Don’t Forget Your Goat
By Rick Danforth
No Inquisitor had ever killed a dragon.
The Inquisition’s annals contained claimed bounties of rogue minotaurs, krakens, and even an engorged, enchanted chicken on a rampage. They endeavoured to kill monsters wherever they found them. But no dragons.
A dragon would fetch the highest bonus the Order had ever paid out. Even more than the nest of werewolves in Kadriba, and that had been a special family rate.
As he climbed the increasingly steep and worn path, Hop tried very hard to focus on the payment, instead of why his brethren had never landed a dragon.
In a long and varied career, Hop’s few achievements had been cons, tricks, or accidents. He needed a win. A real one, just one before he retired. And a big one to prove to himself that he could have been the best Inquisitor of the bunch, if he had chosen to. And to show to that bastard Captain Eymerich and the other youngbloods that Hop wasn’t an outdated has-been.
Which is how he found himself leading a goat up the highest mountain in the Duchy, with his hair grey, and knees as strong as uncooked bacon. A bitterly cold wind blew from the cloudless sky, which Hop felt despite his thick leather coat.
A matching gloved fist held a leashed goat, which didn’t seem to mind the cold. It tottered along behind him carting most of the gear. Hop had some on his own back, the goat had resembled an ant with a leaf when they first set off. It was an oddly obedient goat though, the first time one hadn’t tried to eat his fingers or trip him up.
Instead, it followed him up a cracked, potholed road. Moss and weeds were pushing up between and around the stones. Nature crowded it from all sides. Before long, no-one would know there’d ever been a road here. Although from the look of it, no-one knew now.
What was left of the road led to a windswept plateau. It was flat and bare except for a mossy, rocky outcrop the size of a house, which sported a cave entrance. Presumably, from what the town had said, the cave where the mighty dragon Pryftan lived with her hoard.
Lubiana, the town in the valley, had been very helpful with the directions. The town had relied heavily on dragon-based tourism and merchandise for decades. If you could put a dragon logo or shape on something to sell it, they had. But recently missing sheep were starting to add up, and if no-one had actually seen the dragon for decades, did it matter if there still was one?
If there was one, Hop reminded himself. Perhaps something in the cave had eaten the dragon before changing its tastes to sheep. But there was only going to be one way to find that out.
Staring at an entrance big enough to climb down, Hop knew he wasn’t the best Inquisitor, the younger ones enjoyed making that clear, but he had enough sense to not dive down a cave to find a dragon. It could bloody well come up to him.
“Right,” said Hop. “Let’s do this.”
The goat didn’t respond, merely showing an uninterested look instead. The standard look of goats everywhere. Before their departure Hop had been told the goat’s name was Jude. He really wished he hadn’t been.
First things first, Hop checked the battered sword at his hip, the one with the edge like a forgotten steak knife. It got heavier every day. But he could still lift it, for now anyway. To show himself more than anything, he gave a couple of half-hearted cuts at the air.
Hop never thought he’d spend his old age like this, on a hill confronting a dragon, but then he’d never thought he would have an old age. The Inquisition promoted the pension as more of a lottery than a benefit. But he found himself on the cusp of claiming it with nothing interesting to show for his life.
Wincing, Hop sheathed the sword and wiped the sweat from his brow. Patting it gently, he then moved to unpack the equipment from the goat, Heckled Cockerel Armament’s very own Heavy Anti-dragon Weapon. It was a fancy name for a ballista with only one shot, carefully wound and bound with springs and gadgets. But what a shot it would be. Guaranteed to stop a dragon in three paces or Hop’s money back.
Clucking his tongue as he pushed bits of metal and wood together in badly labelled slots, Hop gave up and opened the assembly guide. Winds whipped at the pages as he sat down on the outcrop to read, unsure if he could pull himself up again after.
After a false start he managed to stand, his knees cracking like popcorn, continuing with the assembly now he knew which parts were the wrong way up. He felt like a dog trying to interpret economics, but ended with a fully built weapon.
The main problem with a one-shot weapon was having no way to test it. Hop suddenly had long concerns about the effectiveness of their lifetime warranty. Or at least his capacity to apply for it.
But it was built. Basking in his victory, Hop unpacked the lunch Alice had lovingly insisted he take with him. It was odd she’d let him do this himself, she was normally more protective, but she’d muttered something about a new spell she was crafting. Hop sniffed the sandwiches, and regretted it. For someone who made such powerful potions it was incredible she couldn’t master basic sandwiches. However, she’d made up for it with enough alcohol to make him a fire hazard.
