Title: Fighting Dragons and Fantasies
Date: Parts and general plot written on August 26, 1998
Rest written and rewritten on August 1, 2019
Copyright (c) August 1, 2019
Written by: Joel T. Kant
I used the expensive yet small refractor telescope that Father Korro gave me as a Confirmation gift to look out at the beautiful maiden. I had it mounted on a tripod bigger than the telescope itself for stability. I coughed and lost focus, then regained the image. A heavy chain ran from her ankle to a huge boulder. I noted white bones scattered around the ground near her. Also lying around were pieces of rusted armor. I prayed under my breath that I'd be the one to rescue her, then carry her off to live happily ever after.
I coughed much harder, losing the image completely. My coughing was so bad that I leaned over and coughed up some phlegm. From experience, I knew with the phlegm cleared, I would breathe better for a little while. Six years ago, the plague had swept through. My parents and siblings had died, and I nearly had as well. I would have died if not for Father Korro's care as a ward of the Church of the Risen Daughter. My cough still carried on all these years later, although it seemed to gradually diminish over time.
While in that sense I cared for Father Korro for saving my life and had seen him try to save the rest of my family, I was thinking of getting out of my quasicommitment to the Church of the Risen Daughter where I was now given the title of Brother Thomas. If my health had been stronger, then maybe I could have become a soldier. Perhaps a mighty warrior, even. I dreamed I might even become a dragon slayer!
I looked back through the telescope at the dragon and the maiden. Warriors had to have strong muscles and powerful lungs. Even if by some miracle I could slay the dragon, I realized a beautiful maiden would reject even a true dragon slayer if he had weak lungs like mine. All the women rejected men like me who had a noticeable cough.
Time passed as I watched. I knew I'd get in trouble again for neglecting my chores at the church, but I didn't leave. Father Korro wanted me to join the priesthood, but I wasn't much interested in going that far. The woman was so beautiful. I believed life would be so perfect if I had a woman like that as a wife, and the Church of the Risen Daughter did not allow its priests and priestesses to marry.
I heard hoof beats and turned to see a man ride toward the dragon. He sat strong and tall on his powerful horse. He pulled a large gleaming sword from a scabbard. His plate armor shone in the sun. I recognized him. He was Aston, newly knighted. He had the big muscles and strong lungs that I wish I had. I had heard him brag about going to face the dragon before going off to fight in the Holy Land as a soldier, but never thought he really would do it. He was either braver or stupider than I expected, or both.
From my hiding place safely far away, I coughed again. I couldn't help the cough. About once a year, the illness would come return, be bad for a few weeks, then fade again. It felt like it was coming on again. So far, I'd lived on to the age of eighteen. Father Korro had taken me in and I had done cleaning and carpentry work for the church ever since. I liked the carpentry much better than the cleaning. As I looked down at the strong form of Aston, about to win the maiden or so I optimistically thought. I was jealous of his strength, power, and wealth. My only real wealth was this telescope. Father Korro had got it for me last Holy Winter Solstice. I was instructed to use it to scan the heavens, not for this.
As Aston rode up, the dragon flashed out of the cave. The dragon was fast and large. His mouth was posed as if to breathe fire, but Aston had gotten too close to the scantily clad young woman. Instead of fire, the dragon's tail slashed out like a striking rattlesnake. Aston showed his skill as he got the sword pointed at the tail even as it struck. The sword and tail pounded together. It was with such force Aston and the horse were both knocked aside. I saw a fragment of dragon scale fly away. The sword stuck from the tail like a driven nail. Aston had been tossed away from the woman. He was now unarmed and away from the maiden.
The dragon breathed fire. Using my telescope from so far away, I couldn't really feel the heat, but my imagination conjured it up. Despite my jealousy, I prayed for Aston to the Risen Daughter. It was too late, though. The dragon finished killing him. Then, with a short flight, the dragon's sharp claws grasped and killed the horse.
As the dragon's rage ebbed, the dragon seemed to be in pain. Aston's sword still stuck out of his tail. At least Aston had done that much. It had been a brave deed. The dragon with surprising gentleness brought his tail near the young woman. She grabbed the sword and yanked it out. The dragon bled ooze. The girl dropped the brightly shining sword where only the oozecovered tip of the sword did not gleam. The dragon then released the chain around the woman's ankle. She made no move to escape, instead hurrying into the cave. She came out with clean, white cloth. She worked on bandaging the wound in the tail. They conversed, then the two of them went into the cave.
I realized I knew nothing about the woman other than she was pretty, and slightly older than me. In the village, all had talked about how she needed to be rescued from the terrible life of being a slave of the dragon. I felt disillusioned.
I don't know what got into me then. I wore no armor, after all. I had no weapons. A small telescope was not a weapon. I should have run away, but instead I left the telescope on the tripod behind in the forest. I ran down to the scene of the tragedy. I reached Aston while the dragon and the woman were still in the cave. Father Koro had taught me some skills in elementary healing. I took his pulse, knowing there would be none. There wasn't. My fingers came away bloody and slimy from Aston's burned flesh. I then found the piece of dragon scale that Aston's sword had knocked off. It was about a foot square and an inch thick. I grabbed it. I shoved it into my tunic. I then glanced inside the cave. A fire was burning inside and the pretty woman had lifted the white cloth against the dragon's wounded tail. She was stitching the wound, and had a new, fresh bandage ready. To my astonishment, the fearsome dragon himself seemed to be whimpering. I stifled a cough, the sound of which would have spelled my doom.
I had learned to sneak silently around the church. I moved in this fashion and got the sword. It was heavier than I expected. Sunlight reflected off the gleaming sword and into the cave. I saw both the woman and the dragon look at me as they saw the light. The woman looked at me with anger in her eyes. As for the dragon with his gigantic eyes, the pain disappeared and he looked gleeful.
I hefted the heavy sword and immediately knew that was hopeless. Aston had been a strong man and trained swordsman. I was neither. The dragon laughed, his laughter echoing in the cave. The woman laughed too. I looked down at the sword, which was shiny with wavy patterns that Zeke the Blacksmith called the Damascus process. Zeke had said that he had rediscovered one of the techniques of the Ancients. Despite the wave-pattern in the steel, the blade was glossy and shiny. I recalled Aston telling me that he hoped to get a sword made in the neighboring village, and told me about Zeke.
"Put an end to him quickly," shouted the woman, making me finally realize she was not really the helpless victim she appeared. This was something I had not wanted to accept despite the evidence.
The dragon slowly sauntered out, insolent in his slowness, seeming to do it more to annoy the woman's urge for speed then of any thought for me as my doom seemed certain. He came to within about thirty feet. He stopped laughing and took in a deep breath. I could see reflected light from the sword gleaming on him. I tilted the sword so the light went to the dragon's eyes. As I saw him blink, I dropped the heavy sword and dove for the boulder with the chain the woman had former had to her ankle attached to it. Flames surrounded me. I could feel my skin blister, but at my back against the cold of the stone gave me hope. That stone blocked the worst of the flames. The flames ended as the dragon massively breathed in air. There was smoke around me. I immediately ran for the woods.
