A short story
During the journey season everyone must choose a journey, as follows from the precepts of fantasy. To do otherwise one would be considered a failure. I didn’t know what my journey would be, where I would travel, or for what purpose. But I knew I wanted to do something original.
I couldn’t do the whole “slay the dragon” bit. As I understood it, there weren’t many dragons left. Besides, I never met one that fried my ass. Live and let live, I always say. Besides, how many times could you see heroes in armor coming at you with a sword before losing interest.
I felt for them. I really did.
In days of old a red dragon torched the town cathedral. My people have been slaying dragons ever since. Of course, some prefer the damsel in distress routine. There’s a couple who met that way in our village, and passing beneath their window you could always hear them arguing. That didn’t sound very good to me. People in our village have a habit of ignoring such things, because it would ruin the happy ending.
In our village, if you haven’t taken your journey you’re a nobody. I needed ideas, so I went into the busy heart of town. Maybe a walk would stir something. In the distance I heard the shearing sound of steel on the cement wheel. It was Mr. Lazro, the sword-maker. If anybody had a catalog of all the different journeys in his head, he would. I walked up to him quietly, watching him work.
“High demand for swords right now,” he said, sensing my curiosity. “What with the journey season upon us.”
“Does everyone want to be a knight?” I asked, looking at the great number of freshly-forged swords lying around his shop.
“You know how it is,” he said,. “Evv-ree-body wants to slay a dragon. It’s the gold standard of adventure.”
“But I heard there weren’t many left?” I said.
“Not anymore,” he said. “They’re breeding them somewhere to keep up with the demand.”
“But how? They’re dragons,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “they started with two, and began taking the babies away to tame them.”
“And the mothers?” I asked.
“I don’t know, kid,” he said. “What did you come to talk to me about anyway?”
“My journey,” I said.
“Well, all I can say is choose something other than slaying a dragon. The way they do it now, there is no adventure to it.”
“Thank you, Mr. Lazro,” I said.
“Sure kid. Good luck.”
I began to walk off, then turned back.
“Forget somethin?” he asked.
“Mr. Lazro,” I said, “where do they breed these dragons?”
He smiled. “In the east. A town with no name, known only for having a building with the tallest stables in the land. You will be able to see it from any hilltop.”
Getting my answer, a fierce necessity to begin my journey seized me. Running away, I yelled back, “Thanks again Mr. Lazro!”
He hollered back, “No problem kid…See that you don’t get yourself killed!”
Father was not pleased with my decision. “No son of mine is going to use his journey to save a dragon!” he yelled. “What would the others think! That I’ve raised a coward, that’s what!”
“I don’t care what the others think!” I yelled back.
“ENOUGH! Tomorrow we buy you a sword! I’ll train you myself!” he said.
I nearly collapsed at the thought; hours upon hours of endless sword training with father. I had no choice. With my purpose so realized, I could not stay. Father had taken his own journey, now I had to take mine.
I left a note for my mother:
Gone on my journey, be back soon.
I traveled light. Beyond our village there was nothing but open nature. There weren’t many people living there, but every once in a while there would be a road leading to a stone house. There were wheat fields as far as the eye could see. The sun reflected in each grain, the golden hairs catching the wind and taking its direction. There seemed to be wind-swept voices everywhere, rustling through the tall grasses, through the boughs of the great trees, and up and up, to where it moved the clouds.
The trees don’t talk, but it is somehow written that I can use their sturdy trunks to rest my body, and their leafy canopies to shade me from a hot sun. They neither judge nor push away anybody seeking rest. I reached up and picked a fine apple.
The animals too did not live by the laws of man, and this is why I liked them. I once saw a bluebird land on the head of a man being hung at the gallows. The executioner tried to push it away, but it kept returning to the man’s head, and the man did not move to disturb it. It confused the bloodthirsty crowd, and there was a silence as they watched the dumb gallows slave get angrier and angrier at this tiny creature who was humiliating him. The people began to laugh, having found this to be just as entertaining as the hanging. Finally, the man was hung and the bird flew away, and people were a little less happy about getting exactly what they wanted. That little less happy was the shame they never bothered to feel.
It was getting towards evening. I found a place next to a river and went for a skinny dip. It was cold at first, then my body acclimated, like my body and the river had brokered a deal on my behalf, so I would be warm enough to enjoy the experience. I just started swimming then, underwater with my eyes open. Doing the breast-stroke, I followed a goldfish to her school. When they saw me coming, they all turned in my direction, and dared me to make a move. Now I knew the most they could do was nibble me to death, and it could take years. Still I admired their gusto and left them in peace.
