It was cold and there was frost on the bars of the cast iron gates that led into the mill. Martha adjusted her scarf and breathed on her fingers to warm them. The steam stacks billowed and puffed--the boilers were always kept heated during the night even though the mill was not in use those hours. The mill workers shuffled around her, mostly silent, hungry, and cold. There was a lot of coughing. The city had not been spared from the consumption, and the lower classes bore the brunt of its affliction. Martha instinctively pressed her chin down to her throat and buried her mouth and nose in the wool of her scarf. She was far removed now, in her sheep's clothing, from the stately drawing rooms and careful diction of her class. There was no afternoon tea in the ranks of the mill workers, no idle hours spent drawing or stitching or practicing Mozart on the pianoforte. The appearance, smell, and words of the workers filled her with unease even though she empathized with their tribulations. But she was not here for them.
The steam whistle blew. The foreman loped out towards them from the warmth of the front office, keys jangling. The mill workers stood up a little bit straighter, anxious to get out of the cold and looking forward to getting the day over with for it was payday, and in twelve hours the pubs would be filling over, animated with hubbub, chatter, bawdy songs, and joy. Or at least that's how paydays usually went. Martha inhaled a quick icy breath as the foreman attended to the lock on the gate. They flooded in, men and women, marching in to their stations by chomping looms and spinning spools, stacks of bolted cloth, wooden pallets, and the locomotive that owned the only steam engine in the mill that was heated with scarce wood. None of these areas were Martha's destination, and she veered off, when she could out of sight of the foreman, towards the steam generators. The axe under her skirts chafed against her leg.
The boiler room that housed the steam generators was a massive open space. The ground floor opened up immediately to a catwalk, and the air was filled with metal tanks and tubing, leather belts that carried their work off to the loom and spinning rooms, and an oppressive, sulphuric humidity. Martha ripped off her scarf and stuffed it into her coat pocket. There were no men here. The process was completely automated. How sickeningly efficient, she thought. The space continued down two stories into the ground. Martha walked briskly down the catwalk, unbuttoning her overcoat at the same time. She found the metal staircase down to the lower levels. The iron handrails were hot to the touch, so she employed her scarf as protection.
And then she was down on their level, for the first time. There were seven of them, one for each boiler, of the hardy species Mulciber Scotorum. She felt suddenly small and unimportant, the self-important value she placed on her activism newly dwarfed by the creatures who dwelt there, enslaved to progress.
They were an unnatural ashy gray, and skin and bones. Their tails, wings, and claws were removed. Their eyelids were sewn shut, and they wallowed in their own slimy black feces. They were cradled, clamped, and held in place by tined grates and heavy cast iron yokes about their necks. Metal tubes came out of their nostrils, connected to hoppers above filled with a slurry of grains and water that slid down into their stomachs by gravity. It was not anywhere near their natural diet. And their mouths were forced permanently open with a steel brace. A rod moved back and forth via clockworks above that stimulated the ignis organum at the back of their throats, which in turn caused the dragons to release their flames in regular intervals thirty seconds apart. And that kept the boilers hot twenty-four hours a day.
Martha began to shake with rage. The smell was nothing, the heat was nothing. The sight, their pain was everything. Martha lifted her skirts and unbuckled the axe. She held it high, with both hands, elbows out, and it vibrated with her anger. She approached the nearest dragon, dragging her skirts through six inches of muck. Her foot slipped and slid, but her direction did not waver. The dragon did not sense her. She aimed for neck and the jugular, swung, and barely scratched the tough hide. The animal moaned loudly and tried to face her, but could only move a foot or two it was so tightly caged. The other dragons took notice and started grunting. Martha swung again, this time with all her might, and managed to embed the axe between two scales. The dragon screeched before involuntarily belching out a flame. Thick blood oozed around the axe and Martha tried hard to pull it free so she could finish the dragon off, but it would not budge. The other dragons were screeching now too. There were shouts and footsteps echoing down from the catwalk. She put her foot up against the dragon's shoulder for leverage and pulled again. The axe came free and Martha stumbled into the apparatus that braced the dragon's mouth. Her weight fell onto the rod and fire shot out towards her, engulfing the clothes of her right arm. She did not scream, but pulled on the rod, trying to break it away, but instead she was grabbed from behind and pushed to the ground. The flames were extinguished, her axe was confiscated, and she was take to the foreman's office.
In the office she was forced into a chair by two of the workers who saved her. The foreman stood scowling at her from behind his desk. Then the door opened in a blast of cold and another man walked in. He was tall and a little gaunt, with eyes sunken from worry and sleepless nights. He suit was clean and new, but plain and functional.
"Leave us," he said in a steady voice.
The other men quickly and obediently left the room, closing the door behind them. The man lingered near the potbelly stove that burned cotton trimmings soaked in whale fat, warming his hands. He did not look at Martha, and the hesitation towards conversation bothered her. Finally he sauntered to the desk, and sat down in the chair on the other side. He stared at her for a good minute, and she glared back.
