Somewhere within a distant mountain sat a dragon atop a pile of gold. This was not a scary dragon, with rows of razor sharp teeth and talons the size of full grown men. This dragon had claws which it could at best use to scratch the scales behind its pointy ears, and while it did have sharp teeth, it had developed a liking for vegetarian options, particularly bounties of fruits and steamed root vegetables. It liked to add in the occasional pot roast or succulent grilled chicken, but on the whole it preferred the colorful, leafy kind of food.
This dragon was named Sam, and his mountain was Etenmoot in the north of a green land. The halls in which it basked were grandiose, with thick columns supporting vaulted ceilings and little walkways criss-crossing from place to place. Now, you may say you’ve never seen such a mountain, much less one filled with gold and jewels. Well, you’d be right. But Etenmoot was not a mountain like many others. In a bygone age, dwarves - yes, dwarves! had trudged along those walkways and carved out these great halls. There had been parties of mythical magnificence thrown here. Now, dwarves have long since left the world to an unknown fate, and Sam had stumbled upon this ancient city while exploring the mountain range for homes.
“Pure serendipity,” said Edward - his dragon-friend.
The serendipity meant Sam had lived a long, fruitful life. Dragons can live for thousands of years, and in those years a village had sprung up in the valley below Sam’s abode. For some time, Sam had watched its people mingle about their days, building a mill upon the river, clearing out little bits of forest for their crops. Not being particularly hungry, Sam never thought to approach them. However, one day a strong breeze was blowing up from the valley, and the scent of freshly baked garlic asparagus and sweet potatoes wafted up to the entrance of his cave.
“My, what an enchanting aroma!” Sam said, and he felt hunger gnaw at him. Without thinking, he unfurled his wings and glided down to the village.
Chaos ensued, for even though Sam was perfectly pleasant, the sight of his giant body descending from the mountains was enough to make even the most lion-hearted man panic. He soon found himself staring down about sixty men with an assortment of pitchforks, swords, and bows, none of which would have hurt him in the slightest.
“Dragon!” cried the largest of the men, who also wore a golden circlet on his head.
Sam raised his eyebrows and said, “Wait! I mean you no harm.”
Surprised to find that a dragon could speak their language, the villagers paused and looked to their leader. “What do you want?” he asked suspiciously.
Abashed, Sam said, “Something smelled good down here, such that I have never smelled before.”
“What would that be? The scent of humans?”
Sam shook his large head. “No, no… something roasted on a fire.”
The leader looked to his men. “Was anyone preparing for the feast tonight?”
One man raised a trembling hand. “My wife was making asparagus and sweet potatoes.”
“Bring them here,” barked the leader.
“Now, now, there’s no need for that tone,” reproached Sam.
Soon, a woman came out of a little hut bearing a tray of sizzling food. As soon as the steam hit Sam’s wide nose, he smiled and said, “Yes, that’s it! So this is called asparagus and sweet potatoes?”
“Yes it is,” said the leader. “Now, if we relent to give you this food, will you leave us forever?”
“Oh I would not dream of taking it from you,” said Sam. He used his claws to dig at the scales on his underbelly, from which a shower of gold coins fell to the ground. The villagers gaped and Sam said, “I would be happy to pay for it, and for your friendship, if you’d like.”
“Friendship?” said the leader haughtily. “No village I have ever heard of has become friends with a dragon.”
“Yes,” said Sam sadly. “My fellow dragons do not like the warmth this far south-” a cold breeze made the men shiver, “-but I find it tolerable. Besides, the dwarven gold deposit is something I could not deny.”
“Well yes; where do you think all of this came from?” asked Sam, gesturing at the glittering stuff underneath him. “It gets caught in my scales a lot… Quite a bother, actually.”
Perhaps it was a mark of the strength of this man that he did not immediately raise his men to raid the cave, for they most certainly would have been destroyed in the fight, but instead chose to extend his hand and said, “I am William, and this is the village Stera, our home. We would be delighted to make your acquaintance.”
Sam gingerly extended a single talon and shook William’s tiny hand. The villagers gave him the food in exchange for the heap of gold, and so the relationship was bound.
Now of course, as with all relationships there are moments of hardship, but for the most part Sam was able to watch the village prosper over the years into a large city. It had survived wars in which kings had implored Sam to rain fire down upon their enemies, which he did not do, and there had been many attempts by thieves to get the gold from Sam’s cave. However, the path to the cave’s entrance was treacherous at best, and so only three men had ever survived to see the dwarven city, and none held their ground if Sam so much as looked at them.
