The lord looked out a window of his magnificent castle and nodded at the fluffy white clouds below him, all brilliantly lit by the winter sun. The clouds looked like snow, and that was all the more he needed of snow. A lackey had told him that it was snowing in the valley, which was the best place for snow.
Still, it was cold, and the fire in his bedroom would need tending soon. He walked across the expanse of the room so he could look out another window. He often did so to watch the endless line of peasants as they walked out of the clouds – or on a clear day, the treeline – bearing the things he required. They regularly brought food and water and wood, piled high on their backs. As each one deposited his load in the assigned place, he was given a small coin – and only one: the lord kept close track of his money, and none of his lackeys were generous with it more than once. Then the peasant joined the line going back down the hill. Strange how their backs were still bent even though they had been relieved of their burdens. Who could understand the ways of peasants?
The lord looked out the window.
* * *
There was always talk of revolution. Talk, and more talk, and nothing but talk, always talk, always in circles. And the tithes were paid, and the things the lord in his mountaintop castle needed continued to go up to him on backs that remained bent for the entire journey.
One day, a stranger came to town and heard the talk.
“The lord has everything and many of us have nothing,” a man of the village complained yet again.
“And what are we going to do about it?” another man asked wearily. “How can we slay a dragon?”
The stranger, from his corner table at the public inn, spoke: “It is not necessary to kill a dragon.”
Heads turned toward the unfamiliar voice and the room grew quiet. Seeing that he had an audience, the stranger continued.
“Dragons have their uses,” he said. “One does not wish to kill a dragon; one merely wishes to keep the dragon from killing others. One wishes to keep the dragon from taking more than what he needs.”
“Do tell us, herder of dragons,” a man said to general laughter, “how does one control a dragon?”
“By feeding him less.”
The stranger fell quiet, as though he had made his point and had said all he wished to say.
“Speak more!” a woman called out. “What do you mean, ‘by feeding him less’?”
“I mean what I say. If you take less food up the mountain, if you take less water up the mountain, if you take less wood up the mountain, your dragon will weaken. He will have no choice but to offer you more for what you are willing to give him.”
“He will have plenty of choice, and his choice will be to send his army to crush us and take what he wants.”
“Are not your own sons his army?”
“And does your dragon command more love from your sons than you yourselves?”
The people in the inn considered this, looking from one neighbor’s face to another.
“The lord takes good care of his army. He pays his soldiers well. They have the best of food. They have warm, dry barracks to sleep in.”
“The money they receive comes from their families,” the stranger said. “They eat the food their families grow and take up the mountain. They sleep in the barracks their families built, heated with the wood their families take up the mountain.”
The people considered this in dozens of hushed conversations with those sitting or standing nearby. One of them stood abruptly.
“The stranger is right. Why should we ruin ourselves for the lord on his mountain? Our lives could better. He can pay what our work is worth!”
“If the lord had less, we would have more.”
“We are many! Even if our sons did stand against us, together we outnumber the lord and his army!”
“So many of us would die, though. How much blood are you willing to spill for the hope of something we might not get?”
“We have always served the lord on his mountain. This is how things are. Do not upset the natural way of things.”
“If I did not sell my goods to the lord, I would have no money. Are you going to buy them? No. The lord is gracious enough to purchase what I take him. Maybe it isn’t a lot of money, but has anyone ever thought himself overpaid?”
“Some of us still do very well for ourselves, even with our work and tithes to the lord. You are threatening me more than you are him. If you worked as hard and as smart as I do, you could be wealthier. All this talk is just about jealousy and sloth!”
The stranger tapped on his table for attention.
“All this talk is about one thing: Will you serve yourselves, or will you continue to serve the dragon?”
The stranger had been in many towns and talked thus with many people. He sat perfectly still, waiting to see how the future would unfold.
* * *
The twin lines of bent peasants – one emerging from the snow-filled clouds, and one filing back into those clouds – continued unabated. The lord drew in a deep, satisfied breath.
A lackey tentatively opened the door of his lord’s chamber, bearing a well-laden breakfast tray. The lord noticed just enough that the lackey continued into the room and set the tray exactly where he had every day before.
Just before the lackey left the great bedroom, the lord made a small motion toward the fireplace. The lackey bowed his understanding and went to fetch more wood.
The lord watched the peasants for a moment longer. Then he dismissed them from his mind and went to enjoy his breakfast.