brni (brni) wrote,

Than A Peasant Scorned

In late December of the Year of Our Lad 2006, I posted an overly long essay in response to something Jay Lake had said in his blog. Rather than cluttering his blog with a multipage rebuttal, I just posted it innocently in my own. He found it, then posted a link to it, whereupon it spread like wildfire throughout a miniscule segment of Teh Intarwebs. On January 3rd, 2007, the inestimable Tom Smith, apparently inspired by a couple paragraphs of my essay, released the song Suit of Armor. You can find the relevant documents here:

And I thought to myself, I should write that story. Or, y'know, something like it. I never was real good at sticking to the script. Anyway, I hope it's at least half as enjoyable as the song.

Than A Peasant Scorned
by Bernie Mojzes

The impact shook Dennis out of bed. The sounds that followed—the splintering of wood and the scrabbling of giant claws, the rumbling reptilian hiss, Pogo's frantic barks and the panicked bleating of the sheep—pulled him off the floor where he'd fallen from his straw pallet and sent him running for the door.

Just in time.

The thing outside thrashed violently, and a thick tail smashed through the roof of Dennis's hut, thumping heavily against the pallet. Wood and thatch rained. The tail swept to the side and through the wall.

Dennis dove through the doorway as his hut collapsed entirely.

“So you see, Your Honor, by the Plaintiff's own admission, the damage to the Plaintiff's primary residence was caused entirely by the beast. And not, as has been alleged, by my client.” The fat man smiled his most sincere smile. Somewhere, milk was curdling. Somewhere, a young girl woke screaming as she dreamed that smile in the night. “A most unfortunate happenstance,” Lord Tertium continued, hooking his thumbs into his waistcoat and beaming contentedly. “I believe on that fact we can all agree. But one can hardly hold my client responsible for the wanton acts of destruction perpetrated by the Abomination, by which I mean the Dragon, and not, as one might suppose, the Plaintiff. My client's only crime, if one can call it a crime, is Love. Certainly his desire to save his betrothed's Virtue from a most foul and unnatural fate is both understandable and commendable.”

“I object!”

Lord Tertium blinked his surprise, and looked at the judge for guidance.

Judge Hardcastle smiled sadly at the woman who had spoken. “I'm afraid you can't, my dear. Only opposing council can object.”

She frowned, shook honeybrown hair from her eyes. “What's the use of being a goddamn Princess if I can't object to...” She took a deep breath, and then with a nod toward Dennis' solicitor, one Sylvester Lambert (Esquire), spoke through clenched teeth. “Fine. He objects.”

“What?” Sylvester Lambert (Esquire) looked shocked. “On what grounds?”

“All sorts of grounds! First of all, I never agreed to be his betrothed. That was my dad's idea. Something about a deferred dowry, if I remember correctly. Cheap bastard. Second of all, the entire Kingdom is, to my dear mother's eternal shame, fully aware that I haven't had a Virtue for some years now.” There was tittering from the back of the room, where the Queen's ladies sat behind their veils and fans. The judge banged his gavel. “Thirdly,” the Princess continued with a small smile, “there's nothing foul about it.”

The shocked silence that filled the courtroom was broken only by the Judge Hardcastle's frantic hammering.

A shadow fell across Dennis as he lay in the mud in front of the ruins of his home. He rolled over to find himself staring up into the beast's half-open mouth. Its head was as large as his torso, each of its wickedly sharp fangs as long as one of his fingers. Tufts of smoke blew from its nostrils, rolled from between its thin, reptilian lips. A forked tongue flicked out, tasting, blood red and hot on Dennis' face.

“Don't move.” It was a woman's voice.

The dragon opened its mouth wider. Deep within fires glowed. Dennis crabwalked backwards away from the beast as fast as he could. It took a step to follow.

“I said don't move!” The same voice, sharper, with a hint of anger. Dennis froze. So did the dragon. Then: “There, got it.” A thick length of freshly cut hemp rope thudded to the ground by Dennis' feet.

The dragon turned its head; Dennis' gaze followed. The dragon's right wing was partially outstretched. A cruelly barbed harpoon extended from the fleshy part of the wing; the rope attached to it had tangled around the wing, looped once around the beast's body and knotted around its hind leg. The most beautiful woman Dennis had ever seen tugged at the knots, trying frantically to work them loose.

“Bring your leg up a little,” she said. “Almost...Hey!”

The dragon twisted its serpentine body, turning toward the nearby woods. It watched the tree line intently. Small jets of flames shot from its nostrils.

“Too late.” The voice rumbled from deep within the beast. The woman pulled her dagger and sawed desperately at the dense fibers.

A moment later, Dennis heard the hooves.

Sylvester Lambert (Esquire) stood before the judge, stroking his wispy goatee. He turned to look at Dennis, and then at Sir Jonathan Stumpe, who sat uncomfortably in his formal chain mail, fingering the pommel of his sword. He turned back to the judge.

