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To Go Forth in Mail-Shirt and Shield

Adam Stemple is an award-winning author, poet, and musician. Like most authors, his life experience is broad and odd. He spent twenty years on the road with a variety of bands playing for crowds of between 2 and 20,000 people. He started, ran, and sold a poker training site. He worked in a warehouse. He picked corn. He traded options and demoed houses. He drove pizzas for nine months in 1986, which for twenty-seven years was the longest he'd ever been employed. He drank too much and has now been sober for over fifteen years. He published his first book at the age of sixteen, "The Lullaby Songbook," which he arranged the music for. His mother is a famous children's book author. His children are artistic. His wife is a better person than him in nearly all regards.
The dragon is not a metaphor. He is meat and muscle, scales and teeth. He is claws that tear through castle stone and fire that leaves naught but smoke and ash where once a village stood. He is destruction given wing.
Your horse is saddled, your armor polished, your lance sharpened to a point so fine the ladies could do their needlework with it. But that won't be enough. It has never been enough. It is your father's horse you ride, your grandfather's armor you wear. The lance you couch beneath your arm had a name before your family did, hallowed and long though your history be. These things have come to you only because your father strove to defeat the dragon, as did his father before him, and on back through the ages. They are all charred bone on the mountain now, as are the knights who accompanied them. The squires, too. Just boys, those--but the dragon cares not for the age of those who defy him, only for how brightly they burn.
You could raise a host to fight beside you, but the only fighters left are farmers. Raise the host now and there will be no crops to last through winter. Better to die in swift immolation than suffer a slow starvation.
You could hire soldiers, warriors from foreign lands, hedge knights and sell-swords, mercenaries trained to siege and slaughter. But the treasury is bare, your coin all gone for weapons hopelessly blunted on slate-hard scales and armor that now encases only skeletons within the dragon's lair.
You could tax the people to raise the funds, but it would be simpler to spin gold from the grainy dust that remains once the miller's wheel has done its work. For that is all the people have left to give.
So it falls to you, and you alone. An impossible task. Yet that will not dissuade you. You will fight. It is what you do. It is what all kings do.
But if you must fight, do not go as your ancestors did: with lance and shield on warhorse proud. Rather, tie your father's mount to the scorched tree before the cave where the dragon sleeps. Wait for the great worm to crawl from its hole. He will not spy you if you hide yourself in the rocks above the entrance. He will not hear you if you leave your grandfather's armor at home. He will not fear you if you do not hold the lance that bears a name.
Crawl through the bushes. Clamber through the rocks. And when the creature has nearly eaten his fill of your horse, spring on him from above. Aim for the eyes, the ears, the nostrils--any place that lets your sword slip inside his skull. It is said that you must strike a dragon's heart, but that is a fool's target, for there's no blade yet forged that can pierce a dragon's hide. But the dragon must see. The dragon must hear. The dragon must taste and smell. Let his senses guide your blade, and thus find victory. It will not be easy. It will not be clean. But it will be done--if you proceed in this manner.
But you will not. Your kind never does. For all your talk of protecting the realm, it is only fame you seek. How does it bring glory to your name if you slaughter the beast by stealth? And worse, if there are none there to see it done? Would that there were a maiden to rescue or a prize to claim. What use is it to kill a thing merely to protect the people who till your fields and cook your meals and fight your endless wars?
Go. Fight it as your fathers did and perish in fire and flame. Be sure to bring heralds and poets, singers and scribes. Let them record how the rising sun made your armor gleam as though aflame. How your warhorse snorted clouds of steam like billowing smoke into the chill morning air. How the lady's favor that hung from the tip of your lance was red as the blood that would spill that day.
Let them make a metaphor of death. I have had my fill of it.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 9th, 2021


Sometimes a story is planned. I have a solid beginning already in mind. An ending to aim for. A middle that may have to be muddled through, but I at least have some idea of what happens.

Other times, I have only a single line when I sit down to write:

The dragon is not a metaphor.

- Adam Stemple
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