The woman pointed at me as I ran, yelling, "There he goes!"
My belief of her needing rescuing was now completely shattered. My dreams and fantasies shattered. I expected to die immediately, running as a coward would run. Flames again surrounded me, hotter than before, but I kept running as I went in the forest of trees ahead. The trees ignited. I still ran on. I felt like I was choking and coughed. Phlegm came and I spit it out. I found I could breath clearly and ran some more. I coughed some more phlegm out and could breath even better. I was then out of the burning forest. Luck was with me in that the wind drew the smoke away. This wind would keep the fire from moving in the direction of my village. Trees snapped behind me as the dragon came down, but he apparently miscalculated how quickly I was moving. Ahead was the stream. I jumped in.
The dragon figured out his error. Above me the air above the water turned red with flame. Through the flame I could see a blurry image of the dragon's head and eyes. The water heated, but not uncomfortably so. The water cooled my burned skin. I felt the need to breathe but knew not to ascend into that inferno. I grew dizzy, but the flames stopped. I came up and sucked in air. The dragon was also sucking in air, I saw. I went underwater again and let the swift current carry me along, bouncing off rounded boulders. The stream would join the river soon. The dragon again breathed fire, but I was able to hold my breath longer than he breathed fire. I grabbed a small smoothed rock from the bottom, the only weapon I could find. Rather than using fire again, the dragon's mouth flashed at me. I managed to toss the rock into his mouth. He paused, coughing to spit it out. I splashed away.
The clear stream merged into a large river. The bottom fell way so I couldn't wade. I dove down and swam deep. I was thankful Father Korro had taught me to swim. The swimming lessons were according to him to help me build up my damaged lungs from when I had survived the plague. Another visiting healer claimed swimming was not good for those with damaged lungs, but in my specific case as long as the water wasn't too cold so caused instant wheezing and hard breathing, Korro's advice about it being healthy seemed to be correct.
I swam underwater through the brownish-red water. Fortunately, the water was not too chilly this time of year, and my lungs did not clench up. The brownish-red color came from the iron ore in the ground that leached into the water. That is why iron and steel were made in our village and other nearby villages. That was how armor and swords could be made here.
I came up for air out of necessity. The dragon was in a completely different part of the river. The brownish-red of the water, which gave the water a taste I disliked and stained dishes no matter how much they were scrubbed, now had the advantage of hiding me when underwater even if he flew above me.
The dragon saw me, and headed over. I was too far for his fire, and I had air in my lungs again. I ducked down and swam underwater, hoping for a direction he would not guess. When again I came up, the dragon had guessed completely wrong. He did not even see me get my air. I was then under and swimming again. The next three times I came up, the dragon was further and further away. He had not spotted me. I got by some trees that overhung the shore, giving some cover.
The dragon then flew in circles, but never spotted me. He was patient, but after perhaps half an hour or more of flying around without finding me, he flew off back in the direction of his cave where the maiden that did not desire rescuing waited for him.
I had tucked the dragon scale that I had picked up under my belt. It was still there. I hoped my small telescope on the tripod I had left hidden in the trees remained hidden, as I hoped to retrieve it. I did not plan to go back at all today, though.
After I buried the dragon scale in a hidden spot, I walked into my village. My clothes dripped and my boots squished. Doors and windows opened as people peered out at me.
A chubby pepperhaired man and an equally chubby woman with whitestreaked hair came out of a house and approached me. His face, except the eyes, looked much like Aston's. It should, this was his father. The woman, Aston's mother, had eyes like Aston's.
Aston's mother remarked, "We saw the dragon flying over the lake. I assume you dove in to avoid him."
Given how wet I was, I admitted this was so.
Aston's father asked, "Did you see our son fight the dragon?"
I admitted, "I saw Aston wound the dragon."
The couple looked at me in wonder. Other villagers showed up, also listening.
The whole village knew that I stargazed with a telescope, so I did not deny using it to watch. The villagers all assumed I had gone after Aston had left to watch the battle with my telescope, not been smitten by looking at the pretty woman who I felt quite differently about now. I did not dissuade them.
I accurately reported the wounding of the tail. I left out my retrieving of the dragon scale that had fallen off. I did mention I had tried to get the sword back, but had dropped it as I could not run carrying it and certainly lacked the skills to use it myself. Knowing the belief of the maiden needing rescuing, I made it vague about her eagerness with treating the dragon's tail wound, making it seem it might have been simply one of her duties as a slave.
Aston's sword was part of the dragon's horde now. Whether my beloved telescope remained hidden in the forest or had joined the horde was something that I would have to wait to see.
People approached in wonder. Most knew of my habit of watching with a telescope. It was a joke to them that other young men became knights and went to fight the dragon, while I, sickly Brother Thomas, ward of the church, merely watched, afraid to act, afraid to die. Some seemed to think my sickness was an act, despite how came back around once a year and nearly killed me. The tradition of brave knights fighting the dragon had gone on for as along as I could remember, but it had been a full decade since any had inflicted even slight harm.
Aston's father said, "Are you telling the truth?"
"Yes. His sword stuck from the dragon's tail like a nail in a piece of wood. Unfortunately, it looked more painful then serious. The dragon said he'd get revenge on all humans."
Aston's parents looked proud of their dead son's great, final deed.
I neglected to mention it wasn't really Aston, but me that caused that particular threat. Just as well, nobody would believe the dragon would say that to wimpy Brother Thomas anyway.
Father Korro appeared. He seemed the only one to care about me rather than just the brave dead hero Aston.
Korro demanded, "Brother Thomas, why are you wet?"
"The fight with Aston was so great that the dragon set the woods on fire. I had to swim in the creek and then the river to escape the heat. Father, I'm afraid the telescope may have been destroyed."
The people of the village accepted my story, as I knew they would. They took the dragon's threat seriously, as well they should. The crowd dispersed to prepare as well as they could for his coming. He would come, the others and I knew, and people would die as surely as the sun would rise. It was part of the tradition. The knight would go out and fight the dragon and be slain. Enraged, the dragon would leave his lair and come burn the village, killing some people. Yet, in spite of this inevitable retaliation, every time the knights were strongly encouraged and assisted by the villagers who always seemed to believe this knight would be the one to finally succeed where all others had failed. Every time the village was burned, it would be rebuilt. In shame, I realized I didn't want to be blamed for the coming retaliation and this was the true reason I had claimed the dragon's threat had been applied because of Aston, not me.
