Here Be Dragons

In fact, more trouble was just around the corner. It surfaced as Gunther was carefully sliding the ship into the relatively narrow river. Before he could get into it very far, three villagers in loincloths leapt into the water and floated there, right in the path of the ship.

"Are you crazy?" Jason shouted at them, standing at the bow. "Get out of the way! You'll be killed!" They didn't budge. Jason scrambled over to the bridge. "Stop the ship, stop the ship!" he yelled.

Gunther did so, then stared at him expectantly.

"There are people floating in the river, right in front of the ship! I yelled at them, but they wouldn't move."

There was a great commotion all about the ship as everybody tried to understand and explain what was going on at once.

"This is my doing! I forbid you to use my river!"

Everyone turned to look at the speaker. Jason had recognized the accent; he was unsurprised to see an obviously royal figure. The King of Hoon was standing on the riverbank, staring up at the Argonauts. His face was rough and serious, and his eyebrows were sharply slanted and bushy; both features were in contrast to his short stature. Sharper still was the contrast between his and the other villagers' clothing: he wore a business suit like the one Roland had worn every day Jason had ever known him. On his wrists were big, heavy gold bracelets, and on his brow was a golden headband inlaid with a single large blue gem. Actually, taken as a whole, he looked kind of silly.

Five tough-looking men stood in a semicircle around the king. <Bodyguards, most likely.> Jason thought. They weren't armed, but that didn't preclude the possibility that they were spellcasters.

"What is the meaning of this?" Roland demanded of the king, glaring at him.

"I will explain to the leader of your group." said the king.

"That'd be us." said Jason, indicating himself, Roland, and Talbot. The corners of Talbot's mouth rose slightly.

The king raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Please come with me, then." he said.

The "Argo" wasn't quite far enough into the river that the wheel could be repaired, but the Argonauts could still disembark safely. Jason looked at his shipmates. They were staring at the land eagerly; they'd been stuck on that cramped little ship for days.

"Would you mind if our men came onto land to stretch their legs for a bit?" Jason asked the king.

"Fine. I am among the few inhabitants of this island who are versed in Common, however."

<Huh, didn't see that one coming.> Jason turned to the Argonauts. "Okay, you heard the man. Don't molest the villagers. And behave yourselves, boys! Be back on the ship by sunset. With any luck, we'll be able to resume our voyage immediately."

Again there was a commotion as everybody swarmed onto the island. Soon, Jason, Roland, and Talbot were following the king and his guards through the village at a brisk pace. (Gunther stayed behind to tend to the ship.) The villagers eyed the Argonauts curiously. They obviously didn't get visitors very often.

The king brought his guests into a building with only one room. It had no lighting other than some big windows and torches set into wall sockets, and no furniture other than a large table and a few chairs, all painstakingly carved out of hardwood by hand. The king seated himself at the head of the table and the trio sat next to him. The king's companions remained standing.

"This better be good." Jason said curtly. Roland and Talbot said nothing, but you could see from their faces that they agreed with the sentiment.

The king looked annoyed. "You may decide that for yourself. First, we must make our introductions. I am Winlo II, King of Hoon."

"Jason Amadeus Blue."

"Roland Moralheart, Adventurer of Gyeeds."

"Admiral Talbot C. Iceslicer of the Gyeedian Navy."

Winlo glanced at Jason very briefly, then spoke again. "Gentlemen, I realize that I have both inconvenienced and endangered you greatly, and for that I apologize. I believe, however, that, considering my people's circumstances, my behavior is justified. Allow me to explain.

"You have already encountered Thorm. That is the name we gave to the dragon, it being the word for 'murderer' in our native tongue. Thorm arrived here last autumn, to make a lair in a cave in the hills where she could bear her wyrmlings." (One curious fact about dragons Jason had learned recently was that they gave birth to live young. Hence, there was no such thing as a dragon egg.) "She was not a problem to us until about five weeks ago, when she first ate one of my people." (Cue various small expressions of disgust and fright on behalf of the threesome.) "Unfortunately, she found the taste of human flesh to her liking. The very next day, she came to me and said she would take one person every three days—if I did not choose a victim, she would take whomever she pleased.

"Of course, I could not bring myself to select whom to sacrifice. Thus, for a week, Thorm came and flew off with whoever struck her fancy. My people were so terrified they began to fight amongst themselves to decrease their likelihood of being chosen. Men attacked each other, hoping that the dragon would find the sight of their enemies' blood attractive, and plotted together to assault their least favorite neighbors and offer them to the dragon. I began to fear that the seeds of discord Thorm had sown in my village were doing us worse harm than the dragon herself.

