23,685
07.03.2019

"It just pays to think things through first, that’s all I’m saying. Such as, what happens even if we beat the dragon?”

“Oh, come on!” said Sergeant Colon.

“No, seriously. What’s the alternative?”

“A human being, for a start!”

“Please yourself,” said the little man primly. “But I reckon one person a month is pretty good compared to some rulers we’ve had. Anyone remember Nersh the Lunatic? Or Giggling Lord Smince and his Laugh-A-Minute Dungeon?”

There was a certain amount of mumbling of the “he’s got a point” variety.

“But they got overthrown!” said Colon.

“No they didn’t. They were assassinated.”

“Same thing,” said Colon. "I mean, no-one’s going to assassinate the dragon. It’d take more than a dark night and a sharp knife to see it off, I know that.”

I can see what the captain means, he thought. No wonder he always has a drink after he thinks about things. We always beat ourselves before we even start. Give any Ankh-Morpork man a big stick and he’ll end up clubbing himself to death.

“Look here, you mealy-mouthed little twerp,” said the first speaker, picking up the little one by his collar and curling his free hand into a fist, “I happen to have three daughters, and I happen to not want any of them et, thank you very much.”

“Yes, and the people united . . . will . . . never .. .be …”

Colon’s voice faltered. He realised that the rest of the crowd were all staring upward.

The bugger, he thought, as rationality began to drain away. It must have flannel feet.

The dragon shifted its position on the ridge of the nearest house, flapped its wings once or twice, yawned, and then stretched its neck down into the street.

The man blessed with daughters stood, with his fist upraised, in the centre of a rapidly expanding circle of bare cobbles. The little man wriggled out of his frozen grasp and darted into the shadows.

It suddenly seemed that no man in the entire world was so lonely and without friends.

“I see,” he said quietly. He scowled up at the inquisitive reptile. In fact it didn’t seem particularly belligerent. It was looking at him with something approaching interest.

“I don’t care!” he shouted, his voice echoing from wall to wall in the silence. “We defy you! If you kill me, you might as well kill all of us!”

There was some uneasy shuffling of feet amongst those sections of the crowd who didn’t feel that this was absolutely axiomatic.

“We can resist you, you know!” growled the man. “Can’t we, everyone. What was that slogan about being united, Sergeant?”

“Er,” said Colon, feeling his spine turn to ice.

“I warn you, dragon, the human spirit is-”

They never found out what it was, or at least what he thought it was, although possibly in the dark hours of a sleepless night some of them might have remembered the subsequent events and formed a pretty good and gut-churning insight, to whit, that one of the things sometimes forgotten about the human spirit is that while it is, in the right conditions, noble and brave and wonderful, it is also, when you get right down to it, only human.

The dragon flame caught him full on the chest. For a moment he was visible as a white-hot outline before the neat, black remains spiralled down into a little puddle of melting cobbles.

The flame vanished.

The crowd stood like statues, not knowing if it was staying put or running that would attract more attention.

The dragon stared down, curious to see what they were going to do next.

Colon felt that, as the only civic official present, it was up to him to take charge of the situation. He coughed.

“Right, then,” he said, trying to keep the squeak out of his voice. “If you would just move along there, ladies and gentlemen. Move along, now. Move along. Let’s be having you, please.”

He waved his arms in a vague gesture of authority as the people shuffled nervously away. Out of the corner of his eye he saw red flames behind the rooftops, and sparks spiralling in the sky.

“Haven’t you got any homes to go to?” he croaked.

The Librarian knuckled out into the Library of the here and now. Every hair on his body bristled with rage.

He pushed open the door and swung out into the stricken city.

Someone out there was about to find that their worst nightmare was a maddened Librarian.

With a badge.

The dragon swooped leisurely back and forth over the night-time city, barely flapping its wings. It didn’t need to. The thermals were giving it the lift it needed.

There were fires all over Ankh-Morpork. So many bucket chains had formed between the river and various burning buildings that buckets were getting misdirected and hijacked. Not that you really needed a bucket to pick up the turbid waters of the river Ankh- a net was good enough.

Downstream, teams of smoke-stained people worked feverishly to close the huge, corroded gates under the Brass Bridge. They were Ankh-Morpork’s last defence against fire, since then the Ankh had no outlet and gradually, oozingly, filled the space between the walls. A man could suffocate under it.

The workers on the bridge were the ones who couldn’t or wouldn’t run. Many others were teeming through the gates of the city and heading out across the chilly, mist-wreathed plains.

But not for long. The dragon, looping and curving gracefully above the devastation, glided out over the walls. After a few seconds the guards saw actinic fire stab down through the mists. The tide of humanity flowed back, with the dragon hovering over it like a sheepdog. The fires of the stricken city glowed redly off the underside of its wings.

“Got any suggestions about what we do next, Sergeant?” said Nobby.

