I’ll Sleep Better Tonight!
by Taia Joy Flake
Sleeping on a dragon’s back sounds like fun, but Devlyn learned quickly that her best friend’s dragon form was about as comfortable as a bed of rocks. Rocks that snored smoke. It took only one night into their adventures as newly paid, Heroes for Hire for Devlyn to decide that both she and Bud would sleep on the ground in human form.
One morning after sleeping on a rocky dirt patch, Devlyn was awakened by loud voices complaining from a nearby roadway.
“They can’t block the road like this!” She heard one man shout. “This is the fastest way to Hestenshire!”
“It’s the only road to Hestenshire,” another called out.
The crowd continued to murmur and Develyn’s stomach grumbled—it wanted breakfast. She was saving what little money they got from the monks for a room with a soft bed once they got to the inn in Hestenshire. Her stomach grumbled again, and she realized she’d have to choose between spending their money on breakfast or saving it for a room unless they could make a little more money before they reached the inn.
“Someone has to do something, and soon!” She heard another voice howl. That’s when she got an idea.
“Wake up, Bud!” She pushed and jerked on his arm. “People need help!”
Bud grumbled and stirred but didn’t wake.
Devlyn jumped up and ran off toward the sound of the aggravated voices.
“What seems to be the problem?” She asked in her most heroic-sounding voice. Rather than answer her, the people simply pointed to the road behind her. She turned to look, and her heart sank. Skaji. A good half dozen of them.
She’d seen skaji in every creature book ever written. skaji were big, fluffy, stubborn, and immovable cattle. They were so big and lazy that when they laid down; they stayed there for weeks at a time. Nothing could entice them to move. Not food, not poking them with a hot stick, nothing.
Devlyn’s stomach grumbled again. She waved her arms above her head to get the crowd’s attention.
“Folks, I can help you! I will remove every skaji from this road… For a small fee, of course.” She said with a smile.
The crowd started to murmur.
“I promise!” She reassured them. “If I can’t clear the road in ten minutes, I’ll give all the money back. Twelve ounces of gold and the roadway will be cleared.”
The crowd scoffed and one called out, “Whose got that kinda money?”
“Well, you could pool your money together,” Devlyn said as she scratched her nose.
“What choice do we have? I only have two ounces to my name.”
“I got one.”
As the crowd gathered their money, Devlyn went to wake Bud and get her copy of Common Creatures and How to Care for Them.
“Wake up Bud. We have a job.”
“We do?” He yawned sleepily.
“Yes, and it’s best if you transform now and meet me on the road.”
“The road? As a dragon?”
“Yes, the job is on the road.”
“Alright.” He stretched as Devlyn read over the passage about skaji.
“Oh, no, they’re fireproof,” she said.
“What are?” Bud asked.
She didn’t have time to answer. She ran back to the road with her book in hand, trying to think of another way.
As she reached the crowd again, a large, grungy man with one eyebrow and few teeth questioned, “And just how are you going to move those things by yourself?” he demanded.
“I never said I would do it alone.” There was a roar in the forest behind her. “I am Devlyn, Daughter of Benso Ki.” Just then Bud broke through the tree line, stretching his wings high. “And I never travel alone!”
The crowd backed away. Every onlooker stood in awe and trembled. Devlyn held out her hand and a bag of gold was placed in it.
“Thank you. Now, please stand back and just watch.”
Bud looked at the sleeping skaji, then back down at Devlyn, his amber eyes disapproving even in dragon form.
“We need the money,” she mouthed to him, then stated loudly, “they need the cows moved.”
He rolled his eyes at her.
“We can do charity work after we’re rich and famous.” She felt a little twinge of guilt in her empty stomach. “I promise!”
Bud shook his head but walked towards the skaji.
“You can’t scare them with fire. Try roaring at them?” Devlyn said.
Bud let out a booming loud roar that shook the ground beneath them. Some in the crowd fell over in fright or backed farther away. Devlyn covered her ears but still heard ringing after Bud stopped.
Not a single budge from the sleeping skaji. “Ugh!” Devlyn grumbled. “Try kicking them!”
Bud side-eyed Devlyn. She knew he wouldn’t actually kick a sleeping animal. He nudged one with his foot. Nothing. He started pushing it. Nothing. If they weren’t breathing, Devlyn would have thought they were dead.
“Breathing?” she said to herself. “Blow smoke in their faces so they breathe it in!” she called up to Bud.
He bent low. Face to face with the first skaji, Bud took in a deep breath and blew out smoke from his nostrils. The skaji rumbled, but simply buried his face under fluffy gray legs and went on sleeping.
Devlyn was starting to worry. They were running out of time.
“Can’t you just pick them up?” she asked. Bud looked at the oversized cattle and shrugged. He placed a claw under the leg of the first fluffy skaji and pulled. Bud wasn’t big enough to lift the whole cow, but he could drag it.
He pulled the skaji to the side of the road, dragging its back legs and hindquarters on the ground.
“Whatever works!” Devlyn yelled. Then she ran to find and clear spots for Bud to place each cow.
It may not have looked graceful or heroic, but one by one Bud dragged each skaji from the road and to the place Devlyn had cleared. When the task was done, the crowd clapped as they laughed and gathered their carts to be on their way.
Devlyn dropped back on top of the final skaji; laying against its fluff was the most comfortable she’d been since leaving home.
Bud transformed behind some trees and then came and stood next to Devlyn.
“We could have done that for free,” he said, crossing his arms. “This road needs to be clear for wagons and carts. It’s the only way to Hestenshire.”
“I’m the one in charge of the money, remember, and as soon as we can afford a proper bed without worrying, then we can do tasks for free. But as for now…” She held up the purse of gold coins. “We’ll have full bellies. And I can sleep in a bed not made of dirt and rocks.”
“Dev, we’re supposed to be heroes for hire, not highway bandits.”
“We’re not bandits.”
“Devlyn, there is a big difference between being hired to do a job and forcing people to pay you just to do the right thing.”
“What do you want me to do? Give the money back and sleep on the ground again?”
“Whether you sleep on the ground or on a feather bed, you should feel good about what you did that day. You are in charge of the money, Dev, so what do you think true heroes should do?”
Devlyn sighed, then raced to get in front of the crowd.
“Wait!” she yelled, holding her hands up to stop the carts. “Here’s your money back! Devlyn, Daughter of Benzo Ki and my friend Bud of Kern, are Heroes for Hire.”
She handed the bag to the man with one eyebrow, and he began passing out the coins to their owners while Devlyn continued. “Please think of us if you are ever in need of hero services.”
“Thank you, lass.” The man said. “We’ll remember your name.” He placed a single coin in her hand before she could refuse. Then, nodding his gratitude, he walked away.
A couple with two small children came toward her with a loaf of bread. The father handed it to Devlyn. “We’ve had our breakfast, but it doesn’t look like you’ve had yours. Thank you for what you’ve done here.”
The travelers all smiled and waved their goodbyes as they continued their journey down the road.
Devlyn took a bite of the bread and handed it to Bud. She looked down at the single coin. It was not enough for a feather bed, but she smiled at her best friend. “You were right, Bud. I’ll sleep better tonight. Even on a rock that snores smoke.”