A long, long time ago in the land called Poland, there was a Prince called Krak who built a castle on a hill called Vavel near the river Vistula and invited people from all over to come and live nearby.
You see, the land near the river was a very good place for a city. There were broad fields that were just right for growing crops and grassy meadows for raising sheep. The woods nearby were full of berry bushes for making kompot to drink and sweet jams and jellies. Prince Krak told everybody that if they would come to live near his castle, he and his knights would protect them from anybody who wanted to take their land and sheep away from them. For you know, that as soon as people begin to make life better for themselves, someone will want to come and take what they have from them if they can.
So, hardworking and honest men and women from many different places came to the city of Krak. First farmers and shepherds, and then as time went on, weavers to make cloth from the wool of the sheep, carpenters and brickmakers to make houses and furniture, shoemakers, tailors, brewers and merchants.
The Visla was broad and deep near the city and the proud men of the mountains would come down every year on their rafts made of logs to sell in the great port of Gdansk on the Baltic Sea. They would stop in the city of Krak to rest and buy food for their journey. The people of the city would sell them fine woolen cloth to take with them on their rafts to sell to the merchants in Gdansk. The merchants would sell it to ship captains to take to all the cities around the Baltic Sea.
So the city that Prince Krak founded grew and the people who settled there called it Krakow. Prince Krak married and had a beautiful daughter called Wanda.
Now in Krakow there lived an honest and hardworking shoemaker. He came to the city when he heard how Prince Krak had invited men and women who wanted to live in peace and enjoy what they earned. He thought, “If there are going to be many people in the new city, they will surely want shoes.” So he came to the city with his cobbler’s tools and set himself up as a shoemaker. And because he worked very hard and was a very skilled shoemaker, his business grew and in time he married and had a son and a daughter called Jan and Agnieszka.
Now the shoemaker wanted his son to be a shoemaker like himself and he thought it would be a good idea if his daughter married a shoemaker or a wool merchant. But his son Jan dreamed of being a knight and joining the company of Prince Krak in his castle on Vavel Hill. His daughter Agnieszka though, had a talent for business like her mother and thought that it would be nice to run a business like her mother ran her family’s shoe shop.
Jan practiced every day with a wooden sword and tried hard to live up to the Code of the Knights of Wawel: to be gentle and polite to ladies, to protect the helpless and help those who were poor and hungry. So one day he brought home a small boy with no home or family. “I found this boy sleeping in doorways and doing odd jobs for his food. A true knight protects the weak and helpless so I brought him home to stay.”
The shoemaker’s wife said, “Why look at the boy, he’s just skin and bones. Let’s see if we can fatten him up a bit and make a shoemaker’s helper out of him.” “Oh do Papa!” his daughter cried, “You know you always say that you’re not getting any younger and need some help.”
“Well,” said the kind-hearted shoemaker, “I suppose that since Jan is always off watching the knights at practice when I need somebody to help me in the shop, he might be of some help in the business. Do you think you could learn a shoemaker’s trade boy?” “Yes sir,” the boy replied “I’m very good with my hands and I can work hard.”
“What’s your name boy?” asked the shoemaker.
“Sir, most people call me ‘Hey You’.”
“That’s no name for a boy, we’ll call you Dratevka.” Dratevka means a shoemaker’s thread.
Dratevka came to live with the shoemaker’s family and worked hard to learn the shoemaker’s trade. The shoemaker’s wife made sure he learned to read, write and do arithmetic, for as she always said, “It’s no good just to work hard and do a good job. If you can’t read the contracts and keep the account books you’ll always be working for somebody else.”
Life was good in Krakow but no good time lasts forever. One day a dragon who lived far away on Bald Mountain heard of the fat sheep all around the city of Krakow. He had eaten almost all of the sheep in the villages around Bald Mountain and the villagers had become so poor that most of them moved away and didn’t even try to keep sheep or farm around the mountain anymore. And besides, when dragons run out of sheep they often turn to eating young girls, though as a rule they prefer sheep because sheep are not very intelligent and don’t know enough to look out for hungry dragons.