"I could have you hanged for this," he said.
Martha blinked and mashed her teeth together. She said nothing.
"The dragon, thankfully, will live, but the veterinarian says we'll be down a boiler for the next week as it recovers." He folded his hands together on the table. "You are Martha Borden, are you not?"
"Yes," said Martha curtly.
"I have seen your brochures. I hear you hand them out to the workers as they leave the pubs, trying to ply them to your ridiculous cause."
"It is not ridiculous!" Martha exclaimed. She leaned forward and blurted out her words. "The cruelty here is appalling, what is done in the name of profit and progress--"
"The workers only care that the beasts continue to live so that they may earn a living and put bread on their table and clothes on their backs--"
"That may be true, I have seen and heard their apathy, which is why I took action." Her demeanor turned from anger to pleading. "Your employer must know the dire cost of his business. When you see those poor creatures reduced to that state, how can it not break your heart? Do not blindly work for this man that would turn an elegant, lordly creature into a mere cog."
"They are beasts of burden, to be exploited as we see fit, as all animals come under the dominion of man. It is kindness enough to allow them to exist at all after the centuries of predation they imposed upon our species. We have tamed our enemy and put it to useful work. Is it not better to live as we do now, without fear of being eaten in the night, or having our houses burned down?"
"You are blinded by the narcissism of men!" Martha bellowed.
"And you are just blind!" he bellowed back. "You would kill the animal to save it!"
"It is unspeakable cruelty to live in such a way that would be shocking to a sewer rat!"
"You are an idealist who doesn't understand the true workings of the world!"
"Yes, I am an idealist! I'll fight for a more just world where the workings of it reflect the morals that are spoken in church on Sundays!"
The man slammed his fist onto the desk. Martha recoiled and cowered for the briefest instant.
"Do you know who I am?!"
Martha glared at him, trying to keep her breathing steady.
"I confess I do not," she said finally.
"I am Augustus Pelt, the owner of this mill. You have destroyed my property, slowed the mill for a week, and you offend every fiber of my being."
Martha's cheeks grew pink.
"Then you are the man responsible for this situation--"
"That situation is called industry, and I am not responsible. Dragons are used in mines and smelting, glassworks, metalworks, clayworks, and all manner of other factories. They are indispensable."
"They are not."
"This is nonsense--"
"Do we need all those things that the factories produce in mass quantities? Did society not get along without all these things for centuries? Could we not be happy in our agrarian past?"
"Your mind dwells in a pastoral fantasy!" scoffed Augustus.
"It is not fantasy but possibility! How can we live with ourselves with the way we are willing to treat God's creatures?"
Augustus exhaled noisily.
"Do not attempt to spout scripture to me! I know who you are Martha Borden, the daughter of a country parson. You were meant to be a lady, raised with gentle ways, but here you are, dressed as the lowliest, crudest worker in my mill, your sleeve charred and your hem soiled, and sweaty as a rutting pig, and you have the gall to tell me that my business should not exist because I defy God's will! I shall have you sent back to your father in this state and I will tell him that you are intimately familiar with all of God's thoughts and concerns and you will see how your father takes to that!"
"I am not afraid of my father and I am certainly not afraid of you, for I am right, whether God endorses me or not!"
"And who is the narcissist now?" He said this quietly and without expression. There was silence between them. He looked down at his hands. "I do not...I don't wish to shame a lady. Punishing you...or any lady, is not something I would take pleasure in. You must understand...I am a practical man. I must keep this mill running. I have five hundred and thirty eight workers just in this one, and each of them have more mouths to feed at home. If this mill goes down, if my other mills were to all cease operating, this city would starve. You must see that I am not in a position to be swayed. I must defend my business, even if indeed you are the one who is morally correct."
Martha sagged slightly in her chair, not knowing how to formulate a response.
"I will call a carriage for you," he said, rising from his seat.
"There must be some compromise," she blurted out.
"And what would you suggest?"
"The filth they lay in. Have it cleaned out each day. It would be a small start."
"I would have to hire several workers. We are barely profitable as it is--"
"It is the right thing to do," she said adamantly, "and there are always more people in this city who could do with work."
"I will see to it."
He held out his hand to her. She took it in her own and felt the warmth of it. He helped her up in the most gentlemanly and polite fashion. Their fingers parted.
"I wish to apologize," she said, "for my canvassing, my sabotage, and my harsh words. I intended to inflict my rage against an amorphous edifice, but here you are, just a man."
"And a very forgiving one at that."
They both smiled shyly, and he led her out into the winter air and to the carriage that would convey her home.
Okay so I cribbed a bit from the 1855 novel North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (nothing verbatim of course, and there are no dragons in that). It's a decent read but a little tedious (it was originally a 22 part serial). The 2004 BBC adaptation is really cracking though, if you are into period dramas. This was also inspired by PETA videos, but I wouldn't recommend those unless you are already vegan and avoid leather like you have an allergy to it.