There weren’t always dragons in the valley. Used to be, there was nary a day a small horde wasn’t making their way through the lush, grassy plains en route to Nene or Lardon or any of the other trading ports west of the mountains. The scourge of the flying serpants keeps us huddled in the village these days. It also has us locked in eternal conflict over what to do about it.
No one knows what brought them here or where they came from. It’s as if they were deposited into our peaceful realm by a devious jester intent only on wreaking havoc. They've disrupted our quiet but pleasant lifestyle and I worry not just about what our response will be but also about the aftermath concerning our relationship with our neighbors.
It wasn’t like us to be frightened of an adversary. Every battle that had come to our shores had ended with our victory, despite the advanced ages of our mercenaries. Our collective will was stronger than any king's army. Plus, we had the backing of the magical Orb, and also, we assumed, the Visitors who’d gifted us with it.
Argoth the Weary thought the dragons were a test for us but he offered no resolution as to how the test might be won. Most in the village felt similarly, as did I. We needed to be careful in the manner with which we approached these wicked creatures, lest we be judged unworthy of the mystical blessing that had been bestowed to us so many years ago.
The dragons had caused more problems than their residence along the trade routes in the fertile valley. They also flew near the entrances to the mines where we made our fortunes. The precious minerals were our bread and butter and societies from all corners of the land would trade with us for a share of our signature commodities. These days, however, no one dared approach the tunnels.
With no ores to mine, the industries dependent on them were shuttered in temporary status. The inventors who were creating new and marvelous implements with our special metals went on hiatus. Farming was curtailed, trading ceased, and with an excess of idle time on their hands, our citizens had taken to rumors and gossip.
The sacred Orb that sat hovering in the center of our town square was wondrous a gift from the Visitors of the Sky. They’d come to our small village in a great silver vessel many years ago. I was still a teenager trying to catch the eye of Sally of the Bonaventures back in those days.
The great ship set itself down in the valley, not too far from where the dragons now roamed, and the tribespeople within it greeted us in peace. They were extremely tall and their skin had a blue tinge but they resembled the residents of this world in most of the obvious ways. It was clear they came from an advanced society in the heavens, no one ever doubted it.
Although the visitors had mouths with which to speak, they communicated through thoughts sent directly into the heads of the people with whom they chose. My mother had been one of them, she was a community leader after all, but they chose many of the residents at random. The recipient received a special message or some form of guidance.
They indicated we had been selected for their most noteworthy prize, the magical Orb, which would grant us eternal prosperity and peace as long as we continued with the principles they had admired in us. They said our race was a war-mongering disappointment from their view in the heavens but our individual society showed promise and they wished to nurture it.
The unusual orb glowed with a translucence none of us had ever seen before. Its light was a bright orange much like that of our primary sun, yet it gave off no heat. Sometimes the color would fluctuate from orange to yellow or even red on occasion but it remained ever bright. It was slightly larger than my considerably large head and it hovered a few feet off the ground, defying our newly discovered laws of gravity.
The Orb was a fantastical object of beauty. People from far and wide would come to view its otherworldly qualities and gaze at its fabulous color. But the Orb had other powers, many of them to be discovered later. Our benefactors told us they wished us to find the multifaceted abilities of our amazing gift incrementally.
The Visitors said they would probably return someday and hoped that our example would turn the tide on the future progeny of all humanity by then.
Our community leaders, including my mother, Azeley the Wise, were deemed protectors of the Orb in that their policies and laws would be the barometer of our worthiness. If we were just and compassionate the Orb would grant us protection and favorable conditions for peace and happiness. If we went against the principles our Visitors admired and started hoarding our resources or handed out uneven justice the Orb would cease to assist us.
Since that day, our small village has become the most prosperous of all the lands. We are ruled by no monarch and have never been conquered. Our mined ores are sought by high learned minds and used to create systems of advanced instrumentations that have led to easier living for everyone.
Vorgon has grown both in stature and population, attracting both artists and tinkerers alike. I met my wife, Elgreth of Marnow, thanks to the influx of new residents. (Sally left me shortly after the Visitor's departure to take up with Leod the Noob. I'll never understand what she saw in that fopdoodle and I consider it a personal affront to have been cast aside for such a cumberworld.)
It was all going well until we were cursed by misfortune.
