The Dragon's Lesson

By Matthew Johnson

Child, why are you crying? Your first bleeding came this morning, and how many gifts did I give you to mark the day -- black stone bracelets carved smooth, and a silver necklace so fine a spider might have woven it. Yes, and now you have your own house, as a sister should, walls woven tight against the wind. What reason do you have for tears?

Ah, I see. No, it is no shame -- even a lion feels the bite of a fly, as we say. But you must understand, this is not a time for tears. Let me tell you a story -- no, you have not heard it before; it is not one of our stories, but was told to me by one of the Dead Men. Of course not. They wear veils to face their gods, as we do; only their god is the sun, and he is everywhere, so they must go veiled whenever they are outside. Beneath they are as alive as you or me. Some are even handsome -- and better lovers than our men, I can tell you.

Do not look so shocked, child. You are a sister, now, and must learn to deal with men. In truth the Dead Men are not so frightening; they are more like sisters than our men are.

This story is of a man named Ramaad -- I do not know, it is a word in their language. The Dead Men do not live like us. Their men and women live in houses together, and they have many houses built together in large camps. Ramaad was the son of a trader, but his father was not wealthy, and Ramaad knew he would not be given any trading goods when he left home. He had only his friend Yas'al to help him, but he was no better off. His father Inkasar had once been a wealthy trader, traveling far from his home in Akhaduu and returning with the rarest goods, but had somehow lost it all; now he was even poorer than Ramaad's father, with nothing to trade but the old stories he had heard, for which the other Dead Men in their pity gave him just enough food to live. So Ramaad and Yas'al, as they grew, would spend many hours together around Yas'al's fire, planning the trading journeys they would someday make and listening to Yas'al's father tell his stories. To Yas'al they were nothing but a poor old man's ramblings, but Ramaad listened carefully, for his father had told him Inkasar truly had been to all those far places. There was one story especially that Ramaad remembered: a tale of a creature called a dragon that flew all over the world, and would bring great riches to anyone who killed it.

The day came when the two boys were old enough to start on their trading journeys, but Yas'al had to stay at home with his father, whose health was failing; so each of them vowed "I love you like salt" -- which is the strongest oath the Dead Men have to swear by, since nothing is any good without salt -- and pooled all they had, and it was Ramaad alone who left the village. He took their goods and traded well, returning each season to share what he had gained with Yas'al, and also the stories he had heard -- for stories may bring food to a toothless mouth, as he well knew, and everywhere he went he would trade the stories he knew for others. One story, in particular, he hoped to hear more of. Yes, that one. You're right, that is just what he thought; but for a long time he could learn nothing more, and he began to think that this story, at least, Inkasar had simply invented.

Years passed, and Ramaad and Yas'al became used to their arrangement; so much so that when Inkasar finally died, Yas'al did not join Ramaad on his journeys, as he had always said he would, but remained at home and took care of their affairs in Akhaduu. Ramaad continued his journeys, slowly building their stock of goods, taking only small risks and keeping them always one step ahead of hunger.

One day, while on a journey far from home, Ramaad heard of a man who was said to know something about dragons. The man lived several days' travel off his route, but Ramaad had never forgotten the story Inkasar had told, and calculated that he could make the journey and still come out ahead on his trades. He made the trip only at night, for fear someone might follow him, and when he reached his destination found only a small hut, which he thought at first must be abandoned, as there was no fire within. Still he went inside, hoping he might somehow recoup his losses, and found there an old man so badly crippled it was a wonder he could feed himself. His legs were missing, and one of his arms, and when Ramaad saw the scars of fire on the man's face and body he knew why the hearth was cold.

"Why do you disturb my pain?" the man asked, turning his sightless eyes towards the door.

"Forgive me," Ramaad said. "I came because I heard there was a man here who knew of a creature called a dragon, but I did not mean to disturb you."

"All you need to know you see before you," the man said. "Do you hope the dragon will make you rich?"

"Yes," Ramaad said.

"I am rich. Do you see the necklaces I wear?" the man asked, pulled down his robe to show the white scars that crossed and recrossed his neck. He waved his broken fingers at Ramaad. "Do you see my rings?" he said. "Lead me outside, then, where the sun will look on our bargain, even if I cannot."

