in Short Fiction

Let Us Tilt At The Dragons We Make

Everyone comes to see the dragons, so we have made it easy to see them. The road into town passes right by the knight’s field. You have seen the window of the original dragon on our cathedral. Many years have passed since we first built the dragons, and I have seen all of them. Many people come with many questions. Indeed, sir, it is why I purchased this inn. Much of my trade is in telling the tale as folk eat. You are here on a Tuesday, for which I thank your grace, and I’ll keep my mouth wet, pardon.

To the ladies. Tis true that Sir Donald and the Magus were the finest of men. Indeed, they were fine, and it’s a tragedy they never married.

There is only one true story, sir, about Sir Donald and the Magus, and as an old man I am among the last who remember it; yet even across so many years, I recall everything as if it happened yesterday. A herald arrived. This was held a good omen, for no one in our hapless town had seen a herald in five seasons. In fact, no one from beyond the Valley had visited our town in almost a year except young men looking for work, and there was none.

The last visitor had been a beggar. He bore news of events far away, so we fed him. There was food, and he found purpose in church hands, so we let him stay. Now we weren’t sure there would be food next year, and we were turning beggars around all the time. They’d come as outsiders from distant parts of the king’s domain with an inflected speech. We hated them immediately: dirty, ragged, and needy. Besides, their homes — not just destroyed by the sea, it seemed, but rather taken by creditors — were in a place not part of our lands. They were fishermen, mostly, and useless for farming.

Your health, sir.

There had been little contact from the capitol for the last three years. The tax collectors showed up twice for our sullen queue to the crown coffers. Reports of promises and projects did not interest us, for we had our own cathedral to finish. What cared we for royal highways?

Our problem — that is to say, the thing which distracted us from the larger goings-on in the kingdom — was that no one spent money anymore. The men in town with the heaviest coffers had once met other men and haggled over papers and coins in the courtyards from sunup til last light, but now they kept shorter and shorter hours all the time. So you will understand that when a stout gentleman in fine garb showed up at the Red Shield to spend the night, word reached the top step of the Plaza in five minutes.

He owned he was a herald — as if the old flag of Valle in his hand wasn’t proof enough! — refused to deliver his message to anyone except the mayor, and was offered drink and bread while the mayor was summoned. By the time Mayor Andrews arrived…at a gallop, dear ladies, cane and buckles,  but without his fine hat…the entire town knew that a nobleman’s standard had shown up in the hands of a herald, and such a crowd had gathered that a way through the press had to be opened with threats and imprecations that would make you ladies blush to hear.

A neighbor caught us up as we arrived. Coming from across the stone bridge, we were too late to hear at windows and doors thrown open. The herald, we learned, had paid his keep at the inn with gold sovereigns, put a coffer in the keeping of one banker, and set a bag of coins in the hand of another. A house was already being prepared for his noble’s arrival. The herald conferred with the mayor inside the tavern, where the flag of Valle — that’s it over the fireplace, sir, to your health — was flapping from its rest by the door. The mayor received his copy of the announcement, marveled at the ancient seal, and broke the wax.  The crowd hushed, waiting as he read in silence.

“A counter coup,” my father growled. Then he said the worst of words: “Uprising?” My father was possessed of a conviction that our young Prince Alba, if you will pardon me, sir, was of suspicious lineage, and therefore due for bloody replacement at any minute. The herald, he presumed, was here to announce the result of just such an inevitability. In the loud, unafraid voice of his firmest opinions, he offered a wager. To be truthful, I think my father rather wanted an uprising.

Mother asked father: “Oh! Now, who d’you suppose will rise up? That bonny King gone out to pasture? The one what’s left us with this…” She sidestepped a wayward child. “This mess?” She finished. “Bonny this!” It was a curse in her mouth. She’d barely trailed him the whole way, her skirts lifted for speed and legs longer than his own, for she worried of the war’s return. I was now of age to be conscripted.

She had harped on it for as long as I could remember. So many young men had been marched off to defend the free world from the Satraps of the East! And now they returned to their native shores and wandered the cities, many coming to our town looking for scarce work. Peace was the prince’s policy, and mother approved, but she worried: there is no honest work for them, she often declared. They do nothing but march about with useless writs of discharge in hand. Nothing for them to do but mischief.

Father always dismissed her worries. War, my father held, was an excellent thing for the character of young men and nations. But for once, this day that the banner of Valle — see the black cock on the white field, and the green dragon rampant? — fluttered at the tavern door, my father did not say so. We were of the middle houses, he reminded her instead, and I was therefore under no military obligations when he had paid good coin to the realm.

“Two hundred sovereigns,” he said. “I need his legs more than Alba needs a soldier.” He huffed and leant on his cane. “Peace.” He rather coughed the word up, I am afraid. To your fortune, sir.