“While the damage to my client's home may have been caused by the dragon's unexpected landing in my client's field, your Honor, we are convinced that if not for the actions of the Defendant, the dragon would have harmlessly left his property, and indeed, all other properties of the Realm, in peace. The fact is that this particular dragon has never presented a danger to the Realm, whatever one might think of the...” Lambert coughed and reddened slightly. “Of his friendship with Princess Elinor.

“This man.” Lambert spun dramatically, targeting the Knight with an accusing finger. “This man is guilty not only of the total destruction of my client's farm. He is guilty of an egregious and unwarranted assault with murderous intent on an innocent person. In doing so, he set the stage for the wanton destruction of my client's livelihood.” He swept his arm toward Dennis. “Furthermore, he not only put my client's life at risk, he also endangered the life of the woman he claims to love, the very woman he is alleged to have been attempting to 'rescue.'”

Sir Jonathan leapt to his feet. “This is absurd! I'm a Knight! He's... It's a dragon! I'm supposed to slay it! That's what Knights do!”

Judge Hardcastle banged on his gavel. “Sir Jonathan, please have a seat.”

“I will not.” He drew his sword. “I am being slandered by a peasant, and by the vile dragon who has poisoned the mind of my One True Love, and this shall not stand. She was promised to me, and no beast, or peasant,” he spat the word, “will keep her from me.”

The Knight's lawyer touched him on the elbow. “John. Sit down.”

“Dammit, Edward! He's a damned peasant! I've got a reputation to maintain.”

“I know, John. But life isn't always fair. You can skewer the peasant later.”

“Step aside, fool!”

Dennis stared helplessly at the point of the oncoming lance. Pogo barked fiercely, but Dennis wasn't sure whether the sheepdog was warning away the dragon or the brightly armored Knight thundering down the muddy road on his steel-plated horse. He was absurdly aware of the intricate embroidery on the cloth tied to the lance's tip: Saint George's iconic slaying of the dragon. He wondered idly why he was able to reflect on the quality of the stitching, but couldn't force his feet to move. It seemed a particularly stupid way to die.

A great clawed hand swiped at him, knocking him aside, and the lance shattered harmlessly against the dragon's breast. The dragon belched flames. But too late: the horse, heavy with steel, was unable to stop; it crashed full speed into the dragon, and the dragon's flames went awry, igniting the dry thatch of Dennis' collapsed roof. Dennis watched in shock as dragon, horse and rider all toppled back onto the barn in a thrashing mass of claws and tails and hooves. The woman, tangled in the ropes, went with them.

Dennis's milk cow screamed, briefly, and then was silent. Three of his dozen hens escaped the rubble.

The horse fared no better. Its rider leapt aside (nimbly enough for a man carrying over a hundred pounds of steel) as the dragon's snapping jaws sought him. Instead, they closed on the horse's heavily armored body with a sickening crunch. The horse kicked a few times and was still.

Dennis stared in horror at the scene before him. The dragon lay on its back in the ruins of his barn, tangled in rope. In one claw it held the woman up above the wreckage as it tried to right itself. The dead horse dangled from the dragon's mouth. A dozen feet away, the Knight lay on his back in the field, trying to roll over so that he could get to his feet, while Pogo growled and worried at the Knight's gauntlet.

“Begone, pestilent creature!” The Knight tried to shake Pogo free, slapping at him with his free hand, but Pogo was not to be deterred. Every time the Knight tried to roll over, Pogo tugged at his arm until he was laying flat on his back again.

“A pox on you!” the Knight cried, and thrust his dagger into Pogo's throat. He rolled onto his belly and worked his way to his feet. Muttering angrily about fleas, he took the time to kick Pogo's lifeless body before stooping to retrieve the remains of his shield.

“The issue at hand, Your Honor, goes beyond the damage to my client's farm. The issue is the casual disregard with which the Nobility treats the peasantry. The peasants are the backbone of this great country. They grow the crops that feed us, raise the livestock that give us meat and milk and wool, spin the wool and weave the cloth that clothes us. They mine the earth for the coal that warms us in the winter and for the steel we use to defend the Realm. And yet our Nobles terrorize them, riding their horses across their hard-tilled soil. We tax them nearly to starvation, year after year. And their children? Woe to any pretty peasant girl who catches the eye of a Nobleman.”

Lord Tertium dabbed his face with a handkerchief, then waved it lazily. “Objection, Your Honor,” he said in a bored voice. “The land belongs to the Nobility, not the rabble. The peasantry is permitted to live there in return for their labor. The Nobility generously grants the peasants a portion of the fruits of the Noble's lands.” He shrugged. “It has always been thus.”

“Your client's actions, harpooning the dragon to bring it to ground, caused it to land on my client's property. This in itself caused massive destruction, but was, as you say, inadvertent. Certainly it could have just as easily have crashed into the nearby forest, or on some other man's land. But the Defendant's complete disregard for my client's life and property is inexcusable. He made no effort to safeguard my client, and then slaughtered his dog out of what cannot be seen as other than pure malice.

The Knight surged to his feet. “He's just a...”

Lord Tertium yanked hard at Sir Jonathan's sword belt. “Sit down! Now. And be quiet.”

“But.” Sir Jonathan lowered his voice. “He's just a goddamn peasant.”

