"What dragon?" asked Zabbar yawned from the doorway of his small cottage. He looked at the big man standing before him. The Villagemaster's black hair showed a touch of grey, but he remained strong and dangerous. It was rumored that he could still outfight any man in the village with the possible exception of the smith.
The smith was there too, standing behind the Villagemaster, holding in his right hand what for anyone else would have been a two-handed sword. It made Zabbar's arms ache just to look at him. Surveying the scene, he discovered that every man in the village had turned out and they were all armed.
Quesnel grinned broadly. "Every year, on the first day of spring, we have to sacrifice a maiden to the dragon that lives in the North Valley. But this year is going to be different. This year you're going to kill the dragon."
Quesnel's grin grew wider. "You are Zabbar the Great, Sees All, Knows All. Who could tell you anything? Obviously your magical powers warned you about the dragon long before you came to Riverstroke. Killing a dragon is a difficult and dangerous undertaking and I didn't want to make you nervous by mentioning it all the time, so I told everyone to keep quiet about it."
Last fall he had shown up at Riverstroke and informed them that they were being given the rare opportunity of hiring a first class magician, if the price was right. Zabbar took great care in selecting the village. High in the mountains, it lay far from the trade routes so that a real magician was not likely to wander by. The townsmen jumped at his offer, especially when informed that he would end the three year drought that had plagued the valley.
Ending a drought was easy for a magician of Zabbar's caliber. First you announce that you will cause rain. Then it either rains or it doesn't. If it does, you're a hero. If it doesn't, you take the money and find a new job -- fast. Zabbar didn't tell them, but that was why he had been looking for a job in Riverstroke.
His first six months were well and profitable. If he was called out to heal a farmer's sick cow, he would dance around and burn some colored smoke. Then if the cow got well all by itself, he would claim it was due to his magic and that would be three coppers please. If the cow died, he would scold the farmer for calling him in too late, tell him that he had to put it out of its misery and that would be one copper, please.
Zabbar liked his job. The work was easy and the money came rolling in. But money was no good unless you lived long enough to spend it. Zabbar's "magic" didn't stand a chance against a dragon. He had to find a way out, and fast.
Forcing himself to look calm and confident he boldly stated, "I'm ready to fight the dragon. I have perfected a special killing spell, but I must cast it from the top of the East Mountain and no one can be near me. It works best when I'm alone and far away."
Quesnel chuckled. "It's nice you can joke at a time like this. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were trying to run away. You have to be close to kill a dragon. Everyone knows that. Besides, if you could kill it from far away, you would have done so long ago."
Zabbar saw he had no choice. He would have to go. Slowly he got out his robes and dressed. Glancing out the windows, he could see men milling all around his house; there was no way he could sneak out.
Riverstroke was little more than a collection of houses and soon Zabbar and Quesnel had left the town headed for the North Valley. The entire village followed. The party threaded its way through the huge boulders that lined the valley floor until finally Quesnel stopped in front of a small cave. "This is a back way down into the dragon's lair," he announced.
Zabbar lit a torch and went inside. He clutched it desperately as he crept along the cave. A short ways down the passage narrowed and several times the low ceiling forced him to crouch down. A wet smoke smell filled the air.
Just after he managed to squeeze through a particularly tight spot, he noticed the soft white glow from a Spell of Light ahead. "Just my luck" he muttered to himself. "A magic-using dragon, what could be worse than that? A mob of angry villagers, all armed", he concluded glancing back the way he came.
He put out his torch and crept forward. A bronze dragon, as big as the village hall, slept at the far side of a huge cavern. Mounds of gold, jewels, and other treasures were scattered around him. Zabbar tore his eyes from the loot and looked for another way out.
Several small caves dotted the edge of the room, but he would have to cross in front of the dragon to reach them. Zabbar considered turning back, but the villagers would certainly kill him, or at least force him to give back all his commission money. About 500 feet of open space separated him and the dragon, so if he kept to the shadows and walked very softly, he just might escape before it woke up.
Silently he crept forward, trying to breathe as quietly as possible. As he crossed the bare stretch of ground, the dragon shifted his weight and opened one eye. The dragon stared at Zabbar. Zabbar stared at the dragon. The dragon jumped to his feet and Zabbar ran for cover. A large boulder lay next to the wall and Zabbar made it over in one leap. He slid into the narrow crack behind the rock and did his best to make himself part of the ground.
The dragon raced over and let loose with a jet of flames, but the boulder shielded Zabbar. Claws scratched around the rock as the dragon tired digging him out, but the crack was too small. Finally the dragon took a step back and studied the situation.
