Riding the Thirsty Mule
It was a slow night at The Thirsty Mule. The nights had all been slow
at this tavern and every other in Havenport since the war ended in mid-summer
nine months ago. A year ago, the taverns were full with mercenaries
rushing to the front for the spring campaign or hobbling away. And
with the merchants and camp followers who sold their wares to them.
Now, half the taverns were out of business entirely and only the locals
and few straggling soldiers without a war came to linger peacefully
over mug and platter in front of the fire.
Maistra was one of those stragglers, a half-elf who felt unwelcome in any
society except the armies to which he attached himself. Bereft of
home and, for now, a job, he remained here with no good reason to
stay and none to go. With coins from his cashout still in his pouch,
he camped out in the woods to the north of town, wandering in as far
as The Thirsty Mule a few times each week. He listened for news of
the next conflict brewing where his superior archery could be
redeemed for coins from the highest bidder. He was neither humble
nor inexpensive, but even his haughty patience had become depressed
by the nightly dullness in the world. Everyone, it seemed, was
finally exhausted after the decades of conflict and ready to give peace a turn.
Across the table sat Franklin, the beardless but bulky farmboy. A year ago,
Franklin was eager to join the combat, but could not disobey his father who
forbade it. Now, with his father's death in the winter, he found little difficulty
in abandoning his family loyalty to his eldest brother, only now to have no
army to which to run away. At seventeen, Franklin was larger than most full-grown
men by at least a head and broader (and heavier) by half again. He fed his appetite
for military adventure with his nightly visits to the taverns, asking the
soldiers to tell their tales. As he (with his recent inheritance) was the one paying
for the drinks (or even a meal when the story particularly excited him), he found
many soldiers willing to abide his company and curiosity. Some of them with
greatly enhanced imagination as the evening's beverages added up.
Tonight it was The Captain who told the tale. Nobody was clear about which side The Captain
had served in the war, but all felt certain he and his troop of cavalry were deeply immersed
in its many seesawing battles. None of his horsemen remained to lend testimony to his history
and he skillfully avoided the mentions of names and places that might reveal his
battlefield loyalty. Even his own name and origins were a mystery that the audience forbore
exploring, for his powers in relating his ageless legends of conquest and defeat enraptured
them beyond such mundane curiosity of here and now. He stood at the hearth with his boot
resting on the log pile. The rumor was that the lower leg in that boot was wooden itself,
but none here had ever seen the evidence.
The injuries to Norford, the tavern owner, were plainly seen. He waited upon his customers himself
now that he could no longer afford a barmaid. With a large-wheeled cart and a crutch, he moved amongst
the tables delivering drink and meal. Despite the lack of his left hand and most of the leg on that
same side, he had built the cart many years ago for travel amongst the soldiers in the camps with his
"extra comforts". Whether in sympathy or because his cart filled a real need, his business there
prospered enough for him eventually to buy The Thirsty Mule in Havenport. Now, Norford had no other
options, but to struggle through these lean times until business resumed. Who would ever have thought
the war would end, thought Norford as he rested upon the seat which swung out of the back of his cart.
Tina looked over at Norford, wishing to offer her help. She was his barmaid as recently as two months ago.
Then he told her he could not pay her anymore. She offered to work for a pittance or even nothing but food
and lodging, but his pride was too obsinate. Her father was the blacksmith and her new husband his
apprentice. Her marriage was the price she paid to move back into her father's house when she could not
earn her own income. Derrick, her husband, smelled of smoke and sweat just like her father who had always
made her feel unwanted for the flaw of not being a son. Derrick did not care for her much either, but
needed to yield to the pressure from the old man if he wished to continue as his apprentice. Slipping out to
her old haunts at The Thirsty Mule, even if infrequently, was Tina's only pleasure now, mixed with the
pain of seeing Norford struggle so.
The only other person in the tavern tonight was new. A figure sat concealed under a large hooded cloak
in a corner distant from the fire and the others. Norford had attended to this guest upon arrival, but
he only received a silver coin without a request for food nor drink. The stranger simply asked in low whisper
to "rest for a while with no disturbance". Well paid for nothing, Norford readily agreed. He had not seen the
stranger shift position in three hours since sitting there and assumed that he (or perhaps she) was asleep.