My mother grew taller and threw down her skirts. Father had a point. He’d paid a fine penny for my papers — and mother had sent gifts of pie and cake and even a dress to the barber’s wife. What else did she imagine such bribery was for, eh, if not writs of incompatibility with the hardships of service? I wasn’t the only son in town with the same story. But I remained silent, my opinion unrequested.

Mother’s face grew dark. “Two hundred to keep a child from war, but not one farthing to keep a child from starving?”

“There’s soup for them,” my father grumbled.

“Thin gruel,” she corrected. “Why, I was in the charity kitchen just yesterday; we boiled two beans, a carrot, and a lamb chop to serve two dozen…”

You’ll have to understand I was more interested in diversion than news, as is the wont of youth. A boy’s life is boring enough in a town like Ingenoco, where the most frivolous fun to be had was a pumpkin-mashing. My chums and I had held one just last night at father’s old stone mill. I was still waiting for father to mention the crushed, exploded pumpkins piled up and buzzing with flies beside his place of business, and make dire threats on my backsides; but he hadn’t even been to the mill that day, I realized. And that was not good.

You will understand, sir, that my worries peaked with the arrival of that fair banner. Our family’s fortunes had suffered along with everyone else’s. My father’s business was ailing; farmers had planted only a fraction of what they might; there was food, thanks to the town and the church and the good crops, but there was precious little exchange of money. The reasons…I beg your pardon sir, but they were never quite clear to anyone.

The farmers of our valley blamed the bankers for calling in mortgages and denying credit.

The town’s bankers blamed the bankers in the capitol for closing off credit to them.

The bankers in the capitol blamed an inexplicable crash of accounts.

Pumpkin futures had plummeted.

My father tried hard to understand these things and explain them to me in detail. All I understood was that fewer men showed up at his mills with less grain than before, forcing us to let go a dozen men – “and the devil take the hindmost,” my father said. I’d been smashing pumpkins with their sons last night while telling the tale. They were credits as friends, and joining their abuse of the old stone tower was the best way I knew to keep them.

Father and mother ignored one another as the mayor emerged from the Red Shield. I hoped no one would talk to me, and kept my eyes at the ground. Diverse prattle and exhortations made another babbling din, but this ceased the instant the herald rang his bell: such silence followed that from a distance of a hundred paces, I still heard his throat clear.

“Oh yea, oh yea, o yea!” He began. “Stout citizens of Ingenoco! Be it known that tomorrow evening shall bring the long-delayed visit of Sir Donald, House Peronus, Hero of the Wars, General of Armies, and Protector of the Vale, to this esteemed town of his ancestors.”

We stood silent from surprise. No one had ever seen the man, for he had never visited; but we knew of him. House Peronus was a noble family, and carried the title of our protector in its coat-of-arms. The last male descendant of that house had gone away on crusade ten years ago, winning great victories in our country’s glorious retreat. The family keep was a ruin. That the cock and dragon were still in the hand of a noble scion — well, it was a wonder.

The herald continued reading. “All are invited to attend him as he informs the residents, in words most powerful and illuminating, of the latest intelligence of the hated wyrm, serpent of the Devil, winged scourge of the fair people.”

A kind of sigh went up, a noise of discovery: Ahhh! For while few were versed in the details, everyone knew the title ‘Protector of the Vale’ was a tradition having something to do with dragons. Not that anyone had ever seen the genuine article, of course. But you have ridden up the sharp pass into the hills, and seen the Quarry Beast. We find it easy to believe in dragons here, as we’ve dug up their bones.

“Sir Donald of Peronus brings with him the famous Magus of Clarus,” the herald continued, “ to explicate the mysteries of the noxious monster. The Magus brings wondrous spectacles to enlighten and entertain. Weather permitting, he will display them here, in the public square, on Wednesday evening, when all may witness.”

A cry of delight went up. For while none of us had heard of the office of a Magus or a place called Clarus, a spectacle was novel and welcome. I should explain that no carnivals or festivals had been declared in more than a year, and the Harvest Feast had been a general disappointment as no one would spend on leisure. Every man held fast to his coin, and so nobody gained.

But every resident of Ingenoco was eager for whatever spectacle the Magus of Clarus brought, and free admission was even better. Dragons? That was interesting, too. An entertainment, surely. As the herald finished his reading with various etceteras and moved to nail up his notice on the public board, a press of men formed to read it. The literate read it to the letter-less, with late-comers ganging up for summaries. This lasted a time, I’m told, but I only saw it in passing.

My father, you see, made off to buttonhole the mayor.

Your health, sir. And your indulgence, for I heard my mother damn. Damn. That moment, as my father raced away to involve himself in whatever goings on lay at hand, was the first time I had overheard my mother curse. She turned away from the throng with a foul face.

