Bradzar and the Dragon
by Anne Marie Lutz
Bradzar Authentine made his way up the boulder-strewn path to the dragon’s lair.
He was no longer a young man, as he’d been the last time he’d come this way. Then, he’d trembled with fear as he inched past sections of rock that glowed red with the heat of the dragon’s flame. Now he also trembled, but this time it was all in his legs, unused to the strain of the climb. And the rocks were cold enough on this winter’s day that Bradzar could have plopped a couple of small ones in his water bottle to keep it chilled.
There was no sign of Paissen the Feared. In fact, there had been no sign of the dragon for a long time now.
Bradzar had been nominated by the townspeople to go up and see what was going on. Nominated in lieu of harsher punishment, rather — the townspeople hadn’t taken kindly to Bradzar’s latest money-making scheme. These people had no respect for a man with a bit of entrepreneurial spirit. Besides, anyone who gave out their information so easily online deserved to be fleeced.
Bradzar reached the entrance to the cave that led into the black interior of the mountain. A few bones were strewn around the outside of the hole, surely very old, Bradzar hoped.
He turned and looked over the edge of the cliff. Far below, people stood at the foot of the trail and waited for Bradzar’s report. An angry buzzing sound grew louder as a drone ascended up the cliffside and hovered over him. That was the news crew’s drone, recording Bradzar’s every move.
Bradzar sighed. He stretched the ache out of his legs, set his shoulders and crept into the fissure in the mountainside that led to the lair of Paissen the Pitiless. He inched along the tunnel, then peered around the corner into the cavern.
Last time he had come this way, a foolish youth on a dare, the very walls of the mountain had pulsed red with heat. Now, an oil lamp hung on a golden chain from the ceiling, casting a circle of wan light that didn’t reach to the far edges of the cavern. It shone dully off heaps of gold and gems.
The dragon was curled on his hoard, the arch of his back curving up toward the roof, his wings tucked tight against his green-scaled flanks. He opened one huge yellow eye. “Back again, are you?”
Bradzar’s heart skipped a beat. Paissen remembered him? It had been forty years or more. What was he to say to the monster now: We noticed you don’t come around to see us much anymore?
Paissen the Terrible stirred and resettled himself on his hoard. As he moved, there was a crackling, rustling sound Bradzar didn’t recognize.
“Um, we haven’t seen you for a long time.”
“You aren’t flying over the town breathing flame down at us anymore.”
“That’s right. Doctor’s orders.”
“So to speak.” Paissen lifted his huge head, opened both baleful eyes and stared. The stink of his breath enveloped Bradzar. Old smoke, sulfur, and … nacho cheese?
“I’m sorry,” Bradzar said. “We missed you singeing the roof shingles off the town hall. And there hasn’t been a stink of brimstone in the air since forever.”
“You should be overjoyed,” Paissen the Death from Above said. He lay his huge head back down on his front legs, like a dog.
“Well, we’re not. Tourism revenue is down one hundred percent. Tourists want to see the dragon breathing fire, scaring the crap out of them. Without you there’s not much to bring them to our little village. All the hotels and restaurants are empty. People are unemployed. The mayor is at her wits’ end.”
Paissen’s tail swung back and forth. “I’m very old, you know. More than a thousand years. A disease of my kind has afflicted me. I have high blood pressure now.”
“High — ”
Paissen breathed out a puff of angry smoke. “No need to ridicule me for it. You try manufacturing flame in your body for years, flying around all the time in a rage of destruction, and see how it affects you.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Bradzar said. “So you can’t breathe fire anymore, or you won’t?”
“One of my ancestors terrorized his community, breathing a raging inferno down on them yearly. He ignored the signs of the plague of our kind. He kept going, slaying and destroying, until one day he exploded, raining fire and ash down on Stolit until the town was destroyed and so was he.”
“I thought a meteor destroyed Stolit.”
“No, it was a dragon. One who ignored the inevitabilities of age and kept going until he went out in a blaze of annihilation.”
