The sounds of the men drinking and laughing in the garden of the tavern echoed off the surrounding mountains and carried down to the fields where the women had been harvesting the crops since dawn. The drunken howls of laughter carried even across the waters of the lake to the boats where the fishermen pulled in the nets for the 15th time that day. Some of the drinkers even sat outside the tavern gate watching the coolies carry down loads of heavy firewood from the forest and cracked jokes as they passed.
But none of the hardworking folk begrudged the men their idle nature, nor did they ever ask them to lend a hand as they brought in boxes of food and stacks of firewood – after all, the village depended on these men for its survival.
They were the Dragon Slayers.
Broad-shouldered and vigorous in their youth, the Slayers tended towards beer bellies and double-chins as they aged, their hair scorched off from close encounters with fire-breathing beasts and a warrior without a collection of impressive scars and burns was the laughing stock of his comrades. Still, old or young, veteran or virgin, there wasn’t a man among them who wasn’t ready to down his mug of ale, shoulder his axe or sword and dash up the mountain to do his duty at a moment’s notice.
The courage and strength of the Dragon Slayers was without parallel in the valley and villagers would walk for days across the slopes to seek their help. The surrounding mountains were steep, deep and treacherous and though it was commonly believed that dragons reproduced slowly, yet it seemed there was no end to the beasts found skulking in a remote cave, awoken by the locals mining for coal or gems.
In the worst cases, an entire village might be consumed in fire before a few charred survivors might hobble into the tavern garden to beg the warriors for vengeance. On luckier occasions, the discovery of a dragon might be ascertained from a distance, given away by traces of smoke rising from a fissure in the mountains – and a Slayer might be sent for to do the beast in while it was still asleep.
Our story finds the warriors in a period of unusual calm when none had tasted the acrid flavour of dragon blood in over a year and the daily head-butting contests led almost inevitably to all-out brawls, breaking noses and furniture and keeping the local carpenter in constant work. The landlord had no way of controlling them and knew better than to try – he had once been a Slayer himself and now had to endure the shame of having grown old and fat without having died a glorious death up on the mountains in battle.
So it was no small cause for relief when an abject villager arrived one morning, hesitated for a moment at the stone dragon heads on either side of the gate, burning coals set in the jaws, before stumbling in to announce the discovery of a new dragon, pointing at a distant crag high above the lake. A young warrior with only 2 kills to his name was less hungover than the others and thus faster on this feet out of the gate, claiming the right to be the first to meet the challenge. The other Slayers let out a sigh of disappointment and called for a fresh barrel of ale – at least they would soon have a new story of heroics to savour.
All eyes were fixed on the mountainside for a tongue of flame or the mighty shadow of a dragon in flight but when 2 days had passed without word, hopes were raised that the challenger might have been burned to bits or found a new home in the dragon’s belly. One and all sharpened their blades and drank lightly – by dawn of the third day another Slayer would by law be afforded the right to set forth on the quest.
But they didn’t have to wait that long.
Towards evening, a young man with sunken shoulders and a downcast head wandered into the garden, found a secluded corner and crumpled into a heap, his head buried deep in his hands, sobbing violently. It took them a moment or two to recognize the bold young warrior who had set out just a couple of days before and never had they seen a Slayer in that condition.
The oldest of them, a warrior who, having grown too heavy after years of heavy drinking, rarely made it first out of the gate, took advantage of the confusion to shoulder his axe and puff his way out of the tavern and up the mountain path. But while he was slow on his feet, his arm was still strong and with over 30 kills behind him, few doubted that he would soon return in triumph.
Early the next morning, however, the Slayers were awoken from where they slumbered, passed out across the tavern’s tables, by a loud cry of anguish from high above them in the valley. Wiping the dust from their eyes, they looked up to see a distant figure cast himself off a mountain peak and fall several hundred meters down into the lake, causing a wave that almost upset the boats of the fishermen. They brought him in later that day with their morning catch; his lungs were full of water and his face fixed in an expression of utter terror. Yet otherwise he was unharmed without a single scratch or burn.
Within a month, the tavern that had been home to loud, drunken warriors swearing and spitting, feasting and brawling, was now the asylum of some 20 traumatised men weeping on their knees or staring off into space with vacant expressions on their faces. The bodies of another ten who had cast themselves off the mountain had been buried around the back and the reputation of the tavern was at stake.
“Well, after all, it’s been a long time that these fingers have held nothing but a chopping knife,” the landlord mused, eying his old, trusty axe on the wall.
“i’ll go.” Leon, the cleaning boy said.
“But I don’t know if these legs will still carry me up the mountain…” the landlord admitted to himself.
“I‘ll go!” the boy repeated.
“But if I don’t go then who – you‘ll go?” the landlord sneered, taking notice of the boy for the first time and turning a sneering, contemptuous look on him. “You who have barely a tuft of baby fur on your lip? You with less meat on you than the rabbits in the pot? You who can barely bring yourself to kill a fly when it buzzes around the sugar?”
“Who else is there?” the boy replied cheerfully.
The landlord opened his mouth to deliver a cutting retort but then closed it again as he realised the boy had a point and nodded gently. “That it should come to this.” he muttered and, plucking hi own axe from the wall with one hand, he grabbed the boy by the scruff of the neck and marched him out to the tavern gate. The boy smiled in anticipation of the adventure ahead.
“I don’t know what you’re grinning about,” the landlord growled, “Who’s going to wash my dishes and sweep my floor when you’ve been turned into toast or ended up inside a dragon’s belly or sent as mad as the poor fools?” he exclaimed as they passed several Slayers who now lived in mortal fear of their own shadows.
“To be honest, if any of those things happen to me I doubt I’ll care very much about your kitchen chores.” Leon observed.
