Clark Gillian

The Devious Dragon and the Fall of the Emperor


Chapter 14.
Mad Meg and John Cook.

John Cook, you infernal donkey!" squawked Mad Meg, perched atop their precariously piled belongings. Unlike a donkey, it was John, thin and lanky, straining beneath the weight of the wagon. Cans, sacks, furniture – their entire life crammed onto the rickety contraption. "Why must you make everything so difficult?"

They weren't the only ones fleeing the inferno raging near the City of Bridges. Villagers and farmers, faces grim, trudged alongside, clutching salvaged scraps of their past. Their exodus, a desperate quest for shelter and solace, led them farther and farther from the burning city.

"What, in Hades' name, have I done now?" Meg grumbled, digging through the teetering mountain of possessions, assessing their losses. "Tell me, Cook!"

John, panting from the exertion, roared back, "First, it was 'run as far as your scrawny legs can carry us,' away from the cursed City of Stars! Now, after barely escaping its clutches, you yammer about turning back?"

"A woman can admit her mistakes, Cook," Meg retorted, deftly rearranging pots and pans to prevent a clattering avalanche. "We should return! Is that so wrong?"

John's voice spiked with indignation. "Remember your fury? How no one from the City of Bridges, despite a fire visible for leagues, spared a hand to help our tavern burn to the ground?"

"Indeed, they watched it all go up in flames, just beyond their precious walls," Meg muttered, bitterness lacing her voice. "What use are their watchtowers if not to witness tragedy unfold?"

"And closed their gates when the desperate masses sought refuge!" John added, fueling his wife's ire.

Meg's eyes flashed. "Precisely! Then why, in the name of all that's holy, do you even consider returning?"

John Cook grunted, a sound that often blurred the line between anger and sadness, at least to him.

"Excuse me," Mad Meg cut in, her voice sharp. "How could I have known the City of Sheets would sink into the sea and the Proud City of Flowers meet its fiery demise? Where in the devil are we supposed to go now?"

John's shoulders slumped. "Must you always be so fierce?" he sighed, sounding defeated.

"And why should I not be fierce?" Mad Meg countered, her chin held high. "When I know I'm right, I don't care how loud their nonsense roars or how big and brawny they are. I'd walk through hellfire and back for the truth, make myself loud and clear! And there's nothing wrong with that!"

John muttered under his breath, "Horrendous."

"Well?" Mad Meg demanded.

"Well what?" he responded, confused.

"You haven't added anything to this, to this... discourse," she spat.

"Discourse is a generous term," John mumbled again.

"What was that?" Mad Meg narrowed her eyes.

John sighed, adjusting his grip on the wagon. "Have you ever considered the possibility of being wrong?"

Mad Meg tilted her head arrogantly. "I'll let you know if it ever happens."

Just then, their conversation was interrupted by a rich-looking woman and her entourage blocking the road ahead. Dressed in finery fit for a queen, she stood adorned with bows, pearls, and gemstones, lacework framing her attire with meticulous detail. Yet, a somber shadow loomed over her face, a stark contrast to the festive clothes. Two guards flanked her on either side, freshly killed pheasants hanging from their saddles, balanced by a cage holding a caged hawk on the other side.

"Halt!" The woman's voice boomed, stopping the travelers in their tracks. "Don't proceed any further."

Murmurs rippled through the crowd. "Why not?"

"I just left... what's left of the City of Sheets," the woman said, her voice heavy with grief.

A collective gasp escaped the travelers. "Swallowed by the sea? All of it?"

The woman squeezed her eyes shut, swallowing hard. "Everything. The city, the mountain – all washed away."

"The mountain too?!" Panic tinged their voices.

Mad Meg pressed forward, her voice cutting through the rising chaos. "And the Proud City? The City of Flowers?"

The woman nodded, her features etched with despair. "I was hunting nearby when a tremor shook the very earth. Returning to the city, we saw the sky over the Proud City tear open. Falling stars rained down, a fiery waterfall crushing everything beneath it."

Tears welled in their eyes as the woman painted a chilling picture of their beloved city – beautiful gardens obliterated, vibrant streets reduced to rubble. "I yearned to reach my family, but the danger was too great. We watched from afar as the city crumbled, leaving nothing but a tomb of stone."

She dabbed at her tears with a gem-encrusted sleeve as one of her guards spoke. "For your own safety, Countess."

John leaned towards Mad Meg, his voice barely a whisper. "The Countess herself! Of the Proud City of Flowers!"

Their shared despair hung heavy in the air. John echoed the collective voice, "Where do we go, Countess? The fire claimed everything in the City of Bridges. Like you, we have nowhere left to return."

The silence hung heavy, all eyes fixed on the Countess. Their hope, tattered and thin, clung to her next words.

But Mad Meg, never one for polite silence, blurted, "Live in the woods! What else is there?"

Her pronouncement drew scoffs and murmurs from the crowd. Even the Countess's guards couldn't stifle chuckles.

"A Countess and her court in the woods?" one scoffed. "Preposterous!"