“Well, we don’t want that.” Bradzar thought a moment. He’d read up a little on hypertension lately, his doctor having warned him he was courting an early death if he didn’t change his habits. “Have you tried meditation? Maybe changing your diet?”
“I understand that green vegetables and lots of unprocessed grains can help.”
Paissen the Disastrous snorted in annoyance. “Dragons eat meat.”
Bradzar sighed. He looked around for a place to sit as he considered the problem. There was a distinct possibility he would have to go back down the mountain and tell the mayor and the council that the village’s glory days were over.
Paissen stirred, and Bradzar heard that crinkling sound again.
He strolled around to the side of the cavern so he could see what was making the noise. His eyes opened wide.
A huge drift of packaging lay heaped behind Paissen, rivaling the dragon’s hoard in size. The bags were brightly colored, red and yellow and silver in the low light, blaring out names like CRISPY CHIPS! or CHEEZ-FILLED NUGGETS or YUM! CRUNCHY COOKIES. All the bags appeared to be empty.
“You stinkin’ idiot!” Bradzar exclaimed. “Dragons eat meat, do they?”
Paissen the Horrible’s massive head lifted, and a warning flame scorched the air. “How dare you?”
“Look at all this junk food!” Bradzar strode into the pile of trash. Crinkling bags crushed beneath his feet, wafted around his legs. The aroma of stale toasted corn and fake sugar drifted to his nose. “Ugh! Why?”
“I may take only so many cows per year,” Paissen the Slayer said. “It’s not enough for a dragon of my size and strength.”
“The news has been reporting multiple accidents on the cliff road, mostly trucks supplying our convenience stores. I bet that’s all you, trying to feed your habit. Why?”
Paissen rose to his haunches, looming in all his terrible magnificence in the gloom of his lair. His scales scraped against the rock. Bradzar remembered exactly whom he was berating: the Merciless, the Ancient, the Destroyer from Above, who had terrorized the village since time immemorial. Only in recent years, as time and technology marched on, had they grown to value Paissen, who brought wide-eyed tourists to town to spend their currency. But they had not succeeded in taming him.
“Do you think a measly cow a month is enough to maintain my strength? It’s barely enough to sate my appetite. And tainted, always, with the stink of antibiotics and hormones. And if I stray from our agreement and take more than I am allotted? Or even a — ” Paissen licked his lips – “A plump middle-aged man like yourself, or a virgin as in the days when I was young?”
“The mayor wouldn’t stand for it.” Bradzar considered. “Well, neither would I. And we’d be after you with tanks and missiles before you could say Paissen the Dead.”
“Indeed.” Paissen curled back down and away from Bradzar. A depressed dragon if Bradzar had ever seen one, which he supposed he had not, but the signs were all there.
“We miss you,” Bradzar said. “The town is as empty as a church ten minutes after service is over.”
“I have been thinking about leaving this area,” Paissen said. “It will be hard, as I have many fond memories of breathing my fire upon your village.”
“No, no.” Bradzar thought. “You know all this junk food is what’s giving you high blood pressure?”
“It is a disease of my kind.”
“Maybe, but you’re making it worse. Look at all the salt in this stuff. If you laid off the chips and pretzels you could be back in action in a few weeks.”
“Do you think so?”
“Yes, I do! And more exercise is what you need, not just lying around mooning over your hoard all the time.”
“I would not like to go out like Zinaroth the Feared.”
Bradzar was almost afraid to ask.
Paissen slanted a look at him. “Zinaroth melted into a molten chasm and sunk into the earth, destroying his lair and everything within a ten mile radius.”
“Oh.” Bradzar was at a loss. “My condolences.”
“I must eat,” Paissen rumbled. “If not these foods that are making me ill, then good food. Meat. Or I must leave this place.”
“Look, I’m sure we can come to an agreement. You should have told us. Communication is key! We can raise some food for you. In fact the mayor would be happy to, if we can stoke our tourism again.”
