Ending the Ending
At the end of the day Art had come back to his home to find his home burned down. After he had gotten over the shock of it, he turned to ask, "Dad, where's mom?"
His dad hugged him. "Son, your mom's not going to be coming back home today."
"All you need to know is that she'll be away for a while."
"Dad, when's she coming back?"
"Not for a very long time."
"I want to see mom, now," Art said.
His dad sighed. Listen, son, I need you to act all grown up, you understand? Since mom's not going to be here to take care of you."
"No," Art said, turning to look away. "Where's—"
Art turned back, frown on his face and tears forming. "Why can't she come back? What are you not telling me?" His dad hung his mouth open. Art repeated, "tell me!"
"She's passed away. Art, mom's dead."
"What does that mean?" asked Art, but even as he asked, the tears flowed, and he gripped his dad's arms. "What's it mean, she's dead? Dad, what happened?"
"It means, it's just us two now." Tears in his eyes, his dad wrapped Art's head in his arms. Art snuggled against his chest, sobbing into his plain white shirt. "Just us."
For a long while they held their embrace.
Finally his dad leaned back and looked at Art with a thin smile, then wiped away the tears on Art's cheeks. "Art, you're a big boy now. Boys don't cry. Come now, your tears are getting on our clothes. Do you know how much it costs to buy a new one?"
Art let go and wiped away his tears. "You were crying too."
"You're right, I was," said his dad, and Art chuckled, even as more tears flowed down his cheeks.
"I'm glad I still have you, dad. You're going to stay with me forever, right? You're—"
His dad chuckled. "Yes—"
"—not going to be dead one day too, right?" said Art, staring up at him. His dad's smile wavered. "Right, dad?" His dad didn't answer. Art shuddered. "Oh no. Not you too, dad. I can't stand to lose you. Why would you ever want to be dead?"
"Son, no one wants to die."
"Then why does anyone die?"
"It's not our choice, Art. Everyone dies, sooner or later."
"Everyone dies?" asked Art. His dad stared at him, silent. Art shook his head, then shook his head some more. "No. It can't be. Dad, you told me that if someone ever beats me up, I have to fight back. Girls can just cry, but boys have to do whatever they can to defend themselves."
"Yes, and you damn well should, or they'll just keep on hitting you."
"So why hasn't anyone done anything about this dying thing? Why hasn't anyone fought back?"
"I said only fight back if you're being bullied by someone your own size, otherwise you must run away. Does death look like a bully your own size?"
"No, but you said we can't run away from death, so it's not like we have any choice but to fight back."
His dad snorted at him and shook his head. "Look at you, just heard about death a moment ago and already you're thinking about fighting it." He patted Art on the head. "You're young, son, there's many things you don't know."
"You keep saying that," said Art, arms akimbo.
"Everything is born, lives, then dies. It's the way things are. Sooner or later it catches up to everyone. No one can avoid dying forever. No one can fight death."
"Well has anyone even tried?"
"Many have. But they have all died, in the end."
No matter how hard he tried, Art couldn't run away from fire. In the cold of the winter nights he'd huddle close to the fire in the middle of his home – it had been a few years and the other villagers had helped rebuild – he'd needed the fire to keep going, or he and his dad would freeze. But he didn't like it. Fire still reminded him of death, and that indoor fire was going to burn their house down again one day, just like it had once before.
Much as people feared fire, they needed it even more. Only by candle and torchlight could one see in dark of night. Only by cooking-fire could one roast raw meat. Only by forge and smelter could one work a slab of metal. Too much fire and one died; too little fire and one died also.
But did they have to like it?
Here he was at the Hickory Hedge inn, listening to minstrels spin their tales of heroes and quests, and this latest tale just had to be of a knight in shining armor vanquishing a dragon, one that just happened to breathe fire.
As Art listened, it struck him as strange how in these stories the lone hero or the hero plus a tiny following would always go and win the day. It didn't seem possible that all the big problems of the world could each be solved by one knight going it alone. If he were sent to fight a dragon… Well, he'd give up and run away, but if he couldn't actually flee the dragon forever, he'd find other people to help him. Having more people fight a dragon would make it that much easier, so why didn't they? Despite the stories saying these knights were fighting dragons, from the way these stories played out it sounded like these knights of old had never ever come across a truly challenging foe. That or they were stories.
The minstrel had just finished another tale to much applause, and one of the listeners had told the barmaid to fetch another round of ale.
"Storyteller," asked Art, "Why is it that in all these tales of dragon slayers, there's only ever the one hero, or at most a few companions? Why do they never arrange for a large group of skilled knights?"
"Oh, looking to become a bard yourself?" the minstrel replied, then looked around at his audience, some of whom snickered at Art. "Now, what story should I tell next?"
Art took a moment to realize he'd just been made a fool of by the minstrel. Who was he, to treat him so? It seemed every adult in his life thought he wasn't worth taking seriously. Well, it was time he changed that. "I'll tell a story," said Art, prompting a sour look from the storyteller and raised eyebrows from the patrons.
"Is it going to be as good as the ones he tells?"
"Have you ever told a story before, boy?"
"Who wants the honor of being the first to listen to the first story the kid has ever told?" That got laughs out of the others.
"And why are you trying to tell us a story when you've never been apprenticed to a storyteller? Maybe you can make a story out of that," said another.
"Just listen to my tale, you'll like it," said Art, and he made up a story of a dragon slayer on the spot.