Of course, I was obliged to escort her back home. “It sounds like a fine thing,” I said to her. She shrugged, sighed, and said: “We don’t need talk of dragons in Ingenoco. We need more talk of money and wages, for we have not enough of either.”

My mouth opened to contradict her, for the arrival of such grand guests meant an income for vendors. Why, father was scheming a profit this very moment, wasn’t he? But the words did not leave my mouth, for the herald clapped my shoulder and demanded attention.

“Lad!” He called, ignoring the urgent questions of his pursuers. “Pass these about for me?” He pressed a stack of copies to me and turned to the mayor, my father, and the other notables now ganged up about him. “I have come at a prodigious pace, and am now dying of thirst from reading,” he said. “All your questions will be answered over a tankard, gentlemen. Please join me.” As he strode away, his stout legs giving purposeful strides, I saw my father and the mayor in his train. “There,” I said. “You see, mother?” But when I turned to smile upon her, she was four lengths away, clucking and shaking her head as she walked.

My father intercepted me anyway. “Let her walk,” he said. “I need your legs, boy. Hand out those copies and come back.”

The copies disappeared in minutes. I returned to the Red Shield, where my father gave me a list of persons to visit immediately with orders. “Tell these people – damn it, tell everyone you meet that town notes are good again,” he said. “Tell them the mayor’s signing the notes, and bankers will be right here with their coffers open for inspection.”

Indeed, sir, the most tightfisted men of money were already arriving to the Red Shield with factors and boxes and books normally shut by noon those days. The town’s reaction was like a pot boiling over. Everywhere, bakers fired their ovens. Cooks boiled their soups. Butchers sharpened knives and innkeepers made their beds. All of this happened without a single penny passed from hand to hand, for town notes were good once more.

What are town notes? Why, sir, I must apologize. Town notes are what we call bills of ordering. With every man coiling around every coin like a snake, no one responded to bills of order anymore. It was coin on the barrel or Devil have you.

The appointed rounds kept me well after dark, and I returned to the Red Shield looking a harried mess from a light rain. My father nodded at me. The herald called me by name: “a fine job you’ve done, John. My thanks. Here,” he said, pressing a gold sovereign into my palm. “Are you hungry?” I was weak with hunger, and in fact my stomach gurgled at the very mention of food.

Yes, isn’t the cheese wonderful? They make it in the hills above the Valle. Our cooks here also make a good stew according to recipes kept secret and handed down from cooks to sons. Indeed, sir, the bowl before you contains the very same Valle stew the Herald bid me eat. “They’ve made a big stew in the kitchen,” he said. “Have a bowl.”

The keeper’s daughter served me herself. She was delighted to make change from the sovereign I held, which was the first coin either of us had held in days. And this strange thing I tell you sir, though you might think me an imbecile: when turned to smaller coins that covered my hand, I actually felt the richer.

And I testify on that purse — the one you have offered for my story — that while eating the stew, I courted her as a young man for the first time. She is my wife now, and though we are very old we both remember that day very well, sir. So you’ll pardon me if I missed much of the early talk. What Donald of Peronus proposed (and the herald was canny, merely hinting at the scale of De Peronus’s ambition and implying a cornucopia of blessings the Magus offered) would very likely turn around the fortunes of Ingenoco forever, and our gray-haired council of elders would see their names eternally bound with it. Even the monsignor nodded his enthusiasm; scripture held the dragon as symbol of all that was wrong with the world and the very origin of sin. The herald’s promises of support for the cathedral, then barely half-finished, did not hurt the monsignor’s enthusiasm, either.

The project to be proposed (and here, that herald quoted scripture) would emblazon the name of Ingenoco on the breasts of every God-fearing man and woman in the western world, and strike fear into the Satraps of the East. For every man in the room, the herald had an appeal. Even to me: “they mean to employ your sons for wages,” he said. I looked to Father. He would never allow me to work for wages, but at least the news meant my friends would do well, and that mattered a great deal to me.

“Go home,” Father said. “See after Mother.” Returning home at a snail’s pace, I saw faces that had only known worry; now they were lifted. Lines that had worn deep now smoothed in relief. Sir Donald of Peronus and the Magus had not even arrived, but already they had proven the perfect tonic for our malaise.

The servants were busy for once. Mother met me in her dressing-gowns. “Tell your father I have the vapors,” she declared. “If he asks.” She twisted her mouth. “If he doesn’t ask, tell him anyway. I shan’t be attending the festivities tomorrow. Goodnight.”

Ah! I see the next course is prepared. Your health, and obsequies to your fine selves.