Now the time had come for the next in William’s line to lead the city, which was now the capital of a kingdom. Sam had learned a lot about men in his centuries watching over the people of Stera, and most of it had made him sad, for the gold that Sam hoarded in his mountain was no longer of great intrigue to him. Even for a dragon, he was getting old, and he knew the time would come soon where he would return north to die with his kind.
The gold in his mountain would have doubled the wealth of the nation below, but he had deliberately stopped himself from giving them great sums, instead choosing to let them have little trickles of gold in exchange for things like roast vegetables, for he knew that above all, greed festered in the hearts of humans.
He had seen every new king be crowned, and tomorrow he would see it again, and every last one had asked for a large chunk of gold. Some disguised it by saying they wanted no more, but none refused and all held Sam in great regard for his wealth.
What was he to do? His friend Edward had visited again just a week prior and had advised him to bring the gold northward to their dragon-home, where it could be enjoyed by all dragons, young and old alike, who coveted shiny things. But how was Sam to carry it? Even after centuries of giving it remained sizable enough for him to sleep on as a rounded mattress.
“Trust me,” Edward had said, “the men down there don’t deserve this gold.”
But he offered no solution to the problem of carrying it hundreds of miles north, so Sam bade his friend goodbye and returned to pondering his dilemma.
The people of Stera relied on the gold from Sam to continue their lives, so would it really be wrong to give it all to them? Perhaps not, but he was no longer convinced of their altruism as he had been during the days of William the First. When the village had little more than a few paddocks of animals and some rows of crops, there was no harm which could afoul the hearts of the men who resided there. Yet after centuries of wars and expansion, Sam had seen the kings of Stera destroy villages all over the countryside, enveloping them into their land. Did he really want to fuel the fire of war?
Sam flew down from his cave on the next day to see King Richard crowned. A special place had been made for him in what was called the Hall of Dragons. It was made of white stone and had pillars as tall as those in the dwarven city. Sam sat in his usual seat, hundreds of civilians craning their necks to see over the armor of tall soldiers as the king walked down a long carpet. His father, now quite old, sat upon the throne with the crown in his hands.
Trumpets played a hopeful melody, and the old King, helped to his feet by his top advisors, placed the crown upon his kneeling son’s head.
There was some speech about honor, valor, and humility. Sam had heard many such speeches and was trying not to fall asleep. As was custom, the new King came up to him after the ceremony and bowed deeply, and for this Sam was obligated to bestow upon them several hundred gold coins from his scales as a present.
His eyes met Richard’s, and he caught himself in the moment looking at a young man with tenacity, and a will to do what was right. This gave him pause, for he had been so used to kings having the veiled greed in their gaze as they looked upon the rich dragon. It seemed that Richard lacked this trait.
The dragon did not stay for the evening’s revelries; he took his large ration of his favorite foods back up to his cave and enjoyed them in silence. It wasn’t until later that night, when sleep was just beginning to wash over him, that he was awoken by a ringing sound on the rock. Sam stood on his haunches, recognizing the sound as boots upon stone, and he thought that once again some robber had come to quarrel over his lot. He used one of his claws to push a button on the right side of the hall. By the ingenuity of dwarves, sparks lit several hundred lanterns along the walls and on the ceiling in quick succession, bathing the hall in a warm yellow glow only amplified by the pile of gold.
Sam’s eyes searched for the intruder for a while. He was looking near the shadowy edges of the room - near all the pillars and stairwells. That was where criminals usually lingered, after all. However, a light at the center quickly drew his gaze. Before him, to his great surprise, stood King Richard, a torch in one hand and his other raised in a gesture of peace.
He wasn’t wearing any kingly clothes - just a black coat over dark trousers and climbing boots. He bowed to Sam and said, “Please, excuse my interruption.”
“Never before has a King of Stera come here,” said Sam dubiously. “The way is dangerous.”
Richard shrugged. “I spent my early years climbing everything I could get my hands on, away from my mother’s prying eyes, of course.”
“I was under the assumption that Kings are usually well-guarded. How did you slip away?”
“It was not easy. I had to wait until the zenith of the night’s darkness, and fortunately it’s a new moon and the stars are veiled by clouds.”
The next question was perhaps the most pertinent to Sam. “Why have you come, Richard?”
“I know what you think,” said Richard candidly, putting down his free hand. “You think I am here for your gold - that I come to beseech upon you a case of charity.”
