Harry Gorn stared unblinking at the huge beast. Its enormous blank eyes looked back, its insouciance a challenge in itself.
Harry reached deep into his mental reserves, reminding himself of how far he had come. He was one of this town's most decorated defenders, awarded medals from the Guild of Adventurers time and again for his bravery in combat and the assistance he had rendered to his fellow villagers.
When he had mastered the magical arts himself, he had begun to teach them to the others. And he in turn had learned from them. At first it had been simple good sense, learning better self-defence from Donkey, or tactics for ranged combat from May; there was more in common than might be imagined between firing arrows and summoning lightning strikes. The less time he spent knocked out cold, the better he was able to defend the village. Even now, decades later, he still woke up from nightmares of the first epic battle against Draggo, when he and the others had been woefully unprepared. Many had fled the village, and only the mayor's determined promotional efforts in the aftermath of their narrow victory had stopped it from becoming a ghost town once again.
Gradually, but inexorably, the exchange of knowledge had become something more than mere pragmatism -- a quest, or even a ritual, of its own. Learning to cook with May had given him deeper insight into his work with the cauldron, and Lance's carpentry lessons had led to his magical constructs becoming far more robust. He had learned about how everything was interconnected by studying the intricacies of trade with Sid -- and Voldy. He had been knighted by Princess Lily, and later learned statecraft from her. He had led the way into dungeons as an adventurer, unsure whether they would be filled with monsters or treasure.
Over time, he had turned his hand to everything his fellow villagers had to offer. Until there was only one profession left for him to master.
He had gained much experience. It had taken him years -- naturally enough, in retrospect, as this job required more of an awareness of the rhythm of the seasons than was measured out by the mayor's calendar of events. But now, with the help of two of his oldest friends, he was about to become a fully fledged farmer. Having learned so much, he had come to recognise the feeling just on the edge of his consciousness when mastery of a profession was close, the numinous awareness of imminent apotheosis.
He was about to achieve it, he was certain, if only this accursed cow would leave the parlour after being milked. Yet Daisy continued to look at him, ignoring his increasing desperation to try to make her move. She mooed loudly, as if to emphasise her lack of concern.
"Harry!" called Fluffie Kiss from the gate. "Are you sure you don't want us to come and help?"
"No, thank you!" he called back. "I can feel it, I'm nearly there..." He twisted his face with concentration, willing Daisy to step back. Even just a little way would be enough that he could start to encourage her along, but right now she was wedged in tight to the stall.
"It's getting dark," Clown Stripe said. "We were going to head to the inn."
"You can try again tomorrow," Fluffie said.
"I'll shout you a mead," Clown said. "To console yourself with."
Harry considered. Mead did sound tempting. "Oh, all right, then."
They came in and within a couple of minutes Daisy was back in the field.
"There, see, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Clown said as they headed towards the road.
"It's good to work together," Fluffie said. "After all, that's what we always do, isn't it? Out there." She nodded towards the wild lands beyond the village wall, where the monsters appeared seemingly incessantly and strange structures and natural features suddenly slid into existence. "How many times have you carried me back to the inn?"
"Or vice versa..." Harry said, but then tailed off. The nagging feeling was back, despite his having failed to deal with Daisy by himself. And then suddenly it exploded, thoughts tumbling through his brain one after the other, a waterfall of reasoning. "Of course, that was the final lesson. Farmers work together!"
"Seems a bit obvious to me," Clown said good-naturedly, only to receive a light punch on the arm from Fluffie.
"Farmers work together..."
"So that's it?" Fluffie asked. "You've learned everything there is to learn? Like you've been wanting to for so long?"
"I think..." Harry looked straight at her. "Yes, yes!"
"Well then we definitely need to go to the inn," Fluffie said. "To celebrate!"
"Aye," said Clown. "But you're buying."
Fluffie ran ahead, knocking on the door of every house along the way to share the good news. By the time they reached the inn, almost the entire village was there, drinking a toast to Harry's success. Even the mayor put in an appearance for a short while.
But Harry could not enjoy the celebration as much as he would have liked. The thoughts rushing through his brain demanded to be worked out. His friends kept buying him drink after drink, but their gifts grew into a forest of tankards and goblets in front of him as he started scribbling on a spare piece of parchment.
"The farmers work together," he muttered to himself over and over. At one point, he managed to persuade Seffy to take a break from composing "The Ballad of Harry Gorn" to sketch a map of the kingdom, as he understood its geography from the stories he knew.
Eventually, he knew he had it. He rose to his feet, to be instantly greeted by cries of "Speech! Speech!"
Very well, then, he would give them a speech. He drained the tankard nearest him and stepped onto the table. "My friends," he said warmly. "Thank you so much for coming here tonight. I have learned so much from each and every one of you." There was a cheer at this point, and a couple of people at the back started to chant "Har-ry! Har-ry!" He gestured for them to stop and the noise died down. "As you know, most recently I have finally learned the noble arts of agriculture, thanks to these two stalwarts of our community." He waved his empty tankard in the direction of Clown and Fluffie and there was a smattering of applause from the others. "But, my friends, I have bad news. I have come to realise that we are, ourselves, being farmed."