Everyone marked the omen of a clear and warm day. De Peronus’s arrival came with fanfare and trumpets and a gilded coach drawn by four white stallions. Outriders exhorted us to cheer the approach, but no commands were needed. Whoever they were, Sir Donald of Peronus and his Magus were the most popular men our town had ever seen. We were drunk on the cryptic promises of their mission.

The heir of House Peronus exited the coach with such nobility that women swooned. By half a head, he stood taller than the tallest man in the valley, a head-and-a-half taller than most, and a regular giant over my father. His clothing revealed great strength in his limbs. His chin bore a small, black beard of superb grooming. His mustache, I must say, was magnificent — the very picture of a dashing general. The herald had told dark tales of ruthless warrior’s skill: the killing of captives, the putting to the question, all in God’s grace.

Upon being greeted by the mayor and a half-dozen maidens bearing flowers, he placed a hand on the hilt of his sword, bowed, and thanked everyone with a sweep of his glorious hat and a rumbling baritone voice. “I am well-met by this esteemed town,” he said. “May the world come to know the hospitality of Ingenoco!”

Stepping aside, he allowed the Magus to exit the carriage. This man was even taller than Sir Donald de Peronus, but thinner of limb. Like the noble knight, his clothing was fine; but where the former wore his sash with dash and bravado, the Magus carried mystery in his dress. Red and black silks flowed down his narrow form. His moustache and beard were long and thin to match, and a great silver cross hung on his chest. He returned the greetings of mayor and flower-girls with gravity, but upon sighting the town priest he strode through the crowd and amazed us all by kneeling before the startled cleric.

“Oh, Monsignor,” he cried, taking the priest’s hand to kiss. “It is my honor to meet you, for your devotion and wisdom are known in religious circles! Such a fine servant of God for such a fair town! To this very day, sirs, the Grand Cathedral regards this friar as a martyr to justice. Oh, father, bless this humble servant of God, for he carries a terrible burden, a divine terror which the ignorant misname sorcery.”

Flattered and flabbergasted, the priest blessed him. The moment drew shock and alarm from us. I am not embarrassed to report that I, too, was overcome. Everyone knew that our town’s priest had once been considered a candidate for bishopric before falling out of favor after refusing a divorce indulgence. We called him “Monsignor” in respect, not office, for his tale was among our proudest possessions as a town.

The guests were paraded along the avenue, showered with loving cheers and praise, to the plaza. A feast awaited. Everyone was served.

Your health, my hosts.

The speeches began as evening fell.

“Dragons,” the knight began, “are the most terrifying creation of God.

“With their mighty winds, they raise storms. With their fiery breath, they raze towns. With their grasping claws, they rape the land to eat out its substance and destroy its people.

“Make no mistake: the dragon is vengeance for sin, and upon the sinful village the serpent shall descend.

“Yet, once loosed, the fiery wyrm does not sleep until he has sated himself; and he does not care how faithful, how good, how blessed the land. He eats it anyway.

“He destroys everything – every living thing – until his fires are quenched with blood, and then he returns to his cavern to sleep. But for how long? None may know.

“It has been a long time since dragons last afflicted these parts. Indeed, the western world has not seen a dragon for an age, and that is entirely due to the presence in our midst of the true religion.” Here, he indicated the church with a sweep of his hand, a gesture that filled the entire square but took in the church. Surely your esteemed personages have visited our little cathedral? We are quite proud of it; only the cornices are unfinished. But I digress from the nobleman’s speech:

“In foreign lands, where the devil has spread his lies until they are believed and practiced as religion, I assure you that dragons run rampant. We have brought proof – undeniable proof – which my esteemed friend and associate will show you in a few moments. We know of your Quarry Beast, as well.

“’But why,’” I hear you ask, “’would we come here, of all places? To Ingenoco, a simple town of hardworking, pious citizens?’

“My friends…” He swallowed, fighting emotion. “We come here because you are hardworking, pious citizens. Because yours is a simple town of good, faithful men and virtuous women. We come here because the return of the dragon is imminent!

A horrified groan came from every throat, my own included. Not that I had ever seen a live dragon, or had even heard of one attacking civilized lands, but I knew what they looked like because of the Quarry Beast. My father first took me to see it when I was six; I shall never forget my terror and delight on seeing that sublime skeleton. But back to the nobleman’s speech, begging the indulgence of your ears, for difficult words came forth:

“Yes, my friends, I do not exaggerate. Young Prince Alba has ended our crusade against the aggressive Satraps and their false god. He has withdrawn our troops from vital fortresses and brought them home. Why? Why would he abandon this cause his father so nobly began?

“And we cannot dismiss the devastation of his policy. Has this town not suffered the vile depredations of those fat, greedy, incontinent bankers?

“Did they not cease their lending at the very moment our prince was sending his own father into exile?