Ramaad took the old man's arm, gently, and led him out of the hut. The sun was just rising, and the man flinched as its light touched his face.

"Will you tell me of the dragon?" Ramaad said. "I will pay you, if I can."

"Give me all that you have, and I will tell you of the dragon." The old man said. "Does that seem too much? If I tell you, and you succeed, you will not need the meager things you have; if I tell you and you fail, you will not need them ."

"Very well," Ramaad said, and he took up all his goods and laid them on the door of the hut. "Tell me what you know."

The man twisted his ruined mouth into what might have been a smile, and began to tell his tale. "Today, as you know, all things living are either animals, made of flesh, or plants, made of wood; but in the beginning there lived also beasts made of stone. Dragons are the last of these. There are few of them left, and they roost only in the highest of mountains, to hide from those that would hunt them."

"How can they be killed, if they are made of stone?" Ramaad asked.

"Though their skin cannot be pierced or their bones broken, still they have a weakness," the man said. "When dragons were born the world was much hotter, so now their blood is always cooling in the air; their hearts must burn with fire to keep it from turning to hard rock. Still they drink water, as all things do, and some of that water turns to steam in their hearts; so they have a hole in their backs, like the spout of a kettle, where it is released. If you can block that hole the steam will have nowhere else to go, and it will kill the dragon."

"And the treasure?" he asked. "Where does the dragon keep it?"

"The dragon is the treasure," the old man said. "When the dragon dies his teeth become diamonds, his bones turn to gold, his heart to rubies, his flesh to rock and his brain to iron; his blood, most precious of all, becomes veins of the purest salt. The dragon, in death, is a mountain of riches, and all mountains were dragons, once."

Ramaad thanked the old man and started the journey back to his trade route, leaving all but his skin tent and water gourd behind. He wondered how he would explain this foolishness to Yas'al, who had always thought his father's stories were nonsense. He consoled himself with the thought that he would not have to face that question for a while; it would take at least a season of working another trader's caravan to recoup his losses.

Still, as he looked back angrily at the old man's hut, he saw a range of mountains in the distance, and he set his mind -- better to be a fox in the grass than a dog by the fire, as our men say. He turned back and set out for the mountains, trading as he went the few things he had left for food and water. On he went, though the air grew cold and the ground broken and stony; up he went, though the air grew thin and cold, and each step drew his breath right out of his lungs.

Finally Ramaad could push himself no further. Again repenting his foolishness he fell to the ground and beat himself about the face, as the Dead Men do, when a shadow passed over him. Looking up he saw the shape of great wings above, larger than he had thought possible, and a faint ember of hope rekindled in him -- though it was dashed almost at once, as he realized that to have any hope at all of killing the thing he would need to strike it from above. Still, passed water is good as beer in the desert, as we say. Gathering the last of his strength he climbed still higher, until at last he was able to see the monstrous thing just a few throws above him, its skin glowing red like a rock in a campfire. Now he remembered the old man's scars and burns, and he was afraid, and hid himself in a hollow in the rock and watched the dragon circling outside. The very sight of it was terrifying, but he forced himself to watch for the jet of steam the old man had described; sure enough, after a few moments it rose, coming from a hole just a bit larger than a woman's head. It might as well have been as big as a house, though, since he had no way to block it, and anyway no hope of reaching it from where he was. He cursed himself for not asking the old man what he had done -- even though it had plainly failed, it might have given him an idea to start with. As he thought on that, he remembered the man's scars and burns, and suddenly it came to him how the old man had attacked, and why he had failed, and he knew what he, in turn, must do.

