The Horse and Dragon
This story won me Highly Commended in a recent competition and can also be viewed here.
Drowsy Bees droned in the lupins as the dust settled on the damp beer rings - it was too hot for even the dust to waste much energy. Harry and Fiona listened eagerly to the story of the Yorkshire pub's unusual name, the Horse and Dragon. It was really meant to be the Horse and Dragoon, apparently, but the sign writer had downed too many jugs of the host's real ale, and somehow the name just stuck, according to 'Old Peter'. The picture showed a green dragon alongside, a nondescript brown horse which had a guitar attached to its saddle.
Old Peter had been downing too many real ales as well, in Harry's opinion - he was beginning to slump sideways in his seat and his speech was becoming unintelligible. He'd been regaling them with juicy local stories all afternoon, but now it seemed the fun was over. The young man got up from the bench, helping his pretty bride to her feet - she'd had a little too much of the house white and needed steadying.
As they turned to leave through the archway to the car park, a hand shot out, grabbing Harry's arm so tightly that he made an exclamation that was part shock and part pain. He looked down into a pair of sparkling green eyes set in the most lined and wizened face he had ever seen. The skin was tanned to mahogany, what could be seen of it under the woolly hat and scarf the creature wore in defiance of the heat wave. He tried to push past, but found he couldn't move. Fiona seemed equally immobilised, standing frozen next to him.
The grasping hand and the face were both attached to what looked like a pile of old sacks - smelly sacks at that - dumped on the end of a bench. Harry could have sworn that bench had been empty a moment ago, but then it would have been easy to overlook this... this... ...he couldn't think of a word to describe what he was looking at.
"So you want to learn about the Horse and the Dragon do you?" The voice was a surprisingly melodious light baritone, although perhaps a little rusty with lack of use.
Harry bit back a sarcastic remark, surprising himself - there was something childlike and vulnerable about the creature which made him feel like he would be kicking a puppy. It would be nice to hear the rest of the story since Old Peter had drifted off to sleep before he finished it. He swallowed and nodded.
Instantly a wave of dizziness hit him and he staggered sideways, only prevented from falling by the hand gripping his arm. Fiona swayed so he tightened his hold on her. The ground seemed to be shaking in an earthquake, but when he opened his eyes he realised it was much worse than that: the ground had gone, completely. They were high above the earth and moving towards it, fast.
The grip was still on his arm and he still had hold of Fiona, but the wind was rushing past his face with such force that he could barely keep his eyes open. Harry opened his mouth to scream and heard Fiona let out a blood curdling shriek in his ear as they plummeted towards the ground. At first he thought the creature was screaming too, but no - it was cackling with laughter!
When he ran out of breath the ground was a lot closer. He wondered how quickly it would be over and if there would be much pain. Harry pulled Fiona to him, pinning her to his side, closing his eyes to wait for the impact.
Which didn't come.
When he opened his eyes, it was to see Fiona's terrified face gazing up at him. Her body was heavy in his arms as she swayed, looking as though she was about to faint, so he tightened his grip on her again and lowered her gently to the ground. He realised the creature no longer held his other arm and spun round to look for it: there was no sign of it anywhere.
He stared around in amazement to see that everything had changed. Where the sleepy Yorkshire pub had stood was an expanse of heath and moorland, the dark shadow of a forest in the distance. They were at a crossroads between two dusty tracks and yellow flowering gorse and purple heather grew everywhere. There were still bees buzzing in the flowers and a skylark warbled high above, but otherwise there was silence.
Harry and Fiona had both grown up in London and he could never remember a time in his life when he couldn't hear noise of some sort: cars, trains, planes and people. To his city-bred ears, despite the bees and the birds, this was an enormous, terrifying, absolute NOTHING. He might as well have been in a vacuum. It was so quiet he realised he could hear Fiona's breathing. Harry returned his attention to his bride.