"We seem to have a problem here," said the dragon, his deep bass voice reminded Zabbar of the Villagemaster. "I can't get to you, but you can't escape. I suppose I could pound that boulder into dust, but that's too much work. Humans are so much trouble. Why do you always want to steal my gold?"
"Then why do they keep chaining one up outside my front door?" asked the baffled dragon. "I really don't like maidens that much. They tend to be a bit stringy and there is never much meat on them. I always figured that they were giving me the maidens so I wouldn't hunt their cows."
As he listened to this, Zabbar continued to frantically search the ground around him, trying to find his sword. Then he remembered he had dropped it back in the middle of the cavern. He was totally defenseless, except for his mouth.
The dragon rested his head on his front claws. Grinning he said, "I suppose I should offer you a gesture of good will in return." Turning his head to one side, he let loose with a gigantic blast of fire that completely filled the room.
Zabbar realized that there was nothing else he could do. Nervous he slowly got up and walked around the boulder. He stood before the dragon and tried to keep himself from shaking. His mind churned, trying to figure a way out, but nothing turned up. Look confident, he told himself. If you look confident, then the dragon may think you know what you're doing. At least it always worked with humans.
"Well," said Zabbar as he hurriedly searched for an answer. "Because, if you kill me, then the villagers will send down another dragon fighter to replace me, and another and another. You'll never get any peace. But if you let me go, I can stop them."
Zabbar thought for a moment, then his face lit up with an idea. "A bargain," he exclaimed. "I can make a deal with the villagers. As long as you don't bother them, I'll get them to stop sending people down here to annoy you." He paused to let his brain catch up with his mouth. "As a bonus, I'll get them to replace your spring maiden with a cow."
Zabbar found himself looking directly into the dragon's eyes. He stood there, frozen for a moment, the hot breath from the dragon's nostrils blowing gently against his clothes, filling the air with a wet smoke smell. This was the closest anyone had come to a dragon without one of them winding up dead. He decided it was time to leave.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Zabbar continued, "Clyde will not do. You are fierce and powerful, and you must have a fierce and powerful name. You need a real dragon's name like Zamraska or Tiamat or Pyron."
Clyde burst out with a short laugh which caused a small ball of fire to explode from his mouth. "Clyde is a REAL dragon's name, but you can call me anything you want, just as long as you keep people from bothering me. I think 'Pyron' is a silly name, but you humans are always so silly."
"We're silly?" exclaimed Zabbar. He pointed to one of the treasure mounds dotting the room. "Look at that, that's silly." The six-foot-high mound contained gold, jewels, amulets and other treasures almost totally buried under a blanket of dirt. "You take some of the most beautiful treasures in the world and store them in dirt piles. Now if this were my treasure, it would be displayed properly. The coins sorted and stacked, the amulets hung on the wall and the jewels put up neatly. Everything would be clean and polished."
"I'm proud of my treasure," said Clyde. "I've been collecting it for hundreds of years. Do you think I like keeping it this way? I want to display it right, but did you ever try stacking coins with claws four feet long? It's impossible, I've tried. Coins are just too small. They were made for human hands."
The dragon thought for a moment. "That gives me an idea. You've got human hands. You can straighten things out for me. From now on, I want you to come here every Monday and clean up for me. Let's see, is there anything else you can do for me?"
Zabbar turned and bolted for the side passage. He didn't stop until he was well away from Clyde's lair. Removing his coat, he used the torch to burn it in several places. Satisfied with the results, he rubbed the burned cloth all over his face and messed up his hair.
About 100 yards from the cave entrance, he stopped and ran back and forth for about ten minutes until he worked up a good sweat, then stumbled out of the cave into the waiting crowd of villagers. "It was terrible, terrible," he panted hoarsely. "Drink, give me drink, and I will tell all."
Half a bottle later, Zabbar continued his story. "I have fought the mighty dragon, Pyron. He has great magic and was far more powerful than I had imagined. It took all my skill and strength just to hold him off. I came very close to being killed many times. You can see how badly burned my coat is. For hours we fought back and forth, neither one of us gaining the upper hand. Finally I pinned him in a corner with a force spell, but I couldn't move or the spell would be broken. We sat there for some time before I was able to use my powers of persuasion to force an agreement out of him. He will accept the sacrifice of a cow in place of the usual maiden, even though he has grown fond of the taste of maidens. I placed a powerful spell on him to make him keep this bargain."
Zabbar could see that the crowd was hanging on his every word. He could tell them anything and they would believe it. He wondered if it was a good time to ask for a raise, but decided that the mention of money would break the spell. A crowd formed around him, lifted him to their shoulders and carried him triumphantly back into town.