There was no shortage of opinions as to which pathway to proceed on but any solutions to the dragon problem had to take the Orb into consideration. If we succeeded with the dragons and lost the Orb, victory could not be declared with any degree of honesty.
Thoughts of dusting off our primitive farm implements and rushing toward the menacing vermin were quickly quelled when it was rightfully deemed a foolhardy way to enrich the undertakers. There were still some who felt it possible, despite the superior firepower of our flying nemeses.
The loudest voice for the pacifists was Dongram of Felicites. She felt it was best to leave the beasts be. Perhaps they'd fly off on their own someday. The problem lay in the circumstance that the scoundrels seem to have developed a fondness for our valley and many calendar pages had already been removed from the tablet.
Eren the Simple felt the animals were gifts of themselves. She made the mistake of trying to befriend them. Her memorial stands in the square.
Perske the Magician thought he could mesmerize the cold-blooded basilisks into compliance with trickery and sleight of hand. His memorial stands next to Eren’s.
Shandar the Dim thought that if he gave the dragons the same mind-altering mushrooms that placated his own consciousness into blissfulness, it might pacify the dragons as well. He planted some of his intoxicants in the berries the dragons enjoyed feasting on without informing anyone in the town of his foolhardy intentions.
One could have reasonably predicted that the outcome of administering a psychosis-inducing chemical to a cold-blooded monster to be a disastrous folly. It wasn’t. It was much, much worse.
The colossal beasts went on a murderous rampage setting fires to our crops, tormenting us and the neighboring villages without respite. All night long we heard eardrum-shattering screaming and endured blaze attacks out of nowhere. Frenzied dragons collided into mountains, damaging our mine infrastructure. Other hallucinating reptiles dove freestyle into the sea, destroying our boats and piers in their wake. The only blessing was that they hadn’t consumed much of the fungus or I regret there would have been no one left to report this failure.
The townspeople joined our fire brigade and the builders as they worked nonstop to end the fires and rebuild homes and businesses. For a time, our infighting was postponed as we all worked together to repair the damage. While this was happening, most residents were too busy to notice that the Orb had regained some of the intensity and color it had the days before the Nag joined our ranks.
Marget the Nag was an outlier of our peaceful community. She’d go round yelling ridiculous statements and accusing people of things they couldn’t possibly do. Everyone accepted she was soft in the head but it was a constant irritant in our society. We thought it best to ignore her.
When conflict resumed amongst ourselves again, one person reveled in it. Marget the Nag wrought internal conflict for decades before the lizards darkened our skies with their large clumsy bodies that I could never for the life of me figure out how they remained airborne.
If anyone had an inkling to take up arms against the new pestilence, Marget the Nag was their leader. Her shrill voice was lent to the cause of extermination immediately. The foolhardy among us were open to her representation. It was taking an effort far greater than should have been necessary to point out the errors in what she was suggesting.
Marget had joined our village from the Barrows in the South. It was my silly opinion that the residents of the Five Villages had gotten together and fled under cover of night rather than reside with that contemptible woman any longer. In truth, the legend is that one day every citizen of the area suddenly vanished without a trace.
All their personal belongings were left in their homes. Some people were seemingly plucked off of their horses, and others were removed in the middle of meal. No one could find where they’d been taken. Everyone from the Barrows had disappeared in an instantaneous event, except Marget, unfortunately.
It was a mystery for the ages. The tragedy at Barrows paled in comparison to our dragons. In the meanwhile, Marget was now our burden.
In the late evening, I visited the Square Tavern where I found the whole establishment engaged in merriment. Felix of Mirth was offering his solution to the dragon issue.
"I say we train them and see if we can't ride them around the valley for amusement! Imagine the tourist influx we'd enjoy. Vorgon, Home of the Dragon Rides!"
"Whose gonna train them?" asked Tollen the Loon. "You?"
"I'm sure we can find someone far more qualified than I for that important assignment," remarked Felix with a laugh.
"Keep that up and we'll be building memorials in the town square to you lot, as well," said another of the overserved.
A somber round of drinks was offered up for the memory of Eren and Perske, and later more laughter and joking resumed.
My former competitor de amor was at the tavern that evening. Leod seemed glum and was not partaking in the merriment.
We were on friendly terms and I held no grudges for the simpleton. It was all on Sally, who when all was said, had done me no great disservice in freeing me to be with Elgreth.
"How goes it, Kelven?" He lifted his mug in my direction.
