Girls Can’t Do That

“Girls can’t do that.”

The first words Leelee could ever recall defined her by what she could not do. When the neighborhood boys climbed trees, she climbed higher just to prove them wrong. When they raced, she kept pace. When they spat to see who could fling saliva and phlegm the farthest, she spat, too. When they picked up wooden swords and beat at each other with them, she picked up a likely looking branch and joined the fray.

The boys admired her competitive nature and prowess until her bosom swelled and turned soft and her hips flared from her waist. Then the words returned in force, as adults focused their attention on turning the hoyden into a lady. However, embroidery and candle-making held no appeal. She did not want to learn to arrange flowers or bake the perfect cake.

But she was a girl, and girls must do these things.

“I cannot bear it,” she complained to her oldest brother, who looked at her with mild sympathy as she stabbed at a swatch of fabric stretched across a wooden frame. A small spot of blood soaked through the fabric, indicating where she’d poked her finger with the needle. Again.

“But you’re a girl,” he said, even though he privately acknowledged that embroidery appeared absolutely to be the most tedious activity ever invented. How women endured it, he had no idea.

“That doesn’t mean I’m weak in either body or mind,” she griped and then yanked viciously at her tangled thread. The thread broke and she muttered a curse no polite young lady should have known.

Marshall eyed her and tried to understand her discontent. He asked, “What would you do if you could?”

“If I could? Do you mean, what would I do if being female were no barrier?”


She thought a moment and then said, “I’d become the next dragonsbane.”

Marshall opened his mouth to declare that girls couldn’t kill dragons—it just wasn’t done. But he closed it, remembering that he had broached the topic and it wasn’t his sister’s fault for giving him a candid answer.

He opened his mouth again and said, “You’d have to learn proper sword fighting.”

“Teach me.”

Marshall’s mouth snapped closed. He’d opened himself up that time. Again.

“If I teach you,” he said, measuring every word, “then you must go about your duties without complaint.”

She looked up from the mangled disaster of her embroidery, eyes glittering with triumph or satisfaction or some other emotion he did not quite care to name, and said, “Done.”

Rising from the chair, he said, “The first complaint I hear from you ends your training.”

Her lips pressed together in a stubborn line and she gave him a curt nod. She held out her hand and he took it. They shook, sealing their agreement. He left the room, thinking that his sister would not last the week and then he could set aside this mad venture.

Lowering her eyes to mess of tangled threads, Leelee plotted for success.

Each day she and Marshall met because, although their mother, aunts, and sisters lamented that Leelee botched every feminine task set to her, she never complained. Marshall never thought to require that she excel in the domestic tasks assigned to her, only that she do them without objection. Leelee, their female relations lamented, could burn water, she was that hopeless.

He brought his practice swords that he had not used since boyhood. He trained her as he had been trained, first teaching the formal positions and terminology, graduating to the movements until she could flash from one to another without hesitation or awkwardness. Then he invited her to spar with him.

“You’re quick,” he complimented her, not knowing the hours she spent practicing on her own until her very muscles remembered the movements.

She lunged and he parried, his greater strength and reach defeating her. Again.

“Not quick enough,” she retorted between harshly drawn breaths.

Marshall danced back a step as she slashed at him. “You’ll never have a man’s reach nor a man’s strength.”

“No, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less intelligent or capable,” she snapped, ducking under his arm and whacking him with the edge of her lacquered wooden blade. He grunted. She stepped back and added, “You have a habit of leaving your left side unprotected.”

“Clever, aren’t you?”

She shrugged. Sometimes prudence mandated silence.

“Switch hands,” he ordered.

“What? Why?”

“Because how are you going to fight if your sword arm is injured?”

She nodded her understanding and switched the practice sword from her right hand to her left.


She fumbled, appalled at her clumsiness.

Marshall nodded without surprise. “You’ll have to learn all over again.”

She nodded. She learned. And not once did she complain.

If Marshall found his sister’s determination and perseverance remarkable, he never remarked upon it. The other women in the family complained to him: “Can you not persuade her to cease this inappropriate activity?”

“Does she complain about the tasks you set her?”

“No, she does every one of them without any protest, but so poorly that someone else must do them again.”

“Perhaps you should set her to fewer tasks instead of keeping her occupied every minute of the day in an effort to force her to quit.”

“The girl’s just too stubborn. She’ll never find a husband at this rate. A man doesn’t want a woman who’s lean and hard; he wants one who’s soft and yielding.”

Marshall was startled to realize that his unusual sister had indeed reached marriageable age and that their mother, aunts, and uncles had already begun negotiations to match her as advantageously as they could. She would bring a good dowry and influential connections; the man who won her would offer something equally valuable to the family. Marshall knew Leelee would hate it. But she was a woman and that was a woman’s fate.