Something about coming out of the water makes you feel reborn. I dried myself off and got warm, lying on my blanket and watching the sky. I found the North Star and made my wish. I’ve tried paying attention to other stars, but only when I’m connecting the dots, looking for Aquarius. The North Star shines the brightest, that’s pretty much all there is to it. All of us need to believe that something supposedly dead can still effect light. And that that light travels so fast, it is always ahead.
How many miles I had left, I did not know. So I climbed a hill, like Mr. Lazro had suggested, to see if I could catch a glimpse of the giant dragon stables. Sure enough, there they were, rising high above the landscape. A long, grey building, with rows upon rows of giant parapets, just high enough and wide enough to hold a dragon’s neck and head. Suddenly my blood boiled, and I shouted from the top of the hill.
“Those are dragons you have in there you bastards, not chickens!”
Mr. Lazro would have been proud. But for me to get anywhere near it, I would have to be mischievously clever.
I found two knights on horseback waiting for me at the bottom.
“What is your business here, boy?” one of them asked. The other stared me down.
“I’m on my way to buy a dragon,” I said. “For my journey.”
His stone-face broke into a smile then. “A fellow dragon-slayer ey?” he said.
“You bet!” I replied. “I’m gonna slay that dragon so bad, he’s gonna wish he were born a chicken!”
“That’s what I like to hear,” he said. “Why don’t you hop up on my horse and I’ll take you to the stables.”
“Oh no,” I said, “I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “Anything for a fellow dragon-slayer.”
“I appreciate it,” I said, and climbed on the back of his horse.
The other one was now staring suspiciously at my side where my sword should have been.
“Where’s your sword?” he asked.
“My sword?” I answered. “I lost it.”
“That’s no good,” he said. “A knight should always know where his sword is. But not to worry, we’ll get you set up. No doubt you can afford it, buying a dragon and all.”
“And how much do dragons go for nowadays?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said. “You could get you a decent dragon for about 10,000. Mind you, they won’t struggle much. No. If you want the real thing, you’ll have to get you a newly-captured wild one. And there ain’t many left of those. Those start at about 50,000.”
“That’s a lot,” I said.
He shrugged. “Adventure goes up, price goes up.”
“Do people not prefer the wild ones?” I asked.
“Some do,” he said, curling a lip. “But most more or less want the experience of slaying a dragon, without any of the actual leg-work.”
“Or running!” the other laughed.
“The company makes most of its money from these,” the first continued, “We tame them, you slay them. That’s the company motto.”
“Sounds awful,” I said, “A journey without an adventure.”
“Never-the-less,” he said, “business is booming.”
As we neared the stables, I could see that a giant wall had been built around them and was garrisoned by more knights. These walls were topped with shards of metal.
I got off the horse and followed the two men to the gate. One of them said something to the guards. A guard went over to a rectangular hole in the wall and spoke into it. Soon the giant gates slowly began to open. I watched, mesmerized by the massive effort involved in controlling these towering, free, creatures. It did my heart good to know how hard it was.
The area around the stables was barren. Not even a single tree. And my heart sank, thinking that something so beautiful as a dragon could be trapped in a place like this. My necessity to save one became even more ferocious. I must have had a strange look on my face, because just then, the knight I had been riding with turned to me and asked, “What’s the matter with you boy?”
I composed myself. “Can we see the dragons now?”
“In a hurry to get on with it, ey?” he grinned.
“You bet,” I nodded.
Near the entrance, the ground was rumbling. Then there was a shrieking so loud and high in pitch, that I covered my ears, sure they’d blow out. “Is that a dragon screaming?” I asked.
“Oh that,” he said. “That’s Smoke. Caught her last week. She’s having a little trouble adjusting to her incarceration. But we’ll sort her out.”
“Can I see her?” I asked.
“No, no, kid,” he said. “She’s not for you. Dragons like that are sold only to professionals. I’ll show you some tamer models.”
“Show me Smoke,” I said.
“Kid…I don’t think…”
“Do you want my patronage or don’t you?” I asked.
“Very well, sir,” he said, indignantly. “Right this way.”
The dragon stables were not much different than horse stables. The dragons sat on hay. The walls were moldy in places, where leaking water had eaten away at the grey walls. What I saw, walking the middle path between them, I could not believe. Dragons behaving like servile dogs. Their long, luxurious necks, coiled around their grounded bodies, so they resembled boa constrictors. Their once glorious wings lying flat, slowly rotting from non-use. The thought entered my mind to murder my escort. I wouldn’t have needed a sword. I bit my tongue so hard, my lower lip began to bleed.