Who will continue this tale? Perhaps, tell us the Captain's tale. Will Franklin put up a purse for the best tale tonight?
The Captain’s Tale
“What say you, Captain? Have you a tale to raise our spirits through this long and bleak night? Or to haunt our sleeps later?” Franklin urged. “I will keep your mug full with Mule’s Kick all night, if you will favor us with a story from your adventures.”
“Ah, lad, your offer is too generous to pass, but why settle for some meager exploit of mine when I could give you the truth behind the legend of Lord Balamore the Dragon Slayer?” the Captain replied with a conspiratorial smile.
“Oh, yes. That would be fine. Norford, please, a tankard for the Captain to get him started.”
“I am here near the tap. Let me serve the Captain, Norford,” Tina offered and moved without waiting for his reply to fill a mug and deliver it as the Captain rose to stand at the hearth. Norford smiled resignedly. It pleases the lass and does me no disrespect, he thought. She carries no pity for me, only the love she could not give her father.
“Ah, well, you all know the legendary Balamore and his acclaim as an itinerant slayer of dragons. Some say he dispatched as many as seventeen, while I heard him more modestly claimed only eight were really grown beasts worthy of counting. Oh, yes, I knew him. In my youth, I served him as squire in his late years. All but one of his famous combats were decades in the past by then. He had retired to his ancestral estates, so long neglected and, if we are dealing in truth, always so meagerly impoverished even before his time. It was his upbringing in noble poverty that sent him into the world seeking fame and fortune, even though he was his father’s only child. And that diligently learned thrift of his early years returned him home with so little care to expend more of that fortune than he minimally needed to maintain his household. He kept no list of soldiers about him. His fame defended him well enough, he would say, that all he required was a squire to tend to his personal needs, a cook for his family, a smith and a groom to see to his horses and trappings, and a caretaker to oversee the needs of the estate’s peasants and the stocking of the manor’s larder.
“He was not greedy – never was. Having acquired his ample wealth through his exploits, he allowed the peasants to keep whatever they could scratch out of the stony and dry lands. He paid them for any excess they could provide to the manor or purchased his supplies elsewhere. Their gratitude and loyalty to him was perhaps the greatest shield for him and his privacy in those declining years.
“Ah, but it is not those declining years which interest you – I see that in your faces. In his modesty, I long thought, Balamore would lightly let pass any discussion of his adventures and conquests. So many others told the tales that he had no need to sing his own praises. He smiled with scant comment to confirm nor deny what the legends recounted. So, I must tell you of the only venture on which I accompanied him. You may see his legend in a different light afterwards, as did I, but I know with certainty only how the old Balamore dealt with his last reptilian foe.
“I was just short of my eighteenth year when the messenger arrived beseeching Lord Balamore for help. His lordship was at least in his late fifties, maybe even over sixty years of age. My service in his household was going to soon end, as Balamore insisted that my training was so nearly complete and I must provide my services and perfect my skills in the world where they were better valued and more needed. Perhaps if I still had been more green or had already left, Lord Balamore would not have listened to that messenger and would have sent him away with only a warm meal and a night’s rest. But my lord was overcome with the fancy that this quest could be my final lesson and qualifying examination.
“'You are hardly my little Wiggles any longer,’ Balamore said to me, recalling the childhood name he had given me when he first saw me. ‘You know all that I have to teach you and a few tricks you created on your own. All but one last secret of mine. I cannot pass this legacy to my daughters and, alas, I shall not sire a son nor see him grown if I do. I had thought to die with this untold. For telling it is something I cannot do – I must show you and for that we shall need a dragon.’
“My youthful curiosity so easily overwhelmed my caution in those years. If this old man was ready to confront another dragon, how could I refuse to stand at his side? Over the next few days as I prepared the provisions, weapons, and four horses for our journey and the smith polished his armor, Lord Balamore seemed to be engaged in the most difficult battle of his lifetime – reassuring his wife and three daughters that there was nothing about which to worry. He would be back in a fortnight or sooner, he told them, none the worse for the exercise. The messenger called upon all his diplomacy to balance the urgency of the need for Lord Balamore’s extraordinary knowledge and prowess and the limited ferocity of the beast which was surely not the largest the hero had ever defeated. At last, the Lady conceded that she could not stop the old fool and she and her daughters set to cleaning, altering, and mending his campaigning tabard, cape, and such garments as befit the champion.