“Hush.” The fat man rolled to his feet. “Your Honor, the Plaintiff has suffered no property damage. The land and everything on it belongs to Lord Osten, through edict of the King Himself. The Plaintiff has no claim whatsoever. Only the owner of the property may make a claim on its behalf, and Lord Osten has issued no such complaint against my client.”

Judge Hardcastle turned to Dennis. “What say you to this?”

Lambert smiled. He had anticipated this defense. “There is some precedence, Your Honor, regarding the disposition of the buildings and other material property that is not, strictly speaking, the land itself. In COMMUNITY OF MARXVILLE vs DUKE ALLISTAIR MC...”

The judge hammered him into silence. “I wasn't asking you, Mr. Lambert.” He stared hard at the peasant, who shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. “Dennis, what say you to this?”

Dennis swallowed. “He killed Pogo, sir. He killed my dog.”

The ensuing battle might have been comical, had it been sung boozily at the tavern. The dragon, hobbled as it was with the thick rope, was unable to lift a claw to pull the horse's body from its mouth without falling and crushing the Princess. It opened its mouth as wide as it could and shook its head, but its fangs were too deeply embedded in the horse's armor. The Princess, thoroughly entangled in the ropes, screamed English, Gaelic and French obscenities at the Knight. The dragon moved slowly, as if it were trying not to accidentally crush the Princess by pulling against the ropes.

The Knight's visor had been damaged in the fall, and half of the thin slits had been pressed together, further limiting his vision. The hinge of one knee in his armor was likewise damaged, forcing him into an awkward, straight-legged gait. He approached the dragon sideways, favoring the eye he could still use. The dragon turned its body so that it could swat the Knight with its tail, the only defense still left to it.

The smell of cooking horseflesh filled the air.

Two of Dennis' sheep were stepped on as the dragon was forced back through their pen. The rest fled in terror. The goats escaped as well, but they ran only as far as they felt was needed, which was exactly the distance to the blueberry bushes they had been coveting all summer. Ming, the billy goat, eyed the Knight's rump speculatively.

The battle continued this way for an hour or more. The Knight was unable to get close enough to strike a mortal blow, but was able to keep the dragon on the defensive, pushing it slowly through the fields, flattening the wheat, the barley, the onion and peppers and potatoes.

And then they headed toward the still.

Dennis gasped, then ran towards the smoldering ruins of his hut and grabbed the handle of his still-hot cast-iron pan. He hissed and dropped it, then stripped off his shirt and used it as insulation.

And then, frying pan held high, he crept carefully up behind the Knight.

“You know I would gladly have paid the damages to your farm,” said Elinor, as she walked at Dennis' side. “You saved Xthpregor's life, and maybe my own.” She laughed. “And you saved me the embarrassment of having to explain in a court of law why I was justified in having certain portions of the idiot who thinks himself my rightful husband-to-be sent to the taxidermist.”

“Thank you, Princess.”

She laughed. “Hardly a Princess anymore. You heard Mother. 'An embarrassment to the Throne,' my ass. She should be grateful that I've made such a scandalous distraction, after some of the things I've heard about...well, never mind that. It's all for the best.” She patted the donkey's rump as it labored beside them. “I didn't expect you to win.”

“I didn't either. Honestly, I expected to be executed for assaulting a Knight of the Realm. But I had to try.” Dennis took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “He killed Pogo.”

“I'm really sorry about your dog.” Elinor kissed him on the cheek. “I know you loved him.”

“I did. Who knew Judge Hardcastle was a dog lover, too?”

“Oh, that's just rumors.” She grinned wickedly. “You did well, though. Enough money to rebuild your farm, and John has to pay your tax this year, since he destroyed your crops. And of course the restraining order is important. But I never expected you to get the punitive damages you asked for.”

Dennis looked at the jumble of armor and weapons stacked haphazardly on the donkey's cart. “Maybe without all this junk he'll think twice before picking a fight.”

“Thinking isn't John's strong suit. So what are you going to do with it all?”

“Well, originally I was thinking of maybe selling it. But then I thought, maybe it'd be better to stick it on a pole in the middle of my fields, like a scarecrow.”

“A Scare-Knight! I love it!”

“May I ask you a question, Princess?” Dennis reddened preemptively.

“You can ask me anything.”

“When they were talking about virtue.” He cleared his throat. “I mean, your virtue. And the dragon.”

She smiled. “Oh, yes.”

“Oh.” Then: “What's the attraction?”

Elinor bit her lip and shrugged. “It isn't just their tongues that fork.”

“Ah.” Dennis looked away. “I can see how that might be hard to compete with.”

She laughed and slipped her hand into his. “Don't worry, I still like men, as long as they don't get all possessive and stuff.” She leaned her head on Dennis' shoulder. “I do believe that being a farmer's wife with a dragon lover shall be better in every conceivable way than being a Princess doomed to marry a Noble Nit-wit.” She watched Dennis through the corner of her eye. “If, you know, you want.”

Dennis considered for long seconds. “Yeah. Okay.”

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Tags: fictiones

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