…They didn't like his tale. From the start he was beset by barely contained laughter, grunts of derision, and a flood of pointless questions, and his storytelling ground to a halt. Finally the minstrel put an end to this travesty by raising a hand and asking the patrons, "Any of you want to hear the Song of Roland?" And that was that, all the heads turned to the storyteller. Cheeks flushed with embarassment, Art fled the Hickory Hedge.
As he walked home his mind dwelt on how poorly his story had been received. Why? He asked himself. They didn't like that he was telling a story about a dragon slayer hero, just like all the others. But why? Why was he even telling a story about a dragon slayer hero at all? He'd never encountered a dragon himself, and he'd not received any training from any of the storytellers. Who was he to think he could enchant an audience with mere words? And was that minstrel so much better than he was? Well, yes, probably. But why was he better? That, he could find out. All he had to do was swallow his pride and recognize that yes, the minstrel was better and he could learn by listening to him weaving his tales.
He turned around and marched back to the Hickory Hedge.
"Back with another story, boy?" said the first patron who caught sight of his return.
"No, just to listen."
"Well sit down then, and learn from the master," said the minstrel, then continued with his song.
"Come in," said Father Walters.
Art entered. "Father."
"Art, my good lad, what counsel may I give you today?" he said with good cheer.
"Father, I have had this one question I've been meaning to ask for a few years now, ever since…"
The smile faltered. "Oh, might this have to do with—"
"Yes. Father, I'm not looking for a comforting answer on this one, just an honest one. Why is there death in this world?"
Father Walters looked to the window. "It seems you have been thinking on this for a long time now. It's not quite the healthy thing to be like so. You are young, you have your entire life ahead of you, but you need to move on, or you will just wallow in despair and make nothing of your life."
"Yes Father, I understand. I know I'll have to move on, and stop thinking about her being dead. But death – I don't think I can forget that. I don't think I can stop thinking about it, either. Not at least until I know why it happens."
"Ah, that I can help you with," said Father Walters as he opened up his bible. "The question of why evil, and death, exists in the world can be traced back to the beginning. When the Lord created the garden of Eden, and filled it with all manner of living things, He also created two trees – the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And the Lord warned Adam against eating the second tree, saying that 'in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die'."
"Yes, but why? Why would He put such a tree there?"
"We cannot hope to guess for what grand purpose He put such a tree there. We are after all ignorant of His ways."
"But Father, does the Lord not explain why He makes such a thing of death?"
"A young child may not understand when he is told to always return home before nightfall, and will not be able to understand his parents' reasons, so his parents need not bother to explain the why of it. But surely you're old enough to know why now, now that you are old enough to understand. We are as children before the Lord, and He need not explain Himself to us. It is enough to know that death is our punishment for the sins of Adam and Eve, for having not obeyed the Lord."
"Surely, Father, this sin is to be placed on Adam and Eve, for not listening to the Lord, for which they had died. But why would it be placed on us?"
"The sins of the father pass onto his children also. And this greatest of sins, of disobeying the Lord's one commandment at a time when only one had been given, was a crime so great that any number of lifetimes and any number of lives cannot wash it away. May that be a lesson you always remember, to guide you in your times of temptation, to always walk the path the Lord has given us, that you should avoid being punished also."
"I shall remember this and always walk in the path of the Lord. Thank you for your guidance, Father. I have much to think upon, and even more to learn," said Art, and with a bidding of farewells he left. As he walked down the dirt path to his home, he pondered:
Adam and Eve had been punished for stealing from the tree. But their children were also punished. Sure, thieves who steal are to be put to death. But would their children be put to death?
They were punished for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and not for eating from the tree of life. But the Lord was all-powerful, there was no need for Him to put a tree of temptation there. If He didn't want Adam and Eve to eat from it, then He would simply not have put the tree there in the first place.
Unless it was a test.
A test with two choices, to eat from either the tree of life or the a tree of death, where the correct choice was to eat from the tree of life, but the latter tree was the more tempting. A test that Adam and Eve had failed, and they were punished with death for the failing of it. A test that people must still be failing to the present day, that they be punished with death for failing it.
And yet they failed it anyway, they continued to eat of the tree of temptation, for all its temptation distracted people from the fruit they should be reaching out for. Distractions, such as tilling the soil, and cooking one's food, and trading of wares, and sleeping each night, and playing one's leisure time away.
They were all throwing their time away. They were all sinning.
And so they were all dying.
And that realization made him freeze in place.
The Lord had given Art His test, and Art was well on his way to failing. And failing meant death.
Truth was, Art had no idea how he would go about fighting death.
He had kept track of all the ways people could die, and then despite his best efforts had lost track, there were so many. He gave up trying to count how many ways there were and just assumed there were ten thousand. That was such a large number he didn't think there could be more than ten thousand of anything. He then figured someone would have to come up with a way to prevent each of those ways of dying. Ten thousand inventions. Yes, other people could come up with those ways too but as he'd looked around and asked around, it seemed no one was interested in coming up with any of them, which meant he, Art, would have to invent them all.
With a bit of math from his friend the son of a local merchant, Art had figured out that assuming he'd lived to be forty, he had just enough days left in his life to come up with one invention per day and finish before he died. So he figured that's just what he'd do: one invention per day.
At first one invention per day wasn't that hard to come up with. With each one he thought up he exulted, knowing he was getting one step closer to successfully finishing his test. But then new ideas started coming more slowly. And now it had been a week since his last idea. Three months had passed, and so far he'd come up with thirty-one.
