The Dragon’s Back Door
by D.A. D’Amico
Other TTTV stories by D.A. D’Amico
Surprisingly, it didn’t smell that bad at all. The odors wafting through the cramped chamber were somehow tasty, reminiscent of the great boar they’d roasted last Michaelmas. Andeanus could feel his stomach protesting, reminding him he hadn’t eaten since before he’d sneaked into the old monastery the dragon used as a lair.
A series of short barks echoed through the damp walls as Mycetophoclies, the little brown mouse hiding in Andeanus’ back pocket, clamored to be heard.
“Yes, I know,” Andeanus spoke to the agitated creature. “I’m going.”
Mycetophoclies had been ajitter since Andeanus had explained his plan to enter the dragon’s apartments. Mice weren’t that brave, but neither was Andeanus. The scariest thing he’d done lately was to pay his tab at the inn.
Mycetophoclies barked again.
“Enough!” Andeanus hissed. “Be quiet. Erebegone shouldn’t return for a while yet, but there’s no sense pushing our luck.”
The dragon, Erebegone, was most assuredly not at home. He might even now be devouring Andeanus’ know-it-all brother, Vaidd, who’d recently begun a foolish crusade to kill the foul beast. Let him try. It was common knowledge dragons were pretty nigh indestructible, and some harpoon launched from a bow wasn’t about to change that.
Andeanus did appreciate the distraction, though, for it was also common knowledge that dragons were like magpies. They hoarded shiny objects–and if the stories were true, Erebegone slept on a bed of gold coins, resting his giant scaled neck against bags of rubies, diamonds, and sapphires. Andeanus just wanted to fluff the monster’s pillow a bit.
So far, they’d found nothing.
“I think we’re almost there,” Andeanus whispered. “I see a glow around the next corner.”
Mycetophoclies signaled his accent with a short burst of barking, staccato pops that echoed from the walls behind Andeanus.
They entered a cavernous chamber. Dull moonlight unfolded from slit windows high along the walls. Assorted debris lay heaped and scattered over graceful pillars and what was once an ornate tiled floor. The smell of roast pig had changed to something decidedly less tasty. Andeanus scanned the floor, the walls, the corners, and every conceivable nook and cranny, but saw no treasure, nothing that even resembled the riches he sought.
“I think we’ve been lied to, my friend.”
The mouse barked.
Just then, a great dark shape loomed against the dim light, casting the chamber in nightmare shades of black. Mycetophoclies squeaked, for once abandoning his un-mousy bark. Andeanus stumbled. He realized all too well what that shadow must be. Erebegone had returned from his terrorizing of the local townsfolk, and although the creature may not still be hungry, he would undoubtedly be cranky if he caught sight of two intruders in his home.
Andeanus let out a shriek rivaling that of the mouse as the sound of scale rasping stone began echoing through the chamber. He scrambled in the direction he’d come, practically throwing himself over bales and mountains of scattered debris. His brother might be foolish enough to face a dragon head on, but Andeanus had only come for the money.
He misjudged a leap in the darkness, sliding up to his knees in a deep mound of foul smelling ooze. He gagged, vomiting a little, as he squelched his way out and continued his run for the secret back exit.
Mycetophoclies woofed, whined, and made little mousey choking sounds–all rather distressing as they came from Andeanus’ back pocket.
“I’m going, I’m going.” He slid around a dark corner and came up against the broken stone stairway that led to the hollowed-out tree.
Mycetophoclies circled the wooden charger nervously, his long whiskers making an occasional scratching sound against the near petrified block of Port-Salut cheese resting in the center of the plate.
“Stop pacing.” Andeanus sat on one edge of the rough straw pallet he used as a bed, his knees drawn up and his head tucked under his elbows.
It’d been a long, wasted night filled with danger and absolutely no profit. Whoever wrote those fairy tales about dragons should be fed to one. Treasure? There wasn’t even a rusty nail to bring home, but if he had found a nail, it probably would’ve been by stepping on it.
He glanced through the splintered sticks he used as shutters. Jaundiced light fell in greasy lumps, the flickering torches of outraged villagers. Erebegone had apparently caused quite a bit of trouble.
Mycetophoclies barked, and then let out a pained squeak as he chipped a front tooth trying to bite a sliver of the fossilized cheese.
“Sorry,” Andeanus said. “I can’t afford anything better.”