Which given the dragon, Hop opted to leave for afterwards. It would be nice to have something to look forward to other than the walk down.
At least he would get to walk down. Unlike the goat Hop gently herded to the cave opening and tied to a rock. Hop tapped the rock a few times as a dinner bell, then retreated to the ballista. His finger rested on the trigger, his heart in his mouth.
Nothing appeared. After a long and awkward pause with the goat staring at him, judging him, Hop reached for his bag and pulled out Janet’s Guide to Fey and Fauna for ideas on what to do next. He had been so concerned with killing the dragon, he hadn’t spent much thought on finding it. A giant flying lizard that breathed fire should be easy to spot. Should.
In accordance with the book’s next suggestion, Hop sang a hymn. Apparently, dragons hated them. Hop sang loud and full of conviction, swinging backward and forward across the tune without ever quite hitting it. But he got most of the words right.
Apart from the protests of the goat, and the howl of the wind, there was silence.
“For god’s sake.” Hop stormed to the side of the cave, booting it as hard as he could. He only succeeded in hurting his foot. Through clenched teeth, he screamed, “Come on, you can’t hide in there forever you overgrown chameleon!”
The cave rumbled, and a tree shifted to reveal what Hop horribly recognised was an ear the size of a cow.
A moment later he realised the cave had a certain nostril-like quality about it. In fact, the entire moss-covered rocky outcrop looked different now it was starting to move.
It was moss-covered alright, but it wasn’t rock. The ‘cave opening’ moved, as two wings like ship sails unfurled. Two eyelids opened to reveal a whole ocean of blue, which stared directly at Hop.
Although Hop struggled to see anything past a set of teeth the size of tombstones. Staring at the impossibly large creature in front of him, all Hop could say was, “I’m going to need a bigger ballista.”
He knew he should have forked out for the Elite model. And now he was going to pay for it.
“What is a ballista?” asked the dragon with a voice as rich as chocolate, booming over the mountain. The rushing wind knocked Hop’s hat off, the main thing which identified him as an Inquisitor.
Normally Hop would be outraged, but currently changing appearance was rather attractive. Eventually he remembered how words worked enough to say, “I didn’t know dragons could talk.”
“Did you bother to ask any?”
“No,” admitted Hop. Even now, despite the situation, he couldn’t help but wonder how many creatures could have talked to him, but just didn’t. Perhaps even the goat calmy chewing grass next to him could speak. He would have to speak to Alice about that. If he survived. “I’ve never met a dragon before.”
“Is that why you are here?”
“Not exactly. I came here to kill you. To claim your skull for a bounty.” Hop coughed. He felt a little silly now he was here. Almost like the insecure people who hung around outside pubs trying to start fights.
After an awkward pause hanging in the air like a bad smell, Hop added, “It was a large bounty. The largest in history.”
“I see,” said the dragon. If it was surprised, it didn’t show. At least not in a way Hop could read. “Would you mind not?”
“That sounds fine,” said Hop with a nervous smile. This wasn’t helping his case about not being a has-been. If he got home, he would just tell the inquisitors there hadn’t been a dragon. The truth didn’t bare thinking about it.
“What is your uniform? I am not familiar with the emblem.”
“The Inquisition. Used to be Witch Hunters. They rebranded us,” said Hop sourly, fingering the crossed torch and sword on his chest.
“They always came to see me back in the day. Was hardly a week without an adventurer, or a wizard accosting me.” The dragon sighed, almost blowing Hop over with breath like lamp oil. “Now I imagine they’ve forgotten all about me. I’m Pryftan, by the way.”
“Hop. And far from it. Lubiana relies on you.” Hop jerked his thumb to a large town on the horizon.
“Lubiana’s entire industry is built on you. Toys, banners, dragon rides, jewellery, scones. Its dragons all the way down. Even a statue in the town square.” Hop looked the dragon up and down; it took a while. “Although it doesn’t do you justice.”
“They probably owe me some commission.” One massive eyebrow hinged up at the thought of additional gold streams. “I thought Lubiana was a village?”
“Have a look,” said Hop with a nod, eager to focus the dragon’s gaze elsewhere.
“That is definitely a town,” said Pryftan glumly. After a long stare, she turned her head from the town and rested it on the ground. “You had less of them in my youth. Yet more people used to come here.”
“Is that so?” asked Hop. The conversation was starting to escape him. But he was keen to keep the mouth filled with enormous teeth otherwise occupied.
“Yes. They haven’t bothered in some time. They’ve even stopped tending to the road.”