So he decided it was about time he started making his inventions, his ideas, into reality.
While tending to the forge Art turned to ask Master Smith. "Master, I have an idea."
"Oh, you have an idea?" said the smith, not bothering to look at his apprentice as he continued hammering away at his red-hot knife.
"I call it the big row of buckets," said Art. "The idea is simple. You have a whole bunch of these buckets in your home, all of them filled to the brim with water."
"And pray do tell, what is a man to do with such a, what did you call it, 'row of buckets'?"
"You could use it if ever the house caught fire."
"Oh. That's it?"
"Well… yeah, that's all it's supposed to do."
His master chuckled while shaking head. "Sounds like a silly idea to me."
"It's not silly," said Art. He muttered, "it would have saved mom's life." When the house had caught, they'd resorted to passing bucketfuls of water from the village well, but they could only lower one bucket down the well at a time, not enough to fight the fire. If only there was plenty of water at hand when the home had caught fire, he'd still have a mom to go home to.
Master Smith took in a deep breath, then set down his tools, got up and put a hand on Art's shoulder. "It would be a good idea, except there's a reason why we don't all keep a bunch of water-filled buckets in our homes. Can you think of any?"
After a moment Art shook his head. What reason could be more important than not dying?
"All right, think of it this way. If it's made out of wood, the wood would start to go bad, and the buckets would leak. Same if it's made out of leather. Even iron would start to rust. But let's say wemake it out of iron. Where would all that iron come from? Who will mine, smelt, and smith it? Who will pay for it, you? The farmers can't pay for it, not for that much iron. All it would do is just sit around."
Art sagged and held his head in his hands. Why hadn't he thought of that? His idea was terrible. Of course no one would have tolerated it. Of course if the solution were that simple everyone would have been doing that already, and no one would be waiting for him to come along and suggest it to everybody. Who was he, to give other people his suggestions? He was only a child, he had plenty of ideas but couldn't tell the good ideas from the bad. No wonder adults never listened to children. Why should they?
That evening Art had thought back on his thirty other ideas and applied Master Smith's reasoning to them. For them to effectively prevent death, all of his ideas required wide-scale applications. Many required substantial materials, and he doubted that people would be willing to part with that much of what little they had. Others he knew could be done but required maths and expertise which he knew he didn't have. And without being the son of a noble, merchant or scholar, he doubted he'd ever get the maths down. Several more would be awfully hard to convince people to agree to, simply because they were tedious. One by one he'd crossed them off his list, until only two were left, and he himself wasn't in any position to make those two happen, either.
It was three months since he started brainstorming solutions to death, and he had nothing to show for it. At this rate he was never going to get to ten thousand. At this rate he was going to fail the Lord's test as badly as everyone else.
Which reminded him, this was about the most darned hard test there ever was. And the most unfair. Why was he expected to achieve as much as a king, in as little time, when a king had a whole kingdom at his command? Why were women expected to achieve as much as men could, when women were expected to do as their parents, husbands, and sons told them to do, and not encouraged to think on their own? For that matter, were babies really expected to do something about death before they died, as often happened, within the first few months of being born? Why did death not come for everyone only when they all reached the same age? Then he pondered on the sermons Father Walters had given and remembered the Lord didn't care much for being fair. Or being easy on his children, for that matter.
So what was he to do? Well, what would Saint George the dragonslayer do? Art wondered.
Saint George would probably charge at it with his lance and stab the dragon with it. Great lot of good that role model was. Art just had to stab the dragon to death. Right. If Art kept putting out every fire he came across, he'd not last a winter. And Saint George would ride at it all by himself, the lucky idiot. What if the dragon had stayed in the air and never landed, and breathed fire down at the knight? Armed with just a lance, Saint George would have had no idea how to fight back. Without anyone who could shoot arrows at the dragon, he was doomed. The dragon would have burned him to a crisp for being such a moron that he didn't go recruiting allies first. Whoever made up that story had clearly never fought a dragon. Art was fighting a dragon now, and that story wasn't really helping.
Art smacked his head. It was so obvious. He needed allies. He was a knight fighting a dragon who kept staying in the air, and he needed people who could shoot it down.
But he was but a boy, a son of a farmer and apprentice to a smith, which made him a nobody thrice over. How in all the world was he going to convince someone to join him on his quest?
In the stories he had heard, in those few stories where the hero didn't travel alone, he had garnered a band of fellow adventurers from an inn. Well, he could start there. Art started walking toward the Hickory Hedge, and as he did yet another idea started taking shape. He had no money to give to anyone, to encourage them to join him on his quest. He had nothing to give, except a dream of hope, a way of thinking, and a tale with which to convey them both.
And as he had to work the other days of the week, he would have to do this on the Sundays. Art knew the Lord had commanded that no work be done on Sundays, for it was His holy day. But telling a story wasn't exactly work, either. And the deadline of the Lord's test came one day closer on Sundays as surely as it did on every other day of the week.
Another minstrel now sang at the Hickory Hedge, this time singing a ballad that Art recognized as a love song. Ordering a drink, he sat down and listened to it, picking up the verse structure, the voice, the emotional undertones. Years of listening and paying careful attention to what made a story work – as opposed to its story – had given him a hint of how much better the masters were than he could ever hope to be, but it had taught him much.
