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Dragon's Bait

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Dragon's Bait

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Author: Vivian Vande Velde
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc., 2003
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Fifteen-year-old Alys is not a witch. But that doesn't matter--the villagers think she is and have staked her out on a hillside as a sacrifice to the local dragon.

It's late, it's cold, and it's raining, and Alys can think of only one thing--revenge. But first she's got to escape, and even if she does, how can one girl possibly take on an entire town alone?

Then the dragon arrives--a dragon that could quite possibly be the perfect ally....


Chapter 1

The day Alys was accused of being a witch started out like any other.

She woke to the gray light of dawn and to the sound of her father coughing. Did he sound any better than he had the morning before? Yes, she told herself-just a little bit, but definitely better. And though she'd thought that every morning since late winter when he'd been so sick she'd been afraid he'd die, and though here it was with the wheat already harvested and the leaves beginning to turn, and he still too frail to run the tin shop by himself-that did nothing to lessen her conviction. He definitely sounded better.

Of course, it wasn't normal for a girl to help in her father's business. A man without sons was expected to take in apprentices, not teach his trade to a fifteen-year-old daughter. But her father had had no need for an apprentice before he got sick, and now there was nothing extra with which to afford one. Without the goat cheese that Vleeter and his wife had given them and the bread that the widow Margaret had periodically left at their doorstep, they might well have starved during those long, long days when he'd been too sick to work at all. So now he was teaching her how to draw out tin into wire, how to pour it to fashion buttons, how to cut and join. She was slow, just learning, and he was slow, having to rest frequently. Between the two of them they could craft just barely enough tin to keep themselves alive.

Until the day Alys was accused of being a witch.

It started in the late afternoon, when a man she didn't know came into the shop.

Saint-Toby's-by-the-Mountain was small enough that everybody knew everybody, so it wasn't often that she saw a stranger. She put down the shears with which she'd been cutting a sheet of tin and said, because her father had gone into the house to lie down, "Yes? May I help you?" It wasn't fair to judge someone by the way he looked, she knew, but there was something decidedly unpleasant about this man, about the way he didn't seem to fit together properly. The toothy smile didn't go with the cold eyes; the head, shaved in the manner of a man of the Church, didn't go with the long, elegant, beringed fingers; the clothes were much too fine for Saint Toby's-even for someone simply passing through Saint Toby's.

"You are Alys, the tinsmith's daughter?" the man asked, though his gaze was roving all over the shop and he must see who she was even if-she could tell-he disapproved.

Beyond him, she saw a flitter of movement by the door and recognized their neighbor, the wheelwright Gower. Now what was he doing? His shop had been closed all day, which was unusual, Gower being an ambitious man. He was so ambitious he had even made offers to buy their land so he could expand his own shop. His wife, Una, and their daughter, Etta, had refused to talk to Alys ever since her father had refused to sell. Leave it to Gower to show up at the first sign of trouble. "I'm Alys," she said.

"I am Inquisitor Atherton of Griswold," the stranger said, naming the town on the other side of the mountain. Alys's attention leaped back from Gower, but before she could say anything, he continued, "You have been accused of witchcraft, and it is my duty to prove that." The already insincere smile broadened. "Or disprove it, if the evidence so warrants."

"Witchcraft?" Alys had no idea what to say. "Who...I mean what...I mean..."

"You will come with me," the Inquisitor told her.

Alys knew she wasn't a witch and reasoned that she would therefore be proven innocent. Still, fear began to overcome confusion as Inquisitor Atherton took firm hold of her arm. Her voice shook. "But my father's aslee-"

The Inquisitor's fingers dug into her arm as he repeated, "You will come with me."

That was when she knew, deep in her heart-though she wouldn't admit it-that he would never find her innocent, no matter what. "Father!" she cried.

The Inquisitor pulled her out into the street. People were gathering to see what the stranger was up to. But out of all those faces, Inquisitor Atherton picked Gower. "Go fetch the father."

"Gower," Alys said, finally realizing.

And lest she have any lingering doubts, the Inquisitor was pulling her next door, to the storeroom behind the wheelwright's shop. "This will be our court," the Inquisitor said. "Gather those who would testify."

The room filled quickly. "What'd she do?" she heard several of the children ask. But the parents only told them "Hush," and looked at Alys with fear, while the whispered word "witch" played over the crowd so that she could never tell who had spoken it. She had known these people all her fifteen years. Surely they couldn't be afraid of her? But standing there among wheel rims and spokes of various sizes, with Inquisitor Atherton's grip bruising her arm, she couldn't be sure.