“My words are terrible. Some may call them treason. But I call them truth: the Prince is in league with the dragon!”

This brought confusion. Was this talk not treason? Sacrilege, even? Would the town not suffer the wrath of the Prince? Yet his words struck home as well, for everyone had known so much worry in the time since our government had changed. Perhaps the visiting knight had a point, we thought.

“He does not pursue his designs openly, my friends. His pact is private. It has been negotiated in shadows and convened in secrecy. But it shall come to nothing, good people, because you are good people.

“The Prince does not understand towns like Ingenoco. He does not comprehend your ways. He is a creature of that metropolis, that swamp of iniquity in which the bankers and the merchants and their toadies bathe in opulent vanity. I speak, of course, of our distant capitol.

“The life of the palace is given to liberality, gluttony, and depravity. Why, do you know that…” Sir David of Peronus seemed to choke, then bravely resumed his revelations: “In the very shadow of the Grand Cathedral, do you know that men openly lie with other men?

“That whoredom and incivility own the streets?

“That men attend lectures and worship art instead of the Savior?

“That they openly declare their disbelief in both God and dragons?”

A hubbub of awed woe crashed through the people of the town.

“But as I said,” the knight continued, “all those plans and sinful appetites will not devour this valley. Here, where the people are strong…where the rot of the capitol has not infected the people…justice shall reign!

“For here, once upon a time, our forefathers stood against the tide of darkness. My own noble line descends from this very place, friends. A tradition established here lives on, in my office as Protector of The Valle.

“I inherited this office from my father, and he from his father before him. In centuries past, the vigor of this tradition was allowed to wither in the summer of our fortunes. For we were happy, and crops were good, and cattle grew fat.

“The present situation is God’s warning that the dark times of old approach again.

“’But what can we do?’ I hear you cry. ’We are a simple town. We have no army. We cannot march on the capitol and set things right again.’ For while every man of the Valley has his crossbow ready at hand, we lack the means to wage such a war. Yes, if the Prince sought to take this Valley and confiscate our weapons, we would stand against him with pride and render him a devastating blow. But still, we are not equipped for a march upon the capitol. We are wise to concede the limitations of our temporal power.

“Yet I say it is not the distant depravities of the Prince and his court that we must fear most, anyway. No – the greater calamity is the dragon. And against this, our spiritual power is unmatched.

“But before I present my plans to you, I would have you heed the evidence. Yes, now I yield the attention of this gathering to my able and esteemed companion.”

Again, to your health, sir. Oh, to your health, sirs! And ladies.

Here he turned, and we all discovered that in the darkness the Magus of Clarus had erected a strange machine. Igniting a spark, he made the interior glow brighter than the lanterns strung over the square, and then blocked that light by closing a cabinet door.

“The Magus of Clarus has traveled the length and breadth of the world,” the knight declared. “He has studied in ancient libraries. He has performed wonders for princes. He performed for the amusement of the Satraps when visiting their territories. He has dedicated his life to the study of God’s enemies, that we might defend our freedoms. And he has brought proof of the dragon!”

The Magus ascended the speaker’s dais to great applause, and then bid us extinguish every lantern. “My friends,” he announced in and ominous tone, “dragons are real. Everyone, please look to the wall of the unfinished cathedral.”

And with that, he pulled on a lanyard. A curtain fell away from the front of his machine, and everyone gasped in wonder at a picture glowing on the church wall. It looked very much like a stained-glass window with the sun behind it. The Magus explained the workings of his machine, demonstrating that it was little more than an elaborate shadow-play. His explanation did not lesson our awe in the slightest.

Now he showed us the skeleton of a dragon. He had made this image with his own hand, he declared. It was an exact copy of the very scene he had encountered, a meticulous rendering. He offered other examples of his art: birds that seemed ready to fly off the church wall. Battles and miracles. As little as I remember of his commentary, I recall every line of this picture, to which he returned: the sinuous neck, the dagger teeth, the gruesome wings – these last much smaller than I expected. Moreover, I was surprised to see not two, but actually four wings, like great flippers on a fish.

He had included a man in the picture to give us some sense of the enormous size of this skeleton. He had found it, he said, in a rocky desert – proof that dragons ruined the Earth wherever they raged.

The rest of his pictures were not nearly so memorable. They were very much like the pictures hanging inside the church. The Magus talked of sin and destruction, enumerated great cities laid waste by dragons in ages past, talked of the Sainted Savior slaying the dragon of scripture.

I cannot recall now a great deal of what the Magus had to say, but it seems to me that we were in a waking sleep as he showed us his wonders. Returning to his image of the dragon’s skeleton, he then presented us actual dragon’s teeth. They had come from the southern continent, he said, and were collected at great risk, though now they were harmless. All of us were eager to look, and filed by to see them. I was among those who dared lift a blunted fang as big as my arm, heavy as marble and just as smooth.

