The Better Helmet
by Paul Cesarini
"Are we finished yet?" asked the dragon, turning to face him again.
"Never!" said the man, shifting his feet slightly.
The dragon roared then shot out another quick blast of flame across the
dank, dimly lit cavern, which was now pockmarked with smoldering soot. The
man, once again, casted a protective dome around him. This time, the dome
was an iridescent blue. It seemed... a little smaller, and almost
imperceptibly dimmer. Fingers of flame lapped around the dome, eager to
find their way inside before dying out. Not this time, he thought. Not on
The dragon, now out of breath, stopped its attack. The dome flickered but
the man, brushing back his now-tattered cape, kept his defensive stance.
Water dripped from somewhere up high.
"We don’t have to do this, you know." said the dragon, wiping its sharp
mouth. It slowly circled around the man, who turned to face him with each
"You will not terrorize this village ever again!" cried the man. He made
some quick, swirling motions with his hands, coupled with some
complex-yet-vaguely ridiculous finger movements, then unleashed an energy
blast of blinding turquoise at the dragon. The man’s ears popped as the
blast hit the dragon square in the chest, shimmering droplets of eldritch
energy across the hoard of gold from which the dragon perched. Steam and
putrid smoke leaped up, obscuring the dragon completely. The man paused,
then slowly smiled.
His smile faded.
"You know," said the dragon, waiving off the smoke and coughing slightly,
"I don’t think I’ve ever been hit with that one before. I mean, I’m 157
years old. You’d think I would’ve seen it at least once by now.
"You will not terrorize this village!" yelled the man, hurling an even
larger blast of the same turquoise energy again, and yet again. He broke
wind a little in the process. The reverberation from the blast echoed
around the cavern, causing ancient armor, weapons, jewelry, chandeliers, and
other items to scatter around the gold. An emerald skipped across the
surface of the pile like a stone on a pond – fleetingly beautiful, yet
insignificant. The cavern now filled with the same awful smoke.
The man, clearly exhausted, wiped his brow and bent down to pick up his
staff that he dropped earlier in the battle. It was a good staff, he
thought, but it might be time to replace it soon. There are nicer ones at
the marketplace the next village over. Besides, he thought, the runes on
this one are starting to look a bit dated.
"Really now," coughed the dragon, waiving the smoke off with its tail, "I
don’t know which was worse – the stench from whatever that blast was or the
other stench. Honestly! Dragons can smell things most humans
can’t. You know that, right?! That was just rude, really." the dragon
continued, flicking a stray piece of gold off its wing. "Look, we’ve been
at this for at least an hour now. Maybe more." it said. "What’s the
point? It doesn’t appear that I can breach that dome thingy you keep
conjuring – as much as I’d like to – and you clearly can’t harm me. What
do you hope to accomplish here?" it said, yawning slightly.
The man paused but did not break his defensive stance. He contorted the
fingers on his right hand into yet another seemingly random position. His
"By the power of the gods and all that is holy!" shouted the man, raising
his staff, "I am Lord Protector of these lands and the peoples there in
them! I will vanquish the accursed evil in these lands, the vileness, to
make them safe for our children, so they do not have to live in fear any
longer!!" The man paused, as if expecting applause from somewhere. None
came. He looked around, then back at the dragon.
"According to whom?" asked the dragon.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, by what authority do you claim to be ‘Lord Protector’? You barge
into my home, unannounced (again: rude!), start firing these chartreuse
bolts of whatever at me while I’m sleeping, then claim you have some
sort of divine right to cast me out, or murder me, or whatever it is you
think you’re going to do. So, I ask you again: According to whom?" said
the dragon, crossing its arms and sitting more upright.
The man paused again. Then he looked like he was about to say something,
only to pause again. Then he smiled broadly and said, "Abletto Magistrate
Van der Meer! He bestowed upon me the title of Lord Protector of this realm
and I swore upon my very life to honor this commitment, to uphold the..."
"Van der Meer?" the dragon interrupted, "Seriously?! Hollace Van der Meer?"
"The man is an absolute ass!" said the dragon, small rings of smoke puffing
out of its huge nostrils. The dragon paused then pointed at the man.
"Tell me," it said, "the ‘Abletto’ signifier that precedes his ‘Magistrate’
rank. That means ‘chief’ or ‘head’ in your world, correct?"
The man nodded.
