The Ballad of Vallony Vignacious
A Prologue in Which Dragons are Fought, and Fortunes are Made then Lost.


There weren't always dragons in the Valley. Always had monsters of course, but none strong enough to be a proper tyrant. Back in the old days, the Valley was overrun by idiotic heroes blundering after petty monsters. Guess who was worse. The local monster causing mischief? Nope. Worse was the parade of shiny smiles and swords who sojourned to our Valley just looking for trouble; who fretted constantly over their "hero image" but never showed a jot of concern about property-damage.

Those years were unbearable. Battles every day. You couldn't set out a lunch table for five minutes without someone trying to body-slam a goblin onto it. Modern rules such as doors were only suggestions for the hero and might be ignored for dramatic effect. They'd throw a troll headfirst through a wall, then leap out the window to go after it. And don't even get me started on chandeliers… Thank the dragons though, we were saved. The intimidation alone was enough to discourage most knights-errant, and the extra-plucky ones were immolated by dragonfire.

Ah, bliss.

See, when you're an average woman of business, one that traffics in the day-to-day industry of getting people drunk, heroes really aren't worth the trouble. Cheap-drinkers and bad-tippers, the lot of them.

Anyways, at the time our story begins, I'd recently acquired "The Left-Handed Screw," a double-story bar with high ceilings, cherrywood walls, and black marble bartops. It was my greatest happiness. Was my greatest happiness, that is, until a particular hero walked into my bar.

The door banged open, and there was a conspicuous clanking. At first glance, I saw the silhouette of a tall, strapping human, but as the light reached him, I found that he was only half that—the other half of what I took to be his height was actually luggage. Copper pots, glass bottles, metal instruments on rope hung off a massive rucksack and jangled at the slightest move. A dwarf. His head stopped midway up his bags, and crimson hair hung in large curls, mingling with his beard, so one left off where the other began. Immediately, I knew something was off about him. A crossbow hung off of his ridiculously oversized pack and several glass tubes were strapped across his chest with colored powders inside each of them. Worst of all though was the singularly-purposed gleam in his eye that told me before he did: hero.

"Your lightest, sweetest cordial, please. I'm lookin' for information on your dragon infestation," he said.

"It'll kill you," I replied.

He grinned at me and silver teeth glinted among his huge white chompers. "I got a strong stomach. Try me."

I shrugged, pulled one of my taps, and passed him a bronze cup brimming with red liquid. I pointed, "What you've got there is my summer-strawberry cordial. What you're after is twelve tons of muscle, with thousands of scales tougher than armor, with three stomachs dedicated for dragonfire and the rest for her bad-temper. That's just the main dragon: Garazel. The others are smaller, male, and mate with her. She's killed every hero that's come along for fifteen years."

He blinked. "Hmph. So she's the reason that no one has taken the Quest… Garazel… a name for the disgrace of all livin' heroes. What a terrible thing, for it to be here of all places, where heroes are just startin' out…"

I scoffed. "Not everyone thinks that's a bad thing. I say: Praise the Dragon. Praise the ichor in her veins and the harem of drags she's got. It's no trouble living here. So long as you've got a bit of gold to pay her, she minds her own horde."

He reached to his side and thumbed a lever. A hip-bound contraption issued a metallic ker-chunk, and he slapped a gold coin onto the bar. "Somethin' for the dragon then."

I tried to hide my amazement. I couldn't remember the last time I'd see an unshaved coin. Solid gold. A thousand shavings for a thousand dragon-offerings could easily come off this one coin. I pocketed it and acknowledged his tip with a bow.

"Name is Dobban, Third Son of the Great Boom," he said.

"Vallony," I replied. He stared expectantly, so I let out the rest, "Vallony Vignacious,"

"You're a giant, no?"


"Thought your kind went taller," he replied up at me, without a trace of irony.

"Technically I'm half-ogre, which is what gives my skin the greenish tint."

"And a most charmin' tint it is," he said with a bow.

He didn't say the Thing. None of them do, but all the heroes think it: that with my ogre and giant blood, I'm one uncivilized move away from being treated as a monster. I knew what I looked like—my hair was a dark and wild mane, two tusk-teeth protruded out of my closed lips, and where my white sleeves were rolled to reveal them, tattoos covered both my forearms. Not the sort of individual that a hero would willingly walk in front of.