Bark… Bark… Bark…
“Yea, I know. If there’d actually been treasure, we’d be dining on Brea and venison right now.”
Andeanus leaned over and scratched the little brown rodent under the chin. He couldn’t really understand Mycetophoclies’ barks, and it wasn’t as if the mouse had magical powers or anything, but Mycetophoclies was the only friend Andeanus had.
“Stick with me, buddy. We’ll get rich somehow.”
Mycetophoclies wrinkled his pink nose. Andeanus did the same.
Something smelled worse than usual.
Andeanus sniffed, moving from corner to corner within the one room dwelling. He checked under a pair of his old socks, as stiff and pungent as the stone-solid cheese where Mycetophoclies perched. Then on top of his one piece of real furniture, a warped cedar closet his mother had left him. Still, he couldn’t find the stench. He lifted one arm, then the other. Both foul, almost unbearable–another month and he’d have to take a bath. Again, not the unfamiliar odor he pursued.
Then he glanced down.
His shoes, never in the best of shape, were caked with drying glops of blackish substance. It reeked of dragon. He remembered the enormous clod of dragon dung he’d so unfortunately tumbled into on his escape from Erebegone’s lair, and sighed. Not only did he find nothing of value, he’d managed to ruin one of the few possessions he owned.
“This just hasn’t been my night,” he said as he sat down next to the stone hearth and began scraping the foul detritus away with a twig.
Tiny flakes sparkled like miniature shooting stars as they fell into the flames, larger chunks bursting with rank smelling explosions. Andeanus amused himself as he worked, saving little mounds of the black powder to toss all at once into the fire. He’d just finished cleaning the last bit of dragon poop from his shoes when there was a knock on the door and Vaidd barged in.
“We almost had him, brother,” Vaidd grumbled loudly as he dropped himself onto the only chair in the small room. “I had three men pulling back on the bow, and still my harpoon wasn’t powerful enough to penetrate the dragon’s scaly hide. If only I had more force, a bigger bow…”
“Good for you,” Andeanus mumbled distractedly as he filled a thimble-sized clay jar with the remainder of the dried dragon dung. Mycetophoclies barked what might have been a hello.
“So close, brother, so close. Imagine, if I could be the man who killed Erebegone, the man who vanquished the last dragon. The king has already proclaimed a reward. Imagine.”
“I came close tonight as well,” Andeanus said with an ill-tempered sneer. He hadn’t told his brother where he’d gone. If there’d been treasure, he certainly wouldn’t have wanted to share it.
“Nothing.” He tossed a pinch of dragon scat into the fire. It flared beautifully, leaving a purple spot before his eyes.
“What’s that you’ve got there?” Vaidd leaned forward, his eyes bright pebbles reflecting the flickering of flame.
Andeanus dropped another smidgeon onto the hearth. It sparkled and fizzed. The glare reflecting off Vaidd’s wide eyes didn’t escape his notice. His brother was mesmerized.
“Smells like brimstone,” Vaidd said.
Smells like opportunity. Andeanus smiled. He poured a thin line of the black powder across the worn stones, and lit one end with a burning taper. It flashed in a curtain of golden flame. Vaidd clapped and giggled like a child.
“That’s amazing! Did you invent this? You’re a genius.”
Andeanus puffed with pride under his brother’s praises. “You can say I just stepped into the idea.”
“Well, you might have something great here.” Vaidd slapped him on the back. “This flashing and sparkling alone would make a fine show, and with a little more thought, well, who knows what you can come up with.”
Andeanus chuckled. Maybe his brother was right. Maybe this was just the thing that could make him rich. Dragons, essentially immortal, were fabled poopers. He’d have an endless supply, with no overhead. Figures started scrolling through his mind.
In all the excitement, he accidentally brought the clay jar too close to the flames. The trickle of powder escaping from its tapered end ignited, and the bottle jumped from his fingers. It sailed rapidly across the room. A streamer of white smoke marked its path as it exploded against the far wall, sending tiny sparks splashing across the floor as if it were raining stars.
Vaidd gasped. Andeanus winced, quickly checking to see if he’d set his house on fire.
“Do you have more of this stuff?” Vaidd’s voice had changed, become shallow. Wheels tumbled somewhere inside his thick skull.
“That was it,” Andeanus huffed as he ran his fingers over his scorched wall. He could never afford to repair this hovel if it were to burn down. He’d be a beggar, ruined if that happened.
