Even without the traditional impetus of mythological conflict, it is inevitable that dragons are going to wander into settled areas.
The Matrix’s Agent Smith once asserted that human civilisation resembles a virus. While the statement should be taken more as a figurative expression than a proclamation of fact, the science behind it being questionable, the spread of humanity across the globe is self-evident. Humans are all over the place. They have been making themselves increasingly all over the place ever since they staggered from the cradle of humanity somewhere in Africa 2.6 – 1.85 million years ago (precisely where said cradle is, is disputed); although it should be noted that we think there were several dispersals, not just a single giant migration in which a bunch of ape-men collectively decided, ‘fuck it, I’m going for a walk to the other side of the planet’. Nevertheless, in relatively more recent times, The Silk Road and the wide-reaching trade around the Mediterranean during the classical era, are testament to human’s ability to occupy just about every square inch of space going, even with limited resources and technology. As technology continues to advance, we will likely colonise even the most inhospitable areas of the planet, provided we can establish and maintain enough infrastructure to sustain a supply of necessities to those colonies. Give it enough time and you’ll probably find people from r/wallstreetbets losing massive amounts of money from the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
In the medieval era the number of environments that humans could plausibly inhabit in any great amount was limited by technological restrictions and ease of building and maintaining the kind of infrastructure that would allow humans to thrive in otherwise hospitable locations. Given that humans have a habit of colonising every spare scrap of land, whether they can grow food on it or not, it’s an inevitability that the territories of dragons and the territories of humans are going to overlap, even without narrative contrivance. This is enough to create the spark of conflict of magnificent destruction without a m’lady being stolen or a sword being drawn. A dragon moving into a populated area is going to create conflict. Humans do not like not having the biggest kill-dick around. Challenging humans for the role of apex predator is going to cause problems in and of itself, but with that said, let’s deal with something slightly more tangible.
A post ago I asserted that dragons + tinder =
a sex toy company a wildfire. An inevitability, not a chance. What happens when that inevitable happenstance happens to happen in a populated area rather than a stretch of wilderness? Let’s say the new dragon burns the local woodland down. For a start local hunting disappears. The hunters have to either move far further afield to find anything, or there’s nothing left whatsoever because it’s either dead or if it survived it moved on. This echoes through the entire food chain. The vegetation is gone so hares and the deer and other herbivores aren’t interested. The local hares and the deer are dead so the wolves and other carnivores don’t have anything to eat. The insects are dead, the trees are gone, and so you can’t even find a pigeon for the local lord’s feast. You don’t make friends with salad.
Which means you’re going to have to import more things like meat, nuts, wild fruit and veg, unless you’ve got a lot of stable orchards and diverse harvesting operations outside of meat, spuds, grains and cabbages. Speaking of which, the main source of meat is now whatever is on the farms. Not for the people, for the dragon. The local livestock and horses have become the main prey. You’ve now got the dragon problem at your doorstep. How many heads of cattle you have is roughly the maximum amount of days you’ve got to fix that problem, but being realistic your time is much shorter. The farmers are likely to leave or die, the cattle are likely to break out of their enclosures or possibly stampede in a panic and get lost, the next time the dragon shows up – if poachers and other interference doesn’t get to them first.
Then there are the corpses. If you burn all the life in a forest you’re going to leave behind a lot of dead things. Which is going to be a fantastic opportunity for vermin, flies, and anything that spends a lot of time around carrion. Suddenly you’ve got a fantastic breeding ground for plague. This can potentially kill a lot of farm animals and, if things go poorly, a lot of humans. If the initial problems weren’t enough, rest assured that things can always get a lot worse.
The local economy is going to collapse. If the plague sweeps through town, suddenly the necessity for medical staff – take that in as broad a fashion as you like – becomes a big deal. Herbs and ingredients are suddenly missing so you’re limited to whatever the local physicians, holy men, and witchdoctors had on their shelves. If the farm animals get it you’ve got real problems for food and trade. If the farmers get it then you’d better hope you’ve got the cash to employ more peasants at better rates, otherwise they’re going to find someone with better conditions and all your crops are going to rot in the field or just be stolen by desperate people. You’d better also hope you’ve got wood stockpiled for a long time, for any and all essential needs, because your local wood-based industries have just gone up in smoke. If winter is coming and you’ve not got a stockpile, you’re going to lose a lot of peasants. You’ll be paying for anything you don’t have out of the local coffers, to merchants from other territories and kingdoms. Which brings up yet more problems.
Merchants, if they know there’s an aggressive dragon in a region, will not be travelling through it. If they think there’s the chance that their horses will be snatched up, their merchandise will be destroyed, etc., then they’re just going to find somewhere better to trade, unless the people they’re selling to are notoriously rich and they are either desperate or there’s a definite high return on investment to be made. Given the strain on funding due to the compounding resource drain, unless you are shockingly rich. You’re going to be borrowing vast sums of money to keep trying to keep everything intact, or you’re going to be burying a lot of peasants.
The number of criminals on the roads goes up as hungry desperate people turn to crime as a means of survival. If there’s a local guard or levee, they’re now occupied full-time with trying to keep the peace. For merchants, traders, and anybody travelling, the price of protection from mercenaries and hired muscle skyrockets. Which, again, lowers the number of people coming into the region, lowering the amount of money, bartering, or human capital going around in the local economy.
While most feudal territories were designed to be more or less self-sufficient, you’re not going to eliminate trade entirely, and the sudden lack of local resources and produce will spike that demand for goods substantially. If the opportunities or facilitators of trade are absent then entire towns and villages deprived of trade will dry up and die unless those places can somehow continue to self-sustain, which will be fairly unlikely. When trade dries up, you’ll get mass migration into other areas where there are jobs or if it’s just safer. The local economy, deprived of workers, will shrink and the local coffers future potential shrinks with it. Poverty will drive younger people away if there’s a better life to be made elsewhere, even if the area they’re from is relatively self-sustaining.
People would start to naturally avoid these burnt dangerous territories until the entire region is a backwater. The local nobility can’t raise much from their minor nobility because the minor nobility can’t raise much from whatever is left of their respective populations. The levees are completely destroyed as a result of this depopulation, and if there is anybody in the vicinity with eyes on your land, it now effectively belongs to whomever can take it and hold it once the dragon has buggered off.
Dragons don’t need to snatch up the local nobility or burn down a settlement to cause massive amounts of disruption and destruction in a place. They pretty much just have to show up and exist, and what naturally follows is enough to collapse entire territories without any of the theatrics needing to apply.