"How did he become ‘Abletto Magistrate’? That title implies he is head of
all the magistrates in the region, right? Exactly how many Magistrates are
there around these parts?"
"Well, one." said the man, confused. "I mean, there is only him as far as
"There you are!" said the dragon, both excited and appalled. "You can’t be
‘head’ something if you’re the only one, right? That would be like me
calling myself the "Abletto Dragon", even though I’m the only dragon within
a fortnight of here. "He gave himself that title. Van der Meer is a
self-important dolt who seeks his own glory, not yours. What in Ishtar’s
name did he even say about me?"
"Why, he said you’ve been..." stammered the man, lowering his right hand.
"...terrorizing the village, causing women to faint, frightening small
children, ‘vileness’-something-something, yes, yes." interrupted the dragon
again, waving its arms. "But what did he say that I had done,
specifically to warrant you (or someone inevitably like you) skulking into
my home, trying to kill me in my sleep?"
"Well, nothing!" interrupted the dragon yet again. "You don’t actually
know, do you?"
"Not as such, no. Not really." said the man, lowering his head. He then
quickly raised it, as if he just remembered something very, very important,
then pointed his staff directly at the dragon."
"He did say you’ve flown over the village repeatedly, casting your
monstrous shadow, devouring livestock!" The man smiled triumphantly,
resting his hands on his hips.
"How would he know?" asked the dragon. "He spends most of his time
indoors, counting his coins, from what I’ve seen. The man’s paler than an
"He heard it from Rupert the Wise, as did I."
"Rupert." said the dragon, skeptically. "He heard it from someone named
‘Rupert’...and that’s now considered irrefutable? Great…" The dragon
rubbed his palm over his face, slowly, smoothing his scales back, not
really wanting to get any deeper in this conversation but also knowing that
he didn’t really have much of a choice. "Might I ask..." said the dragon,
"exactly how this ‘Rupert’ got the title of ‘the Wise’? What is his
profession? What major problems has he solved that would merit such a
title? What volumes has he written? What questions pertaining to the
meaning of existence has he addressed?"
The man thought about this for a moment, absentmindedly adjusting his grip
on his sword. The beast asks many questions, he thought. "Rupert is a
shepherd." he said. "He is also a farmer. Mostly root vegetables, I
"I see! Well, that makes all the difference…" said the dragon, mockingly,
pacing about. "So, he is wise because he tends to livestock? Or, is it
because he can tell the difference between a parsnip and a carrot, a
rutabaga and turnip?"
"He is wise because he is old."
"Fine. Fine." said the dragon. "Given the deplorable living conditions
around here for your lot, I suppose we have to give some credit to anyone
able to survive so long. So, what, is he in his eighties, or maybe
seventies or something?"
The man did not know how old Rupert the Wise was, largely due to him being
bald. His beard was somewhat gray, though. Not yet white, but definitely
a bit gray. He did not walk with a cane. He seemed to have most of his
teeth, he thought, staring at a particularly nice chandelier behind the
"Rupert the Wise looks to be perhaps forty years of age, maybe. Possibly
The dragon paused, staring at the man, shaking its head slightly. "Forty?"
it repeated back at the man. "Perhaps? Ok. Ok, whatever works, really.
Fine. So, one incredibly wise dirt farmer who may or may not be
years old and who may or may not have seen me, tells that fool Van der
Meer, and suddenly I’m ‘terrorizing the village’. That’s basically it?"
The dragon was really quite perturbed now.
"Well…" said the man, stroking his beard. "Yes, I believe so."
"Three times." said the dragon, unimpressed.
"I’ve flown by that village -- not over it -- taking care to
give it a wide berth given how fussy you humans can be, a grand total of
three times. In the past two years. It’s not my fault if some shepherd wets
himself, seeing me off in the distance, minding my own business. Surely,
the mere act of ‘casting a shadow’ doesn’t merit a death sentence?!"
The man scratched his head.
"Well, no. Not necessarily." he said. "Wait, what about the livestock?"
The dragon leaned back on his hoard of gold, frowned, then reached behind
his left wing, searching for something. He pulled out the remnants of a
crystal chandelier. There was a rusty sword caught in it. He flung it
aside then leaned back further and crossed his hands on his broad, scaly
"Ok, you’ve got me there on the livestock." said the dragon, scratching
behind that same wing. That’s going to leave a mark, he thought,
bitterly. "A man’s gotta eat, right?"