“When we rode forth, there were only the three of us – the bedazzlingly refurbished Lord Balamore, the messenger, and myself. Of course, as you know, part of his legend was that he always fought the dragons single-handedly, carrying the fight deep into their secluded lairs. If he failed, his soul could rest easier knowing he had not allowed any but himself and his squire to face the deathly jeopardy. During the three day ride to the region where the dragon had been marauding, I heard him rehearsing his old speech in low mutters as he rode.” The Captain paused to wave his empty tankard at Franklin. Tina quickly came to fetch, refill, and return it. The Captain kissed the back of her hand as he took the mug back and then threw back a large gulp of ale.
“When we crossed into the final valley, the peasants stopped their toil in the fields to line the road and cheer the hero’s arrival. The Duke and the Duchess rode out with a grand entourage to meet us as we neared their keep. With practiced grace, Lord Balamore accepted their adoration and confidence in the surety of his putting an end to their problems. Despite the recent ravishing of their territory, the Duchy hosted a splendid banquet to welcome us. On cue, when asked what he needed from them to complete his mission, Balamore gave his speech. In all the years of living in his home, I had never heard him speak with such eloquence (nor at such length). One might have been tempted to believe he was capable of persuading the terrors he had dispatched over the years into simply packing up and leaving. Ah, that old man was reborn that night in the glories of his younger years. I am certain that a fee and directions to the dragon’s den were discussed in a very business-like manner, but I shall always remember the grandeur of Lord Balamore’s assurance that they should consider the deed as good as done.
“We arose in late morning. Only Balamore, I, and the four horses were going to travel on from the keep to the dragon’s cave. We were sent off with great ceremony that afternoon and rode for a few hours before Balamore chose a spot for us to camp for the night. In the morning, he said, we would go the rest of the way to reach the cave mouth by noontime.
“At the mouth of the cave, Balamore told me to cut down a tall sapling. 'Remember your pole vaulting exercises, Wiggles,' he said. 'The right balance of strength and flexibility. Judging by the spacing of these footprints, three paces length should serve our purpose.'
“'Yes, milord. I assume we do not need the hoop to jump through,' I joked. I was recalling the many years of gymnastic, running, and jumping exercises that were as much a part of my training as the use of weapons. The pole vault through a hoop suspended from the massive oak in the training yard was one of my favorites.
“'No,' Balamore almost chuckled, 'Our dragon will provide that. He will have the ring prize also.' He referred to the small sack which hung near the top of the hoop. As I became proficient at passing through the hoop, Balamore had added the ring prize to the sport. As I went through, if I could retrieve the parcel, it was mine to keep. In the beginning, it was tied with a loose knot that came free with a tug. At first, it held a pastry or some such treat. But as the training progressed, the bag needed to be cut loose. And the prizes increased in value from the snacks I could have easily grabbed in a pass through the kitchen to more useful items. This belt buckle I wear today was one of those prizes.
“'Stand back, lad, as we approach the dragon. And stay ready with that pole. I will signal the moment when we need it and when I do, we can have no hesitation.' Balamore told me to strip all the gear off one horse and bring it along with us into the cave. After a quick check of his armor, his shield, and his sword, he lead the way.
“The passage into an active dragon's lair is fairly easy, for the beast needs a wide berth to come and go. One planning for his dormancy will collapse the tunnels leading to his sanctum, but he will clear a path when the hunger awakens him. A sleeping dragon retreats deep into his inner chamber, but one on a rampage moves to an upper hunting den nearer the surface. We had not far to go to find the dragon. He was awaiting us, for there was no hiding the sounds of our coming from his keen hearing.
“'Sir Knight, you travel rather lightly; the last party to visit me here had twelve of your kind. I expected at least twice that number this time.'” The Captain's voice was a mocking thunder as he filled the role of the dragon. He drained his tankard, waving it casually towards Tina, as he continued the dialogue in the calm tone of Balamore.
“'Sir Dragon, such men are expensive, even when they fail to return. I am a different sort of emissary. As my gray hair and wrinkles do testify.' As Balamore spoke, he removed his helm.
“'Indeed you are. Your puny sword would not penetrate my scales even if you still had the strength to lift it. I suspect your meat has grown tough and stringy also. You are not much of an offering, even if I should be so inclined to settle for such an arrangement.' The dragon seemed amused, probably with his own cleverness and control of the situation.