That evening he had a few loose ends to tie up. He met Quesnel in the Villagemaster's house and said, "My coat was badly damaged in battle. Since it was destroyed in the line of duty, the village should replace it."
The question took Zabbar by surprise. Obviously he couldn't tell Quesnel that he was going to be a dragon's housekeeper. He thought for a moment, then replied carefully, "I must renew the protective spell once a week. By the way, since I will be doing more work for the village, my salary should be increased."
Zabbar sighed with relief as he left the Villagemaster's house. He had survived the day and even made a small profit. He was even looking forward to doing house work for Clyde. No one had every conned a dragon out of anything and Zabbar was looking forward to being the first. But things didn't turn out as Zabbar expected.
Clyde pointed to a pile of dirt covering some gold sculptures. Zabbar recognized the statue of a small golden dragon in flight which lay on top. Off to one side the top of a minor god poked its head up, but the rest of the pieces remained hidden in a blanket of dirt. "Extract each item from that mound, clean it and stack it against the wall."
Zabbar started to work. He picked up the golden dragon, shook the dirt off it and then carefully dusted the piece with a cloth. He paid special attention to the ruby eyes. Finally he held up his work to the light to inspect it and started across the room, intending to put it up.
"You're going about that in the wrong way," said Clyde, startling Zabbar. "Don't carry those one piece at a time, instead wait till you get a batch of ten or so. That way you make one trip instead of ten."
"Are you kidding?" exclaimed Zabbar. "You're asking me to carry fifty pounds. That's far too much for a human. We're not as strong as a dragon. Ten pounds is about as much as we can carry at one time."
Zabbar looked at Clyde. Small streams of smoke curled up from the dragon's nostrils and his eyes glowed red. The last time Zabbar had seen him this mad was when the dragon first saw him and attacked. Quickly Zabbar tried to figure out what Clyde was so angry about.
"No, I know better than that. I just figured that if you were going to steal my gold, you wouldn't limit yourself to just one coin. But I should warn you that dragons have a very keen gold sense. I know every bit of gold in my lair, so don't ever try taking any of it again."
Zabbar nodded in agreement. He made a mental note to restrict his stealing to jewelry and other non-gold items. "Oh, by the way, next week I'm going to have to come a day late. Next Monday is the annual Zamish Day."
"No," replied Zabbar angrily. "It's the first day after spring planting, when everyone in the village turns out to rid the valley of the Zamish. Those small furry brown rodents do a lot of crop damage, and they breed like crazy. Every one we kill now means fifty less to deal with in the fall.
"The men in the village will stretch a net across the low end of the valley, then all the women and children will start at the high end and work their way down, banging pots and pans to scare the Zamish. The men stay by the net to catch them. Everyone has to turn out, and even then there are never enough people, so a lot of the pests escape. They need every warm body they can get and that includes me."
Clyde stretched out slowly and thought about this for a minute. "This doesn't sound like one of your usual tricks. You might even be telling the truth." Zabbar started to protest, but the dragon waved him silent. "However, I can't let you come late without paying some penalty. You must bring me a dozen Zamish as compensation for your tardiness."
Suddenly an idea popped into Zabbar's head. "Why don't you join us? I'm sure that a big dragon like you can scare a lot of little critters. You could fill the gap in the pot-banging line. If you help us, I'll see that you get all the Zamish you can eat."
"Believe me, there'll be enough. You have no idea how many Zamish we round up. For the next two weeks, the most important person in the village will not be the Village Magician, but the cook, Kedgwick, who knows 47 different ways to prepare Zamish."
"Won't work. The dragon will come on Zamish day, whatever day that is. Besides it's not that bad. If you put him at the north end of the pot banging line, you can concentrate the women and children on the south side. We'll completely cover the valley this time, and it's only going to cost you twenty gold pieces."
"You must warn everyone about the special spell I used on the dragon. It makes him think that helping out is his own idea. If anyone mentions the spell, it will be broken. Instruct everyone to be careful."
When Zamish Day came, Clyde arrived early and took his assigned place at the north end of the line. The women and children slowly filtered into the valley and bunched up on the south side, afraid to go near the big dragon.
Finally Quesnel's wife, a stout woman with graying hair, marched over to Zabbar and said, "I'll take the place next to the dragon. If it kills me, my husband will kill this Magician. Now who will stand next to me?"
Zabbar ran up and down the line trying to get everyone in position. The spacing was wrong. People kept moving away from the dragon, and ignoring most of Zabbar's shouted orders. Finally Zabbar gave the order to start, two hours late.