"You are no man, foul beast!" shouted the man, who quickly raised
his staff and shot another shimmering energy bolt right at the dragon’s
face. The dragon instinctively drew one hand up and turned its head,
"Now that was really uncalled for... of all the..." muttered the dragon,
wiping its eyes. It sneezed-out something glittery.
"Look, how well do you even know Van der Meer?!" asked the dragon, trying
to compose itself despite the growing desire to incinerate the man. "I
mean, have you ever seen how he treats his servants? We dragons have
excellent eyesight. Even flying high across (not over!) that village, on
the rare occasion when he’s outside I can see how he berates them. The man
is just plain rude. You can learn a lot about a man by watching how he
treats the help, you know."
The dragon continued. "Him asking you to run me out of town doesn’t reflect
on how significant you are, no matter how big the ceremony, no matter how
vast the crowd. It reflects how insignificant he is. If he’s so
important, such a big deal, why doesn’t he come kill me himself? I mean,
really, the nerve..."
"He is old. Older than even Rupert." said the man, unsure if he should
launch another volley at the dragon. In fact, he was unsure of pretty
much everything now, aside from the fact that his cloak had seen better
days. "I am younger and stronger, and he does not know the ways of the
ethereal arts as I do."
"So, you’re saying he’s old and weak, is that it?"
"Well...", stammered the man, flexing the fingers in his right hand. Tiny
sparkles of blue and green dropped to the ground.
"If he’s so old and weak, why aren’t you in charge?"
The man didn’t answer. Instead, he looked around as if expecting someone
else to answer for him.
"Let me ask you this" said the dragon. "How is the water supply in that
"The water supply." repeated the man, absentmindedly.
"Yes. The water supply." asked the dragon, excitedly. "Fresh, clean
drinking water. How is it?"
"Well. They get it from that stream. I think."
"What else do they do in that same stream?"
"Bathe. Wash their clothing, I suppose. I have seen dogs in it, too."
"So, to sum up," said the dragon, "They drink from it, clean their filthy
clothes in it – including soiled undergarments from children, let their
animals play in it, and Goddess knows what else. Have you ever seen any
of them, ah, relieve themselves in it?"
The man thought about it, then frowned.
"Exactly!" said the dragon, pointing at the man. "How are the taxes in this
The man frowned again.
"The roads?" asked the dragon, knowing full well the answer. "The crops?
The man was about to say that the plague was actually going quite well,
then felt very stupid.
"You see my point, don’t you?!" asked the dragon. "Hollace Van der Meer
could no more lead that village than he could lead a pack of feral war
beasts – not the regular kind you may’ve seen paraded out after some great
campaign, mind you. I’m talking about the real nasty ones, with the big
ears and those spikes on their shoulders, and those... ok, this all sounded
better in my head than it does right now. You get the idea."
"The point is…" the dragon continued, "Hollace van der Meer can’t lead.
He certainly can’t govern. Your village is little more than a mud pit,
pitiable and flaccid in this growing, changing realm. He can’t lead but he
can distract. He is very skilled at that, I’ll give him credit
"Ohh! Don’t actually stop and look around at the miserable state our
village is in!" mocked the dragon, in a voice the man thought actually did
sound a little like Van der Meer.
"Instead, look at that horrible, terrible dragon!" the dragon said,
prancing around, pointing at nothing. "That’s the real problem – the
dragon -- not the high taxes! Not the fetid water! Not the barren crops or
the smelly children!"
The dragon composed itself again. "What I’m saying is that if you want to
do some ‘vanquishing’ (or whatever it is that you do), maybe start with
him. Granted, the livestock issue is something we would still need to work
out, but I eat maybe four sheep each month and that’s only if I’m famished.
It’s more like three, most times. They are quite good, you know."
The man nodded in agreement.
"I mean, this whole thing seems to be based on a flawed premise of sorts.
I’ve lived here, in this cavern, decades before Van der Meer was even born,
decades before there even was a village." The dragon motioned around
the cavern. "Another dragon lived here before me." it said. "I don’t
even know what half of this stuff is." he said, dismissively. "Why did
this other dragon have such an infatuation with chandeliers, for example?
There must be, what, maybe 16-17 here, at least. I know there’s more
buried in the gold because I damn well nearly skewered myself in the back
with one. And that hurt, ok?"