As the round of applause subsided, Art praised the ballad for its excellent style, and praised the minstrel for his excellent taste in choosing that particular ballad. The minstrel smiled as that prompted the patrons to pass a few copper pieces his way. Then he asked them if they had heard of the story of the Order of Demonslayers and their grand quest to rid their realm of a great host of demons. To which they all said no, which of course they did not, for Art had made that up. "Ah, but then you have been missing out on a most unique tale," he said. He gave a nod to the minstrel. "It shall be quite an honor to pass along such a tale to one as worthy of the retelling of it as you." To which the minstrel could only nod.
So Art began. He told of a land far away, a world blessed with bountiful harvests, but also a world threatened by demons – large flying monsters of all sorts. The lesser ones were dragons, but the others were far more terrible, and they were not dragons at all. And there were so many – thousands upon thousands of them, and they struck with barely any warning, all over the land, making it so that even in such a land where none had known the fear of starving, all the people lived in fear, for they knew that one day they would meet their doom. Sooner or later, everyone wound up in the gullet of one demon or another. It was thought that the demons could not be killed, so hard were their plated hides. For as long as anyone could remember, in even their oldest tales, there had been these demons. They always were.
With relief Art noted that his audience was not as quick to cut him off as they had been the last time around.
He told of how, in this land a very skilled knight by the name of Sir Amicus had become known not just as the greatest knight in the land, but the greatest knight ever. But Sir Amicus was not satisfied with merely unseating other knights. He wanted to challenge something greater than any human, and for that he looked up, and the demons who ruled the skies above all.
He told of how Sir Amicus had set out on horseback for a demon's lair, bow and shield in hand. He had chosen the lair of one of the smallest types of demons, a mere dragonling. But as he was about to shoot, it blew a torrent of flame at him. He raised his shield just in time, but as the dragon kept breathing fire at him, he realized he'd never have the chance to nock an arrow, let alone loose one. He tried again, this time for a moment too long, and the dragonfire caught his bow and burned it away. As he fled, the dragonling flew after him, breathing more fire upon him. He was protected by his shield, but his mount had no such protection, and was roasted alive. Sir Amicus was forced to hide in a nearby cave, one that was too small for the dragonling to enter, and with his shield he blocked the dragonfire. There he was trapped, for the dragonling guarded the one exit and attacked the moment Sir Amicus tried to leave. Only after feigning his death and waiting three days so that the dragonling was convinced he was dead, did Sir Amicus manage to escape, but he vowed even as he did so that he would never to give up until he had slain the dragonling.
Art looked about and noticed that two of the children who had been playing about the market stalls outside had come into the Hickory Hedge, listening to his tale of knights and dragons. He asked them, "But Sir Amicus remembered why he hadn't been able to get off any arrows. He couldn't use a shield and a bow at the same time. So, any guess what he did next?"
The children stared at him, then looked at each other, but neither ventured to speak.
Art looked around, hoping someone would give a reply. "Anyone have an idea?"
"Wouldn't he need someone to shield for him?" asked the barmaid.
"Exactly," said Art, relieved that someone had come up with an answer. He then told of how Sir Amicus had then hired a pair of guardsmen to go back to the lair with him. The dragonling flew out and breathed dragonfire, killing their mounts, but they themselves were protected under the guards' pair of large shields. Only when he had readied his arrows did he call out to them to part their shields that he may loose his arrows, and even then for just a moment, so that the dragonfire never touched his bow. But the dragonling's hide was too tough, and his bow could not penetrate it. Before long the shields, as they were made of metal, scalded too much to hold any longer, and the trio were forced to flee.
Art saw that several more children had sat down to listen to his tale. He asked of them, "so what do you think Sir Amicus decided to do next?" He saw them looking at each other, so he pointed to the one farthest to his left, and gestured for the boy to come close. "Whisper in my ear. First idea you thought of." The boy did so, and then Art asked for each of the others to do so in turn.
They did. But none of them had come up with anything workable. Two had just whispered, "no idea", before retreating back to their stools.
"You're shy, so you don't have to come out and say who you are, but one of you had got the answer just right," said Art, prompting all the other kids to look at each other. Art then told of how Sir Amicus had traveled the world looking for a ranged weapon more powerful than the great bow he used, and after traveling half the world had come upon a land where the soldiers used crossbows – Art thought of these as he had seen his master make the metal parts for one once – and he told of how Sir Amicus had realized that these took much longer to fire than a bow, so he'd needed many more people who could use them. Sir Amicus hired a company of two dozen crossbowmen and twice as many shield-holders, spent weeks drilling them so that they could work as a team and shoot at moving flying targets with precision. He then led the company to take on another dragonling.
He told of the devastation wrought by the dragonling in the ensuing battle, how the enraged dragonling struck out with fire and claw and tail and sent the men flying, and how the crossbowmen worked to reload their shots and the shield-bearers held up their red-hot shields as the dragonfire swept over rank after rank of them. How in the end the dragon, pierced at last by a couple of bolts out of the over one hundred that had been fired, had at last fallen, after having slain two dozen men.
He told of how Sir Amicus had cut out the dragonling's heart and brought it before the high king, of the hushed awe as people realized for the first time that yes, demons could indeed be slain. Of the dawning realization that came upon them, the idea that if they braved great dangers to slay each demon in turn, that one day they would live in a world without demons, a world without fear. And with that the king proclaimed Sir Amicus the First Demonslayer, and commanded him to seek out other demons and slay them, until the last day of his life. And Sir Amicus did so, slaying a good number of dragonlings. And given the great rewards heaped upon him, soon other knights set out to slay dragonlings on their own, and together they were proclaimed the Order of Demonslayers, a band of knights that were to be given free access and shelter no matter what realm they passed, for the order's mission was one shared by all the kings in all the land.
