A Goat and Ten Coins of Silver
By: Jason Nadler

A cold, dreary, thrashing rain dampened our spirits and soaked our clothes as we trod across the muddy field on the depressing, gray morning. There were fifty of us, cold, broken men, our bodies worn from months of endless battle, our bellies shriveled, our souls exhausted. Every one of us ached for our families, for the compassionate touch of a wife or the chuckle of a child. Any one of us would sacrifice ourselves for just one more home–cooked meal. We'd give anything to not have to fight men whose fealty belonged to another king. That we were enemies was the decision of those two men who ordered us to kill one another, because each of them believed they owned all that they could see. They waged their brutal wars to take from one another. It was like a game for them, parcels of land handed back and forth, the price of the trade the blood of their people.

The night before, we were selected. No drawing of lots, no chance of luck's intervention. While we shivered around the campfires last night, we learned that our names would forever be associated with bravery, with glory. We would win our King his victory. We were warriors, once. Now we are the weak, the wounded, the infirm. Over the last seven months, we slowly pushed our way across the border of Ariasland. The walled city, I'm told, was within sight, but no progress has been made since.

"Why us, ya suppose?"

I looked up at Gabe. He was a burly man with a lame right hand that was once capable of swinging the largest axe I ever laid eyes upon.

"'Cause when them Arias' soldiers see us, they'll die'a laughter."

That was Crank. Always good for a laugh. Blind in one eye left him unable judge where to throw his spear.

Several others voiced their opinions:

"Cheaper to pay our wives a gold bit when we's dead than ta pay us the pension they promised."

"Maybe they needs a diversion, ya know, let 'em think we're a threat an' then attack from the other side."

Then Wen spoke up. In a group of battle–hardened men, Wen always looked out of place. He was a slight fellow, fine–fingered. You have to be sixteen to join the King's army, fourteen if they force you, and not one of us believed Wen was even that old. He said he was forced because of a five–fingered loaf of bread. That is, he was a thief. That may be the law, but stealing food isn't stealing. It's a part of life. No one pilfers a meal unless there's no other way to afford it. An empty belly, unattended long enough, will drive any man to steal. Just ask any one of us.

"We're a sacrifice," Wen said.

"No kiddin'," Crank said. His hand splashed when he slapped Wen on his back. He winked at Wen.

"They have a dragon," Wen added. "We're keeping it busy."

"How 'xactly are we keepin' it busy? Wen, you're almos' as funny as Crank." Gabe chuckled.

Wen looked up, rain running down his smooth cheeks like tears. "There's two ways to take the fight out of a dragon," he said softly, his pitch high. "You can either break its spirit or fill its belly."

No one was arguing with Wen that they had a dragon. We'd all seen it, the dark shadow high above the battle field. It was big and ugly. When I was a kid and heard the word dragon, I pictured a giant snake with legs and wings that breathed fire. The first time the dragon flew over the battlefield, I was literally paralyzed with fear. We all were. Creatures of that sort of mythology, those unholy terrors, they'll twist a man's bowels and choke the life out of him with a stare.

Realization that our glory would come about in the belly of the beast, we gave ourselves over to the rain and kept walking. Going back wasn't an option. At least our families would hear we died in battle. Cowardice smeared a family name for generations.

By mid–afternoon, I could see the top towers of the Ariasland castle peeking over the horizon. The sun was burning brightly overhead, leaving us just as miserable as the rain. Our clothes were saturated, but now we were wet and warm. Streamers of steam drifted from the muddy ground, and we sweat in the humidity.

"I can' take it," Crank complained. He struggled off his boiled wool overshirt and stripped down to his bare, wet torso. He looked around with his one eye and laughed. "You all jus' keep sweatin'. If I've gotta face a dragon, I sure as hell'll do it comfort–like."

His logic become infectious. At first one here or there pulled off their clothes. Some stripped beyond their torso, content to march in small clothes. It was getting hotter and muggier, and it seemed crazier to stay dressed. Eventually every one of our fifty walked in some state of undress, everyone except Wen.

I asked him, "You're not hot?"

Wen shook his head.

"Come–on," Gabe shouted. "It's 'kay if ya don' have hair on your chest yet. We all know tha truth."

"Do you?" Wen stared at him, awaiting an answer.

Gabe nodded. "You ain't fourteen. Not yet." He looked around. "Not never gonna be now."

"Maybe," was Wen's reply. He kept walking, ignoring us.

"Come–on," Gabe repeated. "Show a little skin, you'll feel better."

Wen shook his head. "I burn fast." He pointed at the sun. "I'll blister right away."

Crank laughed, "I wunt worry 'bout the sun. Dragon'll burn us all plenty fast."

On Gabe's next insistence, I shouted, "Leave the kid alone!"

Gabe gave me a shove, nearly knocking me down. "Bookworm, I'm tryin' ta help the kid. What's yer problem w' that?"

"He doesn't want to," I insisted, "so leave him be."