Ramaad came out of his hiding-place and stepped carefully to the ledge. The dragon was still circling, now a few throws higher, now lower. Gathering up all his courage, Ramaad waited until the dragon was as close as it ever came and jumped. It was too big to miss, but its back was scalding hot and as smooth as palm leaves; he landed on its neck and slid down its back, towards the steam-vent. A white plume shot out as he approached. This, Ramaad thought, must have been where the old man had failed, falling into the vent and being burned himself. Ramaad gripped the dragon's stony back with all his strength, feeling his fingernails torn out by the roots, and stopped himself before he was close enough to be scalded. He waited until the next jet came, close enough to soak him through with steam, then took his water-gourd and rammed it into the vent, pushing it down until he felt the beast's muscles close around it. Immediately he could hear a rumbling down below, as the pressure started to build, and he let go of his grip and slid down the creature's back and tail, finally falling off and landing on a rock ledge a dozen throws below. Above, the creature was starting to twist itself frantically, its great head straining to free the vent in its back. Ramaad, too badly hurt to move, lay still as he watched the dragon's death throes. Finally the thing froze, and fell with a mighty crash to the ground below.

For a day and a night Ramaad lay there, burnt and broken, wondering if everything that had happened might be a fever dream. Finally, knowing that he would die soon if he did not have anything to drink, he rose and made his painful way back down the mountain. When he reached the bottom he found a stream, and drank from it gratefully; to his amazement, the water was almost hot enough to burn his mouth. He followed the stream to its source, found it in a cave hung with glittering jewels. This, he realized, must have been the dragon's head, and as he walked inside he saw all of the treasures the old man had described.

"I have beaten you, old man," Ramaad thought to himself as he chipped from the rock the tiniest of diamonds, which by itself was worth all the goods he had traded away. "For you killed the dragon, but could not take his treasure; I have done both."

Even in his victory, though, Ramaad knew he had more work to do. If the other people of Akhaduu knew about his sudden wealth they would surely take advantage of him, or else think he had become a sorcerer and kill him for it. Even Yas'al, he thought, he had better not tell, for he had his father's storytelling ways and many long nights to pass when Ramaad was away. How, then, could he use his treasure? At length he thought of the answer. He would take a little at a time -- start with the salt, he could say he had gotten a good deal on it -- and bring a little more back with him each trip. So long as he did it gradually no-one would be suspicious. He would simply be a skillful trader, building a stock that would soon let him and Yas'al bring gifts to their women to bear children on them.

Yas'al was not inclined to ask questions when Ramaad came back with a load of salt, the purest anyone in Akhaduu had ever seen, and for a few days the two were the most honored men in the town -- for the Dead Men value nothing better than a good trade, and it was clear Ramaad had done very well indeed. The two of them traded away much of the salt, as is customary for those who have received good fortune, to entertain their friends. Still, they had enough -- more than enough; Ramaad had not been able to restrain himself entirely -- and it was a long time before he felt the need to go on another voyage.

Ramaad went back out on his regular route, but once he was far enough away that he would not be seen he went back to the dragon and got another load of salt, a little more this time. Again he was honored by the men of the town, but this time Yas'al did not quite share in the honor; indeed the townspeople were starting to say he was living off of Ramaad's charity, just as his father had lived off theirs.

"It is only because I had to stay here in town that they honor you and not me," he said to Ramaad. "Let me come on the next trip, so we can share the work and the reward."

"I need you here to trade our goods when I am away," Ramaad said.

"But we could carry twice as much if I came."

"Without someone to watch our stores the salt would surely be stolen."

"Then let us dissolve our partnership," Yas'al said; for he had been very hurt by the mention of his father. "Give me my half of the salt as a stake, and I will trade with it myself."

Ramaad did not want that either, because he was afraid Yas'al would try to follow him to the source of his treasure, so he said, "I swore I loved you like salt, and you swore the same to me. That is a vow that cannot be broken. Remain."

Mention of their oath seemed to remind Yas'al of his good fortune, and he said nothing more on the matter and let his friend go on his journey alone. When Ramaad returned with another load of pure white salt, though, it seemed to Yas'al that the jokes about him had grown louder, while the townspeople's admiration for Ramaad grew ever greater, and it choked him like a date pit in his throat. He too was clever, though in his own way (which was much like his father's), and he devised a way to get Ramaad to share his secrets. He waited until they were again entertaining friends, drinking jug after jug of honey beer; he had filled his own jug halfway with water, though, to keep his wits about him while Ramaad drank his fill. Then, pretending to be drunk, he said to his friend, "Ramaad, I have never regretted the oath we swore together. From that day to this I have loved you like salt."