But his eyes didn't spend time on me; they roved curiously to the bar's high-shelf behind my head. "How much you want for the axe?"

"You don't have near enough to buy Silence," I told him. Silence, my double-bitted throwing axe, was my version of property insurance. It hung on two hooks behind the bar.

He arched one imperious eyebrow and replied, "You might be surprised what I can afford, but—fine. I can tell it's enchanted. If you'll lend it to me, I'd pay you well."

"Tempting, but no." I told him. He couldn't know, could only suspect, how special Silence really was. I'd paid a dear price for it. Blessed with holy water from the eighth-ocean, crossed with the shadows of three maidens, and christened with the prayer of a monk breaking his vow of silence—it was enchanted to never miss its target.

He still looked acquisitive but didn't press it. "It'd be awful handy," he conceded, "But. I'm here to run the Quest, and a measly dragon isn't goin' to stop me. I'll need a room for three nights to prepare."

"Bugger off," was my first thought—I have an allergy to both fools and heroes—but then he levered another gold coin out of his hip-dispenser. I wondered how many more coins he could possibly have. Once Garazel flamed him, whatever golden puddle was left behind would be dragon-property. So instead of letting my mouth run, I held up three fingers. He gave me a slippery strawberry-stained grin and three more coins slapped onto my bar.

Dobban climbed the ladder into the attic after me. Normally this was my room, and it wasn't much more than a bunk and a trunk, but Dobban grunted his approval. He shuffled off his boots and jumped barefooted into my extra-large bed. I made a mental note to wash everything and restricted myself to withdrawing only my journal and pillow out of the room. As I descended my reinforced-oak ladder, I had a thought and poked my head back up to inform him, "If you open my closet…really if you open anything or do anything that I might construe as peeking, I will sever your top from your bottom. Kay? See you tomorrow!"

I popped back down the ladder as he wound up into some kind of goodnight eulogy, "Goodnight Vallony! Your worldly sacrifice for the greater good will never be forgot—" his speech faded from hearing as I returned to the bar. I tossed my pillow under it. How ridiculous. The only sacrifice I'd be making was for greater gold.

* * *

The next couple days tested the limits of that sacrifice. During the first day, Dobban holed up in the attic, experimenting. Various samples of colored smoke drafted down like thick syrup from the attic's floor-slats, and a smell like rotten eggs settled on the bar from morning to night. My patrons complained at first, and I happily passed along their displeasure by banging on the ceiling, but Dobban would invariably shout down, "Another round for the bar!" and soon I found that my patrons complained about Dobban with hopeful, scampish grins.

On the next day, Dobban nailed a large square of parchment to the Notice Board. It read:

Dobban Defeets Dragone


See the Spektakel from a Safee Distance.

It was then signed, in a flourishing, arrogant script:

Dobban "Dab-hand" Boomson the Third

Classic hero move. Without crowds to watch, would any monster ever be slain? The fight was tomorrow, and I thought that he'd be busy with preparations, but that night he approached me. "Vallony," he said, "I need your help for the fight."

"Mine?" I questioned, wondering if he'd named me by mistake. "Can't. I'll be slinging drinks tomorrow."

"Oh, you won't need to be near the action. I only need you to do somethin'," he said.

"What's that?" I asked, suspicious.

"Light this when I tell you," and with that, he handed me a short piece of fraying rope, the length of my thumb.

"Light….this?" I echoed dubiously, "Why?"

"A surprise. Just trust me." he said, "and do not light it until I give the word. Very important. That's my secret trick there you're holdin'. You help me, and I'll reward you well."

Somehow, I doubted he'd be around to reward anyone. "Why don't you do it?" I said.

He shook his head. "I'll be busy stayin' alive. C'mon, you like me, don't you?" I didn't reply. Finally, he sighed and produced two more gold coins.

I swiped the gold and answered, "No. I don't. But I'll light your silly rope for you, out of the largesse of my giant heart."

* * *

The next day, I was the last to leave the town, with all of my drinks and cups loaded into one rattling cart, with Dobban's "secret trick" rope, and with a strange feeling that somehow I might be wrong about the day.