He then told of how the Order formed companies throughout all the land, and in a few short years the men had taken down all the dragonlings, so that the next most common threat was the dragons – with larger bodies and thicker hides by far, against which entire companies of crossbowmen were incinerated. Suffering such heavy losses, the Order despaired, but Sir Amicus had known too many victories against what were considered impossible foes to back down now.
Art then looked to the audience. "Now, this question is for all us children here, so you adults, don't tell us. But kids, don't blurt out the answer either if you know it. This is the question: What do you think happens next, what do you think Sir Amicus could do next to defeat the dragon? Think on it, and let me know next Sunday. I'll continue the story then," he said to cries of dismay from the other children. He told them he'd taken enough time out of the day as it was, and the minstrel had many tales of his own to tell after all.
Art then went from inn to inn – the town had several – and retold his tale at each of them. His skill grew in the telling, so that more people listened to his tale each time. And each time, he told them that he'd be continuing his tale the following week; but at one inn he told the listeners he would no longer be visiting there, and that he would tell his story at the Hickory Hedge, and that if they wanted the rest of the story they should go there on the next Sunday.
At the last of those places one of the children had remarked on how smart Sir Amicus's solution was, to which Art had said it was not his idea. He'd then called out for the kid who had suggested the crossbow idea that time around, to please stand up and announce himself. Which he did, and Art thanked him for providing the solution, for surely had he not provided the solution, the story could not go on, and that Art was merely fleshing out the story based on the answer he had been given.
He felt relieved. He didn't know how long he could go on hiding the fact that it'd been his idea after all, but even if he fooled other people, the Lord's test was not to be fooled, and Art would need them to start coming up with their own answers before they ran out of time.
When next Art arrived at the Hickory Hedge he found the inn crowded to full with several dozen familiar faces. Half the audience had come from the other inn he'd said he'd no longer be visiting. They had come to the Hickory Hedge to hear him tell his tale, and it wasn't all that surprising they'd decide on a whim to leave their usual inn, since these were all children. The newcomers chatted to each other about what they thought would happen next in the tale. Art called for attention, then had each of them take turns whispering in his ear what they thought would be Sir Amicus's next solution. Art noted that some had called for a bigger crossbow; others called for improved defenses.
"Interesting," said Art, eyes scanning the crowd of children before him. "Some of you have suggested we use something… big. How do you suppose we would protect it all? Come now, whisper your answers to me." After a brief pause, one of them skipped up to Art and whispered in his ear, and then another, and then another, until it seemed all of them had done so. Art nodded and smiled at them. "Some of you have come up with some really good answers."
So Art told of how Sir Amicus had met with his advisors, the other members of the Order of Demonslayers, asking what it is they could do about these full-fledged dragons. How they agreed to use a bigger crossbow, but that no such crossbows could be found in all the land, none of them had ever seen such a thing and neither did their contacts. Sir Amicus had then called upon the master craftsmen in the city to devise this new crossbow, as large as could readily be carried and used by any human, and soon they had created designs for the arbalest, followed soon after with several hundred of the actual thing. Having found that these took twice over as long as a regular crossbow to arm, Sir Amicus began training a hundred men in the working of the arbalests, and with the support of the local king had recruited another two hundred shield-bearers and another two hundred support staff.
He told of how the dragon shrugged off the bolts from these arbalests just as if they were the same as the normal crossbows even as it ravaged half the army, and how the survivors broke ranks and fled before its awesome might.
He told of how Sir Amicus, disgraced, nonetheless petitioned the craftsmen in his town to work on an even larger version of the arbalest, and after several months they presented him with plans for a ballista, an enormous crossbow set on wheels, followed a year later with three hundred ballista, paid for by the shared treasuries of three of the kingdoms, for one could not afford to pay for it all. And then his Order of Demonslayers marched, three hundred ballista carried by a thousand beasts of burden, accompanied by a thousand shield-bearers, and another thousand support staff, as large an army as any one king in that land ever had.
He told of how the dragon burned through half the Order, sending ignited pieces of ballista-shrapnel flying all over the battlefield and crushing entire squadrons with each sweep of its massive wings. Of how the well trained forces, protected from the brunt of the dragonfire by great tower shields covered in newly prepared animal hide and soaked in water to ward off the heat and the flame, held the line. Of how in the end the dragon, impaled by over a dozen great bolts and spraying its blood all over, had finally toppled. Of how, when this victory became well known, the kings of the other realms ordered their own ballistas built, that they could kill the greater dragons in their lands also.
"Who came up with all these ideas?" asked one of the adults.
Art smiled and gestured in a way that encompassed all the children. "Every one of them came up with something interesting. I couldn't use them all, so I just chose a few to use." He looked at the children in the audience. "Do any of you want to tell him which ideas you came up with?"
One of them boasted that he had come up with the idea for a bigger crossbow. Another retorted that it was his idea also, and then another said he'd come up with the ballista, "so take that". Art looked at the adults and saw their dawning sense of amazement, that these children – some of them their own children – weren't just kids any more, not if they could come up with such ideas all on their own.
"Actually, the two of us came up with that crossbow on a wheel idea together," said another, pointing at the first person who claimed the ballista idea. "He came up with the idea of a really, really big crossbow; I thought we'd need a cart with wheels to put it on."