"Wh-where are we?" She mumbled, her eyes shut tight. "I had a really bad dream..."
Harry didn't really know how to answer her, but he was a stockbroker and as such he was accustomed to looking confident in the face of unexpected share price fluctuations, so he knew he could handle this.
"Where we are doesn't really matter, darling," he said in a stern voice, intended to reassure her that she was in safe hands and that he had everything under control. "The important thing is that we are together." He liked that - it was what a newly married man should be saying to his distressed wife.
Her eyes snapped open and narrowed as they fastened on his face.
"What a load of nonsense," she said. "What you're trying to say is that you haven't a clue where we are or what we're going to do next." Since she was quite correct, he couldn't think of anything further to add, so he retreated into an offended silence.
Fiona sat up and looked around her without speaking, taking in the broad expanse of, well, nothing. She clambered to her feet to look around a second time, shading her eyes with her hand. Harry remembered that Fiona's parents had taken her on lots of outdoor holidays as a child, including sailing and hill walking - it was a sobering thought that in their present predicament she might be more fitted to dealing with the situation than he was.
"We'll walk that way," she said, pointing in what looked to Harry like a completely random direction and very rough under foot. What's more, it was uphill, which looked like hard work.
"Just what I was thinking myself," he agreed and set off. She traipsed happily along behind him, keeping pace with him despite her lightweight, fashionable footwear. He tried not to set too fast a pace, mostly in deference to her frailty, but at least in part because it was ruddy hard work in this heat. He wasn't pleased when she trotted past him, bounding like a gazelle over the uneven surface.
At the top of the hill Fiona stopped, hardly breathing heavily at all, but Harry stood bent double, hands on his knees, chest heaving, fighting to stay on his feet. 'Too many company dinners', he thought to himself. When he was finally able to straighten he saw Fiona staring into the distance, shading her eyes again.
"What can you see?" he asked. All he could see was the same nothingness, stretching all the way to the horizon. Bits of colour broke up the monotony slightly, but there was no sign of civilisation; no houses, factories, roads or canals. He couldn't understand what was keeping her interest - didn't she realise he was suffering? He began to imagine that he was experiencing chest pains and the sweat turned cold on his skin at the thought of having a heart attack out here with no help nearby. His anxious reverie was broken when Fiona pulled him to the ground, dropping down herself behind a gorse bush. He got thorns in his hand as he put it out to balance himself.
"Ouch!" he said, indignantly.
"Shh!" she hissed. "Keep quiet and don't move..." He opened his mouth to ask why - in a whisper, of course - but she shook her head at him and pointed silently in the direction they had been heading. He closed his mouth again and listened instead, then he heard it: someone was singing. The singer had a pleasant, melodious baritone and seemed to be singing a sort of folky ballad with lots of trills and wobbly bits.
The sound drifted in and out as though the singer was moving closer and then further away again, but after a while, during which Harry started to get pins and needles, but was too embarrassed to complain, he became aware of a rhythmic thumping through the ground. Fiona was crouching down, looking through the spiky bush. The singer was riding a horse.
It was a minstrel. Harry was pleased with himself for knowing the term. 'Minstrel: a vagabond musician who played or sang in taverns for his bed and board’. It had been in one of his school books as a boy and this character was exactly like the illustration. He rode a big, brown horse and played a sort of fat, round guitar. He was dressed in ragged clothes in shades of brown and green, which must have been why Harry hadn't seen him in the distance. The man was just filling his lungs for another verse when he noticed the young couple crouching on the ground behind the bush. He deflated. The horse stopped of its own volition, almost seeming relieved that the noise had ceased.
For a moment, the minstrel stared down at them, taken aback, but then Fiona stood up, brushing the dust off her chinos. She looked the minstrel up and down and despite the fact that he was on a horse and she was only 5'2" in her stocking feet, he was the one who looked away first.