The next day, the dragon came. He set the town ablaze. Father Korro and I took shelter in the cellar as the church burned above us. We breathed through watersoaked cloth. Others were with us. During the last couple attacks of the village, the dragon left the church alone. Not this time. All of us in the cellar survived. After the dragon left, we found others of the village weren't as lucky. A dozen people had died. Many others were badly wounded. There was angry talk of killing the dragon. Unfortunately, all the young men but me had either already died in the attempt or had been drafted into the Queen's Army to fight for the Holy Land in the Holy War. My bad cough and yearly illness had prevented my being drafted too. Only boys remained to fight the dragon, too young for any hope of victory. Girls and women were around too, but they weren't allowed to fight. None of the girls had the physical appeal of the beautiful dragon's maiden, or so I thought at the time. If I could go back in time to check, I'm sure I'd find my perceptions were very faulty.
One of these boys, a fourteenyearold lad who was the oldest one there, claimed he go out and kill the dragon. His parents glared at me as if I had anything to do with this, then hustled him away. Others too looked at me like they expected me to do something about it, then shook their head in sorrow and went away.
A week later, Father Korro and I worked at rebuilding the church. Korro was strong and skilled for a priest. Despite my cough, I enjoyed the physical effort of the carpentry. Progress went well, but it would still take months to rebuild. It would be faster if the others of the village could help more, but many other buildings also needed rebuilding. Father Korro paused in his pounding and noted, "Hey, Brother Thomas, you haven't spoken of the dragon's maiden all week."
I didn't pause as I responded, "I've given up on her."
Korro's voice registered disbelief as he said, "Really? You've been talking about her for years. Her lovely hair, her fair skin, and so on."
I felt my cheeks flush, "I really have given up on her."
"Does this mean you decided to finally join the priesthood after all?"
"No, Father Korro. It's just that from what I saw, she isn't the unwilling victim I thought. She betrayed me...I mean betrayed Aston."
Father Korro looked at me strangely.
I explained, "I saw her pull out the sword and treat the dragon's tail wound."
"The dragon may force her to do that."
"Perhaps," I answered, without explaining my further evidence.
Korro warned me, "Don't even think of fighting the dragon yourself, Brother Thomas. You are not nearly as strong or as skilled in fighting as Aston. You really are best suited to the priesthood. You consoled Aston's parents quite well."
"I'm still thinking about that, Father."
Father Korro nodded and we got back to work.
A couple weeks later, Father Korro gave me some time off. We were both exhausted. The need for physical labor had seemed to delay the annual return of my illness, or maybe that was finally coming to an end. Not only had we been rebuilding, but also dealt with the spiritual needs of a village where a dozen people, thirteen counting Aston, had just died. Rather than my brown tunic, I now wore black priestly clothes, but not a collar or crucifix. This was simple pragmatism as my other clothes had perished in the church fire and the outfit that I wore through the river was in tatters. A church in a neighboring village had sent Father Korro some black clothes, from which he gave me this outfit. I suspect it was also a scheme of Father Korro's to get me used to the idea of becoming a priest. However, a message had come for me from the blacksmith of that same neighboring village that might upset his plans.
I walked though the burned forest. Many acres were blackened. Trees stood up like poles, devoid of both leaves and branches. A charred smell was everywhere. I could still feel some slight pain from my burns, but not too bad. Going into the water so quickly after having been burned was probably the best thing I could have done. I gave a prayer of thanks that I had survived and another prayer for Aston's soul. I reached where I had left my telescope. I did not see it for a moment. Then, I saw that the tripod had simply tipped over. Lying on the ground, it was still there. I picked it up. The telescope was soot-covered but intact. I cleaned off the lens as best I could. I looked through the eyepiece and it worked. I looked toward the dragon's cave. The dragon was out of the cave with the beautiful woman. They were arguing. She kept pointing at the boulder. I could see that she ran a finger along it. The boulder was blackened from when the dragon had attacked me with fire.
I hid myself, my black robes merging with the charred landscape. At least those black robes had a practical application, concealment. I then continued to watch. The dragon lifted the large, sooty boulder and tried to take flight with it. He barely got off the ground. He landed.
He then walked off with it and dumped it in the woods. He then took flight. I saw a fresh white bandage tied around his tail, looking almost comical. He disappeared and I watched the woman. She went over to where the body of Aston hung from a rope tied to one foot. His arms were gone and so was one leg. Also hanging next to him was what remained of a horse carcass. She seemed to be indecisive between the two, then cut a large chunk of flesh from the horse. I was glad she had made that choice. She then prepared it and then cooked it over a fire.
The dragon came back walking, carrying in his claws a large, clean, new boulder. He placed it where the old boulder had been. The woman gestured at him. He picked it up and moved it a dozen feet to the left. She nodded. He went in the cave and came out with a hammer, spike, and chain. He was so strong he drove the spikes directly into the boulder as he affixed the chain. The hammer blows were so loud I was sure they could be heard back in my village and maybe even in the neighboring village with the blacksmith. The dragon gestured at the woman to come closer. He attached the chain to her ankle and she smiled broadly.
The dragon then gestured at the cooking horseflesh and then at what remained of Aston's body. He got down the human remains from where it hung. I folded up my telescope and crept away. I didn't want to see any more.
Some time after the church was rebuilt, I told Father Korro my future plans. "You? Apprentice to Master Blacksmith Zeke?"
"Yes, he is in the neighboring village."
"What gave you this crazy idea?"
I replied, "Zeke is the master blacksmith who made Aston's sword."
"So what? You have no skills with the sword. Most swordsmen begin training at a much younger age then you are now. You get winded too easily for all that physical labor."
I replied, "Our village has one of the best fiddle makers anywhere, but he never plays much music on them himself. He says that he just makes the tools for music, while others put them to use. I think I might make the tools for the warriors."
Father Korro said, "Being a blacksmith is a physically taxing trade, Brother Thomas. With your lung issue that lingers from the plague, it might not be for you."
"Maybe not, but this year, I did not get sick around the anniversary of my family's death. If this does not work out, then I will come back and become a priest like you," I replied.
Father Korro looked crestfallen, and then asked, "Why this trade?"
I sighed and explained, "Father Korro, that sword penetrated the dragon's scales! Think about the significance of that. Given that we can get through his armor with steel of the type in that sword, the dragon can be destroyed."
"That's ridiculous. In my lifetime, forty-four knights have tried and they've all failed. That's around a knight per year."
"What if all forty-four had attacked at once with new swords that we now know from me seeing it done that can penetrate the dragon armor? Most of their swords were junk compared to modern metal technology like the discoveries of Zeke the Master Blacksmith."
"That's not how these things are done! Tradition is for one knight to go alone to face the dragon in solitary combat. There is a holy prophecy to fulfill."
I complained, "That tradition is getting lots of people killed. It's wrong!"
"You're young and have no idea how the world works. There are forces in our world that you don't understand, and some remain a mystery to me as well. Bishop Swanson has helped me understand more than I thought possible. Enter the seminary and learn about the mysteries yourself. You'll see what I'm talking about."
