The townsfolk knew that their's was a small town, they tended to call it a compound when they referred to it at all, which was rarely as they largely viewed it as the sole and natural medium in which existence takes place. They like to tell each other that the town was so big that it housed three separate families, but this had not been true for at least two generations, when the last member of the family who lived behind the bakery died without issue. It was becoming less true even now, since after the dysentery took everyone over thirty-five and left only the middle daughter of the family which owned the library.
It was the town elder, a perpetually stressed man of twenty-nine, who met two thirsty and haggard travelers, a woman armored in steel and a man dressed in denim and leather.
"Did you hear that?" Asked the elder in an urgent, intense voice.
"Hear what?" Asked the knight as the two of them approached.
"You can't tell me you did not hear that." The elder insisted. Behind him, through an open-air window, two women not quite far enough apart in age to be mother and child looked at the elder and each other with worried expressions.
"I hear you. I hear the wind. Which one is 'that'?" asked the knight.
"Not that! Not that! The demon scream." The wanderer's hands went to his pistols by some mechanical reflex. The knight bent her knees and cast an instictive glance at the sky. "You can hear it?" She asked.
"Hear it? Everyone can hear it! Are you daft? Are you deaf?"
"The noise is a dragon we are hunting. When did you last hear it?"
"A dragon! Impossible! An impossible beast for an impossible noise! Our whole compound lives in terror of the noise!"
"Have you seen the dragon?"
"Seen it? Seen it? You are clearly mad! Clearly mad! No one could see a dragon and survive!"
"So you have only heard it? In which direction?"
"In your direction! Can't you hear it?'
"Right now? I would not be speaking with you if I heard the dragon right now."
"Not now! We would all be dead if it was screaming right now. Earlier!"
"When?" the knight sternly interrupted.
The elder, younger than either interlocutor, was clearly still excited, yet curiously unable to express an answer. As the gears of his mind continued to spin on the dueling topics of dragons and time his mouth began to sputter. When nothing coherent emerged, the knight stepped forward, scowling.
"You will tell me, fool. I will find this dragon, I will slay this dragon, and you will tell me where it is right now."
The elder broke down under this assault of questions. Finally, true words fell out, "The past, the past! Couldn't you hear it? You must have been there! It was before now!"
The knight took the remaining step between her and the man, grabbing his face with her left hand and punching his gut solidly with her gauntleted right. She screamed, the words travelling three inches from her throat to his ears and then continuing audibly for three quarters of a mile out into the flat and empty waste. "When did you hear-".
She was cut off by the wanderer's hand upon her back. She froze at this unexpected invasion as he leaned forward a bit and explained in a voice just above a mutter, "He has lost his time."
"What does that mean?" she snapped her head around, distracted into loosening her grip enough for the townsman to fall upon submissive knees.
"Time don't have the power it used to. Small town like this they have trouble keeping count for themselves now that nature ain't helping."
"But the sun-" She insisted.
"The sun don't work down here like it does up there. It forgets where it should be sometimes."
"We left the last town four days ago. Surely he knows the difference between earlier today and four days ago."
"Four days? We haven't had food or water since we left the last town."
The knight drew back into herself, startled by the realization, and began to consider. as her mind worked the elder looked up at the two of them, belly in the dirt, with a terrified awe on his face as he was forced to confront the enormity of the world around him. His world had grown from twenty three people to twenty five, but these two travelers knew more than was contained in all nine books in the compound combined.
"The sun rose four times. I am sure of it." She said, concentrating on her inexplicably hazy recall.
"Yes. And it set once."
The knight could not disagree, though she continued attempting to sort out her confusion. The elder reached out his hand, staring up at the space between the two, trying to speak but rendered mute by the incredible sight before him. He gave off a noise, a choked gasp towards the visitors. The knight ignored him, lost in thought. The wanderer turned to the right to let the leader of this tiny realm fall out of his sight.
It was only by chance that he then glanced outward. The wanderer could have covered that spot with his outstretched thumb, but even at that distance the outline of wings was visible.
The wanderer stared with the elder until the knight broke off from her considerations to look with them. She was not paralyzed with awe, but sprang immediately into cool, efficient action. She turned to the wanderer and thrust her arm into a side pouch of the great leather pack on her back.
"Tie the Roh runes around your ears," She said holding out strips of arm length rune marked cloths, "and use the Waq runes over your eyes."
The wanderer did not take the cloths, instead preferring to look skeptically at her. The knight began to pull away to attend to other tasks, but noticing that the runes were still in hand she stayed and gestured again. "Take them."
"This is not my fight."
"Of course it is. You followed me all the way out here for this."
"I did not."
"Have you no honor?"
The wanderer stayed silent at that. The knight clenched the fist holding the cloths and drew back, her teeth grinding audibly. She turned to the elder. "I will be needing food and drink. It will take some time for the beast to get here, and we, or at least I, have traveled far."
"You cannot kill it." the prostrate man insisted.
"We both are hungry and can pay for what supplies we can carry with us." the wanderer said.