The Magus smiled upon me. “A boy with courage!” He said. “Fear not the works of the serpent.” Then he turned to the knight, relinquishing our attentions. Sir De Peronus stood again and laid out the details of his plan: to restore the Valle to its former glory and raise a squadron of trained dragon-fighters.

“In order to fight dragons, we must erect a dragon of our own.”

The words echoed in the square. The Magus showed us his final slide: a plan, or schema, of a mechanical dragon. Gears and rods and pumps would provide motion to simulate the movements of an actual dragon; this was how the knight would train our dragon-fighters.

“We need a windmill,” the Magus said, and before he even breathed I knew my father would volunteer one of ours. He owned too many as it was.

You asked for the whole story, sir, and I am telling it. Your health, sir. Father stayed late at the meeting which followed the speeches, firmly staking his claim to a part of the project Sir Donald had proposed. I came home to find the servants dismissed for the evening. Mother was alone in the sitting-room. She looked up when I entered, but did not rise. “I take it your father won’t be coming home until dawn,” she sighed. “Very well. What color was Sir Donald’s beard?”

When I answered, she laughed. It was the first time I had ever heard her laugh in such a way, derisive and coarse. “He used dye.”

She was not excited to hear my news of what I had seen. In fact, the more relish and eagerness I gave to my recounting of events, the less interested she seemed. But she did not voice her feelings; she merely nodded, made small noises, and yawned.

At length, I grew more exasperated than my natural respect could contain. “I tell you mother,” I said. “This is the biggest thing that ever happened to Ingenoco. Why do you seem bored by it?”

To my surprise, she smiled and touched my hand. “My son, do you know that I grew up in the capitol? My father’s business was there, although we kept a home in the Valley. We were without noble titles, but we were rich, and granted visits to the palace, which is why your father married me.”

I knew this was true, but had never expected to hear my mother admit it.

“I was part of the social scene around town. Not of the court, but of the town,” she declared. “And I have met Sir Donald of Peronus.”

My reaction was as you might expect; I had a thousand questions. But she shook them off.

“He was a buggering sodomite and a plundering hypocrite back then, and I’ve no doubt he’s still running around with a tall, skinny, loathsome choad of an actor named Clarus.”

Horrified silence won over intemperate outrage. Had she really just leveled such an insult to the Magus? I left the words unspoken, but she read them in my face.

“Don’t look at me with that tone of voice, David. I don’t lie. Clarus is the taller one, but he’s the smaller in spirit. An imp. A foul little schemer following his meal-token about, talking nonsense of dragons. So what’s this plan of theirs?”

I described all the details I could remember. “They mean to hire young men for wages,” I said. “Father will do well.”

She bent her head. “Let us hope. More likely, they’ll make a midnight run for the capitol with everyone’s gold, leaving broken dreams behind. It’s possible to erect a dragon-puppet, but impossible to stop the Prince.”

“I’ll wager it works,” I said.

“Oh!” She laughed. “Oh, my eager son. So like your dear dad. How much would you wager?”

I counted the change from my pocket aloud, with relish.

Sir Donald traveled the length and breadth of the county to raise funds. Notices were posted and presentations made. Everywhere he went, the Magus went with him. Approving crowds saw the same wonders and heard the same speech. I traveled with them to serve as messenger, and heard the speech so many times that I knew it by heart.

Contributions in money and goods were promised and accounted. Construction began within a fortnight of his arrival in Ingenoco. Father’s oldest mill was built of solid stone, but a newer mill had younger gears, so the Magus of Clarus selected it to power our dragon.

The conversion took place with surprising speed. Paint came in from one place, wood from another, and metal from even farther away. The town smith worked his forge again. Carpenters banged away with joy. Sail canvas and paint completed the project just in time for the harvest festival, and a great feast was held again — but this time, in a list field by the mill. We needed the space, for the notices had invited everyone to witness this event, and they came from all over the Valle to see the Dragon of Ingenoco.

The town square could never have held so many farmers and families. Tents filled the commons. Vendors did brisk business. Musicians and jugglers and a puppeteer took coins for their acts. Merchants sold wares and deals were struck. Contests had prizes. There were plays and prizes. No one had seen so much money passing so many hands in such a very long time that I was tempted to ask mother if she remembered our wager; but she seemed to enjoy the day so much that I left it alone.

When Sir Donald was presented in plate mail, she did not cheer, but clapped politely.

Sir Donald asked the priest to give an invocation. This was long, and filled with brimstone passages. Everyone was reminded why we were there, and what we must expect from a sinful world.

