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THE VILLAGE AND THE DRAGON


here was once a village, and there was once a dragon that flew through the skies over the village.

The dragon was something of a nuisance to the villagers, because it did what all dragons do: it carried off their sheep now and then, set fire to their thatching occasionally, and it... well, there's no polite way to put this-- it dropped huge mounds of dragon-dung everywhere.

Yet the villagers stayed where they were, because there were many advantages to living where they did. The valley and surrounding forest were beautiful, and the village itself was beautiful. More: in springtime and in summer, their meadows bloomed with exquisite flowers of a kind that had long since gone extinct everywhere else in the world. It was as though this one valley had somehow escaped the hand of Time. Ancient roses bloomed in the villagers' gardens, and strange sweet vines climbed their walls and opened scarlet trumpets at their windows, giving out a haunting fragrance in the twilight. The fields bore abundantly and there was plenty to live on, though the work was terribly hard.

Still, there was plenty of play with the work. The villagers had a rich and irreplacable culture, generations old. They had festivals and holidays. For as long as anyone could remember, the young people of the village had gathered around the dragonpole and danced to welcome in the spring. Trade Folk came at that time and set up their stalls in the village square, to sell rare and needful things, and they were always welcomed. The Guilds of the village held stately processions and pageants celebrating the village's history. The Dragon Dancers, a team made up of all the village Ploughboys, would parade through the streets each morning in their peculiar dance with its ritual figures that were meant to ward off the Avalanche From The Skies, as the barrages of dragon dung were called.

Once a year the Dragon Dancers would gather in the yard of the village inn, on a summer night, and hang yellow lanterns in the trees as blue dusk fell. The old Fiddler would tune his fiddle, the Piper would warm his pipe of fine boxwood to sweeten its tone, the Innkeeper would open a barrel of her finest ale: and the Ploughboys would dance their rough stamping dance as the music played, and the village girls danced too, and their eyes flashed in the night. The wild folk came peering out of the oaks to watch, and sometimes slipped into human shapes to dance a measure or two. They'd dance the stars out; they'd dance the moon down the sky; they'd dance the red sun up out of the mists of morning.

And in the evenings the villagers would sit outside their houses and enjoy the cool of evening as the heat of day faded, and the moths came out and night-birds began to sing. The red sky would deepen to purple, the oak trees would rustle with mysterious life, pinprick silver stars would begin to appear. And, nearly every evening, the villagers could look up over the black outlines of their gables and fluttering banners and see the dragon crossing the sky, always from east to west, so far up it caught the last light of sunset on its burnished scales and wide wings, gleaming like fire, and sometimes it exhaled a jet of flame that left a long pink trail in the gloaming. At that moment, even the villagers who had been unfortunate enough to be shit on by the dragon would sigh and think that, for all its problems, this was undoubtedly the best place in the world to live.

All the same, the dragon shit was a problem.

As the years went on, many villagers began to have a vague resentful feeling that something ought to be done about the dragon. Their village was such a magical place to live! If not for the dragon, they thought, it would be a virtual paradise. And so when the Trade Folk came in the spring, some of the village Officials met with them and asked the travelers if they knew of a reliable dragon exterminator.

The Trade Folk were only too happy to provide them with help. Everywhere else they traveled, they said, dragons had been prudently wiped out; only in this backwoods place were people foolish enough to suffer such a nuisance! This made the village Officials uncomfortable, because they didn't want to be perceived as foolish, and they at once engaged the services of the firm recommended to them by the Trade Folk.

So a Specialist came out, and watched the dragon's flight path, and studied its steaming mounds of dung with its strange rainbow colors and glittering crystals, and made calculations and consulted books. At great expense she had a tremendous Engine brought in, all gears and wheels, very impressive, and she cut down the dragonpole on the village green to clear a place for the Engine. Some of the villagers protested, but she explained that this was necessary to give the Engine a clear shot at the dragon. She showed them the bolt forged to kill the dragon: a two-faced thing of gleaming black steel, coated in poison green as envy.

