Once upon a time – and that’s how you know it’s a story – there was a small, plump, well-to-do village full of small, plump, well-to-do villagers who tended to their small, plump well-to-do sheep and lead small, plump, well-to-do lives. Theirs was a life as near to perfect as can be imagined for small, rural minds save for one tiny problem. Actually quite a large problem. A problem that – in the context of their existence – loomed larger than the great green hill upon which it lived.
It was a dragon.
It was the only blight on their lives – or at least the only one they could see.
So it happened one day that a wandering alchemist happened upon the village on his peregrinations. His reputation as a man of medicine, chemistry and poisons preceded him and, while his cures and poisons had warded off plague and devastated rats, the villagers supposed his keen mind might lead him to find a way to rid them of the dragon.
To that end they fed him, watered him, spent much of their wool money on his tinctures and cures and then, after several rounds of beer, approached him about the problem of the dragon. Well into his cups and his ego inflated by their praise and money he agreed to deal with the problem and the following afternoon – he had to overcome his hangover – he set about crafting a poison efficacious enough to slay the wyrm.
It wasn’t until evening, his own lungs protected by a plague doctor’s mask, that the alchemist dragged his steaming pot of foul vapours up the hill to where the villagers had told him the beast hid. It was less a cave than a burrow, excavated into the side of the hill. It was warm and earthy, turf-covered with dry leaves laid upon its floor. Hardly the foul retreat of satanic wyrm-kin the stories would have had the alchemist believe.
Warily he slunk inside, the light dimming, the pot of foulness held before him. There, in the deepest part of the hill, in almost complete darkness, a pair of red, devilish eyes began to glow and a lick of flame appeared, lighting the dragon’s face.
The alchemist froze, the dragon froze too and they looked at each other in the dark. The dragon gave another flaming exhalation, lighting a small bundle of sticks that threw scattering light around the earthy cavern.
“Is that better?” The dragon boomed, apologetically. “Can you see now?”
Nonplussed, clutching his pot, the alchemist found himself replying. “Ah, yes, thank you.”
“I do not get many visitors.” The dragon pushed a pile of sheepskins towards the alchemist, an impromptu seat.
The alchemist found himself sitting. Staring at this great, green scaly beast and mumbling another, inadequete sounding “thank you.”
“May I ask why you’re here?” The dragon rumbled, laying down on the floor of its cavern.
“In all honesty,” the alchemist replied. “I’m here to kill you, with poison.”
“The villagers hmm?” the dragon sighed, weak blue flame dancing at its nostrils.
“Yes. They tell me you eat their sheep and are the ruination of their village.”
“Might I be allowed to speak in my defense?” The dragon asked, politely.
“Um… that would be fair I suppose.” The alchemist sank deeper into the sheepskins.
“I eat sheep only when I have to.” The dragon rested his great head on his fore-claws, his voice pained. “I hunt the deer and the wild horses. I drink from the streams. I am, though, a large beast and require a great deal of food. Did it seem to you that they could not spare a sheep or two from their wealth?”
“Well, no…” The alchemist took off his mask and set his pot aside, “but how can I tell that you speak the truth?”
The dragon lifted his head and gestured around the cavern with his claw. “You seem to be a learned man. Look at the bones.”
And so the alchemist did and, after the tenth set of antlers and only one sheep skull he was satisfied. The dragon and the alchemist parted as gentlemen, the alchemist on his way to the next village and the dragon tucking into a celebratory deer.
Some days later, a knight, returned from foreign wars, weary and battle warn, a veteran of many battles, rode into the village. He seemed very fine to the villagers and from his banner and tales of his prowess they knew him to be a mighty warrior.
They bid him stay and rest. They plied him with their finest food, their most succulent lamb, their freshest cider. They re-shod his horse, they asked him for his tales and told him news of the homeland and they gave him the best room in the inn for nothing.
It being a Sunday they also bid him attend church and, at the behest of the villagers, the preacher gave a thunderous sermon about the evils of sin. He spoke of the bravery of St George and then, speaking to the good knight out of all in the packed church, he spoke of the dragon that threatened them all.
The knight was a man of duty and honour and beseeched by the people of the village, begged by the priest, how could he refuse them in their time of need?
The following morning he donned his armour, took up his sword and shield and rode his mighty horse up the hill to the dark, warm hole of the dragon’s lair. There was no being stealthy in his plate and chain and so he raised his shield and ventured in boldly, as befitted a knight.
“Beast!” He roared as he strode into the central chamber. “Show yourself!”
The dragon breathed a gout of flame, lighting the torches it had placed in the walls, anticipating more visitors. It coiled before the knight and raised a claw. “Parlay good knight! You call me beast but you do not know me. Before you slay me, please, hear me speak!”
“Say your piece wyrm.” The knight raised the visor on his armour and stared the beast down, sword still ready to strike the first blow.
“Who sent you here noble knight?” The dragon asked, its voice oddly gentle.
“The good elders of the village and their humble priest wyrm, what of it?”
“And who sent you to war?” The dragon tilted its head as it spoke, flickering tongue at its scaly lips.