"Carry with us?" asked the knight, indignantly, "We will have plenty of time for that after we kill it."
The townsfolk had begun to venture out of their ramshackle wooden homes to watch the distrubance. At this comment, two young boys in mismatched, tattered clothing so heavily patched that it may not have ever been a single piece of fabric ran up to just behind the elder, close enough to feel like part of the action but as far away from the dangerous looking pair as their overdeveloped masculine pride would allow. The knight tossed her water skins on the ground at their feet.
"Fill these," She said, "While I prepare. Have food ready as well by the time I finish the holy rites. The dragon will be upon us soon after, and in this weakened state I do not have the strength to slay the beast."
The boys glanced in askance at the water skins. The boy on the right was marginally less filthy, and he asked "How you gonna fuck up a dragon?"
The scowl upon her face deepened. "You will do it, or you will die" were her last words before trudging off to the open plain northeast of the town.
The wanderer simply stood for a while longer, recovering from the journey and watching as the dragon soared across the sky towards the tiny town. Then he turned and walked past the unfilled water skins to the largest nearby crowd, a group of eight standing on a porch in front of one of the larger houses. There stood one woman who, to the wanderer's eye, seemed to be the center of the group. He walked straight up to her and pressed a small bag of coins, the only purse he had been able to recover from the wreckage during his previous departure, into her hand. The wanderer took a step back and spoke to her while clearly addressing everyone on the porch.
"Whatever you can spare." he said. The crowd looked at each other, and at the woman in the center, and they invited him in.
They fed him slow simmered potatoes and the dregs of a pot roast, the only meal he had had in days and the best he had had in months. Though no water skins of his own had survived the attack, they crowd deemed amongst themselves that the purse he had given them was well worth a pair of full skins, as well as some hard bread and heavily salted pork. As he ate the two dirty children peppered him with questions, all answered exclusively with the same non-committal grunt.
"Are you from beyond the town?"
"Why are you in town?"
"Are you running from something?"
"Are you running from the dragon?"
"Where are you going?"
"What will you do after you kill the dragon?"
"Hmm?" he stopped, finished swallowing, and said, "How would I kill a dragon?"
"With those guns." Said one of the boys as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"Yeah!" The other boy was quick to agree with the tone, "All the big mean lady's got is a sword."
"A runed sword."
"Yeah, but dragons can fly. Can she fly?"
The wanderer returned to his grunting. He stabbed a potato with a small knife the townsfolk had loaned him. He finished his meal with a small crowd of spectators gathered around to confirm for themselves that people from out of town consumed food in a manner remarkably similar to how they themselves did. When he finished, the wanderer stood, tied his newly purchased provisions on his belt where the coin purse used to be and asked one more question.
"Do you have a horse?"
The townsfolk looked at each other uncertainly. It was clearly a yes, but there was no immediate consensus about telling him. After a moment of looking at each other, the crowd simply walked off into another room and began discussions in hushed tones, leaving the wanderer blinking and alone. Then he gave a slight shrug towards nothing in particular, turned, and walked back out into the heat of the waste.
He stood there for a while looking at the cloudless sky, hands resting softly on the mismatched pistol grips at his waist. The filthy boys ran out of the house first, shouting "Come on, come on!". They were followed by most of the rest of the town and a twenty person parade walked past two buildings to the northeast corner of town.
There stood a ramshackle, three-walled wooden shed that had probably looked exactly that structurally unsound on the day it had been built. The shed was lined with a thin layer of ancient straw that had nearly turned to dust under the weak and tired hooves of two horses that were old and sickly even by the poor standards of the waste.
Past the unstable horse stable the knight knelt. Her helm had been placed on the ground next to her steel shafted spear. She leaned upon the hilt of her sword, point digging deep into the ground, her muttering inaudible to those still in the town. Around her head, legs and arms were tied an assortment of runed cloths and as she spoke the letters glowed softly.
"You and your friend can have them," said an astonishingly wrinkled young woman, "after you save us from the dragon." She gestured off towards the shadow in the sky, still many miles away but larger than the wanderer's outstretched palm.
"I will not fight the dragon."
"But your companion is."
"We are not companions. We travel the same road by coincidence. And now I am leaving without her."
"But the dragon is headed this way."
"An additional motivator."
"But the dragon will kill us all."
"The who will save us?"
The wanderer shrugged.
"If not you, who will slay the dragon?"
"Someone," he said, "Or no one." He paused for a moment, considering, "Or time."
Those townsfolk old enough to understand winced at this last, knowing that, for them, only the first two were options, and if the armed wanderer left and the mystical knight failed, then they would be left not with three hopes, but the one certainty.
"I will be leaving now."
"You cannot take the horse unless you slay the dragon."
"Can you stop me?" There was no threat in his voice. He asked the question in the same neutral tone he had used for everything else. Still, the ugly young woman stepped back and a solution presented itself.
"You may take them if you need them to save our compound."
The wanderer gave her a withering look of scorn, but allowed her to save this little face as he mounted up and rode off towards the far horizon.
The dragon would be taking it all anyway soon enough.