On the appointed day, the Specialist loaded the bolt into the Engine and waited for nightfall. All the villagers came out and stood at their doors to watch, murmuring in anticipation. As the glow died in the west and the first faint stars appeared, tension mounted. The village Officials huddled together and watched the sky, and cried out when at last the dragon came into view above the far edge of the forest. High up it soared, bright with sunset, and the Mayor groaned; too far away! But the Specialist knew how to kill dragons. She cranked the gears, adjusted the trajectory, made allowances for the night wind; and she fired. With a sharp whine the bolt shot up through the air, emitting its own hectic green light as it sped, up until it could barely be seen. But everyone saw the moment of impact.

There was a blossom of yellow fire, and the dragon veered as a bat will veer after an insect, and its course became an unsteady zigzag. Its wings crumpled like withered petals. It dropped through the air like a stone, exhaling a long rainbow of gases as it fell. Some of the villagers screamed and ran; but long before it was anywhere near them, the dragon's wings unfolded again with a snap that echoed for miles. Abruptly its descent was arrested and it planed westward once more, a darkness low over the forest, trailing sparks. It was out of sight by the time the first drops of smoking blood reached the ground. They fell like rain on the faces of the Specialist and the village Officials.

"We've killed the dragon!" roared the Mayor, and all across the village there was wild cheering. The only person who did not dance with joy was the Specialist. With a bright false smile she made her way through the rejoicing crowds to the Mayor's side, and plucked at his sleeve and drew him into the village guildhall. There she privately explained that she wasn't certain she'd killed the dragon. It might be so wounded it would die; but dragons were treacherous, and it might crawl away to heal itself and return one day, to wreak dreadful vengeance on them all.

"Then you must stay with us," said the Mayor. "Keep your wonderful Engine oiled and polished, forge new bolts; we can't do without you!"

The Specialist smiled and graciously accepted his invitation.

The next day the Mayor called all the villagers together on the green and, climbing up to balance unsteadily on the Engine, he made a fine speech about how wonderful everything was going to be now that the dragon was gone. "For years," he said, "You have suffered the depredations of a monster; your lost sheep, your burned roofs, your streets and fields blocked with massive mounds of Ultimate Nastiness! But we are all about to enter a golden age, my friends. We will have prosperity at last! And we will guarantee our continued prosperity-- and our security-- by keeping this Engine here in our midst, our certain protection against any other dragons that might be lurking nearby!"

"What, you mean that big machine's going to stay here?" demanded the old Fiddler in a querulous voice. "Where'll we set up our dragonpole?"

"We'll find a place for the dragonpole somewhere else," said the Mayor soothingly, but the Specialist said:

"Don't you all think that dragonpoles are just a bit... well...dragonish? Now that I've freed you from the dragon, you must all free yourselves from the dragon's insidious influence on your culture."

"But we've always danced around the dragonpole in the springtime," protested the Innkeeper.

The Mayor spread out his hands and smiled a benevolent smile. "My friends," he said, "we carried an awful burden for so many years that we may find it difficult to adjust, at first. But the difficulty will only be temporary! And perhaps we'll find that we're better off without some of our old superstitions and habits. Perhaps we'll benefit by new directions, new thinking! We need to be flexible. We need to adjust and adapt. Look how we stagnated in the shadow of the dragon! This village hasn't changed in generations. Now we'll move with the times!"

There was scattered applause at that, and everyone went home very thoughtful, and pondered what the Mayor had said.

For a long while after that, all the villagers watched the sky anxiously, fearful lest another dragon appear. None ever did, however; peace reigned at last and there were no longer cries from the sheep-fold in the night. The harvest was got in and it was a fine one, and all the village rejoiced.

Though it was noticed that the forest was silent, as it had never been before, and the glory of twilight was somehow a bit less glorious.