Ramaad, who was truly drunk, was happy to share Yas'al's good mood. "I, too, love you like salt, my friend," he said.

"Then, my good friend, tell me where it is that salt you trade for comes from, since you love it no more than you love me."

Ramaad knew he had been tricked, but he could not go back on his oath. "Here is the secret," he said. "I do not trade for it. I found it in a cavern far away, and when I travel I mine some more of it to trade back here."

"I knew it!" Yas'al said. "Ramaad, next time you go you must let me come with you, so I can share in the glory of your 'trading.'"

Ramaad reluctantly agreed, and the next time he left Yas'al came with him, and the two of them mined a great deal of salt. Still, there was much left, and Ramaad began to feel he had been foolish in keeping the secret from Yas'al -- though he did not tell him the rest of the secret, or about the rest of the treasure.

Now that he knew where the salt came from Yas'al was less reluctant to trade it than he had once been; instead he began to pay off his father's debts (which no-one had ever thought he would do), and entertain his friends every night, and buy gifts for a dozen women, until Ramaad said to him, "Remember our days of poverty, and how they ended; these days, too, may yet end."

But Yas'al, who had seen the salt cave, said, "There is enough salt there to last us the rest of our lives, and our children and grandchildren too."

Ramaad could not deny it; but still he felt uneasy. He could not say exactly why until the next time he happened to be trading the salt, for a new robe, and the tailor said, "I'll take one stonesweight for it."

"For that I should get a tent," Ramaad said. It was true: before slaying the dragon, he had never even seen a stonesweight of salt.

"That's my price," the tailor said. "Take it or leave it."

Grumbling, Ramaad accepted the man's offer, for he needed a new robe before he feasted his friends that night. When he went to buy the beer, though, he found the brewer wanted a stonesweight of salt a cask; the butcher wanted the same amount for a roasting calf.

"Do you see what is happening?" Ramaad said to Yas'al when he saw him that afternoon. "Everyone in Akhaduu has salt now; half of them trade in it themselves to other towns. If we keep spending it as we have, soon it will take a dozen stonesweights to buy a cask of beer."

"Even if it does, we will still be rich," Yas'al laughed. "And so will all our friends and neighbours."

Once again Ramaad felt angry for having given up the secret of the salt to Yas'al, but he knew he could do nothing about it. He decided instead to start to mine the gold -- he had thought he might start doing that soon anyway, though not for this reason -- but not to tell Yas'al where it came from; oath or no, he could not risk losing control of that as well. So he set off in the opposite direction from the cave, telling Yas'al he missed the trading life, and went in a long circle to get back to the cave without Yas'al knowing. Then he mined a tiny amount of gold and came back to Akhaduu along the same slow route.

With the gold they were rich again for awhile, but soon Yas'al became jealous once more -- as your sisters were jealous of you, today; to each of them I gave gifts when they first bled, but today was your day, and they envied you that. We say that the sun does not know its luck at noon, and so it was with Yas'al. He started to wish ill on Ramaad, even though it would harm himself as well. Ramaad, meanwhile, was on his guard, not eating or drinking with Yas'al, for fear he might be tricked again, and this made it all the easier for Yas'al to betray his friend.

Yas'al knew he would never get Ramaad to tell him the source of the gold, so instead he went to all the other merchants of Akhaduu and told them, "Ramaad is only teasing you with the gold he trades. Raise your prices and you will see a mountain of it."

"Are you mad?" the butcher said. "Already I have seen more gold than I would in a year."

"Besides," the tailor said, "he knows we do not have gold. He will not believe us when we ask for more."

"He doesn't have to," Yas'al said, "so long as you all agree to raise your prices. Then he will have no choice to meet them or leave his home."

So when Ramaad came back, he found that his gold was worth no more than his salt, and he was angry again at Yas'al -- though his friend swore that he did not know where the gold had come from. Before long Ramaad's gold was gone, and he had to go back to the dragon again; this time he was more careful than ever, buying Yas'al gourd after gourd of beer the night before he left to be sure he would be too drunk to follow him, but still when he returned the merchants acted as though they had all the gold they needed and no desire for any more.