"And so I established a lottery. Now, every three days, one person is chosen at random to be sacrificed to Thorm and her brood. The insanity has stopped. Yet the nightmare continues, as our population is draining rapidly, and everyone lives in fear of the day they will be chosen."

"Oh… my… God!" cried Jason. "You call this a nightmare? This is a living hell!" Talbot nodded gravely. Roland seemed to be holding back rage. "Why… why on earth haven't you attacked it? You have mages, don't you?"

"Yes, sixteen," said Winlo, "including the five who constitute my personal guard." He gestured at the standers. "We have considered attacking Thorm, but we are hesitant to do so. A dragon, especially of that size, is very powerful: there is no guarantee the attackers would succeed, and certainly if they did not succeed, they would not survive, in which case we would be truly helpless. Moreover, even if we slew Thorm, we would most likely have to deal with her mate as well." (Female dragons were generally larger than males, but both sexes were still dangerous, of course.) "We have therefore refrained from attacking her as of yet. In the meantime, we have tried to think of another, less risky solution, and we have hoped that someone who could help us might come to Hoon."

"You don't get a lot of visitors, though, do you?" asked Jason.

"We have not been visited much lately. For years, traders regularly came here to exchange manufactured goods for precious metals. Thorm put an end to that. She attacks every ship that approaches the island, in the hopes of eating its occupants. She does not know that there are people in the multiverse outside of those in Hoon and those who come to Hoon, of course, but she realizes there are a finite number of Hoonians. Some ships tried to resist her with what few mages they had, but all eventually realized her might and sailed away. One unfortunate consequence of her experience with fighting wizards is that she has learned to evade magical projectiles, as you have no doubt noticed. This makes her further dangerous to confront.

"My request is simple." He looked at Jason straight in the eye. "Help us to slay this menace. Together, we have a good chance of being able to do so. In return, I will allow you to repair your ship."

"That's what I was asking you to do." said Jason, vexed.

"At the time, I did not know you had such a large force." said the king. "I thought that Thorm would chase you away, as she does to most ships. In that case, if we had attacked, she would have inevitably turned her wrath on us as soon as you were out of range."

"Well…" said Jason. "I guess you don't leave us with much of a choice." He thought for a moment. "Actually, I know this might sound crazy, but… have you tried talking Thorm out of it? Just appealing to its natural sense of morality, I mean. It no doubt thinks of humans as lower animals, but you might be able to convince it otherwise."

"I tried exactly that," said Winlo, "when she first came to announce her intention of devouring my people regularly. She did not care. She is truly heartless."

There was a pause. "Roland, Talbot?" said Jason. "Any thoughts?"

"Your Majesty," said Roland, his voice trembling a bit, "I completely understand your position, and will do everything in my power to unburden the world of this demon's spawn."

Talbot closed his eyes for a moment, thinking. Then, he said "I have nothing to add."

"All right." said Jason. "Is that all, sir?"

"Yes." said Winlo.

"Okay, we… we'll need to talk about this. We'll see you again tomorrow morning."

That evening, all the Argonauts met in the mess. It was very dark and shadowy, lit only by candles, as Gunther had turned off the power to save what remained of it for emergencies. Jason, Roland, and Talbot stood on a table on one side of the room.

First, Jason recounted Winlo's tale. Then, he said "To me, guys, it looks like we don't have a choice: we've gotta slay the dragons. With… uh… forty-five sorcerers in all, it shouldn't be that tough, especially if we make a sneak attack on the lair while both adults are asleep."

The crowd's reaction was immediate and emphatic. "Are you joking?" said one man. "Belling the cat!" said another. "We won't be that guy's martyrs!" shouted a boy.

"Ahem!" said Talbot. Silence was restored. "Jason, as you can see, no one on this ship is eager to sacrifice his life for this particular cause." His tone of voice was angry and somewhat condescending. Glancing at the crowd, Jason could see it sided with Talbot. "We would inevitably be victorious, yes, but there would be casualties on our side, not all of which would be guaranteed to be Hoonians."

"Have you no morals?" Roland suddenly shot back. Jason jumped, and everyone else seemed surprised, too. "These poor people have had as many as ten of their loved ones stolen by this monster. This gruesome ritual must be stopped, those innocent deaths must be avenged!" As he shouted that last word, his eyes flashed with a red glow and small, momentary wisps of flame burst from his clenched fists. The crowd gasped.

"Easy, Roland…" said Jason, taking a step back.

Roland's wrath abruptly dissolved. "Sorry, sorry." he mumbled weakly, adjusting his glasses. "Problem with being an Emotion mage, you know." After a pause, he spoke up. "I meant what I said, though. Even if we find some way of doing so, we can't in right conscience abandon these people to their fates."

