The dragons were a problem. All of the town officials agreed upon it, and the king himself remarked upon the lack of sheep and cattle in his pastures. There were only about a hundred or so dragons left in the world, but they all lived in the Black Mountains, which rested less than 10 miles from the kingdom of Sunnyout. However, the king had no idea what to do about it. He couldn't go to the Black Mountains -- that would be a risk to his life, and he had convinced himself long ago that the citizens of Sunnyout needed his firm hand to continue on in its orderly way. Still, he could not very well send anyone else. If the man he sent died (for the king was a bit aged and tended to imagine that women were capable of nothing but raising children, and girls capable of even less), he would be blamed for forcing a man unworthy of the adventure to take it. Or, worse yet ... what if the man he ordered to rid the kingdom of the dragons managed to do so? The entire population would demand that such a hero would be his heir, if not given permission to take over as ruler immediately. The king was smart enough to know that it would not be wise to have anyone benefit from his sudden death or disappearance. An heir would certainly benefit in this manner, especially an unknown heir -- and who knew what kind of person would be able to kill a hundred dragons? The king shuddered to think of it. As a matter of fact, he began to shudder so much and so often that the queen took pity on him and sent him to bed, telling his courtiers that he wasn't well. So that took quite a bit of responsibility from the king's shoulders, and he rested easily once again, moaning once every few minutes when servants brought chicken noodle soup or juice to his sickbed.
The men that lived in the kingdom of Sunnyout were too scared to fight the dragons as well. They had managed to convince themselves that the womenfolk and children would die without their support at home, and so to risk their lives would be more dangerous to their families than allowing the dragons to steal livestock necessary for the upcoming winter. There was not a word among the men of sending a female out to fight the dragons. If she was killed, what blame it would bring upon her husband! Or, worse yet, if she killed the dragons, what shame it would bring upon her husband! The women were disgusted with all of this cowardly behavior, even the queen, and not one lifted a finger to settle the rising anxiety.
Sam was a dashing, daring, and defiant girl who lived with her mother and four sisters and one brother on a farm in the country. Though Sam lived in the country, she wasn't one of those poor, pathetic girls you read about who end up saved by some proud, lazy prince or another, and is soon forced into spending the rest of her life suffering in his dull company. Sam's mother knew that the most lovely scenery and the best riding pastures were in the country. So that was where she chose to raise her five children. She had no men hired? 0*0*0* to plow the fields and gather the crops, as Sam's mother thought that there was no need to pay anyone to do a job she could just as well do herself. Which gives you an idea of how Sam was brought up! When Sam heard about the conflict between the men's fear and pride, she laughed. She wasn't going to help them, any more than their wives and daughters were. That is, not until the colt of her trusty steed, Hoofbeat, was taken by a large and particularly ugly purple dragon while she was chopping firewood.
"You beastly, scaled frog with wings! I dare you to come back and fight me!" yelled Sam at the departing dragon, shaking her ax at its back.
"My dear lady, I would at any other time return," it laughed over a slimy shoulder. "However, I have been sleeping for a week or two and am too hungry to chase a spirited (and no doubt tough-skinned) maiden such as yourself all over the countryside." Mad as a hornet, Sam whistled for Hoofbeat and galloped for the castle. When the soldiers saw Sam coming, they knew instantly that she was a witch. What proper lady would have such a venomous expression on her face? Or allow her gypsy-wild black hair to remain untied? Or ride about bareback on a horse with no bridle or halter?
"May I inquire as to the name by which you are called, witch?" called out a very grumpy army general when Hoofbeat had slid to a halt.
"My name is Sam, and I am not a witch. I want to speak to the queen immediately, please."
"Disgraceful! Absolutely and utterly disgraceful!" he yelled, "I have barely finished a nice, leisurely breakfast, all calm and ready for another peaceful day, and what do I see? A witch with a most unpleasant look on her face racing up to the king's own home as if she, as if she... utterly disgraceful!
"Disgraceful? Even more so than refusing to fight the dragons for lack of courage? To shame, you fainthearted man, with medals and honors replacing your courage!"
"Guards! Throw this witch into the dungeon until I have decided whether a burning at the stake or drowning in the pond would best befit her!"
"Are you sure that the dungeon is the best place for a willing and ready dragon hunter?"
"What! Stop, let go the witch! Do you speak the truth, or is this a lie to keep your wicked wrists from the dungeon chains?"
"I speak to the queen and only the queen."
"Bring the witch in to see the queen. Keep close watch on her, though, and see that she doesn't bewitch their royal highnesses with her evil black magic -- or it will be your head!"
Sam turned Hoofbeat loose in the castle pastures before marching straight into the castle, her chin up and her nose in the air. She paused only to ask her escort directions to the queen's chambers and to tell him that he was quite unnecessary as chaperone. Sweeping down the velvet and gold-laden hallways as if she saw riches twice as magnificent every day, Sam knocked on the queen's chamber doors.
After the queen had opened the door and admitted Sam into the room, the dismissed soldier nervously backed and bowed down the hall, and almost down the stairs. At any other time, Sam would have laughed, but the richness and royalty of the palace subdued her more than she would have cared to admit.
