0 (the dragon)
And once upon a time, the villagers used to say, there was a dragon that lived at the bottom of that cave, yes the one over there. It would steal maidens. Of course, those days are long gone now, they said. But things like dragons don't go away just because people stop believing, and people don't stop believing just because things like dragons have gone away.
And upon any time that a young woman would be lost, killed, or harmed in any way, the old folks would nod their heads and say wise words about the nature of dragons, and the young boys would hunt and kill the little brown lizards that hid in rock walls in that part of the country, as if those harmless creatures were to blame for looking like dragons. It was easier than entering the cave to face the supposed dragon directly.
1 (the knight of the Dying God)
The legend spread as legends will far beyond that village, to places its inhabitants had never visited nor imagined, and sooner or later a knight arrived, driven by duty or something - he never discussed his motivations. This was a knight of the Dying God. He was a fat man, middle-aged and out of shape, and the villagers found it hard to believe he was a knight at all; but they greeted and feasted him well, because hospitality was valued in those parts and they were grateful of the diversion. A maiden had been taken by the dragon only a few days before the knight's arrival, so even if this was an unimpressive knight, they were glad to have a knight at all. Even so, loud snickering could be heard on Sunday morning when the knight spent several hours on his knees in the cathedral of St. George, praying for success and many other things; the villagers could not take the knight's faith seriously.
The legend told later was that on Sunday afternoon the knight rode to the cave on a fat pony borrowed from his hosts. The pony balked a mile from the dragon's cave and the knight was forced to dismount and waddle the rest of the way under his own power. He entered and the villagers watched, breathless, from the nearby rocks. After an hour or so the maiden emerged, striding tall and alone from the long diagonal slit of the cave's opening. She was tight-lipped and angry, and when they greeted her she met them with a harsh description of her lonely ordeal, her daring escape, and the lack of any rescue. When sunset brought the night, and the knight of the Dying God finally emerged from the dragon's lair, they had all left. He walked off unthanked into the Sunday evening darkness, knowing the credit due him but unwilling to claim it. He muttered a litany of complaints under his breath as he walked, but only St. George heard, and He didn't take it seriously.
2 (the knight of Fire)
People thought in those days that life was self-creating under the right circumstances; like maggots and later flies on a piece of meat left outside. They thought that the Creator had formed a world of unliving mud and then plants, animals, and yes, even people, just showed up. "When there was a place for human beings," they said, "there we were!" One evening when there was a place for a knight of Fire, there he was. The place happened to be the council cellar, where men gathered to drink, and the knight (although nobody remembered this) had been a field worker of no particular note until he stood on a table and addressed the crowd. He said they had suffered the dragon long enough, indeed too long, and what would they do about it? Between strong words and strong drink he convinced a dozen of the village's strongest young men to join him in overthrowing the evil. They planned to go on a Saturday.
On that day the men thought that they were invincible; so strong was their faith in their brotherhood. They had torches, and they had scythes. One had an old family sword which had hung over his fireplace since the days when he was an infant playing on the hearthrug below it. The knight, whom the others were already addressing as "Sir", led them single file into the cave. He was wearing heavy leather, the closest thing to proper armour that the village could supply. The cave was deep and winding, and as they delved deeper and deeper, some of the company turned back, afraid. When the cave opened into a grotto lit by a pool of molten rock, there were only five left. When the knight who knew something about Fire declared that he intended to keep going, right over the lava, all the others left him to face the dragon alone, which he did. In a single breath all his armour and equipment was burned away, but his faith had been well-placed. His body was unharmed. With nothing left, he was impotent to do anything except walk, all the way back to the surface in the dark. The next day, he returned to his work in the fields without a word and nobody questioned him, but every once in a while in subsequent years his drinking companions would notice an odd glint of flame in his eye as he sat nursing a beer in the darkness of the council cellar.
