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A Dragon, Sat

Liam Hogan is a London based writer. His short story "Ana," appears in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 (NewCon Press) and his twisted fantasy collection, Happy Ending Not Guaranteed, is published by Arachne Press. happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk or on Twitter @LiamJHogan.
"You traveling the Arkhan road?" the giant crowding my table asks as I move aside to make way for his tree-trunk thighs.
As big as he is, his clothes are bigger. They hang loose everywhere except his expanse of belly; clothes made for muscles once even more impressive. This is a brute of a man, getting smaller. Getting old.
I nod and that proves encouragement enough.
"A dragon sat by the side of that road," he begins. "Watching all those who passed before her. Every so often she would pounce on a traveler, devouring them without mercy."
"You ever see this dragon?" I ask, prying a piece of gristle from between my teeth.
"Before my time."
"What did the people do?"
He shrugs, the stool creaks beneath his bulk. "What could they do? She was a dragon."
I chew on this, trying to imagine the scene. "Could they not travel a different road?"
"They could," he agrees, eyes twinkling. "But other roads have their dragons, too. And none of them as direct as the Arkhan road."
"Was there not a hero to challenge this dragon?"
"Some tried. But none could stand before her and many were devoured." My uninvited companion takes a long glance around the packed tavern. The villager's dark scowls seem to amuse him. "People round here, they made up reasons for the dragon's choices. Why one man might pass safely and the next, not. Saying her victims had dark stains on their souls. That they had failed to placate some vengeful spirit. That they brought misfortune down upon themselves. But there's little evidence it wasn't pure chance. Bad luck, if you like. Except...."
"Except?" I prompt, when the pause stretches between us.
"Except a dragon gets hungry if it hasn't eaten in a while. A week, or so."
"Ah."
"Ah indeed. When folks realized she hadn't devoured anyone recently, they developed a remarkable reluctance to travel the Arkhan road. They'd hang back, inventing reasons to delay their journey. Trade would slow. Milk sour, held too long on the way to the market. News dried up. And all the while, the dragon would be getting hungrier and hungrier."
"Not good."
"Not good at all. Until a stranger comes to the roadside inn--"
"--This inn?"
"The very same. Until the right kind of stranger--"
"--the right kind?"
"You know what I mean. When the right kind of a stranger stops here, a stranger who doesn't know the dragon hasn't fed for a goodly while... well. The locals would be pretty hard on this stranger. They'd overcharge him--or her, on occasion--for the meanest cot. Sell her week-stale bread as fresh, spit in her food, be surly and hostile."
I push away my half cleared plate and nod.
"Then some friendly soul drops by the stranger's table--"
"--Like you?"
"Like me, and they tell this stranger: it's just the way these folks are, please don't take offense. But if you're looking for a warmer welcome, cheaper lodgings, heartier food, then maybe you should try the next tavern along the road."
"The one after the dragon?"
"See, I knew you'd understand."
I drain my beer, think of calling for another and perhaps one for the oversized man sitting before me, but decide against. I asked for best. This was nobody's best.
"One day," my new friend continues, watching carefully as I place the empty tankard between us, "The dragon flew away, never to return." His hands flutter in the air above the table. Big, meaty hands, skin scarred, knuckles hardened. The sort of hands that turn too easily into sledgehammer fists.
The moment passes. The hands return to rest.
"A blessed relief," I sigh.
"Not really," he rumbles. "The villagers had gotten used to the idea of a regular sacrifice. So they hired a man, a brute of a man, to be the new dragon. To sit by the side of the road in the hollow the beast had worn. To watch all that passed. And, every so often, to kill the right kind of stranger." The shrug came again, shoulders rippling. "Sometimes to take a bribe to slay some more local traveler."
"Foul work."
"It was. It is. But people will put up with a great cruelty if it has always been so, if the victims are few and far between, and if there is any way they can convince themselves it won't be them."
"You seem to know a lot about this," I observe.
He smiles and I see the ruin of his teeth. Age and too many brawls have rendered the once orderly row as haphazard as the grave markers in some ancient, neglected churchyard. "I was a dragon, once. There have been others, before and after. Though I'm the only one who had the good sense to retire. Those others, they picked the wrong stranger. So the stranger takes their place and they lie buried and unmourned. I'm smarter than that. I decided to be like the original dragon and fly far away."
His barrel chest momentarily swells to the girth it once was. "That was twenty years ago. I've lived another life since. A peaceful one, believe it or not, knowing that I couldn't ever travel the Arkhan road unchallenged, not while I was in my prime."
I do not pass comment that he would still make a formidable foe. He knows it. His eyes dip as though they can see through the beer-soaked wood, to where my hand lingers on the knife I keep at my right thigh, for when the quarters are too close to unsheathe the sword that rests against my left leg.
"There have been five dragons since me. Hard men, all. Though the latest, pfft," he spits heavily on the dirt and sawdust floor. "A scoundrel. A mean spirited coward. I think nothing of him, he is not worthy of the title. I'm convinced I could defeat him with one arm tied behind my back. But I no longer crave the taste of steel and would not want my old job again."
I hold his steady gaze. "Why do you tell me all of this?"
"See," he says, glancing around the sullen, silent room once more, "unlike my neighbors here, I don't peg you for a stranger."
"No?" I raise an eyebrow.
"No." The ruined teeth grin their tombstone grin. "I peg you for a dragon."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 3rd, 2019


"A Dragon, Sat" is inspired by a passage by St Cyril of Jerusalem, which was used by Flannery O'Connor in her essay "The Fiction Writer & His Country," mentioned in Jo Carson's "Spider Speculations." (Thus, is inspiration born, for me, at least.) An allegory, on facing destiny and passing through to the other side, whether devoured or unscathed, used to describe the essential principles of storytelling. Great stuff, but it left me with a hankering to put the St Cyril's dragon back into a story. This is the result.

- Liam Hogan
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