You see, dragons are very greedy and rather stupid. They generally don’t know enough to leave people with enough sheep to raise more sheep, so they always have to move somewhere else. This could explain why you don’t see many dragons nowadays.
The first time the people of Krakow saw the dragon was on one fine summer day when a great dark shape flew out of the clear sky and set the roofs of the city on fire with his breath. As the men and women of the city rushed about, gathering into their fire brigades, the dragon perched on the tower above the city gate and roared.
“Now that I have your attention,” he bellowed, “I want you to know that I am coming here to live. I have found a very nice cave by the river, at the bottom of the castle hill. I want a fat sheep every day, delivered to my doorstep so I don’t have to fly about looking for them. If you don’t bring me a sheep every day well, next to sheep I like tender young girls best.”
And with that he flew off to start decorating his new cave with stolen treasure he picked up from houses and churches he burned down. Dragons love bright and glittering objects but have no sense of style or taste and generally just dump them in a pile without bothering to arrange them artistically.
The people of Krakow sent a delegation to Prince Krak in the castle on Wawel Hill. As it happens, the shoemaker was a city councilman and was chosen to speak for the townspeople.
“Prince,” he said “we have supported you and your knights and in return you have protected us from highwaymen, river pirates and marauding Tartars. Now there is a dragon and he has taken up residence right under your castle.”
“You don’t have to tell me that.” said the Prince. “We can all smell him all the way up here and it’s almost unbearable. We’re going to do something about him as soon as my knights can get mounted up and ready.” For it takes quite a long time for a knight to put on all his armor and get his horse ready.
So the knights of Prince Krak rode out from the castle, down the road that goes down and around the bottom of the hill to the river and the entrance to the dragon’s cave. It was a wonderful show, with the beautiful horses and the knights in their bright armor with colorful banners on their long lances. All the way down the hill they argued among themselves as to who would have the honor of charging the dragon first. For of course, any knight who killed a dragon would forever after be known as Sir so-and-so the Dragonslayer.
Well I suppose that if slaying dragons were that easy everyone would do it. As the column of knights approached the mouth of the dragon’s cave, the trumpeters blew their horns to warn the dragon that his time was up. The dragon awoke from his sleep, as grumpy as you might expect from being woken up by trumpet blasts.
“Who’s there?” he roared. “Whoever it is had better be here with my breakfast!”
He was answered by the biggest, strongest and bravest of the knights, Sir Zigmunt, “It is I, Sir Zigmunt Dragonslayer! Prepare to meet your doom monster!”
He hadn’t actually slain any dragons, he was just trying the name on to hear how it sounded.
“Yeah, get him Ziggy!” shouted the company. Sir Zigmunt lowered his lance, spurred his horse and charged.
Now as we mentioned, dragons smell bad. In fact they smell terrible and you can always tell when one is in the neighborhood by the awful odor. You may know that there are certain odors that horses cannot stand and you can be sure that unwashed dragon is at the top of the list. As Sir Zigmunt charged towards the dragon, his horse got a whiff of his smell, stopped where he was and reared up spilling Sir Zigmunt to the ground in a crash of armor. His horse then wheeled around and ran as fast as he could.
The dragon then turned towards the group of knights, took a deep breath and whoosh! sprayed them with fire! The horses screamed, reared up and ran away with their beautiful manes and tails singed and smelling of burnt hair. The knights were all thrown to the ground, their armor clashing and clattering. As their armor grew hot, they ran yelling into the river to cool down. Clouds of steam rose from the water as the knights struggled out of their metal coverings. The dragon flew away to steal some more sheep and burn some more houses, shouting about what he’d do to them the next time they tried anything like that again.
The knights limped home to the castle, carrying Sir Zigmunt, who had gotten quite a bump on the head in his fall and couldn’t walk. The rest of them were not in much better shape and wouldn’t be fit to fight for quite a while. Besides which, their best horses had all run away and their best armor and weapons were in the river.
Prince Krak consulted with the city council about what to do.