The high-pitched shriek of this mighty Smoke got closer and closer, followed by earth-shattering thuds. Both me and my escort lost balance. The man then turned to me and asked, eyebrows raised, “You sure about this kid?”
“There is no point in slaying a weak dragon,” I said.
He smiled like the knight before him. “That a boy,” he said, patting me on the back. “You go on and take a look at Smoke, see if she’s a good fit.” Then he stopped and turned to me. “I’ll require a down-payment first, of course.”
I fumbled for a good lie. “If you let me see her first, I’ll pay more,” I said.
He stared at me suspiciously. “Very well,” he said, “Walk to the end. It’s the last one.”
When he had walked far enough away, I made my way down the hall, where the light was weakest. For the moment, the shrieking had stopped. When I got close enough, I took a deep breath and turned to face her. Her large black eyes were upon me before I’d turned the corner, glaring, surmising the nature of my intent. She was terrifying. A body of shining black sable, a sharp red staircase climbing up the middle of her body to just under her chin. Her giant, bat-like wings clasped behind her, the skin torn where the chain was fixed and had gone through to secure itself around the bottom bone of each wing.
I sat near the furthest end of the stable, cross-legged, my arms hanging off my knees, absolutely still. She was not happy that I decided to stay, and rising up on her massive hind legs, flung her majestic neck high into the parapet which held it, banging her head between its borders. Her mouth was muzzled, and she was secured by ropes as thick as the leg of an elephant. She brought the whole weight of her body down until the ground shook again. She flared her nostrils the way dragons do before they breathe fire. I couldn’t remove anything until I’d gained her trust, convinced her that I was not there to slay her, but to set her free.
I chose a non-threatening gesture and began to whistle. I am a practiced whistler, always in tune. I chose a song a dragon might like; a much earlier version of Puff the Magic Dragon. Now Smoke stopped banging her head against the parapets, and focused all her attention to me, full of indignation at so obvious a choice. Furious with me, she began to purposely ruin the song with well timed grunts of such stubbornness that it was really starting to make me mad.
I stood up and yelled at her then. “I’m trying to help you, you stupid dragon!”
Smoke was still indignant, but respected the gesture. Then she grew still, as if waiting to see what I would do next. The knights could be back any minute, I thought. It was now or never. I risked everything, opened the stable and began to untie Smoke’s restraints. She brought her head down to see what I was doing. When she saw I was loosening the ropes rather than tightening them, she nearly scared me half to death. She looked me in the eye and nodded her giant head.
“I’ll take the muzzle off when we escape,” I said. I put a large rope around her neck, and told her not to show resistance if the knights came back. We were halfway down the hall, when a knight approached us.
“You the kid who came in with Sam?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know his name,” I said.
He eyed me. “Did he tell you you could purchase Smoke?”
“Yes, he did,” I said.
“You sure?” he asked.
“Go ask him,” I said.
“Do you have proof of payment?” he asked.
For a second I thought I was screwed, until I remembered what I had standing behind me. I looked Smoke in the eye and winked. Then I removed the muzzle. Her long, majestic neck rose up triumphantly, like she had been waiting for this moment for a very long time. The knight looked at me. Then he looked at Smoke. He turned and ran in the opposite direction.
“Sorry Smoke,” I said, patting her head. “You can fry the next one.”
I could hear a throng of knights marching toward us— all self-professed dragon slayers. Smoke and I looked at each other, both in agreement that we would fight our hearts out; being that heart was all we had; and the biggest of these, in the body of a fierce dragon, quickly becoming a friend.
The throng of knights arrived, and stood at a distance, looking up at Smoke, then at each other, to see who would go first. Soon, an argument ensued over who was brave, and who was not; who were the real dragon slayers? But most of them had only slain dragons who were nearly dead. They had never tested themselves against one that was very much alive and in her prime.
If dragons could laugh, I could have sworn Smoke did. She reared back and took the air into her lungs. She flapped her wings and began to rise, until she broke through the ceiling. She reached down with a foot and took hold of me. When we had flown high above and were looking down at the massive hole— the knights looking up dumbfounded— she finally released her fiery breath. They ran around screaming, trying to remove their armor, which was as hot as lava.
Smoke and I laughed.
In the end, I was very happy with my journey. I had saved a dragon, and that dragon, in turn, had saved me.
As for how I was going to explain Smoke to my mother?
Well...one thing at a time.