Her father came rushing in. Alys's heart sank, for she was alarmed by how pale he was. But Atherton wouldn't let her go and he wouldn't let her father approach.

"Stand there," the Inquisitor commanded her father. "Let it begin."

Let what begin? Alys wanted to ask, but she only had time to draw breath.

"I saw her"-Una's loud voice cut through the murmuring of the crowd and everyone turned to face her-"in the street in front of Goodwife Margaret's cottage. I saw her look around to see if anybody was watching, but she didn't see me because I was bending over in my garden. She made a sign, and then she spat on the ground, and the next day Margaret's goat went dry and it's been dry ever since."

"I never-," Alys started.

"Be silent!" the Inquisitor warned.

"I will not," Alys protested. "What she's just said simply isn't true." She took a step toward Una, and Una threw her arms up in an exaggerated gesture as though to protect herself.

"Don't let her make the Sign against me!" Una cried, hiding her face.

"That's the most ridiculous-"

Before Alys could finish, Atherton grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away from Una. "We need a rope to bind her," he said. "And keep the father back."

"Don't hurt him!" Alys cried, seeing Gower shove her father, who'd been struggling to get to her. Atherton twisted her arms behind her back, and she felt rope being wrapped around her wrists.

Once she was tied, Atherton spun her around to face him. "Another attempt to harm the witnesses will be dealt with severely."

"But I didn't, and my father's sick, and-"

He put his finger close to her face. "Speak out of turn again, and that will be dealt with severely."

Alys jerked away from his finger but didn't dare answer. She looked at her father and tried to tell him with her expression not to worry, but she was too worried herself to be convincing.

It was Margaret who stepped forward, though she was almost half Atherton's height and probably twice his age. "Well, if she can't talk, I will," Margaret said. "What Una said is total nonsense."

"Has your goat gone dry?" the Inquisitor asked.

"Yes, but-"

"And it was a good milker before?"

"Yes, but-"


"I seen her," Gower said before Margaret could protest again. Everyone turned to look at him. "I seen her this past Midsummer's Eve. I just come back from fixing Barlow's cart wheel. They had me to supper and I stayed late." He turned to Farmer Barlow. "You remember?"

Barlow was watching the Inquisitor and looking nervous about being involved. "I remember you coming."

"The moon had risen," Gower continued, "and I seen her plain as day in the meadow beyond Barlow's pasture. What's she doing there? I said to myself. She had her arms out like this and she was just turning round and round, like she was dancing real slow. I stood a moment, just wondering what she was doing. And then..."

"Then?" the Inquisitor said.

"She took her clothes off."

Horrified, Alys protested, "I never-"

The Inquisitor raised his hand as though to slap her. "Gag her," he commanded.

"No, wait," Alys gasped. "Please. I promise to be quiet."

Atherton changed his upraised hand to a gesture of warning. He turned back to Gower. "Then what?"

"She danced faster and faster, in a frenzy. A lewd, devilish dance. And then I could hear the sound of pipes playing high and sweet almost beyond hearing. Fairy music, I reckoned. Not something a man who believes in the good word of God should listen to. Nor see, neither."

Atherton turned to Farmer Barlow. "And you, have you heard or seen something a man who believes in the good word of God shouldn't?"

Barlow's gaze shifted nervously from Atherton to Gower to Alys, back to Atherton, as though searching for the safest answer. "I ain't seen nothing," he said, licking his lips. "But then, that meadow's to the back of the house."

"I've seen something," Etta said, "something half the people in Saint Toby's saw and heard."

"And what's that, my daughter?" the Inquisitor said, sweet and gentle.

"She went to the carpenter's shop, to have a stool made. After it was done, she and apprentice Radley had a big argument about the price. We all heard her. 'That's too much,' she said. 'I could make a better one than that,' she said, 'in fact from now on I will.' Several of us were gathered around the door to see. She pushed past me on the way out, but then I saw her turn back. And the moment she did, the moment she did, Radley's chisel slipped and he gouged his hand something terrible so that he was hardly able to work for almost half the rest of the month."

"Is Radley, the carpenter's apprentice, here?" Atherton asked. "Step forward and tell us: Is this how it happened?"

Radley shuffled his feet and wouldn't look up, neither at Atherton nor at Alys. Tilden, the master carpenter, stood silent, next to him. "It's true," Radley mumbled.

"Who witnessed this argument and the aftermath?" Atherton demanded.

Hands raised, some reluctantly, some eagerly.

"What else?" Atherton a...

Copyright © 1992 by Vivian Vande Velde


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