When the knights in dented armor rode back to the citadel, they found the gates closed and bridges drawn. They shouted, banged on their shields and made a great din until the mayor herself climbed on the battlements.
"And who might you be?" she asked from on high.
"Wha!" exclaimed the one who seemed to lead the party. "We are defenders of these lands, returned from defeating the terrible hydra!"
"Really! Lookouts up and down the coast sent word they saw it fly over the sea, riddled with spears and arrows but otherwise unfazed. For all we know it will come back tomorrow with renewed hunger."
The leading knight stood taller in the saddle. "But we drove the monster away! It would never have left otherwise!"
"Funny, that never seemed to make a difference when it was snatching people left and right."
"We told everyone to go into hiding!"
"And turned your steel against those who could not."
"They'd have brought doom upon entire villages with their carelessness!"
"Maybe, maybe not. As it is, their blood is on your hands. Besides, what about your own drunken amblings about the land?"
"Our armor was protecting us!"
"And how was it supposed to protect anyone else?"
The knight's posture stiffened. The magnificent plumage atop his helmet quivered. Only the banner he carried hung limp, the wind having died down.
"We also defended honest people against looters, you know," he said at length, rather less forcefully.
"You mean those who were left to starve while piles of food rotted in the fields?"
A crowd was gathering to watch by now, never coming close. The knight spoke up again. "We needed the coin to secure help from neighboring kingdoms!"
"After you mocked their envoys early on, when they came to warn of impending danger. No wonder you returned empty-handed."
"Alchemical concoctions are in short supply these days, and cost too much."
"More than human lives? Besides, who insisted that our own apothecaries could handle the matter just fine all by themselves?"
A murmur started to rise from the crowd, while the woman looked on.
"All right! All right!" the knight shouted. There was a pause. "So what are we to do? Take to the road, and find our fortunes where we may?"
"Oh, no. We can't have a bunch of lances without master roam unchecked. And lo, we need more hands to care for our wounded. The hydra's venom burns deep."
"Are we to become nuns and monks then?"
"If that's what it takes for you to do the right thing." She made a sweeping gesture, and the bridge lowered in the clanking of chains, while ample gates slowly swung open again.
The armored riders looked on for a long time. Then one by one they spurred their horses on. In the rearguard, the younger warriors were taking off their helmets.
"Think they'll let us in at the public bath?" a red-haired boy asked.
"Everyone's naked there," the girl next to him said.