"Would you be so kind," Fiona asked, in her best garden party voice, "as to direct us to town?" Harry noticed she didn't specify which town, and he appreciated the way she hid the fact that they had no idea which continent they were on, never mind which part of the country.
"I don't think a beautiful lady like yourself should be thinking of going near the town, Milady," said the minstrel in his deep voice. "Not for a few weeks, at least."
"Why not?" Fiona demanded.
"Well..." the minstrel looked embarrassed, "it's not safe."
Harry stepped forward.
"When you say 'not safe', what do you mean, exactly?"
"I take it you're not from these parts, or you'd know why." The minstrel replied. "It's the dragon, you see."
When Harry and Fiona both just stared at him uncomprehendingly, he tried again.
"You know - dragons, maidens, sacrifices..." He looked meaningfully at Fiona, then he gave Harry what he clearly believed to be a secret wink, man to man.
Harry and Fiona looked at each other and then back at the minstrel.
"Dragons?" Fiona asked.
"Maidens?" Harry whispered.
"Sacrifices?" Fiona finished, in a small voice.
The minstrel looked at them both, then came to a decision. He slid off the horse to land on the ground next to them. The horse wandered off philosophically to eat grass.
'It is so frustrating,' the dragon thought to himself as he flew over the empty landscape. 'No one understands me...' He was trying so very hard to communicate with the humans, but all they ever did was run away, screaming. After that, if he persevered, either they shot arrows at him or some hero with a sword tried to turn him into diced dragon.
All he was trying to do was warn them about the invasion fleet approaching from Normund in the south. He had been out flying one day, just stretching his wings and getting a bit of sea air, when he had noticed the white patch on the water in the distance. With the curiosity of youth, the dragon had gone to investigate and seen dozens of ships, their white sails catching the sun. The flag on the lead ship was that of the King of Normund, bitter enemy to his own land of Bratind and the decks bristled with swords and spears, the sun glittering off polished armour.
Although dragons took very little to do with humans, mostly because of communication difficulties, but also because of the occasional accidental burning of hay ricks and snacking on sheep, they still felt a certain fondness for the land of their birth and the people who lived there. The dragon didn't want to stand by while a foreign enemy sneaked up on an unwary Bratind, not without at least trying to warn the king of the impending invasion.
So the dragon had landed near the castle and tried his very best, with a series of sounds and mime actions, to explain the danger. That was when he had been turned into a pincushion by the archers on the walls. He hated arrows - not because they caused him any real harm, but they itched like mad until they eventually fell out. He had to admit that he had been a little irritated at this point, but the blast of flame was a total accident - more of a sneeze, really. The king had been needing a new flag anyway, because the old one was getting terribly faded in the sun...
He had slept on the plain that night, hoping to have better luck the next day, but then at first light the knights had appeared. They had surprised him while he was still asleep so really they only had themselves to blame. With no attempt at parlay the first knight had driven his sword as deep as he could, with all his strength, into the dragon's chest.
Luckily he had picked the area where the dragon's skin was toughest, so again no real damage was done, but the shock had woken the dragon from a vivid dream. To send out a gout of flame on waking is as necessary to dragons as a yawn and a stretch is to humans when they wake from a deep sleep. When he opened his eyes, half a dozen knights were standing in front of him, in full protective armour. Half a dozen barbecued knights, he should add, and now he had both itchy arrows and an annoying sword sticking out of him.
After that the dragon had flown away, but he couldn't rest until he managed to warn the people about the danger, which was getting ever closer to their shores. He had tried talking to merchants on the roads with their wagons, but they had all run away and hidden themselves. Then he tried the farmers in the fields, but that was doomed from the beginning because he was feeling a little peckish and had grabbed a nice fat lamb on his way. He hadn't realised until later that a white, fluffy tail was hanging out of the corner of his mouth. What a fuss about one lamb...
