"We'd had trouble with dragons for many a year, when I was a boy," Old Ged began, clearly settling into his stride, and leaving Tom with the distinct impression that he had told this tale before.
"When I was much younger, we worked hard at keeping them away from inhabited places. This took the form of regular hunts, which is pretty intensive work - not to say exciting at times - together with good management of farms, so that there's nothing to tempt the beasts into areas where people live."
"So, as I grew up," the older man continued, "The dragons were contained and mostly content, living on their natural diet of deer and the occasional wild boar. There's a huge area of uncultivated land, mostly forested and quite mountainous, to the north of here. It's home to many deer and only travelled by a few loners and woodcutters. So, people mostly avoided the dragons, and the dragons reciprocated the arrangement."
"Now, during the war over there" - Ged indicated vaguely in the direction of the bridge - "things got more difficult. The dragons came back."
"Difficult?" Alistair asked, looking puzzled, "Why would the War affect the dragons?"
"Ah, there's the thing," Ged replied, "It turns out that simply no one had thought of it. The war and its preparations meant that folks were naturally rather distracted by the necessity of protecting the bridge and causeway over to England. They drafted in numerous men to assist, including many from the ranks of the dragon hunters. Basically, the regular hunts and culls just stopped. So, the dragons proliferated wildly."
The old man leant forward, sipping at his drink and watching the younger men over the rim of the glass.
"Now, a dragon will grow from an egg to maturity in maybe five years. So, we have a new generation of youngsters who have not tangled with men, and who have acquired no fear of humans. It was getting crowded in their forests, so they started spreading down to the lowlands, and discovered that there was easy-to-catch prey - like cows - aplenty."
"The war had another unexpected effect," the hunter continued, "Wartime restrictions meant that the import of animals and animal products from your country was reduced. Traditionally, farming livestock in this area is avoided, since it tends to attract the dragons. Even so, people hereabouts were forced to keep sheep, cattle and the like, with the inevitable consequences."
"But what are Dragons like?" Tom pressed, his eyes ablaze.
"Ah, now then. They come in many different sizes and very different temperaments. Some are actually domesticated, although I'm not convinced that they're ever really tame - just prepared to put up with humans in exchange for a good meal every day."
"Domesticated dragons?" Alistair asked in amazement, "Isn't that a bit dangerous?"
"Well, they're a lot smaller than her, you'll be pleased to hear," the old hunter grinned, again indicating the stuffed head with his thumb. "People keep them to bring down rabbits or pigeons for the pot. They're very good at that - did you enjoy your rabbit stew earlier?"
"It was very good," Alistair nodded, "I've not eaten coney for ages."
Tom was not sure he had ever eaten rabbit before, stewed or otherwise, but the pub dinner was certainly much better than most of the food he got in the Army.
"Then there's the Nightwings," the old man continued, "Smaller still, and kept to keep down the vermin - rats and the like. Folks let them out at night, and they mostly feed themselves, except in the worst of weathers."
"But the true dragons, the big ones, are of a very different mettle."
The old hunter drank deeply from his pint and then settled back in his chair, toying with his pipe.
"Now, your basic dragon is shaped a bit like a bird. It's got two wings, two legs, and a long tail coming to a point. The head, well, you can see for yourself, them teeth in its snout are every bit as vicious as they look. The wings are just leathery skin stretched tight over its bones. Most species have hooks on their wings which they use like bats to manoeuvre on the ground, or in trees or on rocky cliffs."
"Them hooks are sharp too; one caught me here years ago," the hunter said, indicating a faded scar on his cheek now almost covered by his greying stubble beard, "And they've got vicious claws on their feet, wicked talons to catch and hold their prey."
"Your biggest dragons have a wingspan of maybe ten feet, which is more than big enough when one flies over your head. They're not able to carry a full-grown cow, or a sheep, or a man. But they will carry off babies, or young animals. You'll certainly want to be securely indoors or, better still, underground when they're flying around outside."
Tom had already noted the very solid construction of the inn building, and was definitely feeling grateful for the stout stone walls and heavy slate roof that surrounded him.
"The big dragons, they're sociable creatures," Old Ged continued, "They'll hunt in small groups, maybe half a dozen, usually led by an old matriarch who'll be the mam or grammam of most of the group. Working together, they'll often be able to bring down a larger animal, then tear off a haunch and carry it away."
"Why don't they just eat where they kill?" Tom asked.
"Ah, well, they feed their young," Ged replied.
"Like birds?" Tom persisted.
"Yes, like birds," the old man confirmed, "And, like birds, they lay their eggs in a nest, usually in an old tree, or sometimes in hollows on rocky crags. They'll lay a clutch of two or maybe three eggs, each maybe nine inches on a side. The females guard them ferociously, and hunt nearly every day to feed the hatchlings."
"Do they really breathe fire?" Alistair asked in a hushed whisper.
"Ha, that old wives tale," the hunter laughed, "No, they don't. Mind you, some of them, one of the nastier kinds, they can spit a fair old distance. If it gets you in the eye, it sure burns like hell, and can even blind you permanent-like. Fortunately, acid-spitters are quite rare, especially these days."