"How did you come up with the idea together?" asked another.
"Well, we were discussing our ideas while we were waiting for Art to show up."
Art nodded. "Yes, and your friend here came up with the idea of using soaked hide to protect against dragonfire. That was brilliant. If you three had worked on it together you probably would have wound up with a crossbow-on-a-wheel-protected-from-dragonfire as a single idea."
"So what's next?" asked another. "What's the next dragon?"
"Oh, all the dragons are defeated now," said Art, resuming his tale. He told of how the next type of demon the Order challenged was a fire-bird, a monstrous bird made entirely of living flame which could, like fire, regenerate itself—
"What?" asked one of the kids, "How can the Order possibly take on something that's made of fire itself? You can't kill something like that."
"You've never put out a fire before?" asked another.
"Yes, but how—"
"Well, that's up to you to find out," said Art. "If you don't, then next week the story will be, the Order tries its best to fight the fire-bird, none can hurt it, they all die, they all did not live happily ever after, the end."
"No, you can't do that! That's not fair!"
"Well, as you very well know these fights only get harder and harder. You giving up already?"
"No way. We're not giving up that easily."
"That's the spirit!" said Art, and clapped his hands. "All right, that's it for today. Go home and think on it, I'll need your solution next Sunday."
"You know what," said one of the kids, "we should work together on this one." Several others turned to him. "The crossbow-on-wheels idea only really worked because those two worked on it together before getting here," he explained. "If we want the story to go on then we'll have to think of something good. We'll have to work together."
"Yeah, I want the story to go on too. Let's meet tomorrow evening, we live pretty close to each other anyway."
Art chuckled as he watched them leave. It had taken a lot of storytelling to get this far, but he could start to see the change had wrought on them, on their way of thinking.
Art had then gone on to tell his story at the other inns, this time telling them all that he'd no longer be meeting at those inns but would be continuing the story at the Hickory Hedge the following Sunday. So when the following Sunday came around he found a hundred children, half of them packing the inn and the rest spilling out onto themarket street outside. Several guardsmen had been called over to keep order. As Art approached several of the children recognized him and gestured at him, and soon a hush fell over the crowd.
Art welcomed them all and then proceeded to ask them for their solutions. He noticed that about a quarter of them refused to whisper anything to Art and instead pointed at one of the children in particular. "All right, Jane, let's hear it," he said as he turned to her. "All the children are looking at you."
Jane went up to Art's ear and whispered to him.. and whispered some more, and somemore.
"Wow," was all Art managed to say. He then turned to the rest of the children, who went to whisper their solutions to Art.
Art resumed his story, drawing upon Jane's whispered answer. He told of how it was decided that the firebird must have been hiding somewhere when it rained, since the incessant falling of water – even though it could not completely extinguish and thus kill the firebird – would weaken it, and it would thus avoid it. So all over the realms the guards went about asking the peasants – and anyone else for that matter – who knew where caves could be found, to let the Order of Demonslayers know. The Order then dispatched teams to close off those caves, piling up masses of rock and earth, since it was believed the firebird, having no physical body, couldn't simply blast their way through earth. When this was done, there were few places left in all the realm where a firebird could hide from the rains.
He told of how, when the Order of Demonslayers tried to collapse the final cave, the one the firebird was using as its abode, the firebird had attacked, breathing gouts of flame at the Order and burning them to death while sending them scattering. Sir Amicus and the council of all the kings of the land - so expensive had the expedition become, that cooperation from all the kings had become necessary - had then ordered the construction of a dozen trebuchets, massive constructs capable of lobbing boulders a great distance, all of them covered in soaked hide to protect them from dragonfire, and had them brought up to just three hundred yards away from the cave entrance while it was raining. The ground, all muddy from the downpour, would have caused these siege engines to sink into them if it weren't for Sir Amicus' prescience in bringing a great many wooden rafts to pave the ground over which these trebuchets advanced. This wooden path was covered in a thin layer of mud so that they wouldn't catch fire, though not enough mud for the siege engines to sink into. When the trebuchets were brought in close enough, they launched boulder after boulder at the cave entrance, forcing the firebird out of hiding. It withered in the rain, but survived and flew toward the awaiting army nonetheless.
He told of how the Order had also prepared still more catapults to launch water at the approaching firebird. They needed tons of water, as a great deal of it had to strike all of the firebird all at once in order to put it out. The constant stream of water came from large wooden pans laid out on the ground to catch the rainwater, enough pans to cover all the nearby plains, and they refilled with rainwater as fast as they could be used. Eight hundred catapults launched water into the skies, each launch carrying enough water to put out a firebird, but the water blasts sprayed all over and none could actually extinquish the bird alone. Yet they kept striking it, so that the firebird glowed as a cloud of steam and flame. It attempted to strike at the trebuchets, but the catapults kept a constant torrent of water flying over them, warding off the firebird, so the trebuchets continued their work, launching boulders to block off the cave entrance. For hours they kept this up. Thousands lay dead, burned to a crisp, their shields melted. The firebird, weakened by the rain and barrage of water blasts, was extinguished in the end.
When Art finished telling the battle scene, the inn was all quiet, so intently did everyone listen to his tale. Then one by one the children started clapping, and soon the adults joined in.
"Damn that was a hell of a fight," said one of the adults. "Jane, did you come up with all that?"