I replied, "Father Korro, I care for you like you were the father that I lost. Nevertheless, I'm going off to apprentice to a blacksmith whether you like it or not. We'll see how strong tradition is once I get the swords made!"
"Get out of here, you ingrate!"
I left. I expected to have to come back and apologize later, but kept putting it off. Father Korro had given so much and I felt I had betrayed him. A couple years passed and I had no more communication with him.
Each morning, I got up, stretched, and exercised. Sometimes, I'd cough up phlegm, but not so often anymore. Being an apprentice blacksmith, I had to pound metal all day long. My arms and chest filled out. It was though after all these years, now in my early twenties, I was finally almost truly recovered from the plague. My black smithing with the constant pounding, tugging, yanking, and twisting associated with metal working had given me muscular strength I'd never had before. Since leaving my original village, I hadn't had one bout of serious illness.
To my surprise, in my fourth and final year as an apprentice, Father Korro himself came to me in my new village. To my shock, he was missing his right arm. The dragon had attacked the village two years after I left. This was after yet another knight had sought battle and died. In that latest attack on the old village, the dragon had again destroyed the church. This time, Father Korro had lost his arm when a wall fell on him. He was far more bitter than I'd ever seen him before. He talked with venom about wanting the dragon dead. In the year since the church's destruction and his loss of his right arm, he'd never contacted me to let me know of the tragedy.
Father Korro asked, "Brother Thomas, have you learned to make your magic dragon-armor-penetrating swords yet?"
I pointed to some swords against a wall, "Just Thomas now, not Brother Thomas."
Father Korro looked around the large blacksmith shop, then said, "I thought you'd be back after a month or so of this foolishness, but you seem to be succeeding."
I looked over at the master of the shop and said, "I have learned far more in the past four years than I could ever have dreamed. Master Blacksmith Zeke is an excellent teacher."
Zeke nodded approvingly at the praise.
Father Korro asked, "So, you make swords now?"
I replied, "Yes, but mine while serviceable aren't yet as beautiful as the master's swords."
Zeke nodded approvingly at my comment, but Zeke said about me, "Thomas takes a slow, methodical approach. He takes far more notes and does more experiments than any other apprentice or even other blacksmith that I have known. He treats it as a proper science, whereas I see it as more of an art. I have learned from his experiments, but he still hasn't quite gotten the art aspect of sword making."
Father Korro chuckled and said, "Learning proper science is what you were supposed to do with the telescope, Thomas."
Zeke said, "We've got a little side trade going on. It's doing so well that I am not sure Thomas should stay in the blacksmith trade!"
I replied, "I couldn't do the eyeglass making nearly so easily without the materials here."
Father Korro asked, "Eyeglasses?"
Zeke said, "As a side job, Thomas makes reading glasses for old men who cannot focus close anymore. Those existed for decades before the telescope was invented. Thomas also made me a microscope. I can see the grains of steel in it. It's over here."
I added, "We do not need a microscope for any but the most expensive projects. In reality, we make far more horseshoes and iron farm implements than swords, Father Korro."
Father Korro said, "That looks like steel arrow tips under that microscope. I've thought many times about what you said, Brother Thomas. Are you really sure these swords can penetrate dragon armor?"
Zeke looked at me and said sternly, "Thomas, close the shop. Now!"
I kicked out some customers and did so, even though it was midday.
After the shop was closed up, I said, "Father Korro, I made a discovery that Zeke and I have worked with. We have made a great discovery."
I got out the dragon armor scale I had recovered. It was now nicked, battered, and holed by the various tests the master blacksmith and I had done.
Father Korro picked it up, gradual understanding showing in his eyes, "Is this really from the dragon?"
"Yes," I answered. "Aston's sword knocked it off."
Zeke said, "I've developed techniques for making harder and stronger steel. Thomas and I have been testing various steel recipes using that dragon scale. As you can see by the scratches and holes, we've had some success."
Father Korro looked at what he held, then at us and asked, "You really could defeat the dragon?"
"Certainly," I claimed, "if we had an army at our disposal. As you noted last time we talked, I personally am no sword fighter even though my lungs are much better."
The master blacksmith put in, "We make the tools for others, Father. We are not the farmers, and we are not the warriors. The best swordfighters start training when very young men. I am too old to ever become a good swordsman. It was even too late for Thomas even before he came to apprentice with me. Fortunately, one does not have to start learning this blacksmithing trade at such a young age."
I looked at Father Korro having only one arm, and though of how he must greatly desire the dragon to be killed as I asked him, "Any word when the soldiers are coming back from the war in the Holy Land?"
Father Korro scowled and said, "They won't be coming back any time soon. Besides, the great prophet has been prophesied the dragon will be taken down in single combat, so only single combat is allowed."
Zeke noted, "I don't see why it matters how the dragon is defeated."
Father Korro warned, "The wrath of the Risen Daughter would do more harm to our land than the dragon could ever do. Prophesies must be followed to the letter. Every t must be crossed and i dotted. All humans like us do is always observed by the Risen Daughter. She is watching all we do now."
"It has been a long time since I heard such things," I said. "I'm sorry I haven't kept in touch after leaving."
"I've been keeping Thomas too busy to leave with just the metalworking, and then he has been doing lens crafting on the side," added Zeke.
Father Korro nodded then asked, "Can you two make me a crossbow?"
Zeke seemed taken aback and said, "Those are forbidden weapons."
Father Korro gestured with his one arm and explained, "Even though I'm a priest, I like to hunt on my time off. So does Bishop Swanson, and he and I used to hunt together. I used to be an excellent archer with a long bow. I clearly cannot use a long bow anymore since my crippling. I have a dispensation from Bishop Swanson for you to make me a crossbow so I can hunt again."
Father Korro pulled out an impressive document with a royal seal, "This is the exemption. Bishop Swanson wants me to accompany him on a royal hunt in four weeks. Since I lost my arm, I can't shoot a regular bow, so I have permission for a crossbow to be built. Bishop Swanson also gave me plans for one."
Father Korro pulled out from his black robes a much larger scroll. The master blacksmith unrolled the scroll. I'd heard of such things, but never seen one. The scroll contained the plans for a crossbow.
The blacksmith said, "It's been many years since I built one, but I still remember how. It was also for a man with one arm like you, but he was a returned soldier, not a priest like you."
He and Father Korro then agreed on a price. It turned out I was the one who made the crossbow under the blacksmith's careful instruction. I actually built several as we tried various modifications as the drawing on the scroll was not too clear. We tried many different types of steel for the bow and the bolts. Instead of just pulling back the string by brute force, I added a winch and then was able to vastly increase the draw strength of the bow. As the blacksmith and I tested our latest creation, it shot right through the haystack we used as a target. The master stroked his chin thoughtfully, then had me crank back the bow and mount another bolt. He pointed to an oak tree over a foot in diameter.