The Morningside hill was picked for watching the battle. I climbed up to the short shepherd's wall near the crest, behind which the townspeople had gathered, and I looked down upon the Valley. From here, our town was mostly unremarkable, just a smattering of shingled-roofs. The most remarkable thing about it, of course, was the horde of gold near the center of town, around which the dragons lay.

While the sun beat its way overhead, I did very good business selling from my drink-cart. Mayor Henauld, a middling man who radiated incompetence and vindictiveness equally, began to pester me about the crowd getting drunk, and I argued back that it was better than dehydration.

At last, the party started down below.

"Look!" a goblin boy shouted as he peered through a brass telescope, "he's laying something on the ground!"

"Something shiny," a human girl in a grey petticoat announced.

"It's gold!" the goblin boy shrieked back in disbelief.

I saw it too—below Dobban was working the levers of his coin-dispenser. Every ten steps another glint of gold would land in the dust of the abandoned town. The goblin boy began to clamber over the stone wall, and for a moment the entire crowd was on the verge of charging back down the hill to collect. I shouted, "It's for the dragons! Are you really going to fight Garazel for gold?!"

Indeed, Dobban was making his way towards the mass of dragons. At the sight of that, greed evaporated and they all became saints, leaving Dobban's gold to the dust. I snatched the telescope from the goblin boy, quelling him with a dandelion cordial. I put the glass to my eye.

One enormous dragon dominated the scene, with scales that were jet-black in the light, shifting to purple whenever in shadow. Her hide was so tough that I'd seen her land on a spear facing point-up, and the haft snapped before it could pierce. Her snores puffed up two identical columns of smoke. Her golden eyes were closed. This was the monster who'd stopped them all: Garazel. The Bringer of Woes, the Separator of Friends, and the Ender of Heroes.

Around Garazel there were her eleven silver drags that she mated with, and they each were imposing enough. If much smaller than her, they were still three times Dobban's size. Spiky from head to tail. They couldn't flame, but I knew they could be as fast as thrown darts.

Then, as I looked across the street, I saw the tiny figure of Dobban. He inhaled deeply, puffing up like a balloon, then bellowed. His voice carried across the Valley.


The drunken crowd didn't mind the sense-making much, all they knew is that someone was being insulted, and they let fly their jeers and "Oooohs!" The pile of dragons uncurled, and as they did, the crowd's encouragement died. Only Dobban avoided wilting, though I saw him take a single step backwards.

Eleven silver heads eyed him with a fury as though they'd quite understood and resented every word. Garazel's head kept rising, like a cobra poising to its highest vantage, observing the pitiable dwarf. She bellowed an enormous roar, which keened upwards in pitch from a bass to a shrill high-note. When the upper register was reached, a jet of fire split the sky, sundering the world in a streak of white-hot flame that raced towards its target.

Dobban moved, quicker than I thought possible from him, dodging to one side. The heat pushed back most onlookers, even at this distance. I blinked but stared on, acutely aware of the small piece of rope in my sweaty hand. The dirt where Dobban had once stood now glowed like a dying furnace. I could see Dobban crouching behind a building. Somehow he seemed unbothered by the heat. He'd drawn his crossbow, and broke his cover, firing. Three dark arrows flew toward the writhing mass of serpents. One of the drags shuddered, and they all burst apart now, flapping into the air like a flock of scattered crows. Garazel didn't move from her horde, only roared, and dragonfire lanced downwards once more. The drags dove in a spiral around the beam at Dobban. This time as he dodged, he chucked one of his colored vials to the ground, and a puff of green smoke plumed where he'd just been. A cheer arose from the crowd at this dramatic maneuver, and I seethed. Here he was, about to get the whole town destroyed, and the crowd was rooting for him. There was just something about an underdog…

"Hey…what are the drags doing?" asked one of the crowd. I looked. The silver drags weren't pursuing him…instead they were standing in the street and chirruping over the ground.

"The gold," I groaned. "They're distracted by the stinking gold."