3 (the knight who was to be a Wife of God)
It was the destiny of the third knight to be a Wife of God, but destiny doesn't always work out as planned. It was on a Friday with the moon in exactly the wrong phase that the convent on the hill missed a novitiate at evening prayers. The nuns were called out to search the countryside in the deepening gloom, militant and armed with sticks. They were unaware that after a difficult interview with the Abbot that morning, their young sister had come to doubt her vocation, and had ridden off on her own account. The dragon had had nothing to do with the matter, and was hiding asleep in the deepest crack of the cave that night. The nuns explored the cave, shouting and banging their sticks on the walls, but found nothing, and they told themselves in congratulatory tones as they left that the strength of their sisterhood had overthrown the evil. It didn't matter that their claimed goal, of recovering the maiden, had gone unfulfilled.
It was the longest ride in the direction this knight chose on that Friday night, and her adventures over the following years are the subject of other stories. Eventually she reached the same village again, having been everywhere else, but she was so old by this time that nobody recognized her. She lived in the forest all alone, left out food for the lizards, and the peasants whispered that she was a witch and in league with the dragon. Actually, she was.
4 (the knight of Earth)
On a hot, muggy evening, a thin man with a scarred face and a sour look showed up on the main road of the village, pulling a cart. A crowd gathered and when he judged the timing was perfect, he began opening the little doors built into the cart, to display the wares inside. He had potions and nostrums, bolts of fabric imported from far away, trinkets and toys. But it was his smooth talk that delighted the villagers most. He had a gentle voice despite his appearance. Ever eager for a break in the routine, they were happy to pay him more than his merchandise was worth, just for the diversion and the stories he told. None of the villagers was able to interpret the hereldic design painted on the front of the cart, and they wouldn't have cared anyway if they had known that they were dealing with one of the last of the true knights of Earth, one who had lead thousands of faceless warriors across dozens of unnamed battlefields before the end of the great war reduced him to the status of a common trader. They didn't know that many of his stories, and the claims he made about his products, were literally true.
On a cold clear Thursday morning, with a steady biting wind, the knight of Earth left his room at the inn and pulled his cart through the village one last time. It was considerably lighter than it had been when he arrived, but not quite empty - it never did to allow one's stock to run out completely. The coins in his money pouch weighed comfortably on his thigh, and he whistled a little tune as he marched along. At midday he reached the diagonal mouth of a cave, of course the lair of the dragon, but he hadn't been warned, and thinking of a few minutes' respite from the wind, he entered the narrow opening, pulling the cart in behind him. It barely fit. The knight was startled when he discovered the dragon in the cave, but he had not become what he was by allowing himself to be overcome by surprises. He turned the situation to his advantage, and when he left, he had sparkling gems in his money pouch to keep the coins company, and his cart was fully empty of merchandise.
5 (the knight of Air)
Nobody remembered how the knight of Air arrived on a Wednesday morning. Perhaps he coalesced directly out of the Air, like a dew drop. At one moment he was present, and nobody could remember exactly when he had not been there. This knight was only a child; he wore brilliantly coloured armour and rode a fantastic white horse with a spiralling horn jutting from its forehead. He laughed and shouted and the people all loved him. When evening came and the knight was ready to ride to the cave, a committee of village women tried to dissuade him, fearing for his young life; but he only laughed.
Nobody knew exactly what passed between the knight and the dragon that night. When he stumbled out of the cave in the morning, a girl who had been tending sheep in a nearby field happened to see him. She said that the knight had aged years in one night, and grown so that his coloured armour no longer fit. He had an unreadable look on his face and seemed as if drunk. There was no sign of his magical horse. He walked off slowly, towards the forest. As he reached the shadows of the trees, the girl said, he appeared to take wings and fly into the sky - but the villagers did not believe that part of her story.
6 (the knight of Water)
Dragon hunting is no profession for cowards, and the sixth knight was a coward. He was a knight of Water, which some say is no kind of knight at all. He looked genuine enough when he rode in, however, with the sunlight glinting on all the metal parts of his horse's harness. He wore rusty, stinking chain mail, and declared himself the equal of not only any dragon, but also ogres, dwarves, and many other fantastic creatures. So the villagers were happy to receive him. They set him up in a room at the inn, and waited eagerly while he claimed to be "getting the feel of the place, and sizing up the worm from a distance". But the days passed and he gave no indication that he would actually be doing anything soon except eat their food and drink their beer. Whispers began to spread - when will he go to the cave and do his job? But the knight was always ready with an excuse.