"Ho there, Leod," I replied. "What's the good word?"
"Ay nothing changes," he sighed. "It's always dragons this and dragons that. I had to get out of the house because I had enough of it but I come here and it's all the same. I should have known better but a man can dream, can't he?"
It certainly was on the forethought of every man, woman, and beast with the vicinity. I was intrigued by Sally's take on the matter. She had a methodical mind behind those dark curly locks on her head. Her insight might be of some value. I inquired of her mate what she'd posited.
Leod rolled his eyes. "The Nag welcomed her into her clutches. Sally's entered the blindfolded circus. I can't talk a word of sense into her."
Sally? I couldn't believe what had passed through my ears!
"Sally has joined up with the Nag?"
Leod nodded sadly. "Marget is like a hammer that won't stop pounding. Eventually, the nail goes in and once it's there no tool will unearth it."
I rather thought the poor hammer was being lumped into a new category for which it did not deserve but I was more incredulous that the girl I once was so enamored with had joined forces with that mosquito of a woman.
"Sally's not the only one, you know," he spoke with weariness. "Malgrave the Chemist and Lisse the Head have also joined forces with the doddypolls."
I was genuinely flabbergasted. The two he'd mentioned were prominent citizens, people who were well thought of. They had no business even venturing into the Nag's vicinity.
"It's the lack of better options," said Loed. "That's my conclusion to this unusual alignment with the clodpate. Perhaps if there were more rational solutions these people would regain some of the electrical function to their brain matter."
The Noob had a valid point.
The time for pondering was past. We had to tread smartly and with caution but the need for action was upon us. The longer we waited the more Marget rose in prominence.
Shortly thereafter, I bid my good-byes and left to meet Elgreth at the Shops. She had been working with the collective on designs for new housing and better storage facilities for our surpluses.
"It's all moot at this point," my love complained when I found her in the office. "There are no surpluses and everything needs to be proofed for fire. It takes all the red out of my rainbow."
I sympathized. She'd worked so hard on these plans and I had been impressed with the aesthetics in her former compositions.
I thought I'd take her mind off her disappointments by giving her the sensational news of the day. I was sure she'd share my outrage.
"I found out that Sally of the Bonaventuras has aligned herself with the Nag. Can you believe it? Not only Sally but Lisse and the Chemist as well!"
"I tell you that eight months of work go back to the drawing table and you bring up the conflagration of your youth?"
I couldn't put my finger on it, but it appeared that her anger seemed to be directed at me now.
"How many times have I heard that name pass through your lips. By God, I'd swear you still carry a diamond in your midlands for that tart! I'd worry but she's got that sizzling voluptuary residing in her bedroom keeping her from casting her net any lower. You rile up my laurels, Kelven!"
Leave it to a woman to miss the blatant point of the discussion.
"Dearheart," I tried. "I did mention the Chemist and the Head as well. What's this about Leod? Do you fancy that dolt? Is he considered desirable?"
Elgreth stopped and looked at me as if I were the simpleton.
"Every woman in this town has the moist fomentations where Leod is concerned."
"You don't say!"
This was enlightening news for me.
Elgreth walked off in disgusted fury while I reconsidered my whole world view on attraction and desirability.
I found myself locked out of the cottage when I returned home. Not wanting to make a big fuss out in public, I went to my mother's house and explained my situation.
She chastised me for being a sorry excuse of a husband. Then she blamed herself for not raising me to her expectations. After suffering through a laundry list of my supposed shortcomings she finally allowed me to sleep on her sofa, as my old sleeping quarters had been converted to office storage for community council affairs.
When I awoke later, I found that my mother had already tended to her garden, laundered my clothing, prepared breakfast, and assembled a collection of fine stationery and quills near my place setting at the table.
“Before you eat anything, you're going to pour your heart out to that woman and beg forgiveness that you be taken back in the most poetic language you’re capable of. That poor girl puts up with more than enough to be saddled with a bloke with eyes for another. A dimwittle, no less, who would take up arms with the Nag as her leader. I never liked Sally of the Bonaventures before but now my opinion of her could never be redeemed to the low height it used to be.
“You don’t like Sally of the Bonaventures?” I asked in seriousness.
My mother gave me the same exasperated look that Elgreth had given me the night before.