“Well,” said one merchant, “after all, one sheep a day is not so bad. We could probably afford that much if each family contributed one. And,” he said looking at the sorry-looking collection of knights “a dragon would probably do a better job of scaring away tartars and river pirates than knights.”
The shoemaker got up to speak, “If it were only a sheep a day, we probably could afford it. We are a rich country and produce many sheep. But people of every land that has ever had a dragon living in it will tell you that it never ends there. Dragon’s appetites get bigger as they grow, and they never stop growing. Worse, when they are tired of sheep and cattle they want something tastier, like young girls. Are we going to vote to send the dragon a daughter from each family? Also, dragons are a jealous and quarrelsome lot. When one gets a good place to live, with plenty to eat and a big hoard of gold and jewels, another is sure to hear of it and come to try and take it. One dragon is a burden on any land; two dragons fighting for it will lay a land waste. We really have no choice, we must find a way to rid ourselves of this dragon.”
“And exactly how do we do that?” asked the merchant.
“I don’t know,” said the shoemaker “but we must find a way or lose everything we’ve worked for.”
“I have heard you both,” said Prince Krak, “and this is what we will do. We will for now, deliver a sheep a day to the dragon’s cave. I will send word throughout the land that honor, reward and the hand of my daughter shall be given to anyone who can slay the dragon. I’m sure you all agree that a man brave and clever enough to slay a dragon would be a good Prince of Krakow after me.”
The council all admitted that he had a good point.
When the shoemaker went home that night and told his family the Prince’s decision, Jan shouted for joy. “Father, this is wonderful news! I will slay the dragon and win myself a place with the Prince’s knights and the hand of Princess Wanda.”
His mother started to cry. The shoemaker shouted, “Are you out of your mind? A whole company of knights was defeated in one minute and you say you can slay the dragon that they couldn’t? This nonsense has gone far enough. Tomorrow you’ll get back to learning an honest shoemaker’s trade.”
“No father. A knight fights with his head as well as his arms. No man is stronger than a dragon, so we must be cleverer. Tomorrow I will go to Prince Krak and explain my plan.”
After much argument the shoemaker said, “Oh very well, explain how you intend to slay this dragon and after he tells you what a fool you are you must agree to come home and take up the family business.”
“You’ll see father,” jan said. “He’ll approve my plan.”
The next day the shoemaker, Jan and Dratevka went together to the castle on Vavel Hill.
“Oh Prince,” said the shoemaker, “my son claims to have an idea to rid us of the dragon. He’s a dreamer, but for the sake of peace in my home I agreed to bring him to explain it to you. Besides, if I didn’t he might go off and try it anyway.”
“Very well young man,” said Prince Krak, “let’s hear your idea.”
“Well your highness,” said Jan, “it seems to me that trying to get near the dragon on horseback won’t work because no horse will go near him. Going on foot in armor won’t work because he can hear armor clanking from a long way off and blast him with his fiery breath. What I propose to do is to put on a sheepskin and crawl up to the cave in the morning when he expects his breakfast to be delivered. I’ll have a sword with me and when he comes out to eat, I’ll strike him with my sword.”
The Prince looked thoughtful, “That’s a well thought out plan. It would take great courage and skill to wait for the dragon to come close and strike him in just the right spot. Perhaps I should use an experienced knight. I would still give you honor and reward for having thought of the idea. It’s not your fault that you’re not a grown man and a trained knight yet. You shall certainly have a position among my knights for your cleverness.”
The shoemaker shouted, “Your highness is very generous!”
“No!” shouted Jan. “The idea was mine and I demand the right to try it. If anyone else tried and failed, his blood would be on my hands. And besides, the princess…” and here he fell silent and turned beet red.
Sir Zigmunt struggled painfully to his feet, “He is right, your highness. Though I strongly urge him to let someone else try this excellent idea, it is his idea and if he claims the right to try it, no one has the right to deny him.”
“Oh yes papa!” cried the Princess Wanda, though inwardly she was torn. On the one hand, Jan was a tall and handsome young man, as the boys around Krakow often are to this day. On the other hand, she had some doubts as to whether his plan would really work.