"Shoot that," he ordered.
I had an improved way of aiming. It was a very small telescope, not very high power. About eight-times magnification. I used hairs to make a cross inside to help the aiming. Using this scope, I hit it dead on. The point of the bolt stuck out the far side of the tree. I looked at the blacksmith and immediately knew he was thinking the same thing as me.
I stated this as one of the blacksmith's favorite rules, "The right tool for the right job!"
He nodded enthusiastically.
I said, "I want to know how much power and range we can get from this."
Zeke remarked, "It can be very dangerous if the cord breaks or the metal arm breaks. It stores lots of potential energy."
I made a heavy oak box. I would put a crossbow in there, tightening it with a winch. I ran many tests on many crossbows. One time, the metal arm of the bow snapped. It cracked the thick oak wood of the box, stinging me with splinters, but with no serious injury. I got to where I had a very powerful crossbow tightened close to the breaking point, but with a small safety factor.
Three weeks later, Father Korro and Zeke the master blacksmith watched as I pulled out our newest creation. I had to crank for quite a while to get the bow pulled back. We had geared down the winch considerably just to be able to pull this heavy bow. I put in the special hardened and sharpened steel bolt. I pointed it an oak tree about three feet in diameter. I was about fifty yards away. I fired. The crossbow kicked back, shoving itself into my shoulder. At first, I thought I missed the tree. All three of us came up to look closer. The tree had a tiny hole entirely through it. The steel bolt was lost somewhere in the woods, but we had made plenty more.
"It is time for the dragon scale," commanded Zeke.
Father Korro carried it under his one and only arm, but seemed proud to do this task. He tied it against the tree as a target.
We stepped back. I cranked back the bow and loaded it. I was shaking as I thought of the significance of this. I aimed and fired. I missed the tree entirely, losing another bolt. I again cocked and reloaded. This time, I took a deep breath, held it, carefully aimed, and fired. The crossbow kicked hard again. We crept forward uncertainly. The scale had a hole and it and so did the tree! In spite of losing yet another bolt, we shouted for joy. We repeated the experiment a few times, always with the same result.
Many months later on a hillside about a mile from the dragon, Zeke and I dug a trench. Father Korro was with us, but he hadn't been able to dig well with his one arm. In the four years since I'd been there, shrubs and small trees had grown back, replacing much of the burned landscape. We hoped this would keep this activity hidden from the dragon. Father Korro had my telescope and was watching the dragon, having found a small opening in the shrubbery.
Zeke and I took a water break.
The blacksmith politely asked, "Father Korro, are you sure this meets the definition of single combat as given by the prophet?"
"Certainly. The prophecy does not say the weapon has to be a sword," Father Korro replied.
"Good enough for me," I said as I shoveled more dirt. Even the shovels from our blacksmith shop were special, the best shovels anybody in this area had ever seen. Through sheer bulk of sales, Zeke and I made more money on shoves, picks, hoes, and so forth than swords or even shoeing horses.
Father Korro handed me my telescope. I looked. The dragon had the same maiden that I remembered. It had been about four years since I had last seen her, but she looked more aged than four years should have caused, although she was still beautiful. She sunned herself on her rock, seemingly not bothered by the chain around her ankle. I could barely see the dragon's nose sticking out of his cave. The dragon seemed to be sleeping.
Father Korro noted, "That maiden might not know it, but her life is nearly over. She's getting too old for him. The dragon will be hunting a new virginal maiden soon, after a traditional sacrifice of her."
Even though my opinion of the maiden had fallen considerably, I still said a silent prayer for her. I gave the telescope back to Father Korro. The blacksmith and I went back to digging.
Father Korro was disturbed by what he saw in the telescope, "Oh, no!"
"Is it the maiden?" I asked.
Father Korro answered, "No, a boy from my village."
I took the telescope and looked. The boy looked familiar. I'd last seen him at fourteen, swearing he'd be the one to destroy the dragon as his parents looked upon me as a coward. Now he was eighteen and trying to carry out his vow. Well, I honestly hoped he'd succeed. He had somehow come upon a sword and armor, but had no horse. Even from this distance, the sword and armor looked chintzy. Certainly, they weren't from our blacksmith shop! I saw the boy looking at the woman and she noticed him. She smiled at him and arched her back. She lifted a leg, showing the chain. Although it couldn't be heard at this distance, I'm sure that made noise. I swung the telescope to the dragon. Sure enough, his eyes were faintly, slyly open. If he'd been sleeping before, her moving the chain around had surely woken him. If she had really wanted to be rescued, she would have lain still, not put on that show. I doubted the kid knew and, even if I could tell him, I doubted he'd believe it. I handed the telescope to Father Korro.
"I can't watch," I stated.
The blacksmith and I went back to digging. After a while, Father Korro who was looking through the telescope told us the boy was dead. He had failed to hurt the dragon in the slightest.
Zeke commented, "He had no chance with that obsolete, cheap sword. If he had one from us, then he would have at least had a chance."
A day later, we were back at the trench. We had laboriously brought a barrel of water and ten special crossbows. I knew once the battle started, I wouldn't have time to reload. I used the winch and cocked each one. Before bringing the crossbows, I had mounted a small telescope with cross hairs, carefully sighted in on every one. This wasn't nearly as good as my regular telescope, but we had paid the stiff price for the lenses on these. The blacksmith, Father Korro, and I had practiced with the crossbows with the small scopes. The improvement on hitting what we aimed at was amazing. These scopes weren't cheap; the blacksmith had used his savings to buy the small telescopes and build the crossbows. He saw this as an investment opportunity. I gently set down each loaded crossbow in the trench, all in a nice row.
We pulled all the flammable plant material away from the trench. We would have done this earlier, but we didn't want to risk the dragon spotting where we were working if he took to the air. This no longer mattered. We set up the plants and trees about two hundred yards from the trench.
"I'm staying here tonight," I said.
Zeke said, "Father Korro and I will go down to the village. We'll come up and check on you at noon."
"It should all be over before that," I said.
Father Korro added, "We've kept all this a secret from the villagers in both my village and yours."
"Thank you," I said, but I knew that since the blacksmith wasn't from this village, his mere presence caused speculation. So had my return after four years.
The two men crept away. Using my main telescope on the tripod, I could watch them walking away for some time. I switched from watching them to watching the dragon. If he just didn't take flight this evening or night, I'd be set for the morning.
The half-nude maiden shivered as the night came on. The dragon got her a purple robe from the cave, then put her to work cooking. I could see dinner for that night was to be the leg of the dead young boy. To my horror, she ate from it too. I thought of what Father Korro had suggested to me about her doing reprehensible things because she was forced to, but I didn't fully believe it. Nothing else much happened and then she went into the cave followed by the dragon.