"Court?" Mad Meg countered, her gaze fixed on the smoldering remains of the city. "Where is your court now?"

The Countess's smile wavered, replaced by a flicker of annoyance. Her guards, amusement forgotten, straightened in their saddles, glaring down at Mad Meg.

John tugged at her sleeve, urgency in his eyes, but Mad Meg was undeterred.

"We're all in the same boat now," she declared, her voice ringing out. "Countess or farmer's wife, doesn't matter when we all just want to survive. A little common sense wouldn't hurt, considering it's all we have left!"

"The castle may be gone," a guard roared, "but the Countess still owns the land you stand on!"

But Mad Meg held her ground. "He may own the land, but who owns the sky?"

Her question hung in the air, a spark igniting something in the Countess's eyes. The guards, though simmering with fury, remained silent.

"Whoever does," Mad Meg continued, her voice unwavering, "they're raining their wrath down on everyone, no matter whose land we stand on."

A moment of stunned silence followed. Then, the Countess surprised everyone by speaking.

"She's right," she said, a wry smile playing on her lips. "Heaven has never crashed down on us like this before, has it?"

Relief washed over John Cook, loosening the tension in his shoulders. The Countess, her voice echoing with purpose, addressed the crowd.

"I propose we head for the City of Acorns," she declared. "A small town nestled near the forest, it may offer the haven we desperately seek."

Murmurs rippled through the crowd. While not as grand as the lost cities, the City of Acorns offered a glimmer of sanctuary.

"You are all welcome to join us," the Countess continued, her hand raised in a gesture of unity.

Cheers erupted, a wave of gratitude washing over the weary travelers. The promise of protection from her guards added another layer of comfort.

Mad Meg, ever the pragmatist, simply shrugged and returned to the cart. John, however, couldn't shake off his simmering irritation.

"Why do you always have to be so disruptive?" he hissed, frustration lacing his voice.

"Disruptive?" Mad Meg raised an eyebrow, her sharp tone matching his. "Must you find fault in everything?"

"It's not about finding fault," John countered, his voice rising. "It's about not wanting us to get thrown into dungeons because of your loud mouth!"

Mad Meg's eyes narrowed. "You should've known better than to marry a woman who speaks her mind," she retorted, a sigh escaping her lips.

"Is that supposed to be an insult?" John bristled.

Before he could retort, Mad Meg threw her head back and laughed, a sound ringing with unexpected humor. "There aren't any dungeons left in the city, are there, darling?"

Their bickering, a familiar rhythm despite the dire circumstances, drew amused chuckles from the crowd. The tension eased, replaced by a fleeting moment of normalcy amidst the chaos.

The Countess's announcement offered a sliver of hope, but John Cook couldn't shake his simmering anger. He muttered under his breath, "You never know, they always find ways to punish," regret washing over him as he realized people were listening.

"True, you would never know." Mad Meg replied coolly, her eyes scanning the salvaged pots and pans on their cart, oblivious to his discomfort.

They walked on in tense silence, John straining under the cart's weight while Mad Meg meticulously inspected each rescued item.

Suddenly, as they neared the forest, a gentle voice drifted from the trees. "Can anyone help us?"

Only Mad Meg heard it, and she strained to pinpoint the source. The voice, sweet and pleading, repeated, "Please, we need clothes. We have nothing."

Abandoning the cart, Mad Meg pressed towards the sound.

"Who's there?" she called out.

"Meg! What are you doing?" John barked, frustration lacing his voice.

"Who's there?" Mad Meg persisted, her gaze scanning the foliage. "Forest spirits playing tricks on me?"

"No tricks," the voice replied hesitantly. "We... we need new clothes to come out and face people again. What we have left are only tatters barely hanging on."

A sigh escaped Mad Meg. "Wait here, and I'll see what I can do."

"Thank you," the voice murmured, filled with gratitude.

Moments later, Mad Meg returned, carrying a bundle of clothes.

Gratitude echoed from the unseen figures. "Thank you," their voices resonated.

"Who are you, hiding there?" Mad Meg pressed, curiosity burning brighter than any desire to help.

A hesitant reply emerged. "I am the Princess..." 

A stutter filled the air, followed by the Princess's voice, low and hurried. "And he is my Knight," she declared, remembering the serpent's letter and adding with forced conviction, "The Knight of Hearts."

Rushing back to the travelers, Mad Meg's booming voice cut through the murmurings. "Hold! Everyone, stop!"

Confused glances met her frantic waving. "What is it?" a chorus of voices demanded, including the Countess and her riders.

"Who has spare clothes?" Mad Meg barked, her hands on her hips.

"Clothes? What's happened?" the Countess inquired, her face draining of color.

Mad Meg's reply was blunt. "Because the Crown Princess and the Knight are hiding in the bushes, stark naked!"

The Countess's eyes widened in shock. "The Crown Princess... and some Knight?" she echoed, barely a whisper.

"Would you like to meet them?" Mad Meg offered, her gaze fixed on the Countess, a hint of mischief dancing in her eyes.