That winter was a bad one, with frosts and freezes harder than anyone could remember. So bitter cold it was, that the old Fiddler froze to death in his little hut on the edge of the fields, and was found stiff and blue in his blankets. A fire had to be lit in the churchyard and kept burning for three days before the ground thawed enough for a grave to be dug. There was great mourning, but the Mayor made a fine speech to comfort everyone.

"We don't need a Fiddler any more. Now that we've entered a golden age of prosperity," he said, "we can afford new music!"

And with the first thaw of spring he proudly led everyone to the village green to behold the Engine, upon whose carriage had been mounted two big boxes covered with black cloth. A man sat beside the Engine in an aluminum folding chair. He stood up and grinned at the villagers, and waved his hands; promptly music exploded outward from the black boxes in a deafening roar, and the villagers clapped their hands over their ears.

"WHAT IN THE DRAGON'S NAME IS THAT?" shouted the Innkeeper.

"THAT'S THE NEW MUSIC WE'RE GOING TO HAVE," explained the Mayor, deciding to be tactful and overlook her language. "IT'S MAGIC! WE'VE HIRED A MAGICIAN FROM THE FAR COUNTRY, AT GREAT EXPENSE, TO MAKE IT PLAY FOR US!"

"BUT DOES HE KNOW THE OLD DRAGON-DANCES?" cried one of the Ploughboys.

"YOU DON'T NEED YOUR OLD DRAGON-DANCES!" responded the Specialist. "TOO DRAGONISH! WE'RE BRINGING IN PEOPLE FROM THE FAR COUNTRY TO TEACH YOU ALL NEW DANCES! WON'T THAT BE WONDERFUL?"

The Ploughboys all looked at one another in dismay. "NO IT BLOODY WON'T!" shouted the first one who had spoken. "WE'RE DRAGON-DANCERS! WE LIKE BEING DRAGON-DANCERS! WHY DO WE HAVE TO CHANGE?"

"BECAUSE THE STUPID DRAGON IS DEAD!" bellowed the Mayor, just at the moment that the Magician (having noticed that his audience was leaving in droves) lowered the volume, so the Mayor's words echoed in the square. He glared at the Ploughboys, very much annoyed that they were so obstinate and unappreciative of his efforts, and he added: "We don't need Dragon-Dancers anyway! It was never anything more than a lot of superstition, and it looked silly! You can learn the dances from the far country, or... or you'll be banished from the village!"

Many people gasped with horror at this, but not the leader of the Ploughboys. He gave the Mayor a piece of advice, so direct and so pungent that the Mayor's jowls darkened with rage. The Mayor instantly banished the Ploughboys from the village; and next day, carrying their Dragon-Dance wings of green canvas and their Dragon-Dance swords of silver-painted lath, they walked sadly away from the village and into the forest. The Piper left with them, for he could see that he too had become obsolete.

There was much worried talk in the village over this, because there had always been Dragon-Dancers in the village. Dragon-Dances were thought to bring good luck and bountiful crops. What would the village do for dancing now? Even more importantly, who would work the fields with the Ploughboys gone?

The Specialist assured them that she could find them new dancers who would see to it that the crops were planted properly, as they were planted in the far country, and within a week had imported them at great expense.

But though the snow melted away, it was noticed that no rare flowers bloomed in the meadows that year; in fact, no flowers bloomed at all, in fields nor gardens, and when the earth was broken with the plough it was only with terrible difficulty, for under the black wet earth lay a silver rime of ice that nothing could melt. The new Ploughboys sat around the Engine and listened to the new music, or strutted through the village sneering at the old-fashioned ways of their neighbors. But nothing would grow.