I wrapped myself in furs and tried to sleep myself.
I woke with the sun just peeking above the horizon. It looked to be a clear and cloudless day, ideal for my purposes. I was too tense to eat breakfast. I peered through the telescope. I could see the remains of the young boy, missing one leg, hanging outside the cave. I swore to myself that it was time to end this. As the sun climbed and the temperature climbed to make this a hot day, the woman emerged followed by the dragon. She took off her purple robes and handed them to the dragon. The dragon then attached the chain to her ankle.
I crawled over to the pile of plant refuse outside the trench. I got out my flint and steel. I hadn't anticipated the dew, which made it hard to ignite. After many attempts, I got it going. I crept back into the trench. I took the thick furs I had slept in and soaked them in a water barrel. I then put on the dripping garments. I went to the first cocked and ready crossbow. All the crossbows had stayed cocked and loaded through the night. I looked through my telescope. The woman was standing by her rock talking to the dragon, who had crept back into his cave, but with his head poking out. I smiled. At that moment, I thought of him as a snail in his shell, soon to come out and be vulnerable.
The woman noticed the smoke from my fire and pointed. The dragon flashed from the cave. This was it: show time.
I put down the telescope and readied the first crossbow. In almost no time, the dragon was there. He loomed above me in the sky, seeming puzzled by this strange arrangement. I aimed with shaking hands and fired. The crossbow kicked. My aim was off and the bolt didn't penetrate with merely a glancing blow. From the tests with the dragon scale, we had to hit it nearly perpendicularly to get penetration. The dragon laughed, a deep, rumbling sound.
The dragon bellowed, "Where's your sword, human? Why are you wearing fur rather than shining armor?"
I dropped the first crossbow and grabbed the second. I aimed as he still talked and fired. This was a dead-on hit right into his abdomen. This time, the bolt penetrated. The dragon screamed in pain, a sound that shook the Earth. I dropped the crossbow and grabbed and fired the third, again hitting his abdomen and again penetrating.
Flames shot from the dragon's mouth. I dropped down into the trench and took up the fourth crossbow. Steam came from my water-soaked furs. It was getting hard to breathe, a feeling that reminded me of nearly dying of the plague. Then, the flames let up. I jumped up and fired, hitting the dragon in the tail. That penetrated, but just seemed to make him mad. He flew straight at me. I grabbed the fifth crossbow, and then I dropped deep in the trench. The dragon's head came down into the trench breathing fire. Simultaneously, I aimed and fired at his head. Momentarily, all I could see was yellowish-red flames, and then the dragon's head was away from the top of the trench. It had happened so fast that I wasn't even burned.
I dropped this crossbow and grabbed the sixth. I popped up. The dragon was there, his face badly gouged. I aimed at his chest and fired, again penetrating with the bolt as the crossbow kicked back. He fell from the sky, hitting the ground hard. I went after my seventh crossbow. The dragon crept close and breathed fire. I curled into a ball and the wetted fur stopped steaming and began sizzling with a smell of burned meat. I hoped that was just from the furs and not from my own body. The fire stopped. I lifted the seventh crossbow. The fire had heated it and the metal trigger burned my finger. I didn't let that stop me from aiming and firing, hitting the dragon in the neck.
The dragon rolled away.
I retrieved the eighth crossbow. I took careful aim at the dragon's head as the dragon lay on the ground, his chest heaving. I fired. The bolt penetrated. I got the ninth crossbow and fired it into the dragon's head. I did the same with the tenth. The dragon lay in one spot, but still his chest heaved up and down noisily. I winched back the tenth crossbow, reloaded it, aimed, and shot the dragon in the head again. I repeated this procedure six times before the dragon stop breathing. I gave him an extra couple bolts in the head for good measure. His head was so large it was a much easier target than what I had practiced on.
Finally, I reloaded yet again, then I reloaded yet another of the crossbows too. I set them both down. I took off and tossed away the burnt furs. I wore no armor underneath. I used a strap to put the one loaded crossbow across my back. It made me a little nervous carrying it locked and loaded in that position, which I knew was dangerous, but I wanted a second shot ready in an instant. In my hands I then carried the other loaded crossbow. The dragon was right when he had noted I carried no sword. I crept up close to the dragon. He didn't move. His head was so full of holes it reminded me of Swiss cheese. I kicked him. He didn't budge. I smiled. I looked at the chest and abdomen, ooze leaking out the many holes through his armor.
I then wandered to the maiden. She saw me and began crying in what did not appear to be tears of joy.
She then got herself under control, "Please, brave knight. You've rescued me from the evil dragon. I'll be forever grateful. Release me."
I looked up at the ghastly hanging remains of the dead boy. I thought of what I saw her do and really didn't believe Father Korro's explanation of it.
Down at my feet was rusty armor carrying the crest of Aston. Next to it was the crumpled cheap but untarnished armor of the young boy and the young boy's cheap sword. Almost uncountable bones lay about. Some were from horses and other animals, but most were human.
"You'll be released when my companions arrive."
She demanded, "Come closer, let me show you my appreciation."
"No, thanks. Just have some more patience, ma'am."
I circled around her and went into the cave. I saw Aston's sword among some others. I picked up a heavy gold cup. It felt wrong. I scrapped it against a rock. It was merely gold plated.
A form blocked the light from the cave mouth. It was the seminude woman heading toward Aston's sword. I swung on her head hard with the stock of my crossbow just as her fingers grazed the sword. She went down. I checked, and she was still breathing. She did not seem to be faking unconsciousness. I carried her back to the big boulder with the chain. Examining the ankle cuff, I could see the gimmick mechanism that let her get out at will. I snapped off the small lever that let her do that, and reattached it to her ankle.
I then spent some time taking some of the metal items out of the cave to closely examine them in the sun.
I took another look at the gold-plated cup. Zeke and I could not do plating like this. There was greater civilization, perhaps from the Ancients in their lost world. I scratched some more plating off. I wondered if that science could be regained?
I looked at the dead boy's chintzy sword. After four years working for Zeke, I could tell it wasn't even an adequate sword for regular combat. The dead boy and his family could never afford the kind of quality sword that Zeke and I now made, which would have given a chance against the dragon. I put the cheap sword down, then took Aston's sword. This was good work, but Zeke and I could do much better now.
I knew I would never become a swordsman. I did not know the strange names of various positions swordsman used with a sword, although Zeke did and tried to tell me once. Zeke was surprised how I seemed unable to remember that stuff, but knew so much about metallurgy and lens crafting. Yet, with this kind of crossbow, dragons across the world would not be safe anymore.
I used the winch and reloaded all the crossbows, carefully setting them out. Perhaps word would get out to dragons that were peers of this dead one.
At noon, as promised, Father Korro and Zeke came down the path. A man in fancy robes was between Korro and Zeke. I then remembered that was Bishop Swanson, who I had met a few times before becoming a blacksmith's apprentice. Word had somehow leaked out because seemingly the whole population of the village followed behind them. They looked upon the dead dragon and then at the chained woman.