“Goodness, Kelven, is that the point you’ve taken? You’ve got a beautiful, intelligent woman at home who is leagues above you in every respect. Sally has always been a self-centered shodhemple with no ambitions beyond landing the most desirable man in Vorgon.”
“Are you saying Leod is the fulfillment of that ambition?"
“It’s almost like speaking to a stone to converse with you. I never announced my displeasure when you were chasing that simpleton because if I had, it might have made your fervor more intense. When parents direct their children away from toxic partners it's natural for the child to rebel in the opposite direction. Elgreth is one hundred times that tawty woman and you are lucky to have her. Now, get to work on your letter of remorse and be sure it is eloquent.”
Mother went off to do maintenance on the machines she kept in the barn as I was left to write my words of regret and longing.
When she returned she read my first draft and found it a good preliminary but sent me back to add more emotion. As I pondered what to add, I asked Mother where the council stood on action regarding the dragons.
I saw her face struggle to not give way to tears that threatened to broach the dam inside her.
“The Orb, it grows dim with our conflictions. I fear that we have lessened our good favor with the Visitors. The terrible ideas some have come up with, the infighting, and the tribal inclinations that have been forming, its been enough to turn the light a dark grey hue. Something needs to be done and it has nothing to do with dragons.”
“I always felt the dragons had been sent to test our values and principles and I fear we’ve been failing.”
“Ay son, we all on the council feel that same as well. We cannot stop ourselves from coming to a rational, harmonious solution that does no harm.”
“Damn that Nag for stirring up so much discord.” I helped myself to a large serving of softcakes and syrup and sat down to comfort my mother.
“If we could banish that woman I’d gladly keep the sky serpents,” said my mother with a wistful smile.
“What you said earlier, about being more attracted to someone when a parent wishes the opposite, do you think this might work in our community situation?”
“What do you mean?”
“Suppose we embraced the dragons, made a nuisance of ourselves with them, carefully of course.” I seemed to have her attention. “You know how enamored everyone was with the blue ravens; people going out in the wood to gawk at them and photograph them. It scared them off and they’ve never returned. Perhaps we could find a barren land, the Barrows seem like the right choice. We could try and create favorable conditions there where they could be left alone to do whatever it is that dragons find enjoyable.”
Mother studied me as if a strange, yet not-unwanted, entity had entered my body and taken the controls.
“That’s a stupendous solution, Son.” She seemed taken aback by my plan.
My smile rivaled the brilliance of the orb in its heyday of orange glory. I may have been a doongogle with women but I wasn’t Kelven the Devious for nothing.
After completing my writing assignment, my mother and I went to town where I was directed to buy chocolates and gift them to my betrothed. We passed by the Orb which was a sickly, faded brown. Mother and I exchanged worried glances when we saw the crowd come to the fore.
Marget the Nag led the angry mob through the streets of Vorgon Square. I saw Sally with a haughty expression on her face and I saw, finally, what Mother had tried to explain to me. The Chemist was there, as was Lisse the Head. Shandar the Dim seemed to have been recruited in a state of stupified addiction. He was a less enthusiastic participant but he appeared to no longer hold the shame of his earlier mistakes.
The group was more sizable than I could have ever imagined.
“Today our plague will be eradicated! Tonight we will be the victors and I will lead the people for evermore!”
A voice from the crowd asked what their plan entailed. A few members of the angry mob separated to reveal that they had several prisoners from the town jail with them. Felix of Mirth and Tollen the Loon were among them.
The jail was rarely used as nothing more than a safe haven these days. It was a place for the boys to sleep off their indulgences after a night of drinking. They could find a clean bed and a hot breakfast there, something many of the single imbibers took advantage of.
Marget had them handcuffed and tied up as if they had gone on a burglary rampage.
With a wicked smile, Marget announced that she was “sacrificing” the men to the dragons. She believed if we appeased the beasts they would leave the “law-abiding” in good favor. The crowd cheered. The doomed men, clearly sober at this point, recoiled in terror.
Mother and I grew pale. Argoth the Weary joined us in wordless horror of the display going on around us. A few other rationally-minded neighbors came to our corner to view the spectacle.
“If you’re not with us, we will assume you are with the enemy and will find yourselves dealing with the consequences of this alliance when we return!” Marget the Nag had already declared victory in her mind.
We looked around at each other and then towards the Orb which flickered in agony, threatening to go out entirely.
END OF CHAPTER ONE