There weren't always dragons in the Valley.
But this noon, their wings blotted out the sun.
Shankon spat in the dim light. "What's the difference between a dragon's wing and a bellows?" is how he framed the riddle.
Granger screwed up his face at the old man. "I don't know."
"The bellows doesn't leave the stink of monster crotch behind." He spat again, with scant production. "We're in for a time of it tonight."
Granger opened his mouth, closed it again, and looked out across the shadows that rippled over the valley like the waves of a dark ocean.
"You always said the worst thing about a dragon was it would cook you too much before it ate you."
"And that is so, with a single dragon. An inn with a dragon in the kitchen would be a lonely place. There's no custom for a meal of coal." Shankon shook his head at the sadness of it all.
"But ten thousand beasts like these?" His arm swept across the dark, noon sky and he raised his voice above the torrent of the wings. "They'll poison our fields with their foul issue. Our crops will wither and the ground will turn to ash."
Shankon cocked an eyebrow at the lad. "Do you know what gunpowder is?"
Granger shook his head, a little embarrassed.
"The cannons we saw on Arvon's Day? Gunpowder gave them their voice."
Granger had loved Arvon's Day. The flutter of the high pennants, yellow, green and blue in the wind. The sharp aftertaste of the hunks of meat, still hot from the oaken smoke of the pit and wolfed down from wooden skewers. The spectacle of the horsemen. The tinkling voices of girls not much older than himself, whose allure transcended their age. Even the worn-out speeches delivered by pompous old men from balconies carried a soothing rhythm that lasted long after the words were lost in the wind.
But the thundering cannons had anchored Arvon's Day in his mind.
"Remember the cannons?" Shankon would ask.
"I loved the cannons," Granger would respond. "I surely did."
"Never forget them," Shankon would conclude. "We need to have a cannon before we need to use a cannon."
And then they'd shift to some drier subject until Granger got distracted by some bug or a flower.
But now Shankon had embarked on one of his lectures, beginning with the sciences and winding up, Granger was sure, in the philosophies. People had told Granger that Shankon had been a great teacher, sought out by pilgrims from beyond the horizon, undaunted by the miles to wisdom.
Shankon always brushed off questions about that history, but one thing was clear to Granger: the old man could spin a tale.
"Gunpowder gives the cannon its muscle," Shankon was saying. He pointed to a rock about half the size of the lad's head. "Lift that stone and throw it as far as you can."
Granger grunted, and watched the little boulder thud down a couple of feet in front of him.
"Now with a cannon and its gunpowder, we could shoot that a furlong and a half with a sound that itself would be as frightful as that hurtling ball of death.
"And the gunpowder? It's nothing but an admixture of sulfur, saltpeter and charcoal. Simple ingredients. Awesome results."
He checked to see that Granger's eyes were suitably wide before he went on.
"And what do you suppose are the ingredients of a dragon's turd?" He cocked the eyebrow again.
"I don't know."
"I don't know, sir?"
"Well, the science tells us that a dragon's turd consists of sulfur and saltpeter. And if the dragon has lately eaten a charred peasant, that poor bugger supplies your charcoal.
"And to ease its digestion, a dragon swallows rocks -- bigger than that one at your feet -- to crush and grind the cursed meals in its gullet.
"So when these beasts fill our skies, as now they do," he shook his fist upward, "They rain gunpowder on our fields, along with their worn digestive stones. The poison chokes our crops to starve us down, to weaken our resolve. But mark this: they are sowing the seeds of their own destruction."
Granger grew uncomfortable with Shankon's silence. "What do you mean?" he asked, his voice breaking, when he couldn't stand it anymore.
"The stones can be our cannon shot. The dragon shit our powder. We have everything we need to blast them out of the sky, save the cannons themselves." Shankon threw down his fist as if casting the dice of fate.
"How do we get the cannons?" Granger wondered. Even at his age, he could see the elegance of this plan.
"Men! Only men can build cannons!" Shankon declared, and his pulse seemed to slow down even as the lad watched. "But men are such fools."
The leathery curtain of beating dragon wings continued through the day, the night, and late into the next day. Granger wondered if these were all new dragons overhead, or if they were circling in an arc so huge it seemed straight to his eye, coming around and around, beating, beating.
He and Shankon were safe enough to escape notice under their ledge in the rock face, but just as he wondered if they would ever be able to come out again, the shrieking flock began to thin out. By the next morning the skies had cleared.
And at dawn they saw the four horsemen picking their way up the switchback to their little haven.
"Shankon?" The lead horseman called out. They wore matching tunics, with emblems that Granger didn't recognize. All four were on magnificent dappled grays, but the horses looked tired, no less than the men themselves.
Granger hadn't seen any strangers for a long time, and he was not glad to see these. But the old man just said, "I am."
"Shankon, we come on behalf--"
"I know, I know," Shankon sighed. "What do you think you want?"
The man seemed to be going through a memorized script in his mind, wondering where he should start. For the first time, he noticed Granger, and he gave the boy the slightest nod, and a tiny smile, or grimace, that might have been taken as commiseration.
"Shankon, the scourge of dragons in the Stone River Valley has only increased in recent times."
"Is that right?" Shankon stole a glance at Granger and winked.
"Sir, our traditional defenses have failed, and we've been instructed to bring you with us to oversee a fresh dragon eradication campaign."
"With complete authority?"
"With generous authority."
"So with the same restrictions the dragons labor under?"
"Sir, the dragons have no restrictions. That is our problem."
"Exactly. And that is my problem, as well."
The lead horseman looked as if he were tempted to consult his troops, but he refrained.
"Shankon, your wisdom and persuasiveness are known far beyond this humble place. We are confident that if you come with us now, you will reach an amicable agreement for your service."
Shankon arched an eyebrow at Granger, who gave a little shrug.
"And are we to walk beside you?" he asked the lead horseman.
"The horses are sturdy. Each of you can ride with one of my lieutenants."
"Better yet, double up your men, and young Granger and I will each take a horse."
And so they rode, as the sun burned off the dew, teasing out the after-scent of yesterday's dragons.
About the Creator
Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Ready for some good ole firepower vs. firepower!
Love the opening humor of the story