He was just about to head back towards the castle when he noticed a horse wandering around grazing. He couldn't see anyone with it, but it had all the harness and trappings so there must be a human somewhere that belonged to it. Feeling a little lonely and sorry for himself the dragon landed, carefully, a short distance from the horse. He half expected the animal to run away, since the dragon is a predator and the horse a prey animal, but this horse mustn't be very bright because it stayed put.
He tried some simple phrases out on it, speaking slowly and clearly, in case it was as stupid as it looked with the grass hanging out of its mouth.
"Can - you - under-stand - me?" he asked. The horse stopped chewing for a moment and raised its head to stare at the dragon.
"Just as I suspected," the dragon muttered to himself, "thick as two short planks."
"I can understand you perfectly well, actually," the horse replied in fluent Dragon. "I belong to a minstrel who sings in numerous languages and I have developed quite a skill myself." To say the horse sounded smug would be to tell a lie, because speaking Dragon doesn't lend itself to smugness, but its body language said 'smug' for it. All the dragon felt was relief: at last, someone could translate for him to the humans.
Unfortunately, it turned out that although the horse understood many human languages, its vocal apparatus was unable to reproduce the sounds, so it couldn't actually speak human as such. That was a bit of a blow. The dragon explained about the imminent invasion and why he was so desperate to warn the Bratind king.
"Now what am I going to do?" the young dragon wailed. "The Normunds will be here in the next day or two and when they land on the beach at Histangs there'll be no army to stop them!"
The horse was thinking.
"You know I said I belong to a minstrel?" he asked, rhetorically, but the dragon (who didn't understand the meaning of rhetorical) nodded its head anyway. "Well, he was the one who set the town against you."
When the dragon drew in an indignant breath, the horse ducked, expecting a flame to shoot out, but luckily it didn't happen. When he was certain it was safe, he continued.
The minstrel had been singing the epic 'Ballad of Bord the Bowman, Who Slayed the Dragon, Smug, With a Single Magical Arrow Aimed at Just the Right Place, at the Battle of the Seven Armies, by the Lonely Lake'. He had been singing the ballad in all the inns and taverns and it was so popular that he was beginning to add extra verses for effect.
"That was when you turned up," said the horse. "So of course every man and boy who could lift a bow thought he was Bord reborn and took a shot at you."
The dragon didn't know quite what to think, but he did promise himself that if he was ever going to break his vow about not eating humans, that minstrel would be his first meal...
"The reason the minstrel left the relative safety of the town walls and headed out here into the wilds," the horse continued, "was that he got a little carried away and started inventing stories about how to defeat dragons."
"Is that why those knights tried to carve me up the other morning?" asked the dragon.
"Yes. They didn't think that one through very well, did they?" the horse snickered to himself, then became serious again.
"But the other thing the minstrel said, and the real reason he had to do a runner, was that a fair maiden would be able to charm a dragon into doing her bidding..." The horse stopped, waiting expectantly for the dragon to fill in the gaps.
"So what you're saying is that the king ordered a fair maiden to be sent out to charm me?" The dragon could hardly believe he was even saying that, it was so ridiculous, but the horse nodded.
"Yep, and that's when we sneaked out the back gate at the dead of night, just ahead of a mob of angry fathers, brothers and husbands. They were still shouting after we left and the king looked as though he had a full scale revolution brewing down in the town..."
The dragon thought for a minute.
"What if we...? No, that wouldn't work." He thought again.
"If only we had a fair maiden to use as bait, maybe we could use her to draw the soldiers out of the town as far as the coast, and then they might see the attacking fleet..." The dragon hung his head, defeated. "But we don't have a maiden, so that won't work either."
"Oh, don't we?" The horse asked. And this time there was no mistaking the smugness. The dragon lifted his head, hardly daring to hope.
"Why do you think I've been left to wander around by myself for so long?" The dragon shook his head uncomprehendingly.
"Because he's chatting up a fair maiden as we speak!" The horse finished, triumphantly.