A whistling arrow came from an alley and struck one through the head as it stupidly eyed the dazzling coin. Dobban was much better prepared than I'd expected. With a sinking feeling, I unclenched my fist to examine his "secret trick". Could it really be true? Could the lighting of this rope really…destroy Garazel? It seemed impossible, yet a vision of a shattered town flashed before me, with the crowd cheering Dobban's name. Worse, if Garazel was vanquished, the smiling stream of heroes would be back.

I couldn't let it happen…Dobban would have to lose. Only, he'd no doubt have a backup-method of using his "secret trick," so the only way was to light the rope before Dobban was ready. I drew out a lucifer match, igniting it with one snap of my thumbnail…

Below, Dobban shot two more drags, reducing Garazel's harem to seven. All of them were still looking in the wrong direction, at the dropped gold rather than the murderous dwarf. Garazel didn't distract so easily however, and her head roved over the town. I knew that soon Garazel might decide to flame the whole town in search of the dwarf. Hell, if I were her, I'd have done it already. For the good of the town, I held the rope over the lit match…

Dobban fired another arrow, killing a drag. Then he gripped his belt and bellowed, "OI! YOU SORRY SACK OF ROT-MEAT, LETTING YOUR WYRMS TAKE ALL ME ARROWS?! COME ON! FIGHT ME LIKE A PROPER DRAGON!"

Garazel seemed to take the challenge. She screeched and spread her wings. Their shadow darkened the town. She flapped once and her feet spurned the ground, ascending with three enormous swipes, the downdrafts flattening roofs. Garazel circled into the sky, surveying the town with a predatory eye, hunting. She spied him, and her huge form dropped like a plumb-weight, straight down with unblinking speed, and Dobban tried to dive out of the way. A splintering explosion. The crowd yelled, eager for a conclusion.

I watched the rope approach its private finale, as the flame climbed from the bottom to the top where I dangled it…

Dobban had once again evaded. He stood right in front of my bar now, shouting at the great dragon. "C'MON YOU YELLOW-BELLIED COWARD!" he screamed wildly. Garazel roared back and took one step…

At that moment, the flame touched my finger, and I yelped, dropping my gaze. The flame reached the end of the rope, when a shattering BOOM rocked me, and I fell backwards.

I heard an admiring exclamation of, "OoooOOooo" from the drunken crowd around me. I staggered to my feet to see The Left-Handed Screw, my pride and bar, was replaced by a tumultuous cloud of smoke and flame. Fiery timbers spun stupidly through the air, and burning shingles drifted through the smoke like fall leaves. This…was some kind of nightmare.

Dobban staggered to his feet and turned to face me. "YOU SET IT OFF EARLY?!" he bellowed furiously. It took a moment for my mind to revolve upon what he'd said, what exactly happened, but then I realized. I was over the wall before I knew what I was doing. Henauld and others yelled at me to stop, but I had no ear or mind for anything except Dobban the Soon-to-Be-Dead dwarf.

"YOU—PUT A BOMB IN MY BAR??" I screamed. Garazel roared too, but I was only distantly aware of her winging into the air.

A metallic flash arced past my head, and thunked into the loamy hill beside me. I started, looking down to see a familiar axe—Silence. Soot now charred one side of the blade, the other still shiny. I drew it from the ground. When my bar exploded, the axe must've been launched into the air…and of all places, of course, the blessed blade had landed by my side. So that I could do what needed doing.

I looked up to see Dobban charging uphill towards me now, with an utterly wild look in his eyes. I hefted the axe, threateningly. As I did, Dobban flashed that horrible silver smile of his and winked, and I was sent over the edge. In a blind rage, I howled and threw Silence straight at Dobban's head.

Time seemed to slow. I watched the axe leave my hand, shaving the air in huge arcs as it flipped over and over. It flew true, straight towards him. He bobbed left…and the blade flipped just over him, the axe head down when it should have been up, such that it simply passed right over his shoulder.

It missed.

As Dobban continued his dodge to the side, I realized only too late what was behind him. Garazel had swooped down after Dobban. Flying nobly at her deserving prey, with only a handspan between her belly and the ground, her jaws were open in anticipation…

The axe flew straight down her gullet, guided by the shadows of maidenhood and a monk's broken vow, and lodged itself with a resounding thud, in the back of Garazel's throat. The effect was immediate. Her wings lost all power, crumpled, and Garazel crashed into the hill, spraying dirt and rock in an uncontrolled slide towards me. Garazel stopped, inches from my boots. Her golden eyes were still.