It took them until noon to reach the bottom of the valley and the net. The area in front swarmed with a sea of Zamish all frantically trying to escape. The men were busily wading in a brown sea of frantic animals, their clubs rising and falling. Their legs were wrapped in heavy leather to protect them from the sharp teeth, but still almost all of them were going to wind up getting scratched. The leggings did nothing to protect them from the heat. It was going to be a slow, endless job.
Clyde looked at this scene and a big smile spread across his face. "All that food," he said to himself and roasted two dozen Zamish with his flame. He started stuffing them down his mouth like pop corn. When he finished the first batch, he looked around for more. Spotting a small herd near the net, he positioned his head to flame when he heard Zabbar run up and shout, "Watch out for the net! Be careful of the net!"
Clyde patiently turned to look at him. "Don't tell me how to breathe. I've been breathing all my life. I can put my flame exactly where I want it. I'm not about to let all that food escape." He turned back and let loose a jet of fire that missed the net by a good half inch, then sat back to enjoy his meal.
Clyde burped. Quesnel looked up to discover that the dragon had stretched out for a nap after his huge meal. "Well done, Magician," said Quesnel. "Now why don't you wake up that sleeping fellow and let's all go home?"
"Right," agreed Quesnel, and Zabbar followed him into the village to collect his fifteen gold pieces. If he had known what would happen next, he probably would have gone back and woken up the dragon, no matter what the danger.
The next day Clyde was back in his lair and Zabbar was back at work as his housekeeper. When he finally returned home, he found a group of farmers waiting. Since they didn't look angry, he approached them.
"Well, yesterday, I stopped by the place where the dragon slept and picked up one of the loose scales as a souvenir. When I got home, it scared my horses, goats and my dog. In fact, it scared all my animals, so I put it out in my lettuce field to keep the Zamish away. Works great, haven't even seen a single one all day. Now everyone wants a scale."
"So you're selling my scales and you're keeping the money. Somehow that doesn't seem right. I ought to get the money." The dragon thought for a moment, "But I don't want coppers, so what do I want?" He thought some more. "I know, I'll sell the scales to the farmers at the rate of three scales for one day's work in my lair."
That evening Zabbar broke the news to the farmers. Monday morning came and Zabbar wondered how may people would show up. As he left his cottage, he saw five people waiting. Two of the farmers were brave enough to go into the lair. Three more were brave enough to send their wives.
"First of all, never mention magic in the dragon's presence. If he finds out what spells I am using against him, he'll be able to break them. Second, remember that the dread Pyron likes to keep an eye on his treasures and gets worried if anyone picks up a big pile. Don't pick up more than five pounds at one time. And finally, remember the spell I'm using makes the dragon think he's the master instead of me. So if he orders me around a lot, understand it's all part of the spell."
Zabbar turned around and discovered he was now standing alone. Quickly he sprinted up the passageway and coaxed the villagers back into the lair. They huddled at the far side of the room as Clyde explained what he wanted done.
Mlan, one of the farming wives, spent all morning cleaning and polishing a wooden chest with ivory panels. Clyde watched her for some time. "You do good work," he said. "I've never seen anyone clean so well." He turned his head toward Zabbar and exclaimed loudly, "Or work so hard."
Sytone, one of the farmers, got the job of unpacking the 208 volume set of Blackstone's Complete Encyclopedia of Magic and putting it in a large brown bookcase that Clyde had rescued from an old broken down castle. It was late afternoon when Sytone finally put the last book in place.
"Yes," explained Clyde. "A couple of hundred years ago, I studied humans, but I gave it up and switched to studying magic. I never could understand human beings. Now I learn that they don't understand each other."
The rest of the day went without incident. Soon everyone in the village had been to Clyde's and were starting to like him. Things were going along beautifully until one day when Quesnel summoned Zabbar to his house.
"I have bad news," he began. "Atikokan, the Lord High Magician, has heard of our dragon. We've got to hide all our gold and move the women and children to safety in the high valley. His men will rip the town apart looking for treasure. I just hope that no one gets killed.
"Don't hide everything," instructed Zabbar. "Hide most of your treasure well, but hide a small portion poorly. That way, you'll give the solders something to find when they take the place apart. Also set out a lot of cheap breakables so they can make a big show of being destructive without ruining anything valuable."
The big dragon sat down to think. "I know of Atikokan," he said solemnly. "He's not much of a magician. He's a mechanic who uses amulets, wands and rings to do his magic. He has a Wand of Lightning which he uses to kill dragons and steal their treasures. He's using it to build up his armory of magical weapons. I knew two dragons he killed. Leave me, I must prepare for the battle."