The two of them settled down to lay their plans.
Harry had fallen asleep on the grass: the exhaustion of the long hike combined with the shock of finding himself in an unfamiliar world and not in charge had all been too much for him. He was oblivious to the minstrel, who was now holding Fiona's delicate hand in his own tanned, calloused one. Looking deeply into her eyes, the minstrel was telling her how unusual their particular shade of brown was and how they had a warmth and fire to them he had never seen in any maiden's eyes before.
Fiona was well aware that she was being seduced and she was enjoying every minute of it. Harry had never been a romantic and even his chivalrous gestures were stilted, as though they had been learned from a book. The minstrel was a master of his art and she was finding herself melting in the most pleasant way. She felt like parched ground might at the first sweet drops of rain. Neither of them gave a thought to the horse.
How it would have ended we'll never know, but at that moment Harry woke himself up by snoring too loudly.
"Whassa? Wheraree...?" he mumbled, before his eyes opened and the horror of the whole adventure rushed over him again.
As Harry woke, Fiona sprang back from the minstrel, breaking that magical moment where their lips had almost been about to touch, although she didn't remember how she had moved so close to him. The brilliant green depths of his eyes had been holding her in thrall, and she was just wondering why they had seemed so familiar. With a sigh she decided it was probably all for the best. Harry wasn't exciting, but at least he was safe...
As Harry pulled his scattered wits together, the minstrel stood up and began to wonder where his horse had got to. It would be nice to spend the rest of the day with the beautiful Fiona, but he really hadn't put enough miles between himself and the angry townspeople yet. He should be moving on. Fiona had stood too and was facing the other direction. She was staring into the distance.
"What's that cloud of dust over there?" she asked, pointing. The minstrel spun round to look and gulped, nervously.
"That might be a column of soldiers," he admitted. "They might be looking for me."
He wilted under Fiona's look.
"I mentioned maidens and dragons earlier," he said. "It never occurred to me that the townsfolk would get so riled up about a little thing like sacrifice." As Harry and Fiona still stared at him, he wilted a little more. "It seemed like a good idea, at the time."
Harry assessed the situation and took control, showing his leadership qualities.
"Run!" He shouted, leading by example, as he'd been trained to do, trying to put as much ground as he could between himself and the soldiers. After a moment, Fiona followed. The minstrel just stood there, his green eyes sparkling and a satisfied smile on his face. When Fiona glanced back to see if he was with them, he had disappeared.
That glance back was Fiona's undoing. It caused her to stumble in surprise at the minstrel's disappearance and she went down on her knees, carried forward by her momentum. Before she could scramble back to her feet, a dark shadow appeared on the ground around her, growing rapidly. She looked up... ...and screamed.
Harry looked round at Fiona's scream, his jaw dropping in disbelief as he saw his pretty young wife disappearing up into the sky. She was held in the red, blood-encrusted talons of an enormous green dragon. Her terrified face was set in a rictus of horror, her arms outstretched towards him, pleading for his help. Harry's momentum carried him onwards for a few more steps, then his legs buckled under him leaving him lying on his back, where he remained as the dragon carried his bride off into the distance.
After a while, a change came over Harry. He felt as though he had passed through an icy waterfall which had woken him up from a deep sleep. Now his skin was feeling every tiny movement of air and his ears were picking up the sound of insects in the grass. The scents and sounds would have overwhelmed him, except that with the change came a strength of purpose which dominated his mind: he had to get Fiona back, come what may.
Harry stood, looking around, and noticed the horse standing idly by a few hundred yards away. He got to his feet and marched towards it, purposefully. If he had known anything at all about horses, he would have known that they should be approached slowly and calmly, whilst reassuring them with your voice. He didn't know this, but luckily for him the horse was no normal horse so it stood patiently, waiting for him. Somehow he scrambled into the saddle, using his new-found energy to propel him up the sheer sides of the animal. He realised he was facing the tail.