Colon didn’t reply. I wish Captain Vimes were here, he thought. He wouldn’t have known what to do either, but he’s got a much better vocabulary to be baffled in.

Some of the fires went out as the rising waters and the confused tangle of fire chains did their work. The dragon didn’t appear to be inclined to start any more. It had made its point.

“I wonder who it’ll be,” said Nobby.

“What?” said Carrot.

“The sacrifice, I mean.”

“Sergeant said people wouldn’t put up with it,” said Carrot stoically.

“Yeah, well. Look at it this way: if you say to people, what’s it to be, either your house burned down around you or some girl you’ve probably never met being eaten, well, they might get a bit thoughtful. Human nature, see.”

“I’m sure a hero will turn up in time,” said Carrot. “With some new sort of weapon, or something. And strike at its voonerable spot.”

There was the silence of sudden intense listening.

“What’s one of them?” said Nobby.

“A spot. Where it’s voonerable. My grandad used to tell me stories. Hit a dragon in its voonerables, he said, and you’ve killed it.”

“Like kicking it in the wossnames?” said Nobby, interestedly.

“Dunno. I suppose so. Although, Nobby, I’ve told you before it is not right to-”

“And where’s the spot, like?”

“Oh, a different place on each dragon. You wait till it flies over and then you say, there’s the voonerable spot, and then you kill it,” said Carrot. “Something like that.”

Sergeant Colon stared blankly into space.

“Hmm,” said Nobby.

They watched the panorama of panic for a while. Then Sergeant Colon said, “You sure about the voonerables?”

“Yes. Oh, yes.”

“I wish you hadn’t been, lad.”

They looked at the terrified city again.

“You know,” said Nobby, “you always told me you used to win prizes for archery in the army, Sergeant. You said you had a lucky arrow, you always made sure you got your lucky arrow back, you said you-”

“All right! All right! But this isn’t the same thing, is it? Anyway, I’m not a hero. Why should I do it?”

“Captain Vimes pays us thirty dollars a month,” said Carrot.

“Yes,” said Nobby, grinning, “and you get five dollars extra responsibility allowance.”

“But Captain Vimes has gone,” said Colon wretchedly.

Carrot looked at him sternly. “I am sure,” he said, “that if he were here, he’d be the first to-”

Colon waved him into silence. “That’s all very well,” he said. “But what if I miss?”

“Look on the bright side,” said Nobby. "You’ll probably never know it.”

Sergeant Colon’s expression mutated into an evil, desperate grin. “We’ll never know it, you mean,” he said.

“What?”

‘ ‘If you think I ‘m standing on some rooftop on my tod, you can think again. I order you to accompany me. Anyway,“ he added, ”you get one dollar responsibility allowance, too."

Nobby’s face twisted in panic. “No I don’t!” he croaked. “Captain Vimes said he was docking it for five years for being a disgrace to the species!”

“Well, you might just get it back. Anyway, you know all about voonerables. I’ve watched you fight.”

Carrot saluted smartly. “Permission to volunteer, sir,” he said. “And I only get twenty dollars a month training pay and I don’t mind at all, sir.”

Sergeant Colon cleared his throat. Then he straightened the hang of his breastplate. It was one of those with astonishingly impressive pectoral muscles embossed upon it. His chest and stomach fitted into it in the same way that jelly fits into a mould.

What would Captain Vimes do now? Well, he’d have a drink. But if he didn’t have a drink, what would he do?

“What we need,” he said slowly, “is a Plan.”

That sounded good. That sentence alone sounded worth the pay. If you had a Plan, you were halfway there.

And already he thought he could hear the cheering of crowds. They were lining the streets, and they were throwing flowers, and he was being carried triumphantly through the grateful city.

The drawback was, he suspected, that he was being carried in an urn.

Lupine Wonse padded along the draughty corridors to the Patrician’s bedroom. It had never been a sumptuous apartment at best, and contained little more than a narrow bed and a few battered cupboards. It looked even worse now, with one wall gone. Sleepwalk at night now and you could step right into the vast cavern that was the Great Hall.

Even so, he shut the door behind him for a semblance of privacy. Then, cautiously and with many nervous glances at the great space beyond, he knelt down in the centre of the floor and pried up a board.

A long black robe was dragged into view. Then Wonse reached further down into the dusty space between the floors and rummaged around. He rummaged still further. Then he lay down and stuck both arms into the gap and flailed desperately.

A book sailed across the room and hit him in the back of the head.

“Looking for this, were you?” said Vimes.

He stepped out of the shadows.

Wonse was on his knees, his mouth opening and shutting.

What’s he going to say, Vimes thought. Is it going to be: I know what this looks like, or will it be: How did you get in here, or maybe it’ll be: Listen, I can explain everything. I wish I had a loaded dragon in my hands right now.

Wonse said, “Okay. Clever of you to guess.”

❮❯