Behind the closed door, at his favorite eavesdropping spot, Caleb shuddered. It was always bad when his mother referred to him as his father's son, even worse when she felt she needed to inform his father about it.
"Well, what are you going to do about that, John?" she went on, and Caleb could picture her frowning just by the sound of her voice.
"I'm going to disinherit him," his father said evenly. "You hear that, Caleb? Open that door and listen to this properly: if you run off to be a dragon slayer, I'm going disinherit you."
***Caleb's destiny had been decided before he was born. The eldest son of a highly reputable brick-maker, he'd naturally grow into his father's trade, learn how to make bricks that would not crack open in the kiln and wouldn't break under the weight of three-stories worth of bricks layered on top of them, and eventually he'd inherit his father's kiln, tools, helpers and customers. There were people far worse off in the world, peasants whose crops were always in danger from floods or dragons, and even his younger brother, Abel, who'd have to fend off for himself or forever be nothing but a helper to his father and then to Caleb. Everyone said Caleb was lucky to be John Brickmaker's first born, even the dragon slayers. But when he watched the fire that turned his father's clay slabs into bricks, all he could think of was slaying dragons.
At the age of twelve he was sent to work as an apprentice for a brick maker in another town.
"Experience will do you good," his father said. "Peter Brook won't tell you his secrets, but you can steal them from him. Watch him work, learn how he does things and figure out why, and you can use that knowledge when you come back home."
Caleb nodded solemnly. His father was paying good money for his apprenticeship.
"And remember that thing I told you about hunting dragons," his father added. "If you as much as try to become a dragon slayer, I'm disinheriting you. You can never come back to work here, you can never be a brick maker. Do you understand that?"
Caleb understood. He always said it was the dragons that didn't understand, that didn't have the decency to keep away from people's crops and homes and keep from tempting him to try and rid the world of them. After all, he didn't go looking for his first dragon, it was the dragon that found him.
He'd been three months into his apprenticeship with Brook by that time, and he'd learned nothing about brick making other than that it was backbreaking work. That night, they were out into the countryside to buy straw. Caleb's job was to tie the straw into sheaves and load them onto their cart. Brook was picky about the straw he bought, and so they drove from field to field, buying only a few sheaves at each place, to the exasperation of the villagers. Then, one night, the dragon came. From the inn where they were spending the night, they could see the flames rising in the village off into the distance, and the dark shadow flying above the thatched roofs, setting them on fire with its breath.
"That's one village we needn't go to," Brook said, looking out the window. "All the good straw will be burned by morning. Look at the color of those flames: that fire would've made some damn good bricks!"
"Where are the dragon slayers?" Caleb asked.
"Haven't seen one of those in years. Not enough of them to go around for such a big land. Can't say I'm surprised: it's not exactly something you can do for a living. There's no money in it and the peasants' gratitude will only get you a few pats on the back and nothing in your stomach. People need to eat."
"I'm going to have a closer look," Caleb said, heading for the door.
"Take my sword," he said. "Just in case you get too close."
The dragon circled the burning roofs, searching for prey. The moment he spotted Caleb, he swooped down with its claws ready to grab him. Caleb ducked. His legs wanted to take him back to the inn on their own, but the cold metal pressed against his thigh reminded him why he was there: not to look, but to fight. He raised his sword as the dragon dove again. The dragon's claws dug into his arm, then the beast let out a strange scream, as if it were surprised at its own pain. It let go of its prickly pray and flew up, leaving behind a trail of dark blood. And Caleb swore he'd kill it the next time.
It was another seven years before Caleb saw his father again. He'd been afraid to go home, afraid of facing his parents. He was a full-fledged dragon slayer by now, having apprenticed with several of the great slayers of his time, learning their tricks and secrets while he was sharpening their swords and polishing their armor. There was no dragon in the land he would have been afraid of, but hearing what his parents had to say, that he felt he wasn't ready for. Still, he missed them.
He got home at dinner time. His mother nearly dropped a plate when she saw him at the door and she upturned a chair running to hug him and kiss him on both cheeks.
"I'm staying at the inn," he said quickly, turning to his father.
"Nonsense! You're staying here!" his mother said, grabbing hold of his traveling cloak and struggling to make him take it off and sit down.
"Stay here," his father said, "and tell us about that dragon-slaying business of yours."
"I've got it all figured out," Caleb answered quickly. "Their meat is good to eat. It's tough, but it dries well and it'll last for days if it's salted and smoked. And their skin's tough enough to make decent armor. Nothing that can't be cut with a good sword, but better than the leather armor made of pig skin and such. I can find someone to sell it to in most towns. And they have horns, some of them, good for sculpting." He presented the hilt of his hunting knife as proof, a shiny black handle covered in intricate engravings. "People buy this stuff."
His father inspected the knife and nodded in approval.
"And if I kill three dragons a month," Caleb went on, "just three dragons, I can make a decent living off of it. Kill four and I can set some money aside for when I'm older. And then there's the stories I can tell. Noblemen pay me to eat at their tables and drink their wine and tell them about the dragons I've killed. And I help people. I'm a hero! So... so... I just want you to be proud of me."
"I am proud," his father said. "That's why I disinherited you. Brick-making is tricky. You can't do a good job if you're mind's not all on it. I need to leave my kiln to a son, but to a son who'll think of bricks when he's making them, and think of bricks when he's eating and sleeping and taking a piss too. And Abel does that. And I figured it's the same with dragon-slaying: you need to take it seriously and do your best, or you'll get killed. Now, your mother may do seven things at once as she says she does, but I think you can only do a thing right if you give it all you've got. And I won't have people say that John Brickmaker's son chased dragons while digging up clay for his bricks! That's why I'm leaving the kiln and everything else to Abel. I won't have you leave that dragon-slaying behind so you can make bricks! But your mother and Abel and I would be really happy if you came to see us every once in a while, in between dragons that is. Now sit down and let your mother feed you a decent meal, and tell us one of those stories the lords like to hear."