Queen Ambergold of Azuria stood on the palace steps, and the great battledogs bowed before her.
‘Your Majesty,’ said brindled Storm, steed to the queen’s best knight, ‘we have an idea. A way to repel the Viridian invasion.’
‘Your thoughts are welcome,’ said the queen, and she smiled politely at the expectant dogs; but despair and hope were fighting in her breast. Her small mountain kingdom had little chance against the empire of Viridia.
‘The issue is one of numbers,’ said Storm. ‘Numbers and dragons. If we can match their numbers, and take their steeds out of the sky, then we can win.’
‘Well – yes,’ said the queen, trying not to look appalled as the dog stated the obvious. If you all grew wings and learned to breathe fire, she thought, we could win too.
‘May I introduce our new allies, Your Majesty. Fierce, loyal, eager to serve, numerous as the stars, and, I believe, equipped to take down a dragon.’
For a moment it seemed as if a gust of wind had whirled a million dead leaves into the air; then it seemed as if a million furry butterflies were fluttering down. Flyhounds. The tiny dogs folded their winglike ears, each one bigger than their bodies, and settled in the courtyard and on the stoical battledogs’ heads.
Azurian flyhounds, with their insatiable appetite for midges, kept the damp and misty kingdom habitable; but they were so small that when they hunted bumblebees, they hunted in packs.
The queen wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry; if not for a lifetime of etiquette training, she would probably have done both.
‘Little ones, your courage does you great honour,’ she said. ‘But tell me, how do you plan to kill a dragon?’
The flyhounds squeaked excitedly, too high for human ears to understand.
‘We have no interest in killing dragons,’ said Storm. ‘They are innocents enslaved against their will. The Viridians break their spirits when they are hatchlings. All we need to do is induce them to throw their riders. I suggest you order the flyhounds to aim for the insides of the ears. The inside of a dragon’s ear is very ticklish.’
At dawn, the small Azurian army watched from the cliffs as the sky over the sea grew black with dragons. The battledogs’ hackles bristled under their armour, and the knights who rode them swore soldiers’ prayers and gripped the pommels of their swords. And down in the short cliff-grass, among the flowers of thrift and samphire, the flyhounds waited.
Suddenly, the dragons were overhead, blotting out the sun, their fiery breath scything through the army. The wave of flyhounds rose up from the earth, each tiny warrior smaller than the blink of a dragon’s eye. Some died in that first blast of flame; their bodies fluttered to the ground like flakes of ash from a bonfire.
The rest pressed on, aiming for the dragons’ ears, as the Azurian knights tried desperately to hold their own against fire and sword and lance and talon, and the Viridian knights on dragonback jeered and yelled in triumph.
Then the first dragon began to shake its head. Several flyhounds lost their toeholds in its ears; one hung on with its teeth. More flyhounds joined the attack, and soon the dragon was shaking its whole body like a dog coming out of water, while the knight clung helplessly around its neck, being tossed to and fro like an armoured doll.
And then the most astonishing sound was heard: a dragon’s laughter. It was rusty, because the dragon had never before had reason to laugh; but it made the cliffs ring.
Soon the Viridian knights were dropping from the sky, as dragon after dragon began to shake and roar with laughter. Most survived the fall because of their armour, but few survived without broken bones; and those that did had to fight on foot, against knights on armoured battledogs. And in the sky the dragons swooped and laughed at them.
‘Fly away,’ the flyhounds whispered in their ears. ‘Go to the mountains, hide in the caves. Never go back to your masters! You are dragons!’
And the beleaguered knights of Viridia looked up to find their steeds had disappeared.
Before the sun set, the commander of the Viridian army knelt and laid his sword at the queen’s feet, asking only for permission to bury his dead. Peace settled on the cliffs, and the knights of both armies moved quietly together over the battlefield, taking up the dead and nursing the wounded. The only sound was the tiny voices of the flyhounds howling for their fallen comrades.
The queen gave orders for every flyhound who died that day to be buried with full honours; and to each one who survived she gave a very tiny medal.
The loss of their dragons was a terrible blow to the Viridian empire; but worse was the story, which followed the defeated knights back home, that their formidable army had been defeated by laughter. In far-flung corners of the empire, slaves and serfs began to wonder: if dragons can throw off their masters and laugh, and fly away, then maybe, one day…
And so Viridia began to crumble. It would be many years before it finally fell; but from that day on, the flag of rebellion bore the emblem of a flyhound, and the motto: LAUGHTER CONQUERS FEAR.