“True enough,” the landlord admitted, “Well, you’ve got spirit even if you don’t have sense. Or strength.” he added, shaking his head as Leon tried in vain to lift the axe. Strapping it on to the boy’s back, who had to bend double to carry the load, he gave him a starting push out of the gate and watched him stagger awkwardly up the mountain. He was going to miss the lad. But at least he hadn’t asked for his pay before he left.
Leon got around the first corner and now that he was out of sight of the tavern he unslung the axe and it clattered to the ground behind him. After all, he reasoned, if mighty weapons and brute strength hadn’t helped the other Slayers, what chance did hehave in taking on the dragon that way? He’d just have to rely upon his wits and good luck instead. He had no guarantee of being alive that night but in the meantime it was a beautiful day and so he whistled old tunes to himself as he walked. Leon was used to walking in the mountains to gather mushrooms in the rainy season and so he kept up a brisk pace, the air growing thinner with each step and he only paused once in a while to eat apricots or walnuts from a tree in season.
While Leon had never actually seen a dragon with his own eyes, growing up in the tavern he’d heard a thousand tales of them; giant red beasts with mighty beating wings and snake-like necks that swooped down on you with mighty jaws that could snap a man in half with a single bite; thin, green dragons lying on piles of treasure who would incinerate anyone who so much as glanced at a gold coin in their possession; black dragons that flew only at night and were invisible against the sky until it was already too late and they were upon you, seizing men by the shoulders and then letting them fall from great heights to land in unrecognizable heaps on the rocks below.
He expected he would know in which cave the dragon was living in long before he reached it; he had heard that it was usual to see smoke spewing out of the entrance; or to hear the beast’s terrible growl echoing through the mountains; or just to find the skeletons of humans and sheep scattered around nearby.
So it was with some surprise that Leon rounded a corner and almost walked into a dragon crouched in a ray of sunlight in the mouth of a cave, its eyes closed and its chest rising and falling slowly. But this wasn’t like any dragon Leon had ever heard of; far from being a mighty green or red beast of the air, this creature was albino white, barely 2 metres long and its wings were too frail and thin to fly – they probably only served as fans on a hot day.
“Not quite what you expected, am I right?” the dragon yawned without bothering to open its eyes to look at its visitor.
“Well, no – I mean yes, you’re right!” Leon stammered, caught quite off-guard by the nonchalant greeting, “but then I’ve never seen a dragon before.”
“How could you have? Working all day in the kitchen, listening only to stories and dreaming that one day people might listen to yours.”
“I do dream a lot,” Leon admitted.
“Life is so much safer when lived in dreams,” the dragon agreed, “It’s reality that hurts people. Like your mother who died giving birth to you. You might have dreamed that she would have been proud to see you on this quest. But then again, you’re here and she’s not.”
“How did you know-”
“The people in the tavern were very kind to you. Taking you in like a stray dog that wandered into the garden. But then a dog doesn’t know it’s worthless, a drain and a burden on its host’s charity.”
“But I work hard-”
“Yes, cleaning dishes. Of course you try to win their respect and love.. what a shame you only get their pity.” The dragon flicked open its eyelids to reveal a pair of cold blue eyes that regarded Leon with sympathy. “But who could love a boy who had killed his own mother? How could they respect someone who didn’t have the courage to do the decent thing?
“And yet there is a way you can make up for it all…”
“How?” Leon whimpered, the blood draining from his face.
“Take a leap of faith. Show your courage once and for all by doing the honourable thing to pay for your crime. A life for a life. The mountain waits for you.”
Leon nodded and wandered away slowly, his feet moving of their accord, his head spinning as the dragon’s words ignited feelings buried so deep he didn’t know they were even there. He stumbled towards the precipice of the cliff, drunk on grief, a chorus of voices from deep within urging him to just jump and put an end to it all.
In that moment, however, a red-breasted robin flew onto his shoulder and chirped in his ear. Getting no response it fluttered round onto his nose and pecked at his forehead before hopping down onto Leon’s outstretched hand. The sight of the cheerful bird on his palm called him back to the here and now and broke the spell the dragon had cast upon him, the torrent of emotion within easing a little like a lull in the storm.
He took a seat on a rock overlooking the valley and, breathing deeply, he let each of the doubts and feelings of guilt come out one by one, listening carefully to each one before allowing them to go on their way.
“So, you lacked even the courage to end it like a man.” the dragon drawled in a tone of infinite patience.
“You know, you really are a very beautiful dragon.” Leon remarked.
“Have you now lost your wits as well as your courage?” the dragon snorted.
“No, really. I had no idea a dragon’s wings could be so soft. And your eyes are bluer than the lake. It must be lonely up here in this cave – have you never thought about coming down?”
“To be pierced with arrows and decapitated with axes? A dragon is not so easily deceived, my boy!”
“Who would want to harm a creature as lovely as you?” Leon insisted and the discussion continued long after night fell and soon there was nothing to be heard but two voices in the dark, one fresh and young and the other weary and ancient.
The old innkeeper broke the 5th plate that day and cursed the boy for leaving him to deal with the kitchen on his own. Looking after a gang of catatonic barbarians on his own was no joke, especially when he had to spoon-feed half of them.
A sudden cry of dismay came from the garden, hoarse voices wailing in despair and the landlord rushed out to see something he never could have imagined had he lived to a thousand years old; Leon came strolling in to the garden with… a thin, white dragon on a leash.
“He doesn’t eat much!” Leon explained cheerfully, “He can be our mascot!”
And so Leon the kitchen boy won his place in the halls of fame for his unprecedented feat of courage – there had been countless Slayers who had killed terrible dragons in fierce combat up on the mountains but never before had there been a warrior who made peace with one.