“Very well.” said the Prince. “If you are determined to try, I cannot forbid you. You shall have the pick of the best swords in my armory and rich shall be your reward if you succeed. If you fail, I shall not forget your family.”
The shoemaker bowed to the prince, speechless and his heart very heavy. “Come boy,” he said. “Let us go to the shop and arrange your disguise.”
Then Dratevka spoke up, “And I am going with him as his squire.”
The Prince and the shoemaker stared at him. “You boy?” said the shoemaker. “Why?”
“Because he will need a squire to assist him and to carry him off the field if he falls. Because if he doesn’t succeed and the dragon eats him, people will say that I encouraged him to go and get killed so that I could inherit the business instead of him. And because he helped me when I was a nobody with no name sleeping in doorways and as long as I live I’ll always help him when he needs me.”
“Well said,” said the prince, “and though it grieves me to see two such fine lads go into danger, you will have the best help that I can give you. Sir Zigmunt, you will spend the afternoon with Jan showing him the best sword cuts and thrusts that you know. Shoemaker, get you to your shop and start preparing your son’s disguise.”
You can be sure that dinner at the shoemaker’s house that evening was not a happy affair. The shoemaker’s wife locked herself in her room, crying and wailing, so Agnieszka had to make dinner. She served it with many a helping of her sharp tongue. “If you two idiots are going to go and get yourselves killed, you might as well do it with full stomachs.”
Next morning Jan and Dratevka stole up to the entrance of the cave by the river, Jan dressed in a sheepskin with the best sword from Prince Krak’s armory strapped to his belt. “Now wait behind this rock” he whispered, and dropped to all fours. He crept forward on his hands and knees and bleated, “B-a-a-a-a. B-a-a-a-a.”
The dragon roared within his cave, “Who’s there?”
“It’s your breakfast my lord dragon” shouted Jan.
The dragon came out of the cave, “You’re lying. I can always tell when people are lying” he shouted.
And indeed this is true, though dragons are a rather stupid lot, somehow they can always tell when people lie to them. Perhaps because it is very difficult to lie to something as scary as a dragon without something in your voice giving it away.
The dragon, moved up to Jan in the sheepskin and sniffed at him. Jan jumped up, threw off the sheepskin and swung the sword with all his might at the dragon’s face.
Now Prince Krak had given Jan the best sword in his armory, but the best steel made is no match for a dragons hide. Jan’s blow hit the dragon right on the nose, but the sword broke in two. However the blow did tickle the dragon’s nose and cause his eyes to water and he sneezed with a sound like a cannon shot. Jan was blown by the force of the sneeze right into the river, and a good thing too because the next thing the dragon did was to look around for the boy to roast him with his fiery breath.
Dratevka jumped out from behind the rock, ran down to the river and jumped in after Jan. He caught hold of him and held him afloat, because the force of the explosion had knocked Jan right out of his senses. They were washed downstream for some distance before Dratevka could struggle ashore, dragging Jan behind him.
(Now in case you are wondering exactly how knights of old used to slay dragons if swords won’t cut them, it was by charging them with lances with a very sharp point and the full weight of lance, knight, armor and horse behind it at a full gallop. All of that force concentrated on a very small point could penetrate the tough dragon hide. They got the horse to charge the dragon by rubbing its nostrils with an herb preparation that dulled its sense of smell and put blinders on the horse so it couldn’t see the whole dragon at once and panic. They distracted the dragon by tying a sheep to a stake so it wouldn’t use its fiery breath on their horse and would charge it from the other side while it was busy devouring the sheep. However, Prince Krak and his knights didn’t know this because at the time it was a very closely guarded trade secret of the knightly Order of Dragonslayers, who didn’t want anybody else learning how to slay dragons.)
Dratevka fortunately found a farmer with a wagon and persuaded him to carry Jan and him up to the castle on Vavel Hill. The Prince was happy to see them alive but alarmed to hear that the dragon still lived.
“Well,” he said, trying to make the best of it, “it was a good idea and maybe we can try again.”
“Oh no your highness.” said Dratevka. “I’m afraid that the dragon’s scales are just too hard to penetrate with a sword, and besides even a stupid dragon won’t fall for the same trick twice.”