The man looked around, nodding again.
"How did that dragon even hang these chandeliers? We dragons have three
fingers on each hand.", the dragon said, showing the man its large bony
fingers, each topped with a dagger-like claw of at least 8 inches. "We
can’t hang chandeliers any more than we can crochet. He must’ve had help
at some point: human help."
"So?" asked the man, now leaning on his staff.
"So, if the previous tenant of this cave at some point had human helpers,
that means there was some real, actual communication going on between the
two -- not just this whatever-it-is-you-call-it." it said, cartoonishly
mimicking the hand gestures the man used to conjure his various spells.
"All I’m saying is, let’s reach a similar agreement of sorts." The dragon
looked around the floor of the cavern. "Here!" It scooped up a dented,
old helmet and tossed it to the man. "This must have some sort of value,
The man bent down, picked it up, and examined it. He then tossed it back
to the dragon.
"No. This one is worthless." He then motioned to the left of the dragon,
at another helmet. "That one. That one is better."
"There! Progress!", said the dragon, both exasperated and relieved,
rolling its yellow eyes. It swatted the Better Helmet across the cavern to
the man, who picked it up. "Take some of this other stuff, too." the dragon
said, motioning to the hoard of gold, various scraps of armor, and far too
many chandeliers. "There’s too much of it. Maybe come back and visit
from time to time, and you can have more. Honestly, I don’t even know what
half of it is. Is this one for tea or something?" asked the dragon,
holding up what appeared to be either an eggbeater or a hairbrush, perhaps
"What do you humans use this ‘gold’ for, anyway?" it muttered, not
expecting an answer.
"Where did it go?" asked the man.
"Who?" replied the dragon.
"The beast that inhabited this cavern before you. Why did it leave?"
A small mouse scampered across the man’s feet, in a hurry about something.
It paused and looked up, first at the man, then at the dragon. They are
someone else’s problem, it thought, before continuing its very important
journey. Both the dragon and man followed it with their eyes before the
"Something about wanting a warmer climate. He was much older, you know.
We dragons can feel the cold in our bones as we age. I told him I’d take
good care of the place, dusting and all, while he was gone in the event he
chose to return." said the dragon, lying. While it did tell the old dragon
that, it hated dusting and never had any intention of doing so. It seemed
like the right thing to say to an old dragon, to convince it the cavern
would be in good hands.
"Can’t you just make it hotter, with your breath and all?" the man asked,
genuinely wanting to know.
"Yes, sort of, but that’s not really how it works." replied the dragon.
"You see, there’s this...", then it paused, irritated. "Look, we’re really
getting off-topic here." it said, drumming its fingers across an ornate
breastplate from some fallen hero, years ago. "Do we have a deal? Or,
shall we just go back to blasting away at each other until we both die of
boredom?" Traces of smoke puffed from its nose again.
The man thought about it, silently.
I should kill the beast, he thought. I should just kill the beast, return
to the village, and drink ale and mead until I fall into a stupor. They
will write songs about me. Good songs. Full ballads, maybe. That
merchant’s daughter might finally take notice of me. Or maybe her sister,
what’s-her-name. Gretchen, I think. Yes, Gretchen.
"Three sheep each month!" shouted the dragon, as the man left, the sound of
his footsteps fading.
"No, wait – four!!" it said, cupping its hand to its huge, leathery mouth,
its wings beating with excitement.
It was dawn outside. The man blinked, adjusting his eyes as he slowly
left the cavern, taking great care to watch where his feet fell on the
large, loose rocks. In his left hand, he carried his staff, absently
rubbing his thumb on one of the runes. In his right, he carried the
Better Helmet, upside-down, filled with gold coins of various degrees of
ancientness. Around his neck were far too many gold and bejeweled
necklaces. Slung over his back was an ornate chandelier.
He’s right, thought the man. Van der Meer is an ass.
© 2023 Paul Cesarini
Bio: Paul Cesarini is a Professor & Dean at Loyola
University New Orleans. He has been published in numerous venues over
the years, most recently including 365 Tomorrows, Antipodean SF, the
Creepy Podcast, and Sci-Fi Shorts. In his spare time, he serves as the
editor / curator of Mobile Tech Weekly.
E-mail: Paul Cesarini
Website: Paul Cesarini's
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