“None of this antibiotic-tainted meat. No starveling cows that sate me for but a day. And the pigs! Someone left me a crate of pork tenderloins, an abomination! I need meat, on the hoof, fat and squealing.”
“Oh, lord.” Bradzar paced. “It will be a fight with the Council. Two of the representatives are vegan.”
Paissen’s head snaked around. One huge yellow eye regarded Bradzar. A low rumble began to build in the dragon’s throat. “You look very plump, and I am sure you would squeal.”
“Aaah, aaah, no! I know they’ll do it, to keep your mighty presence with us, O Paissen the Ancient!” Bradzar stumbled backward, tripped over a heap of gold bars, and fell on his rear end. “But you must let me go to tell them about our conversation!”
Paissen regarded him. “You have not aged well.”
“You’re one to talk, lying here moping and eating junk food.” Bradzar pushed back to his feet. “Do we have a deal?”
“Come back to me with terms, and then we will make a deal,” Paissen the Ravenous said. “I need real meat, on the hoof, as in the days of old. Once a month is insufficient. An occasional virgin — ”
“Your Mayor looks pleasantly fat. A sign of good faith, perhaps?”
“No people! That’s off the table. Totally!” Bradzar wiped sweat from his forehead. Dragons were known to be shrewd and wily. He didn’t want to accidentally promise Paissen one of the villagers.
“We will talk, then.”
“No more salty snacks! Burn all that packaging, will you? And fly around to see us now and then, get the blood moving, it will be good for you!”
“I hear tell of a nice marbled beef from the far East.” Now Paissen was looking dreamy.
Kobe beef? “We can’t afford it. Now listen, you must improve your health. We want you around for a long time. So, we’ll get you more natural meat and you lay off the junk food. Exercise! Lots of it. And would it really kill you to eat a vegetable?”
Paissen the Perilous harrumphed. “I suppose I could eat a potato.”
“Good, that’s good. Potassium!” Bradzar envisioned the vegan members of Council sneaking kale and chia seeds into Paissen’s diet. “How about some meditation? I can send up a friend of mine to guide –”
Flame seared the air too close for comfort, making Bradzar cough. “Okay, okay! No meditation! Even though it will reduce your blood press –”
Another blast of fire, this one closer. Bradzar turned and scrambled for the exit, his skin tingling from the heat. His throat burned from breathing in the dry, heated air. Behind him as he ran for the exit, Paissen chuckled, a deep, resonant, frightening sound.
Bradzar ran out of the lair into the gray winter’s light. He slipped down the mountain path, catching himself often with shaking hands, ignoring the cuts and scrapes he was accumulating.
Far below, the observers from the village waved and chattered excitedly. The camera drone buzzed over Bradzar’s head as he descended the mountain path at speed. This would do nothing for his dignity, that was for sure. But at least he’d completed the quest! And that meant there would be no prosecution for his last money-making scheme.
After a few details were negotiated, Bradzar would be famous as the man who’d rescued the village’s wrecked tourist economy. Maybe he would be the next mayor! Hell, maybe he could finagle a position as dragon-liaison, and they’d set him up in style for the rest of his life.
Bradzar reached the knot of observers. He grinned at the mayor’s anxious inquiry. Just as he began to reassure her, a roar blasted through the crisp mountain air. A massive shape blotted out the sun as Paissen the Scourge of Men spread his wings and swept down from the heights toward the village.
The Mayor and the assembled observers cheered. The military defense system in the village would be on alert, but Bradzar knew there would be no need for them to take action. Paissen would do no harm today.
The dark shape drifted here and there on the winds, a familiar sight in the village for a thousand years. The news crew filmed it all, a reporter grinning as she reported the news that Paissen the Ancient was back, and all was as it should be.
(Featured “flame” image: Photo by Anthony Cantin on Unsplash)
Also: Thanks to Libby Lutz for mentioning the idea of a dragon with high blood pressure!)