He considered the complaints of his female relatives and casually asked his friends about the ladies they fancied. To a one, none of them listed a single attribute that described Leelee.

“We cannot continue,” he said when they met for practice.

“Why not? Have I not fulfilled my part of our agreement?”

“You have. But you are to be married soon and you must prepare yourself for that sort of life.” He forced himself to meet her stunned gaze, realizing that she had not been informed of the plans being made for her future.

Her eyes narrowed. “So, you’re reneging.”

“No! No, it’s just that this”—he waved his hand in a vague gesture—”is doing you no favor.”

“I see,” she said, her voice cold and remote, for her last ally had betrayed her. She set the practice sword down and left him alone in the courtyard.

She decided to take her fate into her own hands, instead of leaving it to her parents like a lady should.

The next day, she begged for and received permission to go shopping in the village. Pleased that her daughter showed some interest in that delightful pastime, her mother dropped some coins into her hand and bade her, “Buy yourself something pretty that the young men will like.”

Not trusting her words, for they would surely distress her mother and land her in trouble, Leelee nodded and left.

Dressed in sturdy clothing with all her pin money saved over the years tucked about her person, she visited the ironmonger and blacksmith and lied to them about wanting to purchase a sword for a younger brother as a gift. They shrugged their shoulders and showed her their wares, explaining the merits of the various options. Finally, she decided upon a utilitarian weapon with a slender blade made of crucible steel. The high quality of the steel raised the value; the lack of ornamentation kept the price within her means. She bought the scabbard and a belt, too.

Next, she purchased bread, cheese, and apples, and wrapped them in a cloth. She stopped by the weaver’s shop and bought a plain and sturdy wool cloak that could serve as a blanket. She began walking. When she reached the edge of the village opposite her family’s estate, she turned around to look back. She had no place there.

She walked farther than she had ever gone before. Using a modicum of sense, she took herself off the road for the night and bedded down amid a clump of bushes and overgrown grass. Swallowed by the dull brown of her cloak, she remained hidden from another small party of travelers who decided to camp nearby. Leelee huddled within the thick shrubbery and listened to their ribald conversation with only half an ear until they mentioned her.

“They say Lord Marshall’s sister has gone missing.”

“Which one?

“The ugly one who thinks she’s a man.”

“Stupid woman. She’ll come to no good wandering off by herself. Even a desperate man won’t shy away from an ugly woman.”

“Is she really that ugly?”

“‘Tis said she’s bearded like a man and has other manly parts, too.”

Within the concealment of her cloak, Leelee rubbed her smooth, beardless chin. How did such ridiculous rumors gain credence?

The men whom she did not know and who had never seen her discussed her lack of feminine attributes until their wineskins were empty and they eased into inebriated slumber. Leelee caught a few hours of light sleep and made sure to be on her way before they woke.

She took to heart her mother’s warnings of the insatiable and brutish appetites of men, although she couldn’t really say just what that meant other than her person would not be safe without adequate chaperonage. Therefore, since she traveled without chaperonage, she hid herself from other travelers and only allowed herself to be seen when necessary to purchase food.

She lost count of the days, but not of her rapidly dwindling coins, and quickly came to realize that she must find some way to earn money to buy food, fresh clothing, and shelter from cold and wet. She could not rely upon catching fish and had no hunting skills—yet another activity deemed unsuitable for young ladies. She knew no herblore to recognize wild edibles. She sang poorly, so a career as a wandering minstrel would not do. Those few people she approached to serve as a guard laughed at her. She refused to consider selling her body, although like the allusions to brutish male appetites, she wasn’t all that sure what that entailed.

She had no desire to find out.

In the fifth or sixth village she crossed, she read a sign nailed to a tavern wall. Curious, she walked into the building and approached the fat, bearded man who wiped down the bar with a dirty rag.

“Is the offer still valid?” she asked.

“What offer?”

“One thousand gold coins in exchange for killing the dragon.”

“Aye. Six men have attempted to rid us of the worm and all six died.” He squinted at the thin, dirty young woman. “Girlie, if a man can’t kill a dragon, you certainly can’t.”

“Is there any law forbidding me from attempting to do so?”

“Nay. Just good sense.”

“Thank you,” she replied. With a jaunty confidence she did not really feel, she set a copper coin on the bar and ordered a simple meal. The barkeeper served her and took the coin.

“Is there any sort of register needed to record who kills the dragon?” she asked.

The man snorted. “No need. If any man kills the foul worm, then he’ll drag the head back with him and that will be evidence enough.”

“All right,” she said. “Where is the dragon?”

The barkeeper tried again to dissuade her. “You don’t want to do this, girlie.”

“Where is the dragon?” she repeated.

With a shrug, he told the stupid girl.