The village was no place for freeloaders, and the knight of Water was a freeloader. He was overstaying his welcome. Early on a Tuesday morning the villagers got tired of waiting for him to do his job, and they got into his room at the inn, rousted him out of bed, and informed him that the time had come. He tried to make excuses, but they weren't having any, and almost before he knew it he found himself at the cave mouth, with two dozen village men who claimed that they wanted to watch him do battle, "for their own education". The knight walked into the cave, his knees shaking a little, and pretty soon walked out again, claiming (with poorly-hidden relief in his voice) that there was no dragon inside. "You'd better have another look," he was told firmly. So he went back into the cave, a little deeper this time, and waited a while before coming out. "The dragon must be out hunting," he said, "You can go home, I'll wait here for it to return." "No, you wait inside the cave," they said, "If the dragon shows up, we'll be sure to send it straight in for you." So he had to go in again, and sit in the dark, waiting. Every hour or so he'd peek out the entrance, but the villagers were still there, so he had to stay. They had built a fire and were sitting around it, singing songs and passing a bottle. The knight who knew Water also knew that he wasn't welcome to join them. Finally, as dawn was breaking he saw that they had gone. He walked as fast as he could in the direction opposite that of the village, and was never seen there again.
7 (the knight of Nothing)
The scaly skin, the breath of flame, the theft of maidens - those are the defining attributes of dragons. Everyone knows all about dragons. Knights are more unusual creations, and late one evening an especially unusual knight entered the village public house. He was a knight of Nothing, in black-painted armour with no insignia or decoration; but he had picked a local wildflower and stuck it into the place on his helmet where a plume would normally go. When he flipped up his visor to speak to the people, they saw a mild round face inside; he looked like any average villager. Perhaps that was why he wore the black armour all the time, even (so the storytellers claimed later) to bed at night. Without it, there would be no way to tell that he was a knight of Nothing.
But even strange knights do have defining attributes, such as loyalty, chivalry, and valour. Even if nobody understands that, it is still true. On a Monday morning shortly after his arrival, this knight of Nothing walked slowly to the cave of the dragon, to do battle. They had given him a sword, made by the blacksmith from brittle local iron, and it wasn't very good but it was better than nothing and he was grateful for it. He had not told anyone when he planned to leave, so it was not until hours later that they realised he had gone. They could find no trace of him and assumed he had been killed. However, from that time on, they noticed that no maidens vanished; perhaps, they said, the knight had slain the dragon but died in the attempt, and they said prayers for his soul in the church. One fine morning a maiden, feeling empowered to walk where she pleased by the presumed death of the dragon, was walking near the cave and suddenly stopped short. There, standing just in front of the slit, was the knight of Nothing! She ran up to him, but he did not move or respond. When her shouts failed to register, she reached up and plucked the flower from the top of his helmet - and then her hand struck the helmet, knocking it off, and the entire suit of armour collapsed in a pile at her feet. The suit had been standing empty. She went home, subdued, and told the story. Two nights later she vanished mysteriously from her bed in her family's locked cottage, and from then on the dragon was back, as active as ever.
8 (the knight of the Living God)
How many years have passed since the days of knights and dragons? I can't number them with my fingers or counting stones. What I can tell you is that some time later, it was years but don't ask me how many, a knight of the Living God arrived at the dragon's cave on a bright Sunday morning. The dragon had long since gone away, so the knight entered the cave as its new master and lived there the rest of his days.
Where do dragons come from? I couldn't walk there on my feet, or ride to the place on a horse. Maybe I can give you a dragon made out of words, and set it against knights made out of stories. You could tell me that those are the best kind, or the only kind that exist in our days. But then again, you could say that dragons are giant lizards that live in caves, breathe fire, and steal maidens, as much a part of the Living God's world as the little brown lizards that hide in rock walls. Maybe the eight knights of the dragon had real flesh and blood like you and me. Dragons and knights are tricky creations; it's hard to know for sure.