After a short interlude, during which the horse swore silently to itself in six different languages, including Dragon, Harry finally managed to get himself turned around the right way. He could still see the dragon in the distance, the tiny shape of Fiona dangling from its talons. From behind him came a shout.
"Stop, Minstrel, in the name of the King!" And that was when he realised he was sitting on the minstrel's horse. The column of armoured knights had gained the crest of the hill, seen their quarry (as they thought) and set off in pursuit. The horse, quicker on the uptake than Harry, took the initiative. It bolted away from the soldiers, in the wake of the dragon.
Cries of "View Hollao!" And "Yoiks, Tally Ho!" Followed them down the hill with the underlying beat of a couple of hundred sets of iron shod hooves providing the bass line. Harry clung on for dear life as the wind rushed past him and the muscles of the horse rippled beneath him. His determination was as strong as ever, but now he was of the opinion that he probably wouldn't survive the day.
The chase continued over hill and dale, but the minstrel's horse was nimble footed and not weighed down by armour, so the soldiers never gained ground. Once or twice, in fact, Harry got the impression that the horse was actually holding back to let their pursuers keep up, but since the dragon wasn't getting any further ahead, and since he had no idea how to make the horse go faster, he had to put up with it.
A few miles ahead, the dragon was flying lazily along carrying the fair maiden. He was enjoying the sun on his back and making sure he didn't get too far ahead of the horse, when a polite voice disturbed his reverie.
"Excuse me," the voice said, "where are you taking me?"
The dragon was surprised: apart from the horse, no other creature had ever tried to have a conversation with him, certainly not a human. Not really convinced that the fair maiden would be able to understand Dragon, he tried nevertheless.
"I do apologise for the abrupt actions I took just now," he said, following her lead and remembering his manners. "It was rather an emergency, you see."
Much to the dragon's surprise, the fair maiden seemed to understand Dragon. After a short pause for thought, she replied.
"What kind of emergency would cause you to abduct a perfectly innocent woman and carry her off?" She sounded surprisingly calm. After the shriek she had emitted when he snatched her from the ground, he had expected an hysterical female.
When the dragon had explained the nature of the emergency to Fiona, she agreed that it was perfectly understandable that he needed to take drastic action and she didn't hold a grudge. The dragon was pleasantly surprised, which led to a conversation which both of them enjoyed immensely. As they approached the coast Fiona could see sails near the horizon, so the dragon's story seemed to be true (she had been harbouring some doubts).
Fiona thought the fleet must still be about a day away, because she was very high in the sky and could only just see the ships. By the time the pursuing column of soldiers reached the edge of the cliffs they might just about be able to see, but by the time they realised the approaching fleet was invading it would be too late to go back to fetch reinforcements. A couple of hundred knights wouldn't be enough to keep the shores of Bratind safe. Then Fiona had an idea.
"Why don't we make them send for reinforcements now?" she asked. "If you pretend to attack the knights, without actually harming any of course, they might send back to the castle for extra troops."
The dragon thought that was a good idea, so he set Fiona down gently near the edge of the cliff and set off to singe the bright horsehair plumes on the knights' helmets - a delicate task.
Harry hadn't noticed the dragon dropping Fiona off because by now he was clinging to the horse's neck and looked like a sloth hanging upside down from a branch. The first he knew was when an enormous shadow raced low overhead with a rushing of wind, leaving the stench of serpent lingering in the air behind it. The sudden shock made him loose his precarious grip and he tumbled to the ground.
He sat there, watching the dragon flying back towards the soldiers, and despaired. The creature no longer held Fiona in its claws, so it must surely have eaten her. Harry dropped his face into his hands and sobbed. Until he'd lost her, he had never really understood just how special Fiona was. Even the dragon had recognised her unique beauty when it snatched her, or why else would it have chosen her?
