He appeared in the village late in the evening, when decent folk had long gone to bed. Only the innkeeper saw him ride through while he was closing the one guesthouse in the wide vicinity. “There you have one,” the innkeeper thought, “I never thought I’d live to see the day.” He hastily took the key out of the lock. He checked to make sure he had properly locked the door. Then he sneaked away into the darkness of the alley bordering the guesthouse, before the stranger would see him.
If the stranger had seen him at all he didn’t pay him any attention. With his eyes firmly on the road ahead he rode down the village’s only street, to take the turn at the intersection leading to the woods and the mountains flanking the village on one side. When he reached an open space he dismounted and – illuminated by his motorcycle’s headlight – he routinely and quickly set up a small tent. He pushed his luggage in before him, crawled inside and pulled down the zipper.
Nobody knows how exactly but when dawn arrived and the village came to life it seemed everyone had already heard the news. A rapidly growing throng of people gathered in the market square, waiting for what was bound to come. Here and there people exchanged bits of gossip and idle speculation, waiting for the mayor to arrive. Although everyone knew what had to happen, it was the unwritten rule for the mayor to explain the plan in detail and give the signal for action. That’s how it always was and how it would always be.
The stranger neatly packed up his tent and tied it on the back of his bike. He looked at the mountains in the distance. For a moment he thought he saw a plume of smoke but he couldn’t be sure. It could have been a bit of morning mist, quickly dissolving in the warming sun. Nevertheless, he was optimistic. After all these year he was certain that this time he had found what he had been looking for for. This time he would succeed. After this nobody would every dare to laugh at him for his ambitious dreams.
He got on his bike and rode off in the direction of the mountains. The road gradually steepened and became harder to travel, full of hairpin bends and narrow bridges over deep ravines. It was getting colder, too, a sign he was rapidly rising. Though the sun stood brightly in a clear blue sky, tiny clouds of vapour poured from his mouth as he breathed.
But he purposefully rode on.
After an especially harrowing curve and very steep climb the forest opened up in front of him. He had arrived at a large clearing, surrounded by sheer rock walls. Straight ahead he saw the dark opening of a cave just as he expected. Now he would show the world what he was capable of.
He got off his bike and leaned the machine against a large boulder. From the saddle-bags he started to pull his equipment:
- “A shield a-polished into gleaming ice”: the round mirror from his bathroom, to which he had attached a leather belt to stick his arm through;
- “A helmet with proud plumage and heavy visor”: an old hockey helmet with his grandmother’s feather duster on top and the welding glasses from his father’s workshop as visor;
- ”A lance with piercing point and sturdy grip”: a strong broom handle with a razor sharp stanly knife on one end and the grip from a mountainbike handlebar, glued on with superglue, on the other.
It may not have been exactly what the author of the book intended, but he thought he had come close enough to suffice. Somewhat less elegant, perhaps, but definitely as effective. And the most important part was he himself, of course; determined, fearless and with the clear conscience of someone about to rid the world of a major evil. He doubted nothing: not his mission, not his abilities, and not his courage to do what needed to be done.
Fully armed he started out in the direction of the cave.
Arriving at the entrance he stopped for a moment to check his armour one last time. He couldn’t afford any equipment malfunction. The author had been very clear about this: his shield and helmet would protect him just enough to give him exactly one chance to strike. Should he miss he would be lost. If anyone would dare to enter the cave after that they would find nothing but a smoking heap of ash and molten metal. This was the real thing.
Satisfied with the state of his equipment he stepped into the darkness of the cave.
His eyes needed a moment to adjust to the lack of light. In front of him a group of people appeared out of the gloom, dressed in the homespun clothes typical of the local village. They barred him from moving further inside. In front stood the mayor, recognisable by her gilded chain of office and the slightly better quality of her clothes.
“And what do you think you’re doing here?” the mayor asked in that slightly ironic tone used by someone more interested in the theatrical effect of the question than the answer itself. The mob nodded and murmured: yes, they would like know that, too.
This was completely unexpected. Didn’t these villagers understand he was here to save them from their oppressor? That he was here to put an end to centuries of misery and fear?
“I am here to kill the dragon.” he said. He took off his helmet to be more audible and continued: “The dragon that has wandered around here since times immemorial to steal gold and jewels from the people. The monster that with flaming breath destroys anyone that tries to resist it. The predator that yearly demands the sacrifice of beautiful maiden to devour her by the light of the full moon.” He felt himself getting fired up at his own little speech, but it failed to impress the villagers. “I come to liberate you,” he tried once more. “I am your saviour. I am here to conquer the world’s last dragon and put it down for good.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what we were afraid of,” said the mayor. “That much was clear when the innkeeper reported seeing you last night. It’s been a while since we were visited by a dragonslayer, but there’s no mistaking when you see them. Whether they come on foot, on horseback or on motorbike, you recognise them straight away.” She paused for a moment, while the villagers agreed: yes, they knew their dragonslayers when they saw them.