“Can you make more–you must make more of this!” Vaidd grabbed Andeanus roughly by the shoulders and began shaking him. His brown eyes glittered like sparks from the burnt powder.
“Ok, ok…” Andeanus pulled himself from his brother’s grasp, rearranging his coarse blue tunic.
“Can you do it? Now?”
The last thing Andeanus wanted was to go back to the dragon’s lair. He’d have to wait for another of the creature’s infrequent outings.
“I can’t do it with a snap of my fingers.” He stalled, improvising. “It takes time. It’s a very slow, very secret process–and very expensive.”
He threw the last bit in as an inspiration. Maybe he could get his brother to front him a few coppers.
“Whatever it costs, I’ll pay it!” Vaidd paced the slate floor, his boots clicking as he walked. His hands worked nervously in arcane patterns, like a wizard casting a spell. The spell was, Andeanus recalled from their childhood, mathematics. Vaidd had always needed to count on his fingers. Now he seemed to be measuring something, counting money perhaps.
He stopped in mid stride, and spun. “I’ll need three casks. How soon can you concoct them for me?”
Three casks? That was a lot of poop, but Andeanus was certain the dragon could handle the output. Would he need to find a way of feeding Erebegone if the demand for the creature’s turd increased? He pictured a fatted dragon, round and flatulent, with huge heaps of wheat and livestock funneling into one end while he scooped endlessly at the piles that dropped from the other.
Providing food would cut into his profit, something to think about in the future.
“An order that large would take a few days, and I don’t have the money for supplies.” It was true. He couldn’t even afford to buy the small barrels, let alone a shovel, and he wasn’t about to scoop dragon crap barehanded.
“I’ll give you a gold coin if you can do it in two days.” Vaidd reached into his purse and rifled through his money. Andeanus watched from the corner of his eyes, noting at least five of the precious gold ovals. For some reason he suddenly found it hard to swallow.
“I can’t do it that cheaply.” Andeanus raised his hands in a gesture of apology. Inside, he giggled just a little. “Materials, labor, equipment, time–all these things require money. I’d love to give you what you want, but I’m not really running a charity. You know what it cost me to make that first small bit. Lots.”
Vaidd frowned. His dark eyes scanned the room. Andeanus could tell his brother was skeptical about Andeanus’ ability to come up with “lots” of anything. “Ok, I’ll give you two.”
Andeanus shook his head.
“Three gold pieces,” Vaidd countered. “One per cask.”
“Two,” Andeanus smiled.
“I already said two.”
“No, two per cask. Six total. I couldn’t do it for less.”
It grew very quiet in the small room. Not even Mycetophoclies barked. Vaidd scowled. He tore his purse from his belt and poured the contents onto the worn deal plank Andeanus used as a cupboard, dining table, and desk.
“There!” He grumbled, practically spitting with anger. “See, all I have. Five pieces!”
Andeanus counted. Five shining disks burned spots before his wide eyes; as well as one duller, silver slab, six little copper-colored pebbles, and an interesting and eclectic assortment of lint blobs in shades from grey to brown. Overall, it was more money than he’d seen in years. He decided he’d let Vaidd keep the lint, maybe.
Some part of him simmered, steeped in jealousy that his brother hadn’t had a few pennies to toss Andeanus’ way before this. Admittedly, their relationship, both familiar and financial, had suffered since an incident a few years back when Vaidd had given Andeanus a small lockbox to hold for him with instructions not to touch it. Andeanus had somehow accidentally found it opened one day (possibly an act of dark magic). Inside was a heap of coins, mostly copper, but quite a stash nonetheless.
Andeanus, overwhelmed and overcome by the shining metal (and under some kind of evil spell at the time), had temporarily borrowed the funds, hoping Vaidd would never find out. One thing led to another, and when Vaidd returned for the box there was no money left. Andeanus had promised to repay it, but they both knew how unrealistic that was. Their relationship had suffered ever since.
“I want it all,” Andeanus said flatly.
“This is all I have in the world,” Vaidd replied. “Leave me a little.”
“You want the powder?” Andeanus got up and circled the desk. His eyes never left the small stack of coins. He could feel warmth pouring from the gold even three paces away.
Vaidd’s face wrinkled, his brows condensing to hunched brown caterpillars on his forehead. Clearly, a struggle boiled just beneath his usually impassive features. Andeanus didn’t care. He knew his brother. Vaidd wanted this, wanted it badly.
