It was a time of intrigue, disaster and allegations. The King was dead, and slowly, the word was getting out. The Knight of the King's Own had ridden all night, using his influence of his position to get the most agile fresh horses from each of the inns he had stopped at. Thereby he had outpaced the traveling merchants and traders who usually carried this kind of news. When Ottokar had arrived in this backwater town, news of the awful crime had not reached yet their ears, and Ottokar had planned to this to his advantage, even though he was most certain the king's murderer was not here.
A few reports had come in of odd happenings in this town, and it was believed that a witch lived here. Though usually the Crown did not send her agents out because of rumor alone, at this moment rumor was all they had to go on. It was a strong belief in the court that magical means had coerced the wild dragon to eat the king. Otherwise, why would such an aloof and proud creature come to the center of the country's largest city? Wild beasts did not make a distinction between a lowly sheep and a great king, but human beings did. While Ottokar did not completely believe that this witch had caused the crime, he knew that by interrogating her he would discover more about witches. About how this crime could have been done, and who had probably done it.
He was still wearing his traveling armor when the fire had broken out. The gold mail was heavy, but in dealing with innkeepers and other travelers, it may as well have been a golden ticket. All he had to do was to appear in the striking clothing and coachmen would pull their horses to the side of the road; inn keepers would run to fill his every need. No one crossed a Knight of the King's Own. Sometimes it was good to have connections.
Not that those connections had come cheaply. Ottokar had earned the old king's trust as a young man, and had spent the elder's life either by his side or promoting his goals elsewhere. Ottokar had been heavy hearted when the king had fallen, but Cuthbert was sick, and had been sick for a long time. To Ottokar, King Cuthbert had been like an older, wiser cousin. But Ottokar had taught Cuthbert's son Gideon how to choose and shoot a bow. To the knight, the young man's violent and sudden death had cut deep.
Ottokar saw the flames spewing from the roof of the inn from the road into town, and he spurred the stallion under him to gallop. By the time he got through the cluster of the village with its unplanned roads and its dead ends, all four walls of the rickety building were ablaze, and a crowd had swelled around it. When the crowd got so thick that his horse was more of an encumbrance to him than a help, he left the animal and walked through the crowd. Even though the witch and the fire was a source of excitement, their eyes were still drawn to Ottokar's distinctive mail and they moved out of the way.
Now slowly the rumor that one of the Kings Own was present in the village was spreading the rest of the crowd, and Ottokar scowled inwardly. This not the way it was meant to go. Ottokar was to change clothes- to take on the persona of a traveling worker in order to get into the taverns and sniff out the witch on his own. Now everyone in this crowd who saw him would match his face with his mail from now on. His cover was blown before it was even realized.
On he other hand, the witch was here, in this very crowd, and Ottokar had no better chance of catching her (for the general consensus of the crowd was that she was a she). If she escaped through his fingers now, she would certainly leave town and, perhaps, use any number of magical tricks to conceal her tracks or confuse Ottokar from the scent. There would be no point in "sniffing her out". The knight had to act immediately.
By snatches of heard conversation, he put together some details about his witch. Her name was Syndra, she was a young woman, still unmarried, who worked- or rather, had worked- at the very inn she had scorched to take of herself and her father. Why had she struck tonight, and why had killed her employer in such a brutal way? Many rumors popped up to answer these questions, but nothing seemed concrete. He found a man in the crowd who was trying wildly to get his attention.
"Ey," Ottokar growled as he reached the man covered in soot. He must have been inside when the enchanted fire had begun "Where'd the lass go?" He almost shouted the last part, as he had to speak over the crown. The barkeep pointed out a woman in blond curls on the other side of the crowd, trying to back up into the mass of bodies. Before Ottokar could get a very good look at her, the flames jumped out from the building into the empty space between the knight, the barkeep and the witch. The knight had to shield his eyes from the bright blaze and, by the time it died down, he could see the woman no more. It had been a good trick, but Ottokar was not going to give up so easily.
He ran back to his horse, which was grazing some sprigs of grass, apparently bored by all the commotion and the fire. Clearly a horse trained for war- an animal not spooked by anything. He jumped on its back and spurred it into motion. The animal ran around the crowd, in the direction that Ottokar was sure the witch had gone.
Another set of eyes had been watching the happenings- these ones round, and golden yellow. Far set in the trees, the stripy pattern of green and black kept the creature not obvious in the dense forest. The scent of the fire drew it, as it knew that fire in these amounts was an unusual thing in a village such as this. So it stood, completely still, under the foliage, sharp eyes noting as the humans moved toward the burning inn, their interest distracting them from all other projects.
It had but minutes to strike. It had learned its lesson not to get seen before, as the gash on its tail proved. Not drawn by the inn, the animal moved around the outside of the village, briskly, but without too much haste as to alert people to its presence. It finally came to a stable on the edge of town, where the scent of animals was strong. Of course the dragon himself also had a scent, and as he came within feet of the stable doors, some of the animals within began to shuffle their hooves and whinny uncomfortably. The dragon hesitated.
They're trapped in there...this is no sport.
He shook his head and banished the thought of honor in the hunt. Honor would lead him to starvation, the precipice of which he was rather close right now. The dragon eased up to the stable and unlatched the door. This far from other cities, the village folk knew all their neighbors, and most felt it unnecessary to lock their own doors. Once he slipped into the stable, the animals inside started to snort and whinny frantically, some rearing in their stalls. The sound of them will draw the villagers! The dragon tried to shush them a couple of times before he realized it was useless.
He had but seconds to make his decision. He had come in here. Bad decision that it had been, he way as well try to make the best of it. A quick kill he decided. He chose a stall arbitrarily to lesson his guilt- the closest one. There was mare in there. He unlatched the door easily, and maneuvered his body to step in, but the fleet footed creature inside outsmarted him and muscled her way out of the outward swinging door, pinning the dragon momentarily between it and the wall.
He was shocked that that a horse had outsmarted him, but he was only allowed to be shocked for a moment, because he heard voices, and the two footed cadence of humans coming his way. Panicking a little, the dragon glanced around and realized, sinkingly, that the only exit was the door in which he had come in. He swallowed, and dove for that door. For a moment, he stood half in and half outside of the livery stable, eyes on the two men coming toward them. Indeed, the sight of a real dragon- long, stripy body paired with leathery wings and long, swooping antlers- stopped them dead in their tracks.
It was all the time the dragon needed, and he darted for the woods at a four legged gallop. The horse had already beat him to the tree line, but when saw him coming for her, she increased her speed, running wildly into the relative safety of the forest. She didn't realize that the dragon now had worse things to worry about, and was himself running for his own life. Luckily enough, he and the horse to put much distance between themselves and the town quickly, but he kept running in full knowledge that soon someone he didn't want to deal with would be in hot pursuit after him.