“But what if I tell you we don’t want you to defeat our dragon?” the mayor said. “What if I tell you all of us got out of bed extra early this morning precisely to prevent you from killing this dragon. What would you say to that?” That last bit sounded more like a threat than a question. The mayor had crossed her arms and stared at him. The mob behind her silently shuffled a few paces in his direction.
He didn’t understand this. “Why would you want to stop me?” he asked. “Don’t you want to be freed from that all-destroying monster? Don’t you want to live without terror and oppression?”
“Yes, we most certainly do,” the mayor said. “Which is precisely why we won’t let anyone touch our dragon. Our dragon – the last dragon in the world – is our last chance – humanity’s last chance – to prevent complete and utter desolation. This dragon you are so eager to kill has dedicated her whole life to collecting and protecting the life-forces our earth needs to keep nurturing life. This ‘monster’ is Gaia’s last remaining protector, the last guardian of our eco-system. And we will do anything to keep her safe.”
“But … but what about all that stolen gold and hoarded treasure?” he stammered. “The fire and destruction? The sacrificed maidens? Is none of that true? Are all the books and legends false? Or do you say this out of fear for the dragon’s vengeance? Are you forced to say this to avoid being roasted and eaten yourself?” He gripped his lance more tightly. “If that’s the case, fear no more. I know what I have to do.”
The mayor and the villagers laughed. “We are not afraid of our dragon. On the contrary. We are just afraid to lose her to a bumbling ‘hero’ like yourself.”
He hesitated. The people in front of him looked anything but scared. He lowered his lance.
“Come,” the mayor said and stepped forward. “Lay down your weapon and armour and join us outside. I will explain everything.” He was curious enough to obey her. He neatly stacked his equipment near the exit of the cave and followed the mayor to the clearing. Someone had already put a chair there on which the mayor took place while the people sat on the grass in a circle around her, with him in the centre, facing her.
“For as long as men can remember,” the mayor began, “humans have searched the soil for the earth’s treasures. Minerals, precious stones, metals … anything we judged of value we dug up to use for ourselves. Never did we stop to wonder why these treasures were buried in the ground to begin with. All we saw was the beauty, the power and the richness of what we tore from the soil and claimed as ours.”
“As long as there were relatively few people on the planet, this wasn’t too problematic. A few mosquitos may be annoying but we can live without the bit of blood they steal from us. Likewise our earth can easily miss a few pounds of gold and diamonds. But when humanity began to expand and spread further and further across the globe the balance was threatened. All those treasures we thoughtlessly ripped from the ground were part of the ecological web we now call Gaia. Take too much of it away, and the balance is gone.”
“That’s when the dragons came into action. These creatures never were our enemies. They were forced into this by our greed and relentless plundering of the earth. They made it their task to reclaim as much stolen treasure as possible and to collect it in remote locations. There they would guard it for centuries, giving it time to sink back and be absorbed into the soil it came from. As long as no-one came near, dragons would not interfere with the people living around them. Only when someone came to claim a dragon’s treasure it would spring into action. Not just to kill the thief but also to erase all traces of what had happened, to make it even harder for the next thief to succeed. That’s what dragon fire is for. And, yes, sometimes innocent people got killed, but that was never the dragons’ intention. They just did what was needed. No more and no less.”
“When our dragon, many generations ago, chose these mountains to secure her treasure our ancestors too have tried to kill her,” the mayor continued. “Many heroes perished. But the dragon suffered, too. She doesn’t enjoy destruction; even stronger, every attack weakened her and made it harder for her to fulfil her real task – collecting treasure to return it to the earth. If our ancestors hadn’t changed their minds they would in the end have succeeded to chase off our dragon or even kill her. That would have been terrible.” The mayor’s face clearly showed how terrible that would have been. The people in the circle agreed – that would have been unimaginably bad.
“Fortunately there was a young woman – my great-great-great-grandmother – who as a young girl already got convinced something wasn’t right about the stories people kept telling her about the dragon. One day she managed to leave the village unseen to climb up to this cave and see the dragon with her own eyes. That’s how she discovered the truth. When she was found, a few days later, she was sitting in front of the cave to wait for her ‘rescuers’. And just like we are stopping you today, she stopped them then. She convinced them that in this war not the dragon but the people were the monster. That the dragon wanted nothing more than to keep the balance.”