“Six,” Andeanus insisted.
“I don’t have six.”
“Sure you do.” Andeanus allowed himself a sly smile. “We’re brothers. I know you, and I know you always keep a coin hidden in your boot for emergencies. I want that too.”
Vaidd sprang to the table, snatching up the coins and quickly stuffing them into his purse. “You’re crazy! I won’t do it!”
Andeanus shrugged and sat back down. “I couldn’t possibly make the powder for less.”
“Never mind,” Vaidd growled. “Good night.”
Andeanus shrugged again as Vaidd, furious, stormed out of the room. He glanced down at Mycetophoclies, who’d watched the entire transaction with expressionless pink eyes, and winked. The mouse let out a little hiccup-like bark.
“Three… Two… One…” Andeanus counted.
At one, Vaidd burst back into the room.
“Ok.” He tossed six brilliant gold disks onto the wooden table. “Make me three casks of your magic dust by tomorrow and it’s yours.”
Andeanus, his eyes aglow with avarice, simply nodded.
It took one gold coin to convince Sir Dunkin the Drunken, local lush, to tempt Erebegone into leaving his lair for the evening. Andeanus had had to explain the plan three times to the short, round ex-Knight before it’d sunk into the man’s mead-addled brain. Then it cost him nearly the same amount to buy a cow to use as bait, but he justified it as an investment.
The cow, a lovely little Ayrshire with gigantic trusting brown eyes, had licked his hand when he dragged her off to her fate. He felt a twinge of remorse then, but chocked it up to separation anxiety brought on by parting with so much money in so short a time.
He reminded himself he’d get the cow back. It had to come out the other end of the dragon eventually, and when it did, it would be in the form of sweet, stinky profit.
Mycetophoclies barked nervously the whole time they were in the dragon’s lair. Andeanus winced at the plaintive cacophony with every spade full of muddy, foul-smelling detritus.
“Shhh…” he hissed for the tenth time as he pounded the cover onto the last keg. The small wooden barrels had cost more than he thought, and the man who sold him the shovel had practically robbed him in the street. Overall, he’d spent a considerable portion of his profits just acquiring this first shipment. So much for his zero overhead theory. Thank God he’d asked for so much in the first place, otherwise he might not have been able to pull it off at all.
The next time he’d ask for more, much more. After all, he had the only supply.
Andeanus found Vaidd waiting in his home when he returned.
“Did you make what I wanted?”
“Of course, brother,” Andeanus smiled. “Would I cheat you?”
Vaidd’s eyes narrowed. In reply, he uncapped each of the casks, plunging a small knife to the bottom and then taking a lighted taper to a tiny sample from each barrel. When he was finally satisfied, he sat back and sighed.
“Thank you. It cost me everything, but I think it’ll be worth it.”
Andeanus frowned. Did Vaidd have another buyer? Was he reselling the powder? If so, maybe Andeanus should’ve kept it for himself, or in the very least have tried to get more money. His stomach started to sour at the thought that someone else might make a few coppers out of this. But he did have the only supply. That counted for something. Even if Vaidd were somehow reselling the stuff, he’d still have to come to Andeanus when he wanted more.
That’s when Andeanus would really clean up in the poop business.
The two brothers shook hands, and Vaidd loaded the casks on a small donkey-driven cart.
“By the way, brother,” Vaidd said as he hopped onto the wagon and grabbed the reins. “What do you call this magical substance you’ve invented?”
Andeanus thought for a moment. It hadn’t occurred to him to call it anything at all. It was what it was, dragon turd, but he couldn’t tell Vaidd that.
“I call it bumpowder,” he laughed, inspired.
His brother pursed his lips, and for a moment Andeanus thought he’d gone too far, said too much. Then Vaidd shook his head. “Is that Latin? Or French, I think? Bon odeur? Well, it certainly doesn’t smell very good.”
It smelled enough like money to Andeanus.
Andeanus awoke early to shouting coming from outside his window. He tossed the shutters open to find Bagoaf, the town crier, practically standing on his sill.
“What’s the commotion? What’s happening?” Andeanus asked, still a little blurry from a late night of reveling. He’d managed to drink, with the help of some very friendly new friends, nearly all of the remainder of his profits.
“Your brother Vaidd’s done it!” The large man smiled widely through thick parched lips.
“Done what?” Andeanus asked.
“Killed the dragon, killed Erebegone!”