Although curious to see their reaction, I scanned the sky for any other dragons that might show up. I saw something in the sky, coming fast.
I shouted to all the people, "Another dragon is coming! Get out of here!"
Only Bishop Swanson, Father Korro, and Master Blacksmith Zeke did not run. I wondered if having killed one dragon, those three men believed I could do it again.
I aimed the crossbow and looked through the scope. Under the eight-power, I could see this was not a dragon at all. It looked like a globe of glass with metal attachments and white smoke coming out the bottom. The flight of this strange flying machine took it first over the path. Running people fell without seeming to be struck by any weapon other than perhaps the smoke.
I sat down, propping my elbows on my knees, and took careful aim. As it got closer, I could see a man, or a man-like being, inside the globe of glass. I pulled the trigger. Immediately, I dropped the first crossbow and pulled up the second. The flying machine veered off. Through the scope of the second crossbow, I could see that the globe of glass had a hole in it, but I had missed the man inside.
I tried aiming again, but the machine was moving around. Then, a fire came from the bottom of the machines. Both my legs suddenly ached with pain. Blood splattered around me. My legs seem so messed up that I feared I would never walk again. Hanging onto consciousness, I took aim as best I could, and fired again. I was reaching for my third crossbow when the old feeling of not being able to breath came over me. I noticed Bishop Swanson, Father Korro, and Master Blacksmith Zeke collapsed on the ground, and then I knew no more.
I never knew how long had passed, but it had to be significant time when I awoke on a small bed in a room I had never seen before. I had never seen a room at all like this. The ceiling was perfectly flat white rectangles. Some white rectangles make light without any fire, as if filled behind frosted glass with thousands of fireflies. Nothing looked made of wood in the entire room. I was in a robe of thin material that might have been cotton. I felt chilly.
In the room stood Father Korro and Bishop Swanson.
Before I said a word to them, I looked at my legs. I vividly remembered the pain in my legs before I had passed out. Now, the legs looked perfect. Too perfect. A small scar from when I accidentally brushed against a glowing hot poker was missing.
I took a deep breath in preparation to speak, and it felt so strange. I took a very deep breathe. It came so easily. This must be what breathing was like for those who never had the plague.
I looked over at Father Korro and said in surprise, "You've got two arms!"
Father Korro held out and moved the fingers of his new arm, "It's flesh and blood. We are with the prophets now. It turns out Bishop Swanson was a prophet all along."
I shivered and said, "I never imagined the afterlife as so cold."
Bishop Swanson chuckled at that, grabbed a white robe hanging from a metal hook behind the door, and said, "Put this on. You haven't really died, but came pretty close to it from blood loss. Your legs were a mess."
I noted, "My legs seem better than before."
Bishop Swanson declared, "Oh, they are. We repaired your plague-scarred lungs as well. Medically, that was harder than replacing Father Korro's arm."
Wanting to test my repaired legs, I asked, "Can I stand up?"
Bishop Swanson said, "You won't need any help. Stand up."
I did so, and stood easily. Too easily.
I noted, "I don't remember it, but I've had to have practiced this many times before to have my repaired legs work so well before. I saw how messed up my legs were before I lost consciousness."
Father Korro said, "And that's not the first time you made that observation. I wonder if you'll be allowed to remember it this time."
Bishop Swanson said, "You are finally fully recovered, Thomas. You won't need the amnesiac drug that has been given to aid you in your recovery anymore. You had to learn to walk again, but the memories of that painful process are gone. It is better that way."
Father Korro remarked, "I can remember the past two weeks. As soon as I started remembering things, my new arm felt as natural as if I had never lost it. Nobody will tell me how much real time has passed. Zeke remembers things from a month ago."
Bishop Swanson said, "All three of you make for an interesting case. I have Zeke placed as apprentice to one of our metallurgic engineers. He knows far more than was expected for this primitive culture. He has been explaining things about color of the metals that are quite advanced."
I replied, "I made records of that."
"I know," said Bishop Swanson as he went to a set of large drawers, and then opened one. "Here's all your notes. Too precious to destroy, but too dangerous to leave in your village."
I declared, "If my notes are too valuable, then I suppose so am I. Will I ever be allowed to return to my home village or Zeke's village?"
Looking at his restored arm, Father Korro said, "We're never going back, I'm afraid."
I replied, "I succeeded at being a dragon slayer, but don't get to be adored by the public for it."
Looking at me, Bishop Swanson said, "Thomas, you're an interesting case. I'm tempted to have you get drafted to go fight in the Holy War, or have you train soldiers to fight in it."
I humbly replied, "If that is your wish, Bishop. However, you've made comments about primitive technology. I believe I am a primitive in that regard. I can see that just looking around this room. Look at this sink."
I walked to the sink. I seemed to have muscle memory of using the sink to get water before, although it was foggy in my conscious memory. I turned the water on, used a cup of paper to get a glass of water, and drank it.
Bishop Swanson said, "What about the sink?"
I replied, "It's metal, but not a trace of rust. The water that comes out is the purest water I have ever seen or tasted. The machining on this valve is practically perfect. Look, no dripping when turned off. I feel like when you repaired my legs and lungs, I jumped ahead in time many centuries."
Father Korro looked at me and then the sink, then remarked, "Centuries have passed?"
Bishop Swanson said, "Wrong guess. Not nearly that long has passed."
I hazarded a guess but stated it as firm fact, "You could have killed the dragon with that flying machine any time you wanted. Or any other dragon in the world. What you can do is far beyond what Zeke and I know of equations of elasticity and plasticity of steel, metal grain, and metal hardening."
Bishop Swanson replied, "I personally know very little about what you are talking about when you get technical, but we have engineers and scientists that would know and also know far more besides. You are correct. Our...ahem...flying machine could take out a dragon with ease with a depleted uranium bullet."
I replied, "I don't know the word uranium."
Bishop Swanson stated, "You wouldn't at your assigned tech level. One of those nearly killed you and certainly messed up your legs! You really shouldn't have shot that crossbow. Our pilot was merely putting everybody asleep with an anesthetic gas. We would have had a stronger canopy, but didn't think anything from this world could penetrate it. We were wrong. Fortunately, he wasn't really hurt. If you hadn't shot at the pilot, then you would merely have been made unconscious by the gas."
I speculated, "If you could have all the dragons in the world killed with ease, but it is not done, then there is some reason for the dragons continuing to exist that I do not understand."
Father Korro put in, "Despite having this new arm, I remember the pain of losing it. I remember the years of living with it gone. I don't like dragons. I don't see why it would be bad for them all to be killed."