There was uproar, as he had thought there might be. From the din he picked out the voice of Stumblemore shouting, "Whatever do you mean?"
Stumblemore was stood next to Max and Harry felt that if anyone could understand, they would. He addressed them, ignoring the rest of the crowd for now. "Consider the pattern of our lives. The monsters come, they attack, we drive them back... Somewhere. Where? Whatever realm or plane they come from, isn't it so? And yet whatever else happens there is always gold left behind, and sometimes other treasure, when they disappear again."
Harry paused while he downed another tankard-full of mead. "We know that they come from somewhere else -- that is a commonplace -- but now I know where. Where else does one find endless amounts of gold and treasure but the hoard of an dragon? When they retreat back, they interchange themselves with the material present in their realm at that same point. All the monsters we meet must be subjects of the Draggos, roaming through their vaults until they come here."
"But they don't farm us!" came Flippin Book's voice. "You're talking a load of old nonsense. And I'm a clown, I know from nonsense."
"They farm us, and we farm them. Both sides gain combat experience, and all the benefits that brings. Look!" He brandished Seffy's scribbled map. "If I'm right, if the whole Kingdom is on top of Dragofsky and his family's lair in the other realm... They could break through to the capital whenever they want. But they never do!"
"Sit down, Harry," called out Frod. "You're not drunk enough!"
"Listen!" Harry said. "I think there must be a treaty -- or at least an understanding -- between King Sam and Dragofsky. We skirmish on the outer edges, but that's all. I don't know why, but I do know this: the farmers are working together!"
There was uproar again until the voice of Bill Bo, the innkeeper, boomed out, "All right, everybody, that's enough!" He banged a pair of the tankards in front of Harry together, seemingly uncaring that they weren't empty and he was spilling ale all over the table. "Time to go home! Those of you staying here tonight will find a nice warming pan in your beds and you can take a hot toddy with you on your way upstairs."
The crowd began to disperse. A few clapped Harry on the back, advising him to get some rest, commiserating that it was only natural for him to be not quite in his right mind after such an amazing achievement, but most ignored him completely as he tried to gather up the notes he had made to take back to the magic school.
When everyone else had gone, Bill sat down opposite him. "How're you feeling?" he asked, gruffly but not unkindly.
Harry sat down himself with a heavy sigh. "Do you remember when I first came here?"
"Everyone thought you were a few items short of a full inventory. All that handwaving." Bill wiggled his fingers melodramatically. "But they came around, didn't they?"
"I'm not sure they will this time," Harry said. "But I was so sure." He knew that he was looking almost pleadingly at Bill, willing him to believe. "It seemed so obvious, in a way."
"The truth often does."
"After I felt it happen on the farm, there was-- Wait, what?"
"Aye, Harry, the truth."
"There's a higher authority than the king. Or our friend Dragofsky. There's a battle coming one day the likes of which you can't even imagine, Harry. A battle where you'll all find yourselves on the front line alongside the Moledos and the Pegasees, not against them. Everything that goes on out beyond the walls, that's just training. Or farming, if you want to be cynical about it. But I guess that's just the order you learned the professions in making you think that way. Last time I had this little chat with someone, she'd just finished being a knight; she definitely got the training idea."
Harry wasn't sure how much he was managing to take in. "So is it some sort of ultimate battle between good and evil? Are those monsters not as bad as we think?"
"Oh, no, they're the worst of the worst, you can rely on that. Dragofsky's criminal empire gets its tentacles into at least five different dimensions that I know of. But he likes things to be well-managed, just like our royal family do." Bill smiled dangerously. "The ultimate battle is between order and chaos, Harry. I meant it when I said you can't imagine the final battle. No one can; if the enemy had a fixed form, one we could anticipate and plan against, it wouldn't even be the enemy."
"How do you know all this?" Harry asked.
Bill tapped his chest proudly. "Vital part of the system, us innkeepers. Someone's got to keep the villages going in between mayors, at least in some sort of minimal way." He caught Harry's eye. "And keep an eye out for people who've suddenly had an epiphany."
"The others won't believe me, will they?" he asked disconsolately. "There's something about experiencing life here from all the different perspectives on offer that makes the truth graspable."
"Some of them might get there themselves, eventually. And they'll think back to today and realise what had happened to you. But no, they're not going to wake up tomorrow morning suddenly believing you."
"So what do I do?" Harry said. "I'm not sure I can go back to just living like this, now that I know."
"Well... Believe it or not, there is one profession you haven't tried." Bill's face broke into a wide, genuine smile. "Tell me, Harry, have you never in all this time considered becoming an innkeeper?"