“'To speak honestly with you, Sir Dragon,” Balamore stated, “I do not think the residents in the lands hereabout have much interest in an agreement of that sort either. I was hired to slay you if I could not otherwise convince you to end your scourge upon their homes and resources.'
“'And what arguments do you have prepared to persuade me so?'”
“'You have feasted here for three months. Their herds are a quarter less already. Are you not nearly sated anyway?'
“'You are not very well informed, Sir Knight, in the habits of dragons, I see. It will take twenty years to satisfy my hunger. And during that time and long after, in the moments that my carnal yearnings are abated, I have a curiosity about the beauties and mysteries which have been created or uncovered since I last roamed the world a century ago. No, I will not soon be ready for my next nap.'
“'Ah, are you hungry now? I would not wish to negotiate with you in a weakened state. While I am not much of a morsel, this horse might help take the edge off for you.'
“'Graciously offered, Sir Knight, although I would have had it once our talks were done.'
“'Then, with my compliments, please.'
“Balamore waved for me to urge the horse forward. The dragon bent forward, seized the poor animal, and crushed it with a single snap of his massive jaws. The dragon tilted his head back to swallow, opening his jaws widely to wash the carcass down in one gulp.
“'Now, lad, there is the hoop. And the prize.'
“With a quick run, plant, and vault, I leaped into that gaping maw. As I passed over his teeth and tongue, I swept my dagger into my right hand and spotted the gland in the back of his throat. I wrapped my left arm around it and hacked at its base. The dragon wildly swung his head from side to side, but I clung on. My feet dangled unable to gain any purchase, but I stayed to my task sawing off my 'prize'.
“When the combined efforts of my blade's cutting and my weight's tugging soon caused the gland to detach, I found myself plunging down that terrible gullet. It was a singular moment of epiphany for me. The importance of an education came into clear focus, for we seldom appreciate how we might use some bit of knowledge until the moment when we need it. As I bumped and slid down that narrowing tunnel, the dull hours of studying metabolism and anatomy of animals, both common and weird, that I had theretofore thought to be interruptions to my martial training, developed sudden relevance.
“I do not know how many of you have ever visited the inner working of a dragon. In all my years, I suspect I only knew one other and he never showed any interest in discussing it. Well, not directly. But Balamore had spend hours explaining to me how a dragon produced its flaming breath. The digestion of its meal produces copious quantities of flammable gases. It is true of all animals, but for most, they dispel these fumes in flatulent emissions from their hither regions. Whatever be-demoned mind created dragons thought of a different plumbing scheme. Those explosive byproducts of digestion in a dragon are shunted off into an internal air bladder that circles back to the gullet with a flap just above the stomach. When the dragon wishes to produce his awesome weapon, he compresses this bladder and belches the gases up.
“Now, by itself, that exhalation would be fearsomely odorous and perhaps overwhelming, but the dragon adds the ability to ignite those gases as they enter the mouth. And, now, what do you suppose I had locked under my arm as I descended deeper into that beast? Yes, the sac that produced that spark. The gruesome drawings of dissected dragons that I had studied since I was a child came into my mind – a virtual map to guide me even in my dark tumble to the beast's gut. I drove my dagger into the wall to slow my drop and prayed that I was sliding down the correct side. When I felt the edge of the bladder's flap, I shoved the fire gland through and continued on my way.
“There is a good reason that a dragon does not ignite these gases until they reach his mouth. While tougher than you and I perhaps, the insides of a dragon have none of the protective qualities of his exterior scales. The explosion behind me blew a enormous hole in the dragon's side and it died quickly thereafter. Once the skin was breached, Balamore had little trouble carving me out. A quick wash in a stream on our way back to the keep, a jubilant feast for the modest Lord Balamore, and we were soon heading home with the last bounty of his career. The rest is legend.” The Captain smiled slyly. He raised his tankard above his head, lowered it to drain its last contents, and swept it wide with a flourishing blow. The audience cheered and laughed.
“Oh, that was a marvelous story, Captain,” Franklin said. “but did not Lord Balamore live four centuries ago?”
“That is a different story, lad, and you only bought one from me this night,” the Captain replied as he waved to Tina for a refill and returned to his seat.