The Magus then demonstrated the workings of the dragon, which swung its arms and breathed fire. Have you taken a penny tour? Excellent! And let me add that today’s dragons are no more impressive than that first one, even on the inside. The first dragon looked exactly like a creature come alive in a fiery desert to destroy everything in its path. It even breathed fire through a bellows, a sight that terrified everyone and brought an enormous round of applause. But the most terrible, wonderful thing were the eyes: immense balls of glass, glowing with his fire. When I stared long into them, I felt that hell itself was just beyond those slitted pupils.

Then the knight mounted his horse and took up his lance. Drums sounded. He made several practice passes at paper targets. Then he rode past a trio of colorful animal-dolls suspended from posts, hacking at them with his gleaming blade. Sweetmeats and treats cascaded from the bellies of the cloven beasts, and children rushed to collect them.

Sir Donald explained his stratagem: by riding in at speed, he would cause the dragon to rear up. “I shall give it a deep bite of the lance,” he said, “right in its belly. With the serpent pinned, I shall cut its throat. For that,” he declared, “ is where the wyrm keeps his heart.”

This was followed by another fanfare. He backed a great distance away down a lane marked with pennants, signaled the Magus, and lowered his terrible visor. Ladies gasped at the sight; I gulped, feeling a strange dread. We had never seen a man disappear into warrior’s armor before, and it seemed very much as if the man himself were gone, replaced by a malevolent thing of metal.

The drums came to an abrupt stop. The knight called out to his destrier, urging it to speed. The horse gathered itself for an instant, like a runner given the word to start at his own ready, and then sped off with a such a pounding of hooves that the very ground shook.

The dragon spewed fire and rose on its haunches, swinging its wing-talons as the knight approached. Everyone held their breath, for it suddenly seemed the beast was too dangerous, its reach too long. Surely Sir Donald would be unhorsed and clawed to death! Flames belched from its mouth: surely he would be burnt to cinders!

But his timing was perfect. The lance penetrated deep. He left it impaled in the magnificent beast, circled back, drew his shining saber, and made another pass.

The Dragon of Ingenoco roared in agony and fury. It clutched at the lance, flapped its wings, and rose ten feet in the air. Sir Donald came at a full charge again, and this time it flailed claws and snapped its teeth and beat its wings and blew its anger, nearly toppling the knight from his saddle. There were two more passes. The beast snorted flames, and Sir Donald’s armor was singed, but on his third pass he cut the serpent’s throat open in a stroke.

Behind him, a glowing heart fell to the ground. The dragon roared its last and died in a great cloud of smoke. The church bells rang as he rode along the galloping lane again, visor open and longsword in the air. The sword became his cross, and his eyes closed in prayer as he whispered to it. Everyone, even mother, roared in approval.

Mother turned to me with a wry smile. “A dragon has come to Ingenoco, alright. Nice to see the young lads employed.”

A second festival, even bigger than the first, was to be held in May. This time, of men-at-arms would take a turn at the dragon with new weapons. Selections would be made from the best volunteers. I wanted to try, and my friends were all keen.

Father surprised me. I had expected the kind of terrible row that every young man is supposed to have with his dad, demanding to be treated as a man. But when I asked him, he looked away and nodded without a sound. Shocked, I realized he had expected it. Only later did I learn that mother had tossed a gauntlet of her own over the matter.

The heroes — by which I mean the Magus and Sir Donald — were afforded the empty keep on Howser Hill, which was restored at public cost. They cohabited there, sir, for the love between comrades of such stature is legendary.

The training was awful. Days of agony and toil left us sore and bruised. I had no talent for the lance, but a fair eye for shooting, and was named Commander of Ballistae. The finest moment of my life happened on the list field when our three weapons rolled into position, aimed, and fired as one at my signal, with all three bolts hitting home in the belly of the beast. By then, we had three dragons.

I should explain that they are rebuilt every year by necessity. This is the largest cost of our Dragon Festival, for the damage of combat always destroys them. Indeed, during the second festival a wildfire bolt struck the bellows buried inside the dragon, and the wooden mill caught fire. It burned to the ground despite our best efforts, as the Magus of Clarus used some nasty-smelling stuff that water would not extinguish. He came running out of the tower waving his hands and appealing to us not to bother with buckets; all we could do was let it burn.

The conflagration was not even burning high, however, before the herald, Sir Donald, and the Magus left for the keep, ordering us to abandon the artillery and come pack their baggage for an immediate decampment. Doubt finally struck me. My mother, I thought, had been right: now that the dragon was a pile of ash, they were leaving.

But the mayor, the bankers, the merchants, and my father met them at the gate. “Sir Donald,” my father said. “Where are you going? We have an emergency to discuss!”

Sir Donald paused, wordless.