Leelee walked. Her worn boots rubbed painfully, but she hadn’t the coin to replace them. Two days later she smelled the acrid stench of old smoke. A day after that she stood within sight of the ruined castle where a dragon had taken residence.

“How big is this thing?” she wondered aloud.

“Bigger than you,” came the reply from behind her.

Leelee yelped in surprise and turned around, hand clasping the hilt of her sword. The dragon sat on its haunches, wings neatly folded against its scaly sides. Its chiseled head, crowned with horns, towered over her on a sinuous neck. Defiantly, she drew her sword and held it ready.

“You’re not a very smart George, are you?” the dragon commented, eyeing the puny sword with contempt.

“I assume that’s a rhetorical question,” she replied, proud that her voice didn’t quaver. She waved the blade. “And you can’t blame me for being prepared to defend myself.”

A snort blew curls of white smoke from the beast’s flared nostrils. “Defending yourself? Have I harmed you? Or have you traveled here to try to kill me, just like all the other Georges seeking to steal my hoard?”

“Well, I would prefer to analyze the challenge before committing to action,” she replied, her voice calm, though her knees shook. “And who are these Georges?”

“Are you not a George? The first who came against me was called George. He claimed to have killed a dragon in Silene.” The great head lowered and inhaled deeply. “You smell similar to a George, but different.”

“I am female,” she said, eyes widening at the great, toothy snout hovering far too close for comfort.

“Ah, that must be it. I’ve only known male Georges and all of them try to kill me.” The scaly lips peeled back in a fanged smile. “They’ve yet to succeed.”

“I can see that.”

“Do you intend to try to kill me, then?”

“Do you deserve killing?”

The dragon’s head swung around. Leelee whirled on her heel to keep up with it.

“I probably do,” the dragon admitted, his tone wry. “But I did no harm to these people until they decided to rid the land of me.”

“They attacked first?”

“Of course. I’m not foolish enough to invite hordes of annoying Georges to attack me. Damned inconvenient, that.” The dragon spat a gout of flame which sizzled briefly, then died. “Georges taste terrible, you know. Not good eating at all.”

Leelee lowered her sword and sheathed it, since it wasn’t going to be sufficient to kill the dragon anyway. “Do you mind if I sit?”

“Go right ahead.”

She sat to the relief of her feet. “If you did not attack until you were attacked, then why would there be a reward on your head?”

The dragon’s head lowered until it rested on the burnt ground beside her. She gulped as she stared into an eye that was fully as large as her own head.

“I’m a dragon. Georges need no other reason, for they fear and dislike what they do not understand.”

“I know that well,” she commiserated.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m a girl, female,” she stated with a shrug.


“So, females aren’t supposed to carry swords or perform brave deeds. Females are supposed to sit at home, clean, cook, sew, and bear children.”

“Sounds dreadfully dull,” the dragon said and Leelee nodded in sober agreement. They maintained a brief, thoughtful silence.

“George?” it said.

“Er, would you mind not calling me that?”

“What would you like to be called?”

“George is a man’s name. My name is Leelee.”

“Ah.” The massive head rose again. “Since you are not a George, but a Leelee, I have a proposition for you.”

“Yes?” She tilted her head to look up, wondering just what a dragon would need her to do.

“I could use an ambassador. Speak to the Georges and tell them I shall harm none of them provided they cease attacking me.”

“I can try, but there’s no guarantee they will listen to me.” Leelee tilted her head back further. “What do you offer me in return for this service?”

“Should the Georges not kill you, you may remain as my ambassador.” One wing stretched out to point toward the ruined castle. “My new accommodations are quite spacious. I can use a sensible mediator, one who analyzes before she commits to action.”

Leelee considered the dragon’s offer for a moment, then asked, “If the villagers agree, they’ll require some sort of surety. They will be afraid. They are afraid.”

“Well, I am a predator,” the dragon agreed with a toothy smile redolent of cooked meat. He thought a moment. “Tell them that when wild game is scarce, I will partake of their livestock, but no more than what I need to live. And I will offer my protection to the village for as long as I live here. They’ll need not fear invasion or marauders.”

“That sounds fair,” she said, thinking that a beast such as this could easily eat an entire cow every week. “I’ll do it.”

The dragon extended a taloned toe, fully as long as her arm. “I have heard Georges shake their paws to seal agreements. Will a Leelee do as well?”

She nodded and grasped the dagger point of the black talon and shook it, realizing that she was indeed grasping her fate in her hand to do what no man had ever done.

The dragon grinned, displaying a frightening array of sharp teeth as he gently withdrew his claw. “Does this mean you aren’t going to renege on our agreement and you won’t attempt to kill me?”

“Of course not.” She smiled. “Girls can’t do that.”