“Perhaps you’re right.” said the prince with a heavy heart. “But at least you two survived.”
“Oh yes papa.” Said Princess Wanda. “And this brave young man did get nearer to the dragon than anybody else and actually landed a blow on him, which is more than any of our knights did. I will personally see to his nursing and we must think of a suitable reward for him.”
“Very well my dear.” Said the Prince with a twinkle in his eye. “You see to his care and I will think of how to reward him when he is well. And you young squire, how shall we reward you?”
“Your highness, I must go home and think for a while. For my foster-brother Jan’s idea was a good one and I think that maybe I could think of some way we might yet slay this dragon by cleverness.”
All the long walk down the castle road to the street of the shoemaker, Dratevka thought hard. There was something he knew that ought to work if only he could figure out what it was. As he entered the house to tell the family that Jan was all right and was being taken good care of in the castle on the hill by the Princess Wanda herself, he remembered something.
Now in those days, rats and bugs could be a problem in houses, just as they are today. What people did then, when they had a problem with rats and bugs, was to put a pot of burning sulfur on the floor, close up the house and go to stay somewhere else for a couple of days. The smoke from the burning sulfur would kill or drive away all kinds of vermin. Sulfur burns very hot but slowly, like charcoal with no flame.
That gave him an idea. That evening after dinner he went into the shoemaker’s workshop. He took a big bag of sulfur and tied it to a shoemaker’s bench with four legs. Over this he tied a wooly sheepskin. Early next morning he got up before sunrise, took the sulfur sheep and started off for the dragon’s cave.
As he left the house he heard a voice behind him, “And where do you think you’re going?” demanded Agnieszka.
“Nowhere that concerns you,” said Dratevka.
“You are going on the same fool errand as my brother and it certainly does concern me.” she said. “My family has a lot invested in you and I’m coming with you to protect our investment.”
You can imagine the argument they had in the middle of the street there, but the end of it was that Dratevka couldn’t wait any longer, for the sun was rising higher in the sky, and there wasn’t any way he could keep Agnieszka from following him. “All right, all right, but you must promise to hide behind the rock while I put the sulfur sheep in front of the cave.”
And so they went together to the dragon’s cave under Vavel Hill. Dratevka set the sulfur sheep at the entrance, lit a slow fire in the bag of sulfur and quickly hid behind the rock with Agnieszka. “Now what?” she said.
“Now I have to lure him out but we have a problem. If I say anything he’ll know I’m lying.”
“No problem,” said Agnieszka. “Ba-a-a-a. Ba-a-a-a.”
“Who’s there?” roared the dragon.
“It’s only me, Agnieszka.”
Now in the Polish language, Agnieszka means “little lamb” so she wasn’t lying at all.
“It’s about time.” shouted the dragon, and out he came looking for breakfast. “Ah, here it is.” And with one gulp he gobbled down the sulfur sheep and went back into his cave for an after-breakfast nap.
Soon he began to feel a burning sensation in his stomach. He rolled over and tried to go back to sleep but it was like the worst heartburn he had had since he ate a whole herd of buffalo from the great eastern forest. He staggered to his feet and went down to the river to get a drink. He drank and drank until it seemed as if the river would run dry. Inside him the water met the hot burning sulfur and turned to steam. The dragon swelled up like a balloon, his eyes bulged, his scales turned bright red and he exploded in a cloud of steam!
Dratevka and Agnieszka huddled behind the rock as clouds of steam rolled around them. In the Vavel castle they heard the noise and rushed to the walls overlooking the river where they saw great clouds of steam rolling around the foot of the hill.
“What is it?” they cried. “Is the dragon angry?”
Imagine their surprise when they saw Dratevka and Agnieszka walking out of the cloud together.
Dratevka and Agnieszka walked together up the hill to the gate of the castle where they were met by Prince Krak, Princess Wanda, Jan and as many of the knights as could walk.
“What has happened?” said the prince.
“Dratevka has slain the dragon.” Said Agnieszka and explained, at length.