“Standards are slipping everywhere,” said Hop, gravely. It was a good thing to say, the elderly normally appreciated it. Although recently Hop was horrified to find himself saying it more and more each day.
“They really are. One daughter runs a smelting firm in Som. One guards a bank. The others in logistics. Hardly proper jobs for dragons.”
“One’s in the treasure business though?”
“Business? Can one call sitting on other people’s money all day dragon business? Half the time she isn’t even there, she has the days off. She claims a salary, pension and worst of all gives the gold back.” Pryftan sniffed hard enough a lick of fire came out. “And she calls herself a dragon.”
Hop nodded understandingly. With slow, deliberate moments he took a pre-rolled cigarette from a pouch in his jacket and lit it. It looked like he might be here a while.
“You know I have to go and have dinner with them once a year or so. Listen to them telling me all about moving with the times. Otherwise, it’s so cold I just sleep up here. So very, very cold.” Pryftan sighed, then turned a large, sad face to Hop. “What’s wrong with being a dragon on a hoard? I was brought up to be a dragon on a hoard. You need dragons on hoards. Otherwise, what’s it all about?”
Hop patted the dragon on what he hoped was an acceptable part of her wing. Pryftan was an aged relic of a former time. A bit like Hop. They’d already rebranded his job three times, and now they just wanted to pension him off. The only reason he was here was to prove he still had it. That he had value to give. Some at least anyway.
And he realised what a great job he was doing of proving that. Hop found himself saying, “Nobody even wants rid of monsters anymore. They’re so rare people formed preservation societies. Tell us off if we try to kill them.”
They stood morosely on the edge, looking down onto the rolling fields. All carved up with different colour crops like a patchwork quilt. “You know,” said Hop slowly, between drags of the cigarette. “Once upon a time you could ride from here to the coast without seeing anyone or anything.”
Inquisitors did a lot for endangered species.
For one thing, they kept them rare.
Hop threw the cigarette off of the plateau. “It’s all towns now, everywhere you go, full of busy, little people. With farms connecting them up. And canals everywhere. They don’t even use hedges anymore. It’s all canals, better for irrigation apparently. Everywhere you look, towns and canals and busy, little people.”
“She’s right, of course,” said the dragon, continuing some inner monologue. “There’s no future in a dragon on a hoard.”
“I mean,” said Hop, “You need towns, it’s part of life. The markets and whatnot. Just they always used to be far away, on the fringes. Now this is the fringe.”
“It’s all changing,” said Pryftan. “Changing all the time. Like my daughter Char. A foundry. A dragon smelting for a living! At least it’s better than what she’s done to Mourning Wood Forest!”
Hop’s face grimaced at a new horror. “What, the one with all the goblins?”
“There haven’t been goblins for years. Just tree stumps now.”
“Stumps? I used to like that forest. It was…” Hop paused, he knew the forest was important but struggled wording why. “It was eerie. You don’t get eerie like that anymore. Down there, you damn knew well what real terror was.”
“You want eerie? She’s building over it,” said Pryftan.
“Not her idea. Metronne suggested it.”
Hop sat down to steady himself. “Who’s Metronne?”
“She’s the logistics manager. She said building infrastructure would make the land easier to sell. Roads, houses, taverns the like. Even a playground.”
Hop took a moment to process this. It wasn’t easy, and he needed a sip of the fermented apple drink Alice had packed him. Eventually he said, “You can’t sell Mourning Wood. It’s been there forever.”
“Apparently, that’s exactly why you can sell it. No-one was using it.”
Hop strode to the ballista and kicked it as hard as it could. The bolt whipped out and removed a cobble from the path, sending both items spinning down the mountainside.
“That’s all right. Not like you can make it worse.”
Hop shook his head. “When I was younger, they always talked about the future. Said how bright it was going to be.”
“I think I may have…come across…some of those people,” said Pryftan cautiously.
“This the future, eh? All towns and joining up.” Hop shrugged. “Now I’m just a failed Inquisitor going home empty handed. Probably pension me off and give me a room in one of those towns.”
“I have no idea what happened. There used to be a lot less people, and far more dragons swanning about.” Pryftan smiled. “We used to go to the Southern Isles in winter. Bathe in the volcanoes. It was lovely.”
“Why not go back?” asked Hop.
“You said you’re always cold. Makes you sleep. Why not bask in the warmth?”
“Well, there is the hoard.” One wing patted a small cave opening next to Pryftan, obscuring Hop’s view as he tried to angle his head to see.