A warm breath tickled Harry's neck: the horse had come back for him. He pushed it away, his grief too raw to let him think of anything else. The horse gave him a nudge, none to gentle and after a while he got up, listlessly climbing back into the saddle: he supposed he might as well stay with the horse as not. After a moment the horse picked its pace up again and Harry managed to stay in the saddle a little better this time.
After passing through a woodland they emerged near the top of some towering sea cliffs, but with the sun glinting off the sea Harry didn't at first notice Fiona. After she had shouted at him a few times she eventually broke through his dark mood. His face lit up with joy: a second chance to be the husband he felt she deserved; not the jerk he realised he'd been up to now.
He flung himself off the horse and ran to her, catching her up in his arms and swinging her around, before planting a passionate kiss... ...trying to plant a kiss. She pushed him away, holding him at arm's length to make sure he was listening carefully.
"Darling," she began, "I know you'll find this hard to believe, but the dragon really meant me no harm." At Harry's raised eyebrow she faltered for a moment, but then continued. "He only captured me to lure those knights into chasing us so they would see the Normund fleet in time to prevent the invasion of Bratind." She looked to see how he was taking it and since he didn't seem too disturbed yet she continued.
"In fact, the minstrel's horse here helped the dragon to think of the plan." Harry looked at the horse, who looked back, unblinking. Fiona went on, "all we need to do is to wait here until the army arrives, repels the invasion fleet and saves the nation, and then we can go home!"
Harry was still looking at the horse.
"What do you have to say about all this?" He asked it. The horse nodded its head, walked over to the cliff edge, staring at the horizon. Harry and Fiona followed and when they shaded their eyes with their hands they could just see, in the very distance, the faint shape of white sails. Harry decided that, contrary to every belief his expensive private school education had taught him, Fiona's story might be true.
"Well," he said, "I suppose we'd better make sure that when the army gets here they know what they're supposed to be looking for." and he sat down on the short turf at the cliff edge, where he was joined by Fiona. The horse cropped the grass.
After a while, the thundering of approaching hooves shook the ground and the shadow of the dragon passed over them, heading out to sea towards the invasion fleet. Harry and Fiona stood up, dusting themselves off, and waited. When the column arrived, with more following judging by the dust clouds, it stopped at the cliff edge quite close, so Fiona and Harry were able to point out the sails on the horizon to the general.
There was a lot of military swearing and discussion, telescopes were raised to eyes followed by more swearing and discussion, but eventually the army deployed in such a way that they could pin down the invading soldiers on the beaches of Histangs to prevent them getting inland, which is what actually happened. After a few attempts at landing, the fleet turned around, tail between its legs, and headed back from whence it came, and so Bratind was saved.
Harry and Fiona made sure the generals knew that the entire nation owed its continued existence to the dragon and the horse and that the dragon had only been trying to warn them all along. The generals were so charmed by Fiona's beauty and sweetness that they promised the dragon and the horse would be remembered forever as the heroes they were.
Afterwards, Harry looked around for the horse, but there was no sign of it. With a sigh, he and Fiona set off walking back in the direction from which they had come, with no idea where they were going to go next. After only a few hundred yards they came across the minstrel, sitting on a rock and playing his strange guitar. When he saw them he jumped down and took Fiona's hand in his own to kiss.
Harry wasn't having any of that, so he caught hold of Fiona's other hand to pull her away. Instead he found they were being tugged by a familiar, irresistible force, through the air. They covered the ground back to the crossroads in a heartbeat, and then Harry must have blacked out because the next thing he knew was he was waking up in the pub garden in Yorkshire, the bees droning and the skylark singing. Fiona was sitting next to him with a dreamy look on her face - there was no sign of the minstrel, the horse or the dragon.
Together, Harry and Fiona looked up at the sign, with its faded painting of a minstrel's horse and a green dragon. Harry smiled, leaned over and kissed his beautiful young wife.
"Enjoying the honeymoon?" he said.