Clyde sighed. "You're human and do not understand how important a dragon's treasures is to him. We need it to live. Without the magical field generated by gold we wither away and die. Atikokan will be here before I could move my treasure."
That night he couldn't sleep. He liked Clyde and didn't want him killed. If he had real magic he could fight Atikokan, but he didn't. The only thing Zabbar was really good conning people and, and he couldn't con a dragon away. Or could he? Suddenly Zabbar got an idea.
The next morning, he assembled the villagers and explained his plan. The blacksmith was happy to get out his old bellows and contribute it to the project. The town carpenter started training a group of helpers to carve out the necessary props.
Atikokan showed up in style. His caravan consisted of five wagons, twenty horses and a host of servants in bright yellow uniforms. The Magician himself dressed in a black robe covered with gold Wizard's symbols. A blue pointed hat and a long wooden staff completed his wardrobe.
The entire village turned out as ordered to watch him march into town regally. Reaching the village square, he stopped while his servants scurried around him, setting up a proper place for the great magician. One brought up a chair while another held an umbrella over his head, and a third stood by with a ready pitcher of wine.
Atikokan frowned. Something was not right here. Slowly he stroked his white beard. "Show me the dragon scales your Magician sells." One of the farmers timidly approached and dropped a rough disc at the Lord's feet, then disappeared back into the crowd.
"Take me there." Atikokan rose and started forward. Kedgwick was still standing there on his crutch. "Out of the way, peasant," growled the Magician and knocked him to the ground with a quick flick of his staff. Then for good measure he directed a sharp wack a Kedgwick's sore foot.
The cook grabbed his leg and howled with pain. Zabbar tried to signal him to "cool it," he was over acting. Atikokan's cruelty was well know so when they hatched this plan, Zabbar decided it would be nice if they provided him with someone to abuse. Kedgwick volunteered and so they wrapped his leg up to make it look as if he were lame and then positioned him within staff distance of the Lord High Magician. The plan worked perfectly, except for Kedgwick's overacting. Atikokan apparently didn't notice; he passed the cook as if he didn't exist.
The Villagemaster led them down the rocky path to the entrance of a small cave. Atikokan inspected it carefully. "This can't be the way into a dragon's lair. Where's the smoke smell? Besides, it's too small." He turned back to Quesnel. "Are you sure this is the right place?"
For a moment the Wizard stood there thinking. Finally he reached a decision. "Villagemaster, you take the Magician and follow me. We three will go into the lair together." With that he disappeared into the cave. Quesnel grabbed Zabbar by the arm and followed.
Atikokan held a small glowing orb above his head, illuminating the cavern with a faint blue light. After five minutes of walking, Zabbar decided it was time for some theatrics, so he said ominously, "Go no further. The dragon is powerful. He will destroy you."
Quesnel took two steps back. Zabbar admired his performance. Atikokan sniffed the air, then took a small brass mirror from his sleeve and looked at it. "I smell no dragon. The Mirror of Seeing shows no dragon. What is going on here? I see nothing magical ahead at all."
He pressed on. Suddenly they heard a dull thud, and a jet of fire erupted from behind the next turn. Everyone dove for the ground. Frantically, Atikokan rubbed the pendant around his neck and a shell of white light materialized around him. "What the heck was that?" He got up and drew his wand.
Slowly, he eased himself around the next turn, then burst out laughing. "Come here, Villagemaster," he said between laughs. "You've got to see this." Quesnel got up and hauled Zabbar around the corner.
"Here's your dragon. Your Magician made him out of this junk. There's a trip wire in the cavern we just passed. When someone steps on it, a log falls on this bellows blowing flash powder over this candle into the room. It produces quite an impressive show."
That evening Quesnel invited Zabbar over for a celebration. "Congratulations, Magician," he began. "Your fake dragon did the trick. Atikokan came looking for a dragon and he found one. Sort of. Meanwhile Clyde is alive and happy in his lair in the North Valley. The real beauty of this is that from now on, if Atikokan hears any more rumors about Clyde, he's going to think they were caused by your machine."
"Well, just before he left, Atikokan went through the equipment you've been using ever since you got here. He said it was the biggest collection of junk, cheap tricks and fakes he's ever seen. I was wondering, how did you produce such a collection on short notice?"
"We've found a sponsor for you," continued Quesnel. "You'll work for him and that way you can pay back all the money you took from my people. And all you have to do is a little light housekeeping -- or should I say lair-keeping."