“We go to raise funds,” said the Magus. Machinery worked in his eyes. “Yes, a new dragon must be built. A better one. The first worked beyond my calculations, but we have learned a great deal. Yes, the new one will be even better.”

“God be praised,” my father said. Then he volunteered his older mill, the one made of stone. “It should stand the use a bit better than the other,” he said to the bankers, whose relief was obvious.

The mayor asked Sir Donald if he still meant to leave and raise money right away, or did he mean to speak to the people and explain this plan? Behind him, the merchants begged with their eyes. For the town of Ingenoco had so much commerce from the spring and fall festivals, the men with coffers had started returning from every point on the map to do business once again from sunup to sundown.

The knight swelled with pride. “You do me an honor, gentlemen. Of course I will address the crowd. And I shall remind them once again why we must fight the Dragon of Ingenoco.”

Sir Donald fought the Dragons of Ingenoco for ten years. The Magus maintained his gears and wheels and bellows and improved them. But both men were getting longer in the tooth, so they made arrangements for their offices to continue after them, as neither man ever married.

I was appointed to take Sir Donald’s place as the primary fund-raiser. This was a role that obliged me to travel farther and more often than I liked. But I had learned the speech, my friends, word for word, and did not do so badly at it. We eventually built the whole row of twelve, each a different color and character. And so it passed for ten years: we prospered, the dragons were rebuilt ever-better and more numerous than the previous years, and our show was more elaborate. Trade has its seasons, but as the years passed our seasons grew more fruitful.

It all went smoothly until the day Prince Alba came to visit and did not bring the dragon upon us. In fact, he attended our festival with minimal guard. He seemed to enjoy himself a great deal, moving among the common folk and speaking to the lowest of us with courtesy and generosity. No, sir, begging your indulgence, the prince made no martial conquest. He came on newly-paved roads amid the throng of summer spectators, enjoyed the children’s game of crossbows and the performing pig and the country passion plays and the dragon fights, and ruined my father.

I am sorry, sir, but it is true. Alba he acknowledged the respect of the crowd and delivered a speech on the virtues of provincial people, the ancient character of the Valle, and the blessings of peace and liberty. This latter point was a sore thing among men like my father: the prince made no wars. This was surely a sign of approaching doom, yet the long-promised Eastern Satraps had not invaded.

Instead, they traded and wondered at our dragons. We marked on the first few, and then lost count of how many appeared on our road to gawk at the beasts and sleep in our inns and eat from our market and taverns. They brought heavy coffers, sir, and kept all hours of the day with our bankers. They were spies purloining our happiness.

Indeed, who were the strangers that accompanied our prince, with their foreign clothes and odd accents of speech? Town residents found themselves hearing new tongues and seeing new clothes and not knowing what land they represented. This infiltration had become so general that many of them lived among us. Some even bought shops and employed the fisher-men.

The dragon, we held, was surely come to sabotage everything. Yet the wyrm never arrived.

The prince laid waste to our concern that day. “These men with me,” he declared, “are the ambassadors of foreign states. They have heard of your magnificent dragon, for word has spread far and wide. They have begged me for this opportunity to witness your renowned festival and see these dragons. I myself have been curious a long time, having heard a great deal about it. How long have I wished to come to this far reach of our land and see it myself!

“But I have always been occupied by affairs of state. Negotiations for peace and trade have filled my days. Foreigners have flocked to our shores, filling our treasuries and multiplying our trade. At long last, I have been able to set aside these worries and come to your town — and I am impressed. Your dragon is an achievement worthy of the great philosophers, a new wonder of the world.

“Fair people of Ingenoco, I make the following royal proclamation: that this festival shall be guaranteed, in perpetuity, as a Royal Fair; that the Dragons of Ingenoco shall henceforth be named a National Treasure; that all the world shall be invited to see the dragons, to tremble in their sight, and cheer at their destruction.

“Fair citizens, let us tilt at the dragons we make!”

Your health sir, and now I have reached the end. Father died shortly after the prince’s visit. He lay mumbling in his bed, insensible. The best I could understand was a bit about dragons and Satraps sneaking into the country to copy our dragons.

Sir Donald and the Magus retired to the capitol, leaving younger men to carry on our colorful traditions before crowds cheering in a babble of tongues. The merchants and bankers had no problem with the new arrangement, which was more profitable than ever. After meeting Prince Alba, the priest accepted a bishopric and turned his office over to a younger man with a strange accent.

Ingenoco grew, but changed in growing. In years to come, the low villagers complained of paying taxes to support the Dragons of Ingenoco and our Royal Fair, and lobbied for relief. They had agreed to build dragons out of fear, they said, and not profit.

My mother? Oh, yes, she remembered our wager, sir. To the penny.

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