"This is mad," Ramaad said. "Yas'al must have been mining the gold and spending it, the way he did with the salt. Now it is worth next to nothing, but I cannot start to mine any of the other treasures, or the same thing will happen to them."

So Ramaad started spending as little of his gold as possible, no longer buying gifts for women or beer for his friends; so, too, did Yas'al, since of course he had nothing to trade with but the salt, which was now next to worthless. The other merchants of Akhaduu enjoyed the gold they got from Ramaad, but when he stopped spending it found that everyone they dealt with -- even the camelteers they relied on to get their goods in and out of town -- had raised their prices, having heard how much gold they had; but now the gold was gone, and they could barely afford to do business at all.

"This is all Yas'al's fault," they said. Greed bites like a fly, but brings anger instead of sleep, as we say, and it surely had bitten them. All the merchants of Akhaduu waited until Yas'al was asleep then broke into his house, setting it afire and binding him hand and foot.

"What is going on?" he called out when he realized what was happening. "All of you are my friends! Have I not bought meat from you? Yes, and beer from you? Did I not tell you how to get Ramaad to give you more of his gold?"

"Yes, and you told the camelteers how to get more from us!" the butcher shouted.

"How much did they give you?" the brewer asked.

"What?" Yas'al cried as the flames licked his feet. "No, no -- I have nothing, it must have been Ramaad. Look around -- do you see any gold here? He kept it all, piled high in his house."

Angry as they were, the men of Akhaduu were greedier still, and the vision of Ramaad's walls piled high with gold drew them like jackals to carrion. They freed Yas'al and let him lead them to Ramaad's house, whose wall they also broke down. Ramaad, though, had been awakened by their coming, and said to them, "What are you doing here, breaking down my wall? Are you thieves or murderers, men of Akhaduu?"

"You are the thief," said the cooper. "Now the camelteers and the men from other towns demand gold from us, while you keep it all for yourself."

"They demand it because you gave it," Ramaad said. "If you had kept it close and precious -- " he looked then at Yas'al, who turned away -- "it would still be gold, and salt would still be salt; instead both of them are dirt."

His words were wise, but the men too swollen with gold-fever to listen. Instead they bound him as they had Yas'al and started to tear his house apart, and burn it, and dig in the ground, looking for the gold they thought he had; but they found none.

"Where is the gold?" they asked. "Is it hidden here, or do you sorcel it from stones?"

At those words Ramaad's anger gave way to fear, because in those places a sorcerer is burned if found out, and the fires were very near. He told them about the little sack buried beneath the roots of a date tree outside his house, where he had kept a gold necklace he hoped to give a woman one day -- yes, just like the one I gave you this morning. With those words they rejoiced and dug it up, but when they found it said, "What, did you think we would believe this is all the gold you have, after all you have given us? Tell us where the rest is."

"Truly, that is all that I have," Ramaad said. "Take it and leave me in peace."

But they would not take it, and they would not go in peace; they were maddened like bees whose hive has been destroyed, and when they had torn his house apart and dug up every part of his floor they turned again to him and said, "Do you think we want this little bit of gold? Take it and keep it forever!" They took the necklace and held it in the fire, until the gold began to soften with the heat, and then they tied it around his neck, so it burned its shape on his skin. Then, to show that he was no longer a man of Akhaduu and a trader, they blinded him in one eye -- for you need two eyes to see things far away, as a trader must -- and hobbled one of his legs, so he could no longer travel, and broke all the fingers in his right hand, so he could no longer bargain. Then they left him there, to live in the hut he rebuilt with his ruined hand, and to wait for the man he knew would someday come to ask him about dragons.

Well, that is the story. How do you feel now? Still? Well, tell me, what lesson do you think you are to take from it?

Ah, I see. That is the lesson the Dead Men take from it, Ramaad's lesson. But we take another lesson. It is the reason why I, the richest mother in our village, wear wooden bracelets and live in a simple hut, while all my sisters wear gold. It is the reason why I let your sisters beat you after your blood came, and take away all those gifts I gave you, and leave you here crying.

The lesson we take is the dragon's lesson, and it is this: never be worth more dead than you are alive.