Andeanus shook his head. Cobwebs still clung to his brain, because he thought he’d just heard the impossible. Dragons couldn’t be killed.
“He used some kind of magical spear, propelled on a streamer of flaming stardust.”
The powder! That was why Vaidd had wanted it so badly. Maybe Andeanus should’ve kept it for himself. Maybe he should have been the one to use it against Erebegone. But heroics were never really his thing, and he’d only consider risking his life if there was a sure way to profit by it.
His tongue felt like leather that had rubbed the wrong side of a sweaty horse. He spat into the street and squinted up at the brightening bruise-colored splotch in the east that signified the rising sun.
“So, what does he get?” Andeanus asked. “A medal from the King? What?”
Bagoaf smirked. “We’ll all be calling him Sir before the next morning, that’s all.”
“A Knighthood?” He turned his attention to Mycetophoclies, who’d also been roused from his tiny bed by the commotion. “Money, title, riches! And all because of my powder!”
The mouse barked sleepily.
“I know,” Andeanus said. “It should’ve been mine.”
Cheering erupted outside. Andeanus slammed the shutters so hard he cracked the wood, and then retreated grumpily to the smoldering embers of last night’s fire. Vaidd may have grabbed the glory this time with the use of Andeanus’ powder, but never again. Andeanus would bargain harder. Next time he’d make sure he got his fair share of the glory, plus a bit extra to make up for today. They’ll be calling his brother Sir Paysalot.
He smiled at that. Yes, that would even the scales.
The cheering became a tumult, shaking the very boards of his house. Occasionally, raised voices and trumpeting announced the progress of an impromptu parade in his brother’s honor. Andeanus tried to cover his ears, but the noises grew louder and louder.
Finally, in a storm of clapping and shouted accolades, his door flew open. Vaidd, already wearing the silver spurs and carrying, proudly, a shield emblazoned with a shooting star and a dragon, burst into the room like a conquering emperor.
“Brother…” he said with open arms. Andeanus could tell he was already a bit drunk, whether with mead or power, Andeanus wasn’t sure.
“May I help you?” Andeanus replied a bit testily. “Again.”
“Your powder was a success! Just the thing I needed. Erebegone is no more. The dragon is dead, and the villagers are even now burning its foul lair to the ground. I’m rich. I’m famous. I owe it all to you.”
“Then you’re here to share some of your new fortune with me?” Andeanus dared to be hopeful.
“Of course, brother.” Vaidd lurched drunkenly to the table, and spilled an enormous stack of gold coins across the dull wooden surface. Andeanus snatched greedily at the shining pile, but Vaidd dropped his shield like a lead weight over the money. He wagged his finger in Andeanus’ face.
“I need more powder,” he said. “Lots more.”
Andeanus’ eyes watered, tearing up as the precious metal vanished from his grasp. It left an impression on his retinas, and he imagined he could still see the glowing ovals through the harsh leather frame of his brother’s shield. He drooled at the thought of it all.
“Sure, as much as you want. Leave the gold. Come back later.” The dragon was dead, so a source of new poop was out of the question, but the creature had terrorized the surrounding countryside for years. There must be tons of the stuff filling the chambers of the old monastery. It should be more than enough to make Andeanus a very rich man.
An ominous rumble, like not too distant thunder, erupted outside. An earthquake followed, shaking the little shack so violently Andeanus feared the building would collapse around them. The table, with its cargo of gold, clattered like a pair of cheap wooden teeth. Mycetophoclies barked as the petrified wedge of cheese hopped about, intent on revenge. Then, after a jaw splitting crash, it stopped, flowing away like retreating rain.
“What was that?” Vaidd dusted himself off, eyes roving over the gold. He counted it to make sure Andeanus hadn’t absconded with any during the commotion, as if the whole event had been arranged in advance merely to steal some coins.
“A great explosion.”
“It came from the direction of Erebegone’s lair,” Vaidd said. “Could it be another dragon seeking vengeance?”
“On me, maybe,” Andeanus replied with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He fell heavily into his one chair. He knew where the explosion had come from, and knew what it meant. The villagers had set the old monastery ablaze, not realizing it contained tons of volatile powder, and destroyed his hopes of ever getting rich. He started to cry.
“So,” Vaidd asked, oblivious to Andeanus’ pain as he waved a hand enticingly over the table loaded with riches. “Do we have a deal, or what?”