Aphelion Issue 289, Volume 27
November 2023
 
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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 his watch.

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 step.

"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 thumb twitched.

"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?"

"Yes. Why?"

"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 I know."

"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..."

"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 alabaster statue."

"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 think."

"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 dragon.

"Rupert the Wise looks to be perhaps forty years of age, maybe. Possibly less."

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 forty 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.

What?"

"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 chest.

"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, wincing.

"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 village?"

"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 wonderful village?"

The man frowned again.

"The roads?" asked the dragon, knowing full well the answer. "The crops? The plague?"

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 there."

"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, right?"

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 both.

"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 dragon replied.

"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.

And yet…



******

"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.


THE END


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 Website

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