Bishop Swanson said, "Dragons are an important part of the ecosystem, and the training program of this world. The one you killed has already been replaced with a new, young dragon. The villagers do know that you killed the previous one, Thomas. You are remembered as a hero. They even know it was done with a bow, but all the aspects about the specifics of that have been hidden from them. It's a new experiment to see if the new people wanting to be dragon slayers will work with swords or with bows. The myth is spread that the second dragon carried you off for killing his elder."
I said, "The flying machine didn't look much like a flying dragon."
Bishop Swanson said, "You were conscious far longer than most, and had what amounts to a small telescope to get a good look. There seems no problem for the villagers to think it was the arrival of the new dragon. They think the new dragon has breath with the power to put people asleep for a time."
Father Korro demanded, "Don't you care about all the lives of warriors that are lost trying to slay dragons due to inadequate information?"
I supported this by adding, "Just before I killed the dragon, an eighteen-year-old boy died using such a completely worthless sword that defeat was certain."
Bishop Swanson replied, "Neither of you understand the larger picture. I don't like that young people like you describe are describing end their life in this way, but it is a necessary part of the process."
Father Korro grimly noted, "It seems Thomas and I don't understand enough of the larger picture to follow what you are talking about, but know too much to be allowed back to our homes."
Bishop Swanson said, "It would be a waste to dispose of you two, as well as Zeke. Zeke will stay in technology training. Father Korro, I am sending you off-world to a religious center. Maybe in a couple centuries, we can have a meaningful debate on the morality of what goes on in this world."
I asked, "There are other worlds?"
Bishop Swanson said, "If you'd done more looking up to the heavens with your telescope rather than looking at the pretty woman serving the dragon, then you'd have a better idea that other worlds exist around other stars."
Father Korro said, "You casually said a couple centuries. The Holy Book says the human lifespan is limited to one-hundred and twenty years."
Bishop Swanson replied, "Fixing the aging process is easier than replacing your arm and much easier than fixing Thomas's scarred lungs. It would be so if you stayed where you were. Your eventual deaths, as with all humans there, is pre-programmed in with telomere shortening in every cell in your body. Now that you are with us, that is no longer an issue. You need to adjust to a new perspective."
I said, "Father Korro said that the young maiden was getting too old for the dragon. He implied her life was on the line."
Bishop Swanson said, "There is a new and younger maiden princess with the new and younger dragon. However, the woman you rescued still lives. She recently got married, in fact, to a blacksmith. Not a blacksmith that knows the secrets that you and Zeke know. She is playing the role of grateful rescued princess well. I suppose looked at in a certain way, you did save her, as she was indeed close to 'aging out' of her princess-needing-rescue role. It is traditional for the dragon to sacrifice the woman, but that won't happen now."
I sighed and speculated, "Probably she married the blacksmith that made that useless sword that the eighteen-year-old boy had."
Bishop Swanson replied, "Yes, it is the same man."
Later, I went to what was described as a machine-shop to see Zeke. I was sent alone, and Zeke was also alone in the large room when I got there. As I entered, Zeke was simply watching a large machine making some device all by itself.
Zeke remarked, "So you do live after all, Thomas. I thought just before I lost consciousness that you had your legs completely destroyed."
I said, "I guess I did, but they can do certain types of miracles here. Father Korro's got his missing arm back."
Zeke said, "I know about that. I've seen him complete with his new arm, but not seen you. Have they told you we cannot go back home?"
"Yes, but I also heard in compensation that we might live centuries now," Thomas said.
Zeke replied, "I find I know so little that it might take a century to become proficient in what is known about metals here, and more centuries to learn about other technologies and sciences."
I replied, "I gather what we know of technology and science is primitive compared to these people, and Bishop Swanson was already secretly one of these people."
Zeke said, "The engineers here say that what our world can instill is a desired attitude that is cultivated by the conditions there. That attitude is more important than not knowing so much of what they consider fundamental, conceptual knowledge here. I don't know whether I am so backward and primitive as to be like completely useless obsolete as the technology I know or not! Hey, I'm not the great dragon slayer. Are they going to make you a great warrior in their perpetual Holy War?"
I said, "I don't really understand what is Holy and not anymore. How these people treat human life perplexes me. Same for the life of the dragon itself. There is so much to learn about dragons. There is a whole field of what I was told by Bishop Swanson is called aerodynamics that deals with how they fly, with issues including density, lift, thrust, and things where I simply could not understand the words. I feel so stupid in regard to technology, science, and religion. These people do not treat dragons as evil."
Zeke replied, "I suppose one could look at learning about these as new symbolic dragons you need to conquer."
I said, "I may have successfully slain one dragon, but I think we were set up for that as part of the grand experiment. Look at how we were given the plans for Father Korro's crossbow. The ancient text you found that taught you about the Damascus process for steel. We were not really as clever as we thought we were, as all that we discovered was discovered centuries or even millennia ago. For reasons beyond what we have been told, we were allowed to rediscover them."
Zeke said, "Did you learn yet why we seldom see returning warriors from the Holy Wars?"
I replied, "No."
Zeke replied, "The Holy War takes place off-world. The few that do return have been trained just what to say and not say. They are as much actors as that maiden was who was supposed to be the prisoner of the dragon that you killed."
I said, "Maybe for wars to take place across the stars, human life really does not mean what I think it does. Certainly, technology does not mean what I thought it did."
Zeke put in, "By the way, did you know the stuff that appeared to be pure gold in the dragon's horde was not?"
I replied, "Before you and the crowd showed up, I had just learned that. I don't know how such a thin layer was put on."
Zeke said, "It's a process called electro-plating. There is a whole field involving something called electricity that is basically unknown on our planet. It's how these lights in the ceiling that have no flames work. I suspect I will spend the rest of my life, even if that life now spans centuries, trying to grasp this new-to-me technology and science. What's going to happen next in the life of Thomas the Dragon Slayer?"
I thought and said, "I supposed I could spend the rest of my life doing what you plan to do in exploring technology and science. It seems a waste how Aston died trying to kill the dragon himself for me to go do only that with my life, though. I suppose I will try to learn what passes for ethics and beliefs among this new people where we find ourselves. That's probably even more hopeless than where you will get with exploring their much more advanced technology and science."
I hoped that these seemingly superior people could not read minds, as I had a sudden thought that even the plague that had killed my parents and siblings might not be what I would think of as natural situation, but part of their grand experiment. Maybe breeding people who could survive that type of plague was needed in the Holy War. I realized I was in a strange place and among strange people. I felt being here was a mistake somehow as I was hardly among the fittest physically since the plague had so nearly killed me and left my lungs scarred until this recent miracle cure, but I was also now among the few who had successfully slain a dragon even if Bishop Swanson had set it up by giving Father Korro the plans for a crossbow. I had the weird feeling of sympathy for the dragon that I had killed. I also wondered if the whole Church of the Risen Daughter was merely a form of social control in this grand experiment. I realized I had lost my faith in many things.
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