"Aah, kid's embarrassed. That's all," Gabe said back.

I think both Crank and Gabe and the others really believed they were helping when they grabbed Wen and started pulling his over–shirt off. He struggled and screamed, kicking ferociously. They had him off the ground as they peeled his wet tunic off.

"Wen wa' you hurt?" Crank pointed at the wrapping around Wen's chest.

Wen stood there, all pink and bony.

"No," Wen replied.

"Then why you all wrapped," Gabe started to say.

Wen shouted an interruption, "'Cause I'm a girl!"

"What?" Gabe's shock was palpable.

Crank elbowed Gabe. "One day your pappa'll sit you down. Let's just say she ain't got a winkie."

"I know what a girl is," Gabe pushed back.

"Why," I asked, "did you hide it? If they knew you were a girl, they'd let you go." I looked to the others, "Wouldn't they?"

"Maybe," someone answered. "If she got caught thievin', she's lucky they thought she was a boy," said another.

Wen shook her head. She pulled her tunic on. "I didn't steal," she confessed. "My father tried to marry me off for a goat and ten coins of silver."

Crank laughed, "Guess you're re–thinkin' that 'bout now."

Wen shook her head. "Can any one of you, anyone, say I didn't fight as well as any man?"

Gabe blushed. "I'd say e'en better'n some."

Wen nodded. "So why shouldn't I be here instead of the wife of some fat, old man?"

Gabe's tone dropped. "'E was fat?"

Wen nodded. "I'm worth more than a goat? Aren't I?"

"At least two," Crank chuckled. "Not one among us 'spected you wasn't a boy. I'd say that's worth at least three goats."

"You're a jerk," Wen grinned.

I looked at her as we marched. Wen was a girl. A woman. How didn't we see it before? Looking at her, there was nothing else she could have been. It's not that she was pretty, not that she wasn't. Looks had nothing to do with what we felt for her at this moment.

"Are you seeing this through? None of us would say if you ran," I told her.

"If any of us survive," Crank swore, "we'll say you was et."

Wen looked at us. "I fought at your side for five months now. What's one more day?"

"But yer a girl," Gabe protested.

Wen stomped her foot. She glared at each of us in turn as she spoke. "I was a woman yesterday and the day before that, but none of you knew. I've fought at your side and none of you knew. Now you know and what, that makes me different? That makes me weaker than I was yesterday? I'm here 'cause I have nothing to go back to. I'm here because I wanted a new life, away from a place that lets my own father sell me. I was Wen yesterday and I'll be Wen tomorrow."

Crank was the only one with a reply. "Tomorrow? Tomorrow we'll all be dragon poop."

Wen growled. "That's not the point, Crank."

We knew the point. Wen had been at our side for months. We ate with her, we fought beside her. She was just as vulgar and violent and joyful as any of us. We'd seen her fight men twice her size, we'd seen her kill.

Gabe patted Wen's shoulder. "Girl or no girl, I for one'll fight at yer side." He stared a little too long and smiled when she glared at him.

She sneered, "What?"

"I ne'er knew you was a girl before. You din't look like one 'til I knew. You'll still fight like a man, though, right?"

Wen grinned. "Yeah."

"Good, 'cause the bookworm," he motioned to me, "'E's gonna need someone strong to protect 'em. 'E fights like a girl."

Wen smiled at me. "I know."

I couldn't argue the point. Before the war I was a student. I know how to read and write, not swing a sword. The only thing I'd proven good at was bearing our standard. Where we were going, we didn't need flags.

While we walked, the day grew warmer and the castle at Ariasland grew closer and taller. No one, not even our scouts had ever been this close before. There was no opposing army, no sign of a dragon yet, and the growing unease made the men talkative.

"D' ya remember that time during the Battl'a Frostland," Gabe asked of Wen, "when they broke the spearline?"

Wen nodded. It wasn't hard to forget. Maybe two months ago, it was the first time we were almost forced to retreat. The Ariaslanders broke through the front line of spearmen both in front and along the sides. Surrounded and outnumbered, we hoped reinforcements would come in time. It was brutal and bloody. It's when Gabe's right hand was crushed. Our cavalry arrived and pushed them back, but casualties were high.

Gabe looked at his lame hand. "They got me hand, and I was on me back, screamin' like a girl." He said to Wen, "No offense."

She shrugged it off. He continued. "I'm thinkin' I'm gonna die, there's two of 'em ready to stick me." His eyes were getting wet as he spoke. "I mean, there's times when a man thinks 'e's gonna die an' times when 'e knows. I knew. I was certain as heck. You remember what happened?"

Wen grinned. "I got one in the back."

"Yeah," Gabe said. "The other fella, he wrestled you to tha ground. Gave you that scar on yer temple."

Wen said, "I was face to face when he died."

"You saved my life," Gabe confessed to Wen. "You."

Wen shook her head. "Stop it already. I'm a girl, so what?"

