The Chieftain's Choice

December 2019

The villagers in the longhouse fall silent as the hunter’s boy finishes his story. Smoke, rising from the Forbidden Pass. Everyone knows what this could mean. 

A farmer breaks the silence, accusing the hunter’s family of endangering them all. I sigh as the inevitable fight unfolds. What were they doing, hunting so close to the dragon's lands? Their greed has endangered everyone. Others voice their agreement with the farmer.

The other hunters defend the family: hunters need to make a living, and the local game doesn’t come anywhere near the village anymore, so they have to travel farther than they used to in order to hunt. And anyway what about the lumbermen? Everyone knows the lumbermen have started felling trees awfully close to the Pass. Isn’t this what caused the Scorching?

The Chieftain listens to the familiar arguments from all sides, and gives the lumbermen his attention as they respond. Some believe him corrupt for listening to the lumbermen, but they fund the village defenses and fuel the fires that warm the village, so he is wise to hear them out.

The lumbermen say the only other usable timber is three days ride to the south, and this just isn’t realistic. 

But dying is realistic, yells the innkeeper. You put all of our lives in danger.

When the lead lumberman accuses the innkeeper of being superstitious and dramatic, and that none of them have ever seen the dragons emerge from the Forbidden Pass anyway (despite all the failed prophecies), the Elder stands up from his chair next to me. The room falls silent.

He tells a story of when the dragons last emerged from their caves, how they’d been angered by humans pushing into their territory. How families burned alive in their homes. There was nowhere to run during the Scorching, and fields burned for months afterward. The starving survivors of the time doubted they were really the lucky ones. We would be wise to remember our history, the Elder says.

Yes, but what happens when we leave the Pass alone and the neighboring villages start logging there anyway? It's out of our control. (A voice from the crowd yells this). 

We don’t have a choice, someone agrees. We need to eat, and we need to stay warm. The coming winter is certain, the dragons are not.

The Chieftain looks to me, and to the other advisors. We discuss our options until he makes his decision and stands up.

He looks around the longhouse, at the people he took his oath to protect and lead. No matter his decision, he will be met with hate and criticism. Such is his burden.

He draws a deep breath.

“Nuclear energy,” he says finally. The crowd looks confused, not realizing they’re part of a metaphor. “We can leave the dragons alone and heat the village at the same time. We can sell the extra energy to help heat neighboring villages. I know you have your fears about it, but the science has come a long way, so it’s not dangerous like it used to be, and no more toxic byproducts either. Seriously, look into it.”

The villagers are puzzled. Clearly this will take some more education, and more reassurances, before they are convinced. But it’s the best option we have now, so we need to try.