8. Politics and Religion

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"We have convened this emergency council to discuss the dire happenings that have befallen our peaceful town," Kadav began.

"I thought we was going to talk about the dragon!" came a slurred voice.

"Yes, Bert, the happenings brought about by the dragon. Now, for the first order of business—"

There was sharp disagreement as to what the first order of business ought to be. Voices piled on top of each other in their rush to be heard.

"Order! Order, I say!" Kadav hammered the skillet until the room rang like a bell tower after a plague. "Honorable citizens of Manfred's Mill, I enjoin you not to speak out of turn! As mayor of this town, no one understands more than I the hardship and loss you have suffered at the claws of this dragon. But this is no time to dwell upon our own private trials and tempestations. We must not allow ourselves to be tossed about like moths on the winds of change but unite and join wills like an invincible army of mighty conquerors. For only then will we overcome this most fearsome of foes, this most abominable of abominations, this spawn of Ord that would dare threaten our families, homes and peaceful way of life." Projected through the gravy funnel, his voice reverberated like the utterance of a celestial being. "Yea, even as our forefathers raised this town from the very dirt with their own blood and sweat mixed in the mortar, so we too, like the legendary phoenix, will rise again on the wings of dawn!"

A hundred brows furrowed in unison as the mayor's eloquence wove its stupefying spell. Bert, who was already immersed in a stupor all his own, was largely immune to its effect. "What's a phoenix?" he asked.

Slightly winded, Kadav lowered the speech cone. "A legendary bird that's reborn from the flames of its demise."

There was a chorus of comprehending ahhhs.

"Can it kill a dragon?" Bert asked.

"That's not important. What is important is that we all band together."

"But if we don't get us one of these here phoenixes, what are we going to fight the dragon with?"

"If I may be so bold?" broke in the priest. He was a diminutive figure, mostly bald apart from a drab halo of hair and mostly plump apart from the spindly bird feet that poked out the bottom of his dingy brown robes. There was nothing diminutive about his voice, however. Naturally deep and sonorous, it needed no gravy funnel to fill every nook and cranny of the tavern.

The priest continued, "The holy scroll cautions us not to place our trust in the counsel of men, whose wisdom is tenuous as ripples in the sand. Every man should purify his heart and repent of his misdeeds. Then perhaps Rhojë, in his great mercy, will heed our pleas for deliverance."

"Chick'nspit 'n hogswaller!" Bursack the Younger, one of five brothers of the same name, shouted out in his backwoods drawl.

If there was one thing the mayor and priest could agree on, it was their opinion of the Bursacks; they were a clan of degenerates without a redeeming trait or a good set of teeth between them. They lived beyond the river and kept mostly to themselves except for town meetings and festivals, which they attended religiously, knowing the mayor would sacrifice a cask of summer ale just to be rid of them. In his own way, Bursack the Younger was just reminding the mayor of their agreement. But this time Kadav was inclined to let them run amok. He had little ale to spare after the looting, and he was curious to see how the priest would deal with the incorrigible Bursacks who provided such rich fodder for his sermons. Indeed, if there was ever a good time to have a Bursack around, it might just be now.

"Jez cuz sum fire-spittin' dragon burnz up a houz o' two and goze skinny with thiz here bakin' wench, now we allz suppozed to up an' git relijun'? Why, tha' don' make a jug o' senz ta me."

"Nor ta me nay-thur, gaw-demmit!" Bursack the Wilder chimed in.

"Tame your tongue!" chastened the priest. "If there's one thing I can't abide in this world, it's a foul tongue."

"And if there's a dem thing ah cain' be abidin', itz sum dem preezt tellin' me wot ah cain' an' cain't do with mah own gaw-dem tung." Bursack the Younger showed off his full arsenal of shattered brown teeth.

"Dem right!" added Bursack the Taller, but it was Bursack the Wilder that really put the flame to the fuse. "It wuz th' dem preezt dun sic the dragon on us hizzelf! I'd lay a jug o' wheezy on it."

The center of the priest's halo flushed crimson. "Don't be a fool! Of course I didn't call down a dragon on the town."

"Ah don' care if youz a preezt or the fornee-catin' Queen of Kaplutin', ain' no one call no Bursack no fool ta hiz face." With his brothers pushing him on from behind, the Wilder began to jostle his way through the crowd which, for its part, jostled right back amid much clamor and cursing. Kadav banged the frying pan with the potato masher, but it was no use. The crowd was working itself up into a regular fighting frenzy. Any second now fists and barstools would start flying.

In all the pandemonium, no one saw the newcomer enter, but anyone with a functioning nasal passage became instantly aware of a new presence in their midst, though whether it be man, beast or week-old carcass left to rot was anyone's guess. A pall of stink rippled across the room. Men locked in struggle released each other to prize their noses shut. The tavern became quiet as a chapel after a call for alms. Someone retched.

From his vantage atop the hearth, Kadav could make out an old man standing in a semi-circular clearing just inside the door. "Orduvan's horns," he swore through the hand covering his mouth. "Old man of the hills, is that you?"

"In the flesh," the intruder piped cheerily, beating dirt off his walking stick against the back of a vacated chair. "Hope I didn't miss anything important. What with these rusty old joints, I don't get around quite like I used to."

"That smell," Kadav cringed. "Mar-Jerrel and all the blessed martyrs—what is that smell?"

The old man sniffed the air with the desiccated tuber that passed for a nose. "Oh, that," he grinned sheepishly. "Had a little run-in with a skunk on the way over. Afraid I gave the poor creature a bit of a startle."

"Yes, well, can you—" Kadav made a shooing motion toward the door. "You can look in from the window."

"Oh, of course," said the old man. "I didn't mean to impose upon your fine establishment in such a disagreeable state, but there was this one-horse cart outside..." He held up a length of frayed rope. "The horse bit through its tether and took off like a bat out of Ord. Say, you don't suppose the skunk smell had anything to do with it?"

As everyone else either lived within walking distance or had the good sense to tether their horses a safe distance away, the one-horse cart could only have belonged to the Bursacks. The horse was close as kin to them, every bit as ill-tempered and rot-toothed as its masters; it even received an equal share of the bribe ale. Its sudden flight caused quite the stir among the Bursack clan, who stumbled over themselves in their rush to quit the tavern and chase after it. The sounds of their hollering could be heard fading away down the street.

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