“And thus our whole village is now dedicated to protecting our dragon. We safeguard her secret by withdrawing from the world’s attention as much as possible. Stray travellers see in us nothing but a rustic, out-of-date mountain village, without any redeeming features – just something to pass through and quickly forget. Nothing noticeable ever happens here, nothing newsworthy. We are not picturesque enough to draw any tourists and too remote for developers to bother. And when someone like you comes around – someone who managed to discover our secret and either wants to steal the treasure or play the hero – we make sure they are stopped before they can disturb our dragon’s peace.”
“To honour our first dragon guardian, every year we choose a young, still childless woman to be dragon’s guardian for that year. She visits the dragon from time to time to bring her food and deliver the modest returns in gold and jewels we all save together from the income we earn selling vegetables, fruit and craft products to the city in the valley. That is the ‘virgin’ we sacrifice – in case you were wondering. It’s a sacrifice every young woman in the village loves to be chosen for.”
Having said all this, the mayor stopped and looked at him.
“And now we have to decide what has to happen with you. We can’t let you return to where you are from. We have to keep our secret, at all cost. I hope you understand.”
He thought. Her story sounded convincing, as was the affection with which she talked about ’our dragon and the woman that had discovered the dragon’s true nature. He wanted to believe her version more than the books and stories he knew. For one thing, it answered a question that had bothered him all that time: what did those dragons actually want with all the treasures they hoarded? It had always sounded strange to him that such mighty creatures had nothing better to do than lie on top of a pile of gold for centuries on end. Where was the sense in that? The mayor’s story, on the other hand, made a lot of sense to him.
But what did that mean for him? His dream to make history as a hero had vanished. He did not want to go home – they would laugh even harder and mock him relentlessly if he returned empty handed. Back home nobody believed in dragons anymore – be they good or bad – so there was absolutely no point in trying to explain things to them.
“I think I understand,” he said after a while. “I had it all wrong. I wanted to be a hero but almost made the biggest mistake of my life. I think have a lot to make up for. Just tell me what you need me to do. I don’t want to go home. There’s nothing there for me to return to.”
The mayor was visible relieved when she heard this.
“I had the impression you weren’t such a bad sort,” she said. “Full of the wrong ideas, obviously, but also full of good intentions. Which is a deadly combination, by the way.”
She thought for a moment.
“It would be easiest for everyone if you came and lived in our village. We will find something useful for you to do – we can always use a strong, young man like you. You will have stick to our rules, of course, and you can never, ever talk about what happened today to anyone outside the village. Our dragon can never be mentioned. That is a secret you will have to carry to your grave.”
He nodded. He looked at the people around him and tried to image being one of them. That didn’t seem too hard. They at least had a clear mission in their lives. They knew exactly what they stood for.
“I will be happy to stay with you.” He said. “I solemnly swear I will keep your secret. And should it ever be necessary I will defend your – our – dragon with all my might. But I do have one request. I have never seen a real dragon. Could I, please, see your dragon once before I join you? That would make my life complete.”
The mayor rose.
“I am glad we have managed to convince you without having to resort to violence. I am happy to welcome you as one of us. And I speak, I think, for all of us here.” She looked around at the smiling and nodding crowd. “Whether our dragon will wish to show herself to you I can’t say. That’s something our dragon guardian will have to ask her. Don’t expect too much, though. Dragons are naturally shy creatures.”
She turned to address a young women who had stayed close to the cave’s entrance. She nodded and disappeared through a hardly visible crack in the rock wall he had mistaken for a stripe of dirt.
“You didn’t really think our dragon would hide in the obvious cave, did you?” said the mayor, seeing the surprise on his face. “The real entrance is camouflaged and practically invisible if you don’t know where to look. Even if you had arrived here before we could stop you, you would have found an empty cave first. One of us keeping watch there would have had plenty of time to get reinforcements before you would have even known to look for another entrance.”
That made him laugh. That cave had been a bit too obvious, he had to admit that now.
The young women reappeared.
“It is OK.” she said. The dragon will show herself. Clear the area, so she won’t accidentally hurt anyone.”
Everyone moved to the furthest edges of the clearing and positioned him in a safe place with a clear view of what was to come.
The hidden opening in the rock wall began to shine and suddenly the clearing was filled with bright sunlight. So bright he could barely keep on looking. Be he persisted and thought he saw a form inside the light. A long tail, wings, an elongated body, elegant neck and a head with wide-open jaws. He thought he saw radiant eyes, even brighter than the sunlight surrounding the creature. Then a deep-red light sprang up from between the dragon’s jaws. A hot narrow flame shot forward and hit the rock against which his bike was still leaning. It didn’t even catch fire but rapidly melted into a small pool of liquid metal, so intense was the heat of the flame. The flame was gone as fast as it had appeared. And so was the dragon. In one supple move she shot back through the opening and took her light with her.
For a moment it looked like night after all that brightness.
He began to laugh, loudly and triumphantly. He had finally found his dragon. He had reached his destination.
From now on everything would be different.