Dimly, I realized there was a huge cheering behind me, a great burst of joyous feeling that morphed into a chant of my name. "Val-lo-ny, Val-lo-ny! Our Valley's Vic-to-ry!"

I could not comprehend it. Everything seemed water and I was oil, unable to assimilate anything. Couldn't they understand what a colossal mistake this all was? The axe had missed. The stupid, blasted thing had MISSED.

Like a flash, Dobban was by my side, and I flinched. Surely he knew. But, no.

"That…Was…Brilliant!" he declared, grinning wildly from ear to ear. "Even better than how I'd planned things! Look at the other drags, they're all flying away!"

Gobsmacked, I looked around for someone to correct him. He was right about one thing though, the other drags were flying away from the explosion, leaving the town and the great golden horde behind.

"You were amazing, Miss Vignacious!" the human girl, now cherry-cheeked, said. She pantomimed throwing a heavy axe at the goblin-boy, who flapped his imaginary-wings once, then fell over. The crowd cheered again.

Mayor Henauld had his bowler hat in his hand and wrung it out like it was his own guilty conscience that he dearly wished to be parted from. "Vallony, please," he said, "Words fail to describe our feelings. If there is anything, ANYTHING, at all that we can do, you must only name it."

"Bar…" I stammered, "G-Gone. Destroyed…I need my bar."

Henauld puffed out his cheeks, as though this were a very big ask indeed, then released. "Well," he huffed, "I suppoooose, that the town could see its way towards donating some of the horde towards your, em, bar repairs. Within reason of course, but I think we should be happy to pay for certain damages—"

"—hang on there, Mr. Big-Britches." Dobban stepped up and put a stubby, well-sooted finger into the air. "Miss Vallony and I slew them dragons. We've done our hero's duty, and—" the dwarf jabbed his finger into the Mayor's white shirt, backing him up, "and she deserves her true share of the bounty."

I was meekly mumbling, "I'm not a hero—" when I stopped. "Err…what?"

It looked like Henauld's brain had also stopped working. "Her what?!"

Dobban ignored him. "Your share. Half is the standard-split. 'Sonly fair you know. You did the big bit, but I played my role. Course, accounting for your bar…well we can talk out what adjustments might be fair. But you, sir, never risked your biscuit." He jabbed at Henauld again.

"My half…of that," I said, confirming the impossible.

At his nod, I charged downhill towards the glinting horde, a tumult of footsteps pounding in my wake. And, here it was, the horde I'd seen everyday, transmuted by ownership and lack of dragons into the most beautiful damn thing I'd ever seen. The pile, almost all gold with a few jewels thrown in for good measure, came up to Dobban's shoulders. My thoughts whirled. I could buy a new bar. Hell, I could buy a whole street and convert every shop into a different bar, and pay to have someone run them. I could buy faraway houses for each season, or a whole castle. The possibilities seemed endless.

The Mayor was muttering and—I could tell—building up some legal argument in his own mind about horde ownership that would hold exactly zero water with Dobban Boomson. The sight of him, covered in blast-powder and bloody cuts, was no doubt the only thing that prevented everyone from diving the pile.

I noticed my hand being tugged insistently. It was Dobban.

I pulled back. "What?"

"Before we do this, I just want to make sure that you really want to claim the bounty. Because I'm in all the way…" he said.

"Are you kidding? All the way, yes!"

"We're of one accord then?" he asked. I couldn't see what he was so worried about.


"Because I think we make a good team," he was saying.

"Uh-huh, sure," I agreed, eyeing the gold with a delirious happiness.

"And nothin' tyin' you down here." he reasoned.

"That's true. I could do anything…live anywhere."

"Great! Then, let's do it!" he said. He picked up two coins from the pile and tossed one to me. I caught it. There was a loud crack, followed by gasps around us.

"Heroes! Your Bounty is claimed, and your Quest is accepted!" The deep voice sounded from right behind me, and I whirled.