“The Hierophant himself gave the call to war and it was signed up to by the Council of Barons.”
“And what, good sir, did you find when you got there? Blasphemous heathens to be put to the sword?” the dragon quirked what passes for an eyebrow on a dragon as it asked.
“No,” sighed the knight. “Blasphemous yes, but simply people. We killed them and took their treasures for our own, though most of the gold ended up in the Hierophant’s palace. I will slay you to make amends.”
“Me? Do you find me to be what the villagers have told you? Am I a terrible beast. A being of sin, wickedness and lies or do my questions show the truth?”
“No…” the knight’s sword wavered and lowered.
“Fight your own battles sir. These villagers are ungrateful. My presence here keeps the wolves from the sheep pens, the foxes from the hen house. If I take the occasional sheep when I cannot find a buck to eat, how is that different to the taxes you levy on your estate for the protection you provide?”
“It is no different, I admit that,” the knight sheathed his sword and shook his head. “You seem more noble than the men of means and the men of the cloth to me wyrm.”
The knight and the dragon shared their war stories and spoke of battles past and battles yet to come. They parted company. The knight went his way, on to his home estates, determined to be a better man and more considerate of those who tilled his soil. The dragon, understandably peeved by this point, took a sheep to eat and enjoyed it more than he had enjoyed eating anything in some time.
Not long after, scant days later in fact, a beggar came to the village. He was a big man, but simple minded. He dressed in rags, he stank and he begged for coin, letting people abuse him just for the chance to gather enough copper clippings for some bread and cheese.
At first the villagers were loathe to have him stay. They pelted him with rotten fruit. They mocked him in the street. He had to sleep under the yew tree in the churchyard until the verger saw him off. He was about to move on to the next village for more of the same when, seeing his brutish strength, the widow paid him a pittance to chop her logs ready for the winter.
He was strong indeed, handy with an axe and heedless of his own safety. Several villagers saw him hacking at the wood and they suddenly noticed that he might be useful. They brought him bread and water, they cleaned him up, they began to tell him just how important he was and – unused to such treatment, he gobbled up the attention like a starving cur.
When his new friends told him of the dragon and offered him a shiny silver florin if he would just deal with the noxious creature once and for all he leapt at the chance. These people had accepted him and made him feel important, a hero, so he shouldered his borrowed axe and lumbered up the hill to find the dragon.
When he found the cave he had to stoop. His head scraped the roots that poked through the roof of the tunnel, even as he did so. There was flickering light at the end from burning torches. The dragon had smelled his scent on the wind and lit them, anticipating a visitor.
Finally he could stand tall and there, in the torchlit chamber of the dragon’s nest he hefted his axe and stared at the coils of the scaly creature as it spoke.
“I suppose you’re here to kill me? Might I have the chance to speak up for myself?” The dragon asked, twitching the tip of its tail.
“Die!” screamed the simpleton and with one great blow, clove the dragon’s skull in two.
Well he earned his sixpence.
And the moral of the story?
You don’t always want the cleverest person to do the job, or the best and bravest. If you want something done, you just need someone stupid who won’t question what they’re told.
“That,” said the wizard’s apprentice, with a sneer of disgust. “Is an awful, awful story.”
The blacksmith’s son skipped another stone across the water. “Why?”
“The hero of a story should be a dashing knight, a clever rogue, a powerful wizard, a beautiful princess. Not a simpleton.”
The blacksmith’s son sucked on his teeth a moment and then shook his head. “The simpleton isn’t the hero.”
“Then who is?” The apprentice sat down heavily on the log beside the river, hitching up his robe so as not to get mud on the hem.
“Don’t be stupid. Dragons can’t be heroes. Plus he died.”
“That he did.”
“Aren’t the alchemist or the knight heroes?” The apprentice scratched at his head, the stubble was growing back and it itched like hell.
“They’re neither heroes nor villains. The villagers fooled them, but they saw sense when the dragon talked to them.”
“So the villagers are the villains?”
The blacksmith’s son came to sit beside his friend on the log. “Because they were stupid, greedy and liars. Don’t blame me, it’s my dad’s story.”
The apprentice rolled his eyes. “Your father is weirder than you are. Teaching you to read, telling you boring stories with no hero. What use has a smith of this rubbish? I’d happily not learn to read if I could avoid it.”
“Never mind that,” the blacksmith’s son took a coin from his pocket. “I’ll make you a bet. I’ll toss the coin, you call it. If you’re right I’ll do your chores for two weeks. If I’m right you do my chores for one week.”
“See?” The apprentice turned to stare at him incredulously. “Filling your head with nonsense, the only way you’d offer a bet like that. You’re on.”
The coin flipped, glittering in the air.
“Heads!” Called out the apprentice as the blacksmith’s on caught it and slapped it down.
Slowly he shifted his hand aside, to reveal tails.
“Damn it to hell!” the apprentice took to his feet and stomped off down the path.
Behind him the blacksmith’s son chuckled and slipped the two coins, one double headed, one double tailed, into his pocket. Happily he followed after his friend, a grin fixed upon his face that even the fiery breath of a dragon would have a hard time removing.