Even at the height of summer, only a few and scanty blades of green rose from the soil. There were whispers among the older villagers that this was all because of banishing the Dragon-Dancers. The Mayor was enraged by such nonsense. He called in Scientists from the far country, who studied the soil and found an unwelcome truth: they informed the Mayor that apparently the village's unnatural fertility all these years had had something to do with the vast quantity of dragon-dropping fertilizer the villagers had spread over the fields each autumn. It was also most probable that the exotic flowers had sprung from seeds in the dragon-manure, grazed from who knew what distant worlds, generated by who knew what dragonish alchemical heat.

"In that case," said the Mayor, "We're better off without the flowers! As for the failure of the crops, why, we'll be flexible. We'll change our economic base. We'll build factories!"

So artisans were brought in from the far country, and where the green fields had been, factories and shops rose. The Mayor and the Specialists watched the walls go up eagerly, thinking of the prosperity they were bringing the village. But there began to be mutterings in the village, because taxes were raised to pay for the new shops, and scornful strangers were everywhere, and all the food had to be imported now. No flowers bloomed in the gardens; the forests were silent and leafless. At night the stars were obscured by the smoke of the builder's fires, and by day the air was noisy with the sound of the new economy.

At last the shops were built, and well stocked with modern merchandise. Alas, it sat on the shelves unpurchased; for times were hard now in the village. Nobody had any money, and many of the villagers had wandered away into the forest, self- exiled. Farms and houses stood deserted. There was much complaint among those few original villagers who had remained, and no end of bitter grumbling from the shopkeepers who had left the far country to come to this ugly and unprofitable town. The Mayor banished villagers whenever he caught them speaking treason, yet still, day by day, the anger rose like a steel rocket smeared with poison.

In desperation the Mayor consulted with the Specialist, and together they came up with a plan.

One morning the villagers were awakened by strangers in grey uniforms hammering on their doors, summoning them to a meeting at the Engine. When they were all assembled there, the Innkeeper looked at the armed guards lined up around the Mayor and she cried:

"Who are these people? They're not our Constables."

"The Constables have been banished for being dragonish," said the Mayor, "And in any case they were old-fashioned and inefficient. Besides, there have been rumors of dragon attacks on the edge of the forest! We brought in guards from the far country to protect you at great expense, so you ought to be grateful. I've summoned you all here to tell you about our wonderful new plan to guarantee safety and prosperity to the village."

He waved his hand at the area beyond the outskirts of the village, where the hills dropped away to a wide and barren plain, bitter, treeless. "We're moving the village to a new location! Here on the high ground it's too exposed, too close to the forest. Too dangerous. On the plain we'll build a splendid new town, a fortress that will enclose all our shops and factories together in one great structure. And there'll be living quarters, of course, modern units built above the markets so as not to waste space that can be turned to profit."

The older villagers-- those that were left-- turned to look at one another, aghast. Finally the Innkeeper called out, "Who's going to pay for all this?"

The Mayor replied, "Er-- we expect all of you who love the village as much as we do to contribute the materials and labor. All must work together to build our new permanent home."

At this, the shopkeepers who had come from the far country began to shout insults at the Mayor, for they weren't making enough money to build themselves outhouses, let alone a new city. The guards raised their spears threateningly, and in desperation the Mayor pointed his finger at the Innkeeper.

"Why blame me?" he shouted. "We'd be prosperous now if it wasn't for these old-fashioned sulkers like her! These dragon-sympathizing malcontents who won't buy your wares have ruined the village! Blame her!"

At that the Innkeeper drew herself up, and, gathering all her considerable family around her, she turned and walked out of the village square. They paused only long enough to unhook the inn's painted sign from the standard where it had swung so many years. Carrying it with them they made for the edge of the forest.

The Specialist, watching them go, realized that she'd now have fewer people to build her permanent marketplace. "Stop!" she shouted. "Where are you going?"

The Innkeeper turned back and replied, "To find another dragon."

"You fools! Do you think you can live in the past?" shouted the Mayor.

"We used to," said the Innkeeper. "Maybe we can find it again. It was a nice place, even with all the shit we had to put up with."






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