"No," she said, and she beamed. "It was the effort of a great many of us. So many things had to be covered." She started counting fingers. "One was how the firebird could survive in the rain, what could we do about its hiding place. We had a team work on that." Four had been on that team; one had thought of caves, another of blocking off the caves, another of warding off stone buildings which would act like caves, and another the idea of getting mass cooperation in locating them all. "After that, two was how to block off the entrance to the caves." She pointed at another team; they'd come up with the trebuchets, capable of launching rocks from a long distance, as well as the particulars of how something like that would have to work; as well as the idea that the firebird would come out to defend its own cave. "Three was how to use the water. We had a team for that too." She explained how they'd realized that the fight would have to be in the rain, how one of them had thought of water-catapults, drawing on the ballista idea, another had thought of pans to collect the rainwater and funnel them, another the solution to everything sinking in into the mud. One had even calculated how long it would take to launch one of those water-catapults, and thus how many would be needed to maintain a constant barrage of four per second throughout the entire engagement, as well as all the logistics behind the entire operation including how much rainwater would need to be collected how quickly and how many people would be needed to man the entire operation. She finished saying, "We wouldn't have been able to devise the solution without all three teams working together."
"You all are damn brilliant, you know that?" Art said, eyes watering. "You've thought of everything. You've managed to find a solution to something we all thought was impossible just last week. Well done." Many of them cheered in triumph.
"Yeah, we figured there had to be a solution and knew we couldn't just give up. And as we realized last week, we work best when we work as a team. So we thought we'd all work together on it, and come up with our answer."
"All right," said Jane. "Now that we've killed the firebird, what does the Order take on next?"
Art smiled. Good, his audience wasn't about to give up yet, which meant there was hope for them after all. So he told of how with the killing of the firebird it had become apparent that there was another demon of flame, a phoenix which could live so long as any flame burned anywhere. A demon of flame that could manifest in an unsuspecting peasant's indoor fire and instantly set the entire house aflame, then be in another house a second later.
"So let me get this straight," said one among the audience. "We're supposed to make it so that for one moment, there isn't a fire anywhere."
"Anywhere, in all the world."
"When there's a flying demon that's literally made of fire."
"Is able to set fire to anything it touches."
"So long as it can burn."
"It can disappear and reappear out of any other flame anywhere in the world, at any time."
"And you can't extinguish it because if you do manage to put it out, it is instantly reborn out of another fire."
"Oh Lord," the boy said, hanging his head.
"This is going to take more than just an army," said another.
"It is impossible." Several nods of agreement.
"That's what we said last time, about the firebird. We managed to put it out anyway."
"Yea, but this firebird can't be put out."
"No, it's possible. I'm sure it is."
"Sure, when there isn't a single flame left anywhere in the world. Hell will freeze over first."
"That's right," said Art, standing up. "There's no way you can defeat this one. You're going to fail," he said with a grin, then headed off down the street. Art smiled as he left. There was no way they were going to live that down.
They didn't live that one down.
A hundred fifty children awaited his arrival the following weekend, smiles on their faces. When they saw him coming, they surrounded him, some with smiles on their faces and others sticking out their tongues at him, and they told him they had a plan after all, just he wait and see.
"You did, eh? After I'd told you, in no unclear terms, that it was impossible, and when half of you had already given up? You're joking," Art retorted.
"Hear to us then, for after much thought we have devised such a plan," said a boy as he leapt on top of a stool and thus stood higher than all the rest. The others seemed to parted so he could face Art without anyone standing in the way. "This plan has seen contributions from each and everyone of us," said the boy on the stool, holding up a sheet of parchment.
Wait, thought Art, this lad's only a teenager and he not only could read and write, but actually had wasted good money on ink and parchment?
"Some things were apparent from the beginning. First: The objective. To extinguish the phoenix would require that all fires be put out at least for one moment. As it would be impossible for everyone to simply abandon the use of fire, it can only be done for a short while. This time period would have to be determined ahead of time and we must ensure that the chosen time be communicated to all the realm far in advance, so that everyone will be aware of this. As it will certainly require time to vanquish the phoenix and put out all the fires it may have caused, this fire-ban will have to be maintained for at least a day and night. Since people will want to use fire when it's dark and when it's cold, the best chance of success will be on the summer solstice, when the day is longest and warmest, and hence the fire-ban will be on that day.
"Now, the major sources of fire. One: Wildfires. Two: Light sources. Three: Indoor fires and campfires. Four: Cooking fires and crafts fires. Other crafts related fires. Five: Fires caused by the phoenix. Six: The phoenix itself." And he described the construction of watchtowers all over the lands at regular intervals, each supplied with a team of horses and a great many of barrels of water and each overseeing a swath of territory and charged with ensuring that any fires spotted within its domain be put out with haste. He noted the edicts that would proclaim it unlawful to use fire for any means, and how several day's worth of cooked food would be prepared in advance of the fire-ban so that none would be tempted to cook on that day.
"Now, to ensure that all these policies are carried out…" and he described a system of neighbor-monitoring to ensure that no one was keeping a fire lit when they should not; and for a day-long curfew for when all children must stay with their parents the entire time; and for new laws to be made, by all the kings of all the kingdoms of the world, for terrible punishments to be meted out to those found violating the fire-ban; and a system of self-monitoring amongst the guards and nobility so that they would not be bought out by those who were guilty nor be tempted themselves. And he described how it was to be expected that the fire-ban would fail the first year, that it was but a test to see who would break the laws.