"I am sorry to disturb you, your majesty, but there was the urgent matter of the dragons that desperately needs tending to. If I may ask to fill the position of dragon hunter? Everyone here already seems to assume that I am a witch. Not that I am, of course. It's just that Hoofbeat's colt was taken today, and I was so mad, that... could you have the king announce to the people that I am a good witch willing to rid the country as best I can of the Black Mountain dragons?"
"Come in, dearie. What did you say your name was?"
"I didn't. But my name is Sam -- Samantha, I mean."
"Sam is fine. I will convince my husband to announce it tonight. You may start before then, however -- on your return trip the frosts may get to you even if the dragons haven't. I will lend you my warmest cloak and fur-lined boots to be sure you won't catch cold."
Hoofbeat wouldn't come when Sam whistled for her, and had to be chased for a considerable amount of time over the royal pastures before he could be convinced that it was finally time to go. Not that Sam blamed him. The royal pastures were planted with the finest seed, and even watered a bit in times of drought. The dragons, however, did not have much discrimination when it came to royal cattle and ordinary cows, so there were few other animals in sight and the hay was thick and lush for miles. Finally, with warm clothes, a day's supply of food, and a wondrous sword that was quick as the sun's light, Sam took off for the Black Mountains.
Killing a dragon turned out to be the easiest chore she had ever done. Dragons, as we all know, are nasty beasts. So it goes to reason that each of the hundred dragons lived in separate caves miles apart from each other. As Sam approached the first dragon's lair, the inhabitant came out to greet her. From her loose hair and long skirts, it was only too obvious that she was a girl.
"Out for a joy ride, are you, little one? Too bad this one will have to be cut short." Sam was taken into the dragon's claw and carried, squirming, into the den. The dragon planted her in the back of the cave and promptly went to sleep, making sure to keep its great back in the cave entrance so that Sam could not possibly squeeze out. You see, being rather old-fashioned, dragons didn't consider the possibility of a female even owning a sword, let alone having the strength to drive it through their tender hearts. (Which is one of the reasons why dragons are extinct nowadays.)
Sam didn't know about this foolishness. She had kept the sword under her skirts for safekeeping while she rode. This left the white belly unguarded and in plain sight. There are some tales that true ladies don't like the sight of blood, that they are too "nice" and "kind? to wish damage upon any other creature. Well then, if that is so, Sam was certainly not a lady. She thought that those tales were simply a trick invented by some male to keep women and girls from doing anything fun at all for fear of being unladylike. And to tell the truth, that is most likely so.
Once Sam had slayed the dragon, she found that it wasn't hard at all to climb out of the entryway. The tail of the dragon has much less meat on it than most pictures show, and the bones of all flying creatures are either hollow or made of very lightweight material. The shape of the dragon tail isn't much different from the tail of a rat, only much larger. So it was with ease that Sam pushed the tail out of her way and walked back to Hoofbeat, a hundredth of her mission accomplished. Sam found, after three more dragon lairs, that dragons had another tendency that kept them from defeating her and her harmless female appearance. If their prey wasn't expected to fight them in any way, a nap is always considered proper for dragons before mealtimes. So, upon seeing how easy it would be to finish off all the dragons in the Black Mountains, Sam slaughtered two more and then rode Hoofbeat back home for dinner. She would split her mission into 20 days. And, more to keep the townspeople from destroying her family's crop and home on account of her being a witch and a liar than to show that she was indeed a heroine, Sam brought a dragon tail along.
The ride to the Black Mountains and from dragon lair to dragon lair took up most of Sam's time, as dragons fall asleep quickly when they feel safe. (The ability to sleep was a part of a dragon's survival, and you can see that it did not work very well. However, the people of a kingdom were less likely to resent dragons who slept for a month and hunted only once between naps than dragons that had to take their meals three times a day like we do.) The kingdom of Sunnyout became so pleased that the dragon problem was solved that Sam and her family were offered wealth, and, more importantly, respect and friendship. Sam began to look upon her daily jaunts as a well-paying job, and the frosts and snows of winter didn't bother her one bit.
"Are Hoofbeat's hooves cracking or slipping? Are her hocks cold?" the blacksmith would ask.
"Do you need earmuffs? A new jacket? Mittens perhaps, with a windproof skin shell?" the tailor would inquire.
"Are you in need of any bread, rolls or sugared buns?" the baker would offer. Even grumpy old Mrs. Galumph that owned a neighboring farm sent her sons with a basket full of jams, jellies, cream, cheese and sweets to "keep her brave little cheeks rosy and red." Anyone who had any services to offer offered them gladly, and Sam was happier than she ever had been before. Finally she had a purpose! She was doing something that the people would remember forever. Sam had become a legend! The kingdom of Sunnyout might not have survived through the winter without her help, and every citizen knew it. One day, upon finding her brother Robby taunted by some village boys for crying and acting "like a girl," Sam blew her top.
"Behaving like a girl, is he? Does that include slaying dragons? Idiots! Get out of my sight before I claim a few heads to add to the dragon tails, and with the queen's own blessed sword no less!"
And she marched straight home, with Robby proudly marching along behind. Sam told him all the way that he wasn't acting like a girl so he needn't look so proud -- he was acting like a baby, more like it, crying at his age. Robby grinned all the way home.