Alistair dipped his head in agreement with this sentiment.
"Now, you'll understand that having dragons in the neighbourhood is bad news. And my job is to hunt them down, or at least it used to be."
The old hunter sounded slightly wistful at this point, staring into the middle distance for a few moments, then shook his head.
"So now, I'll wager, you young fellas will want to know how to hunt dragons."
Both Tom and Alistair were enthralled, with a look like small boys in a sweet shop. Even Bram, who had hitherto sat quietly in his seat, appeared to be taking some interest in the tale.
"Dragons are almost impossible to hit when they are flying," the old man resumed, "Whatever you try - arrows, spears, fireballs. They're both swift and agile in flight, surprisingly so given their size, and firing at them just annoys them. But they're much more vulnerable on the ground, and much more jumpy, too."
Tom was curious as to why such a fearsome animal would feel nervous, and asked this of the hunter. Ged puffed on his pipe for a moment, regarding Tom closely.
"Well, dragons are not invulnerable. I've heard tales of a dragon who tried to take a kill away from a pack of wolves, and very much came off second-best. They're quite slow to take off, because of their bulk, and the time taken to sort out their wings. But two good beats of those wings and they're gone, and you'll never get them."
"So how do you get them?" Tom inquired.
"Simple. You've got to keep them on the ground. So we need a trap. We set up stout nets suspended high up in the forest canopy, weighted with heavy stones, and tied with long ropes to tree-stumps and really big pegs driven into the ground. And of course, we need bait."
"So what's bait for a dragon?" Alistair asked.
The old man laughed.
"Dragons love the taste of pork. They go wild when they smell a pig. They'll go for young wild boar if they can, but the parents fight back, so it's not something they can have very often. So we use a piglet."
Ged puffed on his pipe again, reflectively, and continued.
"It also means that pig-keeping is a particularly difficult and potentially dangerous activity hereabouts."
"Anyway, your trap and bait is set up in the trees, but not too far under the boughs, since dragons don't like to be under cover. They like open sky above their heads, or to be up in the trees themselves. So, you set your trap and wait. And wait. If you're lucky, a dragon will land and take the bait."
The hunter paused to drink, the three young men waiting breathlessly for him to continue.
"And then the fun begins. You drop the net sharpish-like. A typical dragon panics at this point, and attempts to take off. The weighted net impedes its wings, and the ropes tied to the trees prevent it from getting very far from the ground."
"Your mates use arrows and spears to disable the dragon as quickly as possible. Winch crossbows are a favourite weapon of mine, since they're able to pierce the tough hide and, if you're lucky, pinion its wings. Once it can't fly, it's finished, and you use fireballs and other weapons to finish off the beast as quickly as possible."
Ged paused again for more liquid refreshment.
"Well, that's how it's supposed to work. Now, that one there," he said, indicating the stuffed head over the fireplace, "That one was a wily old mother. Very cautious, she was, and still had one wing outside when the net was dropped."
The old man looked very satisfied at the coordinated intake of breath from his audience.
"She nearly got away. Luckily, my first shot from my trusty old crossbow caught her in the wing-joint of her free wing. That stopped her - or at least I thought she couldn't move far. She was still thrashing and snapping at the men surrounding her, when she recognised me, I reckon, and suddenly lurched forward and caught me here."
The hunter put down his pint and pipe, and rolled up the sleeve of his left arm.
"Gave me this mark, she did," he said, showing them a livid scar on the outside of his left forearm. The three companions winced at the sight.
"I was caught by a wing-claw when holding my bow at the ready, trying to get a clear shot to finish her off."
The others would see that his arm was still stiff with scar tissue, and that he was finding it difficult to make a full range of movements with his elbow.
"It's going to take a few more months to get my arm working properly again."
"What happens to dead dragons?" Alistair persisted.
"Well then, another good question."
The old man again looked up at the creature over the fireplace.
"The heads are often stuffed and mounted, especially when they have put up a good fight. When I was your age, I wondered why the old folks did that, but now I know the reason - it's to give old men something to talk about."
Ged laughed to himself, seeming to find his own humour irresistible.
"The meat is very strongly flavoured, and usually regarded as inedible. It's fed to dogs, perhaps, where there's nothing better available. As for the skins, well, dragon hide is difficult to tan, but very hard-wearing. It's too stiff for clothing, but is sometimes used for certain pieces of furniture, things that'll get a lot of wear over the years."
The old man leaned forward again, looking at Tom and Alistair in turn.
"That bench you're sitting on, that seat's covered with dragon hide. In fact, it's the hide of the same old bitch whose head is nailed up there."
At this point, the old man leaned back in his chair, toying with his beer. His pipe had gone out, unnoticed, during the telling. Tom and Alistair turned to each other at the conclusion of the hunter's tale, mouths agog, while Bram simply sat back, a wry smile playing about his lips.
Old Ged drained the last of his pint.
"Well, me young fellas," he said, "That's me talked out. Thanks for the drink."
With that, the old man stood up, stretched his injured arm, and then walked off in the direction of the front door.
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