"Your humanitarianism is admirable." said the admiral, in a tone suggesting it wasn't. "Regardless, I—and the majority of the crew, I am sure—would prefer some approach to this problem that would prevent loss of life on our part."

"Here, here!" a few Argonauts cheered.

"Although I am a military officer, or perhaps because of it," Talbot continued, "I realize that outright violence isn't the best solution to every problem. I believe it would be better if some alternative approach were found, one which would endanger us less, whether or not it would actually fulfill the king's request."

"Such as?" said Roland.

"I don't know of any." Talbot admitted. "That doesn't preclude the existence of one."

"Sounds like a job for me!" Jason piped up. Talbot looked at him skeptically. "I've tricked my way out of two life-threatening situations already." (There was also a third instance of that, in a sense, but that one, you recall, had to be kept quite secret.) "I bet I can do it again."

"Well, what sort of 'trick' do you propose?" said Talbot.

"Well… are there still people swimming in the way of the ship?" asked Jason.

"Yeah, there are." said a man in the crowd. "They get relieved by another three guys every couple of hours."

"Okay then. All we have to do is wait until all the other villagers are asleep. Then, we remove the swimmers from the river by force, repair the wheel, and sail far, far away."

"Jason," said Talbot, "from Winlo's perspective, everything depends on our assistance. Thus, he will inevitably keep watch tonight to make sure we don't escape. If we try, he has sixteen wizards with which he could do us far greater harm than the dragon could."

"Oh." said Jason, disappointed. "That sounds right."

"What's more," said Roland, "as you recall, Stanley is ultimately in charge of this ship. If I told him that plan, he'd quite likely forbid us from carrying it out in light of its consequences on Gyeeds's interdimensional reputation. If we went along with it without telling him, all of us would quite likely lose our jobs."

"So we do have to get rid of the dragon, after all?" said Jason.

"Quite likely." said Roland.

Jason swore. "Well… I'll think of something, anyway. By tomorrow morning!"

As soon as the meeting was over, the trio sat down in the dimly lit mess and Jason set to ruminating. Things looked pretty grim, he decided. Thanks to the looming threat of Stanley, the Argonauts had no choice but to somehow remove the dragon's threat to Hoon. And because of Thorm and company's draconic might, any kind of direct attack was sure to lead to the deaths of several Argonauts; even the usually unsympathetic Jason had to admit that leading his own men to their doom, Ahab-style, was a Bad Thing. And Thorm had been unmoved by Winlo's appeals to its ethical sense; Jason doubted he'd do better if he tried. The solution lay in tricking the dragon somehow, for sure, but he'd have to be a little more tricky this time.

A dragon's greatest weakness was its naivety. Thorm hadn't been eating humans for very long, and Jason had every reason to think it was otherwise unfamiliar with them. Perhaps he could somehow convince it that eating humans was undesirable for one reason or another. Such a tactic would be helped by the fact that Thorm's victims were chosen in advance. They could be "prepared" for it…

"Roland," said Jason, "do we have any poisons on board?" His speech broke a rather long silence that had persisted after an initial brainstorm between the three following the meeting had died down. Roland was reading (for the umpteenth time) "Stranger in a Strange Land", one of his favorite books, on a tablet computer. Talbot was thinking silently.

"Ask Mr. Owl." said Roland, without looking up.

"Is that your nickname for Talbot?" said Jason, unsure of how to react.

"No, but I hope he finds the answer to your question the hard way."

"If you have something to say about me, you're welcome to say it in Common." said Talbot, who was, of course, ignorant of English, but had caught the mention of something that sounded like his name.

"I was just asking Roland if we had any poisons on board." said Jason. "He said you would know."

"We do indeed." said Talbot. "Plenty of poisonous chemicals, even if none are particularly engineered to work as a poison. If you're thinking of poisoning Winlo―"

"Not at all." Jason interrupted, much to the admiral's annoyance. "I'm thinking of poisoning Thorm."

"That could be better than a direct attack." Talbot admitted. "Of course, we'd still have to fight her mate fair and square. Dragons are stupid, but not that stupid; he'd realize what we'd done."

"Not necessarily." said Jason, grinning. He told the men his plan.

"Excellent, Jason!" said Roland. "That sounds like it could be the answer."

"It could work," said Talbot, "though there's no guarantee Thorm will play along. She might see through the ruse."

"Well, hey, it's not like we have a lot to lose by trying." said Jason. "If it doesn't work, we fight them, just as we'd do otherwise."

"We would lose the opportunity to attack while they're sleeping." Talbot pointed out.

"True," said Jason, "but do you have any better ideas?"

"No, I'll go along with it. And I won't be surprised if something goes wrong."

"I'll be surprised if nothing does." said Roland.