“Marvelous!” said the prince. “You shall have first place among my knights, my daughter’s hand in marriage and shall rule in Krakow after me.”
Princess Wanda’s face fell, Agnieszka had a stormy look on her face and Jan struggled not to show his disappointment.
“Congratulations Dratevka. Nobody deserves it more than you.” Jan said, and held out his hand, though his eyes had tears in them and his chin quivered.
“Thank you Jan, and thank you Your Highness, but I think that Princess Wanda would rather marry Jan and Jan would make a better knight that I would, with training.”
“Aye!” shouted Sir Zigmunt, “And he will be my squire and carry my fame with his when he is a full knight.”
“If you are of a mind to reward me Your Highness, all I would like is a loan to expand the shoemaker’s shop so that he can retire in comfort when I’m ready to take over. And when anybody in the courts needs new shoes, please remember me. All I want to be is a shoemaker, Jan is the one who wants to be a knight. He should marry Princess Wanda. Besides, I’m going to marry Agnieszka.”
Agnieszka for once was speechless.
“You shall have a gift sufficient for your needs, and enough to keep your foster-parents in comfort when they are ready to retire.” said the Prince. “Daughter, is it your wish to marry this young man?”
“Oh yes father.” She said.
So Jan married Princess Wanda and was trained to be a knight. In time he became Prince of Krakow and ruled well, mostly because he had sense enough to ask good advice, often of his brother-in-law Shoemaker Dratevka who himself served several times on the city council of Krakow and twice as Mayor of the City.
Dratevka and Agnieszka had many children, none of whom went into the shoemaker’s trade. Some became farmers, some soldiers, some weavers.
One adventurous young boy joined the raftmen from the mountains and went with them to the great port of Gdansk where he became a sailor and eventually a great merchant prince. One of his sons settled in the Low Countries and adopted the name Van Rijn.
Dratevka’s business prospered with the patronage of the court. It was considered quite the thing to have fancy shoes made with the emblem of the dragon that only shoes made in the shop of Dratevka were allowed to have. Dratevka never forgot the kindness of his wife’s family and when his business expanded he found poor but honest and hardworking young boys and girls to teach his trade to.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The wedding of Jan and Wanda, Dratevka and Agnieszka was a splendid affair held in the Cathedral of St. Mary in the town square and afterwards a party for the whole city was held in the Great Hall of the Weavers. At the height of the festivities a stranger knight entered the hall accompanied by a trumpeter who blew a great blast on his horn.
“I am Sir Ulric of Koln, of the Order of Dragonslayers and I am here to slay the dragon of Vavel and claim the hand of the Princess Wanda and the City of Krakow!” he announced. Great was his disappointment to find that the dragon was no more and that the party was to celebrate the marriages of Shoemaker Dratevka the Dragonslayer to Agnieszka and the Princess Wanda to Jan the almost-dragonslayer.
Even greater was his alarm when he discovered how the dragon was slain. “This is terrible!” he shouted. “A mere boy has slain a great dragon and you have told everybody how! Knighthood is dead. Brave men will no longer be needed if anybody can slay a dragon by trickery. The world as we know it is at an end. Oh that I should have lived to see this day!”
“Now see here you,” said Agnieszka, “my Dratevka is plenty brave. If you think he isn’t you should have seen him go right up to the dragon’s cave, not once but twice. Brave men will always be needed as long as the world is a dangerous place. There could be a place for you here if you wouldn’t be so stuck up about it.”
And so a chastened Sir Ulric had to content himself with getting a job in the company of Vavel and spend his days patrolling the roads for bandits and the river for pirates rather than the glamorous and exciting job of slaying dragons. But there was more adventure for all of them in the future, for as you know, whenever a people are rich and happy there will always be someone who wants to take it for themselves, rather than figure out how they got that way and do it for themselves.
His blog “Rants and Raves” appears regularly on newspaper websites across the Midwest but doesn’t pay. He publishes for Kindle on Amazon, or at least will when he figures out how to download, and teaches martial arts out of his garage, backyard or basement as the case may be.
Steve blogs at stephenwbrowne.com