"I can't stop thinkin' 'bout it, Wen," he told her. "I don' know what to think 'bout it." He rubbed his head. "It's like, if you hadn't been a girl and yer pappy hadn't tried to sell ya off, then what? I'd be dead."

"Maybe," Wen replied with a grin, "or the bookworm here would have run them through with his banner."

"Or read 'em to a bored death," Crank interjected, winking at me.

We all started to laugh. It was like old times, me and Crank and Gabe and Wen.

"You remember," Crank started to say, "that time when…"

The ground shook, knocking several men to their knees.

Everyone stood, frozen as the ground in front of us heaved. From a flat field of weeds and grass, a huge mound expanded upwards and outwards. Bursting out the top, spindle arms covered in thorns as big as a man's leg, emerged.

Someone screamed, "Dragon!"

Feelers came out next, like two reddish–brown sapling trees, these bent horrors felt the ground, making a horrible tap–tap–tap as they touched and moved, touched and moved.

The round head came next. At the back was a small rider, a man who held reins that wrapped those feelers. Beneath the rider's feet were large, honeycombed eyes, with a snapping maw between them. One long mouth opened sideways: two sharp, gnashing jaws, like serrated blades, each as long as a man. Another set of jaws, smaller, opened top to bottom. Someone said they saw it grab and eat two horses with their armored riders still trying to gallop away, in four bites.

It pulled itself the rest of the way out, six horrible legs held the creatures segmented body upright as translucent, veiny wings fluttered with that awful buzz, blowing dirt off. The bent legs held it closer to the ground, splayed, almost like an ant, but many times the size of a horse. It gave itself a shake, its tail section squirted a spray of liquid that roared into roiling flame. Its wings buzzed and mouth clicked and snapped. None of us had seen a dragon this close before – no one we knew had, and lived.

The group broke apart. Men dropped whatever they had in their hands and fled. Some screamed, some cried. I found myself alone, sick and frozen with fright.

The monster lunged, but it didn't attack, it reared its head around, having too many moving targets. The rider screamed and used a lance to stick the creature, demanding it attack.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her, Wen, standing beside me.

"Run," I hissed.

"What for? To go home a coward? Then my dad'll have to pay to have me married."

"I can't move," I confessed. "I think, I think I," I stuttered.

"I can smell you did," Wen said. I was too scared to be ashamed for soiling myself.

She started forward. One step, then another.

The dragon reared and nervously twitched about, tracking each fleeing man, but upon seeing Wen walking forward, its giant, round, gnashing head squared off to her. The rider ferociously prodded the beast with his lance, stabbing it again and again.

She turned back to me, and at that moment I knew, she didn't intend to come out of this alive.

Another step. Another step.

The beast hesitated. It launched another fiery spray in the air from its hindquarters. The wings buzzed, several quick, frightening, loud beats. Then it started backing away. The rider drove its lance in, nearly to the hilt. The monster twitched and thrashed momentarily, then held its own.

I don't know why I remembered what Wen said about dragons, but her words popped into my head. "There's two ways to take the fight out of a dragon. You can either break its spirit or fill its belly."

This was the Ariaslander's dragon.

Wen was nearly at the head. The giant feelers reached out and started slapping at her like switches. She held her hands up to them as they battered her. She clutched them, let the monster pull them back through her fists.

Its jaws snapped in rapid succession, making a purring sound. The wings beat, a softer buzz this time. The rider was screaming, threatening her. Wen ignored him.

Wen stepped closer. Was she going to climb into its mouth?

The dragon didn't seem to know what to make of this girl walking straight for it.

Under its eyes, Wen grasped what I mistook for a guard hair (it was covered with thorns and spikes and dangerous guard hairs), and with her foot against the dragon for leverage, wrenched the short, thick blade out.

Then the dragon did the darnedest thing. It turned and gave her the other cheek. She pulled out the other dagger.

The dragon settled down, resting its gigantic body on the ground with the thump of a felled tree.

For the first time, I was able to move. I turned and saw forty–eight men standing around me, staring in awe of the woman who just this morning was a man.

Wen grabbed onto the monster's guard hairs and scaled the beast, the rider turned to her and they grappled. This man was trained apparently to let the beast do his fighting, because Wen wrenched him off like she was uncorking a stubborn bottle. The beast lunged, snapping the rider in its mouth, those inner jaws feeding him into the maw in two quick bites.

Once she had the reins in her hands, Wen pulled the lance out of the beast's head and tossed it aside. The beast reared up and squirted a torrent of flame out it's back, its wings buzzing as it momentarily took to the air, blowing dust and dirt and all the dropped belongings in its wash.

The men around me cheered. They roared. "We'll return heroes," someone shouted. "Let's take the city ourselves!"

Wen settled the dragon down and looked at us. "This war is over," she shouted. "I will not fight for another king. It's time we claimed our own land and made our own rules."

The men cheered.

Crank shouted up at her, "King ain't gonna be 'appy to 'ear that."

Wen nodded. "I know," she said with a smile. "Let's go tell him."



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