"Now for the phoenix and its path of destruction, the challenge is in ensuring that the fires it creates where it goes cannot spread as wildfires tend to do." And he went on to describe how the peoples would be required to pre-burn all of the forest and meadow in all the land in the days before the fire-ban, so that having already been burned down, they would not be easy to rekindle. He told of how the peoples would be told to re-pattern their farmland into small square lots, with grids of fallow ground separating them all, so that the fire could not spread from one lot to the next. He told of how all the wooden buildings and thatched roofs in all the towns and villages in all the land would be razed, and new buildings of stone raised in their place, that the phoenix could not set fire to the settlements.
"And the most difficult of them all, the phoenix." And he went on to describe how in order to whittle down the phoenix, they'd need to blast at it continuously out from a water hose; how this waterhose would be stiched together out of thousands of animal kidneyskins each, and connected to water reservoirs set atop towers overlooking the land, so that the weight of gravity would allow the water to blast forth from these hoses instead of needing catapults to launch the water. And he explained how this would have to be done all across the land, so that a single village may have a dozen such water towers, and a kingdom tens of thousands. And he explained of how far more people would be needed to mine and smelt and smith all the metal that would be needed to build these water towers, and so this was a project that would take a great many years to finish.
Art realized he'd been standing there, mouth agape, the entire time. These people – children all, and some not even in their teens – had thought of everything, far more than he'd imagined. They'd foreseen problems he'd never even considered, and then found solutions to them too. In the water towers they'd even managed to devise a solution superior to his water-buckets idea, without him even saying that this was a problem that needed solving. This was the true power of many people working together.
And he felt a swell of pride at having brought forth this awakening of their creativity. There was hope yet for humanity.
"Ah, of course. Surely it will take you quite some time to swallow all that and tell a story out of it," the boy on the stool said. "In the meantime, let us get started on the next one. What is the next demon?"
"Ah, the next demon," said Art, as he mused to himself. Were they ready for such a task as what he was going to place upon them? Then again, they had demonstrated ability enough, and he didn't have forever. Every week he waited was a week he'd lose and never gain back. He still had a few other demons planned for them to overcome, but it seemed like he could skip over them all now, all but the final one. "Well, I guess you are ready now."
A look of unease started to appear on some of their faces. "Ready for what?"
Art stood up and made a gesture to indicate he was referring to them all. "Look at yourself, then think upon what you've managed to achieve. Do you realize how far you've come? You've learned never to give up even against impossible odds. You've found just how capable you are at tackling challenges and coming up with solutions. You've understood the importance of working together and learned to delegate responsibility. You've started to get a glimpse of the enormity of scale involved with these kinds of undertakings, and just what could be done when you can have thousands work toward a common goal. You'll have to remember just how to use all that, if you are to succeed on this next quest."
"Just tell us already," shouted one among the audience, and many others nodded. "Yes, tell us!"
"Not so fast," he said. He turned to look at a guardsman sitting a short distance from him. "Good sir, there is something I absolutely must do. May I borrow your sword for a moment?"
"A sword's not a toy, boy."
"I promise you, this occasion truly is solemn enough to warrant it. I'm not going to do anything stupid, and if you think I do, I've never used a sword before, surely you can overpower me. You also have your fellow guards with you."
For a moment the guard wavered. Art smiled; him saying no would make him lose respect in front of all those arranged here. Then the guard replied, "A swordsman never parts with his sword," he said, glaring at Art.
"Do as he asks," said the boy-on-the-stool.
The guard started, his eyes bulged, as he whirled on the boy. "But my lord!"
Art just knew the boy was someone special. He turned around and asked who he was… Art's mouth gaped open. A prince? Here? Then he mentally slapped himself. Of course the prince would show up; Art had chosen the Hickory Hedge to be the main meetingplace precisely because it was in the most crowded place in town, right beyond the castle gates, and any boy would want to see what this crowd was all about.
"This should be interesting, now lend him your sword."
"Yes my lord," said the guard, unsheathing it and handing it over to Art hilt-first.
Art took it and turned to Jane. "You have passed the penultimate test. I would make you a member of the Order of Demonslayers. Do you accept?"
A smile passed over the children's faces even as the adults scowled. Of course the children would want to play at being knighted. He looked at Jane, waiting for an answer.
Blushing, Jane got on her knees. "Yes, my lord."
"I am no Lord," replied Art. He tapped the flat of the loaned sword on Jane's right shoulder, then her left. "I, a mere mortal, hereby dub you, Jane, First Knight of the Order of Demonslayers." To that the children answered with excited applause. Art then turned to the boy next to her, and asked the same of him. One by one he went, until all the children who were there had been dubbed, including those who had arrived there for the first time. After all, they too had seen what it took to come up with the answer for this episode. They too took the Lord's test. He returned the sword to the guard. "Will you, good sir, please do the same for the young lord? For I dare not do so myself."
A look of shock crossed the guard's face. "I can't, that would be—"
"Do it," ordered the prince.
"…Very well," said the guard, tapping his sword on the prince's shoulders. "I, a mere mortal, hereby dub you, Prince George, Knight of the Order of Demonslayers." He then returned the sword to his scabbard.
"Now then, Art," said the prince, "what is the final demon?"
All eyes were on Art now. Art's eyes swept across the room. "As you may have guessed by now, the story is entirely made up. But what you learn from it is the real thing – and so are the problems that really do need to be solved. All right, everyone: your final exam. The final demon is death itself. Find a way to end it. You have until the day you die."
--The End. 03:52, June 23, 2015 (UTC)