“Yes, that is what I think,” said Sam. “Or at least, I do not think you are here to clear away my empty trays of food.”
Richard smiled. “You are right on the second count, but I am not here to seek your gold. In fact, I am here to be rid of it.”
“Oh?” Sam’s heart thudded under his hard scales.
Nodding, Richard said, “Indeed. I have studied dragons for many years. They are not common in this part of the country. I was under the impression that most of your kind live in the far, far north, past the glaciers of ice and the frozen mountains which render our kind at an impasse.”
“That is correct,” said Sam. “Naradhas, we call it. The cold quells the fires of young dragons and steels the hearts of the elders until it is time for them to pass on.”
“And I have also studied all the records of your residence here,” said Richard. “You are getting quite old for a dragon, are you not?”
“Old, but still spry,” said Sam.
Richard gave a dry laugh and said, “Indeed.”
“What does this have to do with the gold?”
“Quite simply, I know you must be wondering what to do with it, for in this century or the next your life will end, and with it will end any protection upon this wealth. The way may be dangerous for us now, but I’m sure once the first man comes back with a bag full of gold unperturbed by your death, then hordes of others will attempt it. I fear for that day, for I know what men can be when greed drives them. I have seen it in my father and his father…” He looked at a loss for words, but then added, “I have spent my entire adult life trying to make Stera a rich kingdom, independent of your influence.”
“But your family still accepted my gifts,” said Sam.
“Of course, and I will too, if you do not accept my proposal, but know that I succeeded.” A glint of pride lined Richard’s blue eyes. “We do not need your charity to thrive as a kingdom anymore - not that we don’t appreciate it.”
“So that means-”
“That means, my dear dragon, that you are free of any burden to help us,” said Richard proudly.
Sam frowned, his teeth showing at the front of his mouth. To be sure, he did not know how to feel about this information, for while the issue of his gold had been troubling him for a while, he had grown used to this relationship with Stera, where he showered them with occasional gold and they gave to him the best food he could ask for. To hear that it was no longer necessary hurt him in some way, but he quickly put on a smile and said, “I am happy for you. That can’t have been easy.”
“It wasn’t, and as I said, if you choose to continue your gift-giving I will gladly accept, but know that it will only be used to further the opulence of already gilded halls, which I hardly think is a noble cause.”
“You mentioned you had a proposal,” said Sam. “What is it?”
“Ah, yes,” Richard grinned. “Now, I want you to be with your family when you… are in the last stages of your life. So, I propose you take whatever gold and jewels there are here and melt them.”
“Melt them?” repeated Sam, tilting his head.
“The world knows no fire hotter than dragon-fire. It can melt even jewels. So, before you go, use your fire to melt all the gold in this city. Make it run through the halls and through any crevices in the rock. Then, smash these columns as you leave.” Richard pointed to the columns around the chamber. “It is sure to bring the rocks down upon this treasure.”
“How can my last act in this city, which I have seen grow from such humble beginnings, be of violence?” asked Sam. He did not want to destroy much of anything these days.
“It must be,” said Richard. “I will inform the citizens of Stera that it was a quake which destroyed the hall, and that you took your leave with me in private. It may be a little difficult for them to understand how a dragon secured a private meeting with me, but I can convince them of it. I will tell them the truth; that you have moved on to live with your kind as you… prepare for your next journey. Years will pass as men try to ascend the mountain. Decades will pass before they learn the wealth they seek lies behind solid rock, and still more will pass before our mining tools are good enough to break through to any new veins of gold you have created here. I may not even be king anymore, then.”
“But if they still find my- ah,” said Sam, finally understanding. “You wish for them to find it slowly, and with decades of hard work behind it.”
“I have been over the plan in my head many times,” said Richard. “It’s sure to work.”
Sam looked past the young king now and envisioned that home he hadn’t seen in over a thousand years. He could almost feel the comforting chill of that ice on his scales again. He turned back to Richard and said, “You are wise beyond your years, young man. I accept your offer, and am glad to have had the opportunity to know you.”
Richard bowed deeply. “It is I who should be grateful to you, Sam. Without you, this kingdom would not be what it is now.”
“Then I will take my leave in the early morning,” said Sam. “No sense in lingering on goodbyes.”
“Goodbye then, noble dragon.”
And so the king made his way back down to his people, still cloaked against prying eyes, and in the wee hours of the morning, as dawn was just creeping over the horizon, Stera felt the ground shake as Sam slipped out of Etenmoot, unfurling his wings and beginning the long, humble flight northward, to his home.