“Your daughter works in logistics. Couldn’t she shift it?”
“I suppose there is no reason the hoard has to stay where it always has,” said Pryftan, shifting uncomfortably.
“There you go then. Some fun in the sun will do you good. May as well be a dragon on a hoard somewhere you want to be. Solves all your problem.” Hop smiled, feeling oddly confident Pryftan wouldn’t want to take him along as in-flight meal.
Pryftan looked out over the valley, chewing a cheek the size of a horse. “I could fly by Lubiana as I pass. Really give them something to think about that.”
“That,” said Hop carefully. “Would definitely draw attention. Remind people of the good old days.”
“Moving with the times alright. Moving back to how we used to do it.” Pryftan smiled, eyes looking out onto unseen yet sunnier shores.
“The old ways are the best ways,” said Hop. He just wished he had a way to prove that.
“I have some dragon bones you may have in the cave,” said Pryftan wincing. “But I’ll warn you I counted the coins. There’s a surprise for anyone who takes even one without my permission.”
“Thank you,” said Hop with a solemn bow of the head. “Whose bones are they?”
“Do you know the best way for a dragon to get a hoard?”
“Compound interest?” offered Hop.
“Find a dragon with a hoard. There are always challengers.” Pryftan smiled fondly, then added, “Don’t forget your goat. An interesting creature.”
With that, she left, with a great flap of her wings that knocked Hop to the floor and turned the Ballista into kindling.
Hop didn’t bemoan the lack of ballista, but he did realise that at no point had the goat fled. It just stood there, as if patiently waiting for him to finish so they could go home. It was exactly the kind of suspicious activity Hop would normally notice. Almost as if something had magically made him gloss over that.
“You know,” said Alice’s voice from the goat, “Technically you just released a dragon into your own district?”
“Actually, I just ridded a dragon from my district,” said Hop smugly. “I just released a dragon into Inquisitor Captain Eymerich’s district.”
“Good. Hope she bakes him.”
“Thanks, always fancied one.”
Hop took a deep sigh. “You know it was different when we started out. Every big mountain had a dragon on it. A troll under every bridge. You couldn’t go through a forest without goblins swarming you. I wonder what happened to them all.”
“You,” said Alice, nibbling one of the sandwiches she had made before her transformation. Even her goat form looked disgusted by it, although she made a show of eating it anyway.
“Not just me,” said Hop, remembering to be an Inquisitor again and salvaging his hat from the ground. “But I always figured there’d be more. Now we have kids buying goblin costumes for dress up and going on dragon log flume rides.”
“Complaining that the Inquisition got rid of monsters? You’re going soft in your old age.”
“Letting a dragon fly away from an Inquisitor.”
“Aye.” Hop took the last swig of fermented apple drink and shuddered.
“Can we look in the cave?”
They moved to the opening the dragon had been hiding. An opening just large enough for Hop to squeeze through, making him wonder how the dragon ever managed to fit. The cavern within seemed to be glowing with a golden light. For a second Hop thought he had wandered into an enchanted temple. But the light merely came from a torch shining onto small mountains of gold. Gleaming and screaming to be spent.
“So much gold, just sat there,” said Hop. looking at the endless golden hoard. Pryftan said she’d left a few tricks. Hop didn’t think she meant a bucket over the door.
“I think,” said Alice after a cautious sniff. “That would be a terribly bad idea.”
It could have been a trick of the light, but Hop saw a gentle shifting of the coins at the back. “Probably right.”
“But we do have a big payday to cash in,” said Alice, headbutting a large, black skull near the entrance. Thankfully it was much smaller than Pryftan’s great boulder of a head. Small enough that Hop could just about get his hands underneath and shift it upwards, his knees creaking at the strain. He couldn’t wait to walk into the Inquisitor’s Tower to show it off. And then have a well-deserved lie down.
No Inquisitor had ever killed a dragon. They endeavoured to kill only monsters when they found them. But Hop had technically run one out of town.
Admittedly by conversation. But maybe that wasn’t so bad.
About the Author:
Rick Danforth is a speculative fiction author from Yorkshire, England, where he works as a Systems Architect to fund his writing habit. When not working valiantly in the plot mines, he can be found doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a type of involuntary yoga with uncomfortable pyjamas.
He has had several short stories published in a variety of venues including Etherea, Translunar Traveller’s Lounge, and Bard and Sages Quarterly.
Most weeks he claims he will soon return to finish his debut novel, but so far these claims have proved unfounded.
You can follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Rick_and_Write