A ponderously large man in a plum-colored cloak had appeared before Dobban and I, with veins of silver metal running through several seams of the fabric. His eyes were cloudy, and his pale face was shaded by a matching plum-and-metal sunhat. Definitely a wizard. I recognized his voice but from where?

"You have both proved worthy of embarking on the Hero's Quest—"

"The what—look, you've got this all wrong," I explained. "I am not a hero. He is. I'm not, and I don't want to be. I think the whole concept is ludicrous. All I want is my bloody bar back, understand? And I already have my half of the gold, so—"

A sick look was dawning on Dobban's face. "But, Vallony. You must know the bounty…"

"What about it?"

The wizard went on, undisturbed by my confusion, "Your bounty will only be available after completion of the Quest. This Valley is a testing ground, winnowing out the unworthy. When you slayed the Valley's monster, you met the requirements; when you touched the gold, you accepted the Quest."

"You knew this…right?" Dobban pleaded, "Say you've heard this before. Vallony, you—you live here!"

"First…bloody…time." I grated out.

The wizard looked past us and cleared his throat. "Oh dear…that will not do at all."

He wasn't talking to me. We turned around to see Henauld and some others had developed some weighty pockets, for they were trying to shuffle away while keeping their pants from clinking and falling down all at once.

I heard the wizard mutter under his breath. A ghostly-grey glow surrounded the horde and the pockets of those scurrying away, and after a sudden exclamation of "whoa-ho-no!" from Henauld, all of the gold and the pants carrying gold vanished. The crowd laughed uproariously as scarlet faces led bare bottoms in a hasty retreat.

I didn't laugh. "Where's…my gold?" I growled.

"There are rules, Vallony Vignacious. To all things, but to the Quest most of all. You will have your bounty and reward beyond measure, after you defeat the Five Woes."

Dobban nodded along like this was natural. He seemed to read my confusion and whispered, "Each Woe is a legendary monster. Got on good authority what the first two are. Can't be worse than the dragon,"

"—Garazel," I interjected, "was a fluke. There is not going to be any Quest. Nope, I'm done. I QUIT."

"You may, of course, leave your party at any time," the wizard said calmly, "But then you forfeit your share of the bounty."

I stopped. Dobban piped up, "Sir, technically speakin'…after each Woe, the party has the option to end the Quest, with the bounty up to that point…Right?" My ears perked up. Dobban was showing a possible way out.

"Correct. But the party's decision must be unanimous, and the exit is final. No one may take the Quest more than once, Dobban Boomson." the wizard replied. Dobban's smile disappeared, and he looked troubled.

"Dobban. We are not playing this stupid game!" I turned to stalk away.

"Now…just hang on a second," Dobban said, tottering after me.

"Vallony. Dobban. I wish you luck." The words were final, a parting. I looked back in time to see the wizard shift into a cloud of ghost-grey smoke, swept away by the breeze.

Dobban met my eyes and tried to say something, but I stormed off. In the distance, beyond where my bar used to be and over the Nightside hill, a ghost-grey line had appeared in the sky. A marker. Somehow I knew…it pointed to the first Woe. Some poor monster, no doubt, marked for a hero to defeat it. None of it made sense… Why did this Quest even exist? If there were legitimate monsters to be vanquished, why not let anyone do it, anytime? Why have rules at all? Why lock up the bounty until after we finished?

I told myself that it didn't matter, that I would stay in the Valley and rebuild. Damn the Quest, damn Dobban, and damn the gold. But deep down I already knew: I wouldn't be able to eke out a modest income, not happily, while an enormous horde of gold sat unclaimed.

I wanted for all the world to take back the last three days. Take back lighting the rope. Take back renting my room to the dwarf. And most of all, take back throwing my axe at Dobban, which had sealed my fate with a foolhardy hero that didn't even know that I was trying to kill him.

But it was too late. My bar was blown up, and my hope of happiness locked away behind unfathomable danger. I stood before the smoldering remains of my bar for a long time, until I heard a conspicuous rattling. I turned to see Dobban struggling to push something towards me. My drink-cart…I'd forgotten it on the hill.

Dobban gave me a wan smile. "We could both use a drink. What can I pour you?"

Join the newsletter to be kept up to date!