with his hands. The girl nodded seriously. “Tod says, we want to know about the fire giants and the festival. Like you said last night.”
In spite of herself, Rosa smiled. She crouched to look them in the eyes. “You have to go with your people now. But when you’re old enough, you can look for the fire giants yourselves.”
The boy looked awestruck. The girl frowned. “When will we be old enough?”
Rosa’s smile faded. “When you’re too old to stay here anymore.”
Grown-ups came and hustled the children away, and Rosa straightened to find more people standing before her.
“Where will you go now?” asked the miller, uncertainty in his eyes. His family clustered beside him; his wife’s hand crept forward to take his own.
Rosa looked at their faces: tired, lonely, afraid. She remembered the comfort of fresh bread, the safety of strong forearms wrapped around her like a fortress no danger could breach.
Then she thought of Laughing Gorin, broad-shouldered and ageless, juggling molten ingots to delight her. Of the centaur Hrrghn sitting with her in the Verdant Hall, endlessly patient as she choked on strange, equine syllables. Of Sir Swythn, who bellowed like a bear at her every mistake, but who had argued with Queen Catherine herself when she would have sent Rosa away.
She leaned forward – not up, for somewhere in the last three years she had grown taller than the miller – and kissed him, very gently, on the forehead.
“Be safe,” she said.
And leaving them there – the miller, his wife, and his son, side by side – she rode out of Bordton, away from the raiders, towards the mountains and the lands beyond. Her sword was on her back and her shoulders were square, and if she shed tears then there was no one but the horse to know.
N.B. This is not quite the version of this story that was published in the Continuum conbook; this version is longer and partially reworked, in ways that I hope improve it.