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Some time after successfully capturing a dragon, nation A goes to war and brings their newest pet with them.

For various reasons, the dragon is irreplaceable and they can't afford to lose him plus he has human intelligence, so he'd probably freak out if they sent him into possible death.

Thankfully, the dragon's life is only threatened by these specialized ballistas, called scorpions, and only when the dragon is flying low enough to be in the effective range. Though he has to fly that low and simply being there is enough to make him panic and a scared dragon is the most dangerous dragon (as in liability).

Scorpions

are lighter, but still immobile siege equipment with the maximum range of 460 meters. The dragon is safe at maybe half the distance, so 230 meters, without accounting for gravity.

Reloading times have been improved, it's easier to move the weapon around and it also has a greater degree of freedom. Other than that, consider it a standard roman ballista.

A singular scorpion is usually not a problem, the dragon could simply just play with the operator, making him trace his path until he (the operator) dies of cardiac arrest. However, scorpions are usually plentiful and come mounted on the walls of the castle, with some located hidden in the bailey.


The Dragon

Alignment: Neutral Angsty
Size: 2 meters at the shoulders, snout-vent length is 5 meters
Flight speed: 16.3 - 24.9 m/s gliding
Breath weapon: concentrated (0.1-0.2 pH) sulfuric acid, fine-grain spray. The dragon's proteins are stabilized with acidic residue, making him very (but not completely) resistant to the acid
Effective range: 6-9 meters
Carry capacity: The dragon can't carry a lot of stuff with himself, even a skinny human can cause some discomfort.


So, one has to render most scorpions nonoperational to use the dragon.

For this purpose, I wanted to create the Anti-Euron Task Force (ATF), which is tasked with neutralizing scorpions.

And this is where my brainstorm wore off. I don't know how to efficiently deal with and only with the aforementioned scorpion ballistas?

The dragon can be used, as long as he isn't in the 230-meter danger zone.

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    $\begingroup$ It looks like your world is already built and you're asking how a specific scenario in your world will play out. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Mar 2 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings I disagree. The OP is asking for military tactics to be fleshed out within a set of given circumstances. Refining how the military operates is part of making the world itself. $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Mar 2 at 2:42
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    $\begingroup$ Despite the ridiculous scenes in Game of Thrones, the chances that a ballista could hit a dragon while it is flying are very, very close to zero. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Mar 2 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ @RBarryYoung Euron was using a hack and no matter how many times I ban him, he keeps coming back. $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Mar 2 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Mephistopheles it’s really just nonsense. Anyone who knows anything about military air defense, or who’s even just gone bird-hunting or tried to shoot skeet knows how ridiculous that was, even if they had been on dry land. Shooting something flying out of the air is exceptionally difficult, even with modern hand weapons, specifically designed to do just that, let alone with heavy cumbersome medieval siege weapons relying on inconsistent organic tensioning. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Mar 2 at 19:37

14 Answers 14

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Fly high, drop stuff. Ignore the weapons.

I'm going to do a frame challenge here. A flying dragon as intelligent as a human can win any siege, if the only weapon the enemy has are glorified crossbows.

If your scorpions have a maximum range of 460 meters, assuming it launched at the optimal angle, they can only reach at most around 230 meters high. And at that height, the bolts have no forward momentum.

It is a sad reality that throwing stuff up is hard. Flying up is relatively easier, and almost all birds can reach 300m of height easily. Migratory birds can go higher, more than 1km high.

Your dragon only needs to fly high enough so the scorpion bolts have no strength to pierce his hide. From up there he can breathe down his acid or drop rocks.

Plus if they do try to shoot straight up, it will be fun watching their own weapons hitting them.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a good way to put it. You have an airplane, albeit a fragile one, in a society that has not dreamed of one yet. You shouldn't be able to lose. $\endgroup$ – Mad Physicist Mar 2 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ Love the last sentence. If the scorpions are even capable of firing at such a high angle, they're far more likely to inflict collateral damage on friendly targets than to actually hit a dragon maintaining decent altitude. Circle the enemy position and drop pottery with flint embedded in its exterior, fuel inside, and corked to prevent losing the latter before it reaches the target. When the pottery breaks, it also throws off sparks to ignite the fuel being splashed hither and yon. You can do a lot of damage that way. $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder Mar 2 at 22:51
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    $\begingroup$ In other words: be a bomber, not a fighter plane. There's a reason we invented bombers rather than having fighters strafe the ground. $\endgroup$ – Arcanist Lupus Mar 3 at 7:11
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    $\begingroup$ To add to this answer - you have a dragon capable of creating acid. Give them some empty waterskins and let them create their own acid bombs. $\endgroup$ – Greenstone Walker Mar 4 at 3:54
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    $\begingroup$ Just wanted to add - 230m is an upper bound on the vertical range. When wind resistance is a factor, 45 degrees is actually considerably higher than the optimum angle. $\endgroup$ – Roland Heath Mar 4 at 4:00
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Night Raids

Prior to radar and guided missiles the greatest threat to aircraft were anti-air guns and flak cannons. These weapons were of course ground based and aimed without the benefit of computers. This is why WWII bombing runs were often at night, because the AA crews were dependent on spotlights to see the incoming planes at night.

Your dragon has a massive advantage in this scenario because there simply is no spotlight equivalent in the Middle Ages. The dragon can fly in the dark and simply not be seen until he is extremely close. So close that he could swoop in and drop incendiary material inside the castle walls behind the ballistas before he could be spotted. If you don’t believe me just consider standing next to a campfire late at night and trying to look for things 500 meters away. A bonfire just can’t replace a spotlight.

Another night raid tactic is the insertion of special forces. The night before D-Day US Army Rangers parachuted into Normandy to capture bridges and destroy artillery in order to assist the landings. So you could have a team infiltrate the castle and destroy as many ballistas as possible.

The dragon could also serve solely as a distraction for the ballista artillery, and the true damage could be done by the infantry assaulting the walls. In this scenario the dragon would merely be distracting the enemy and serving as psychological warfare.

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    $\begingroup$ Wouldnt a solid counter-tactic be to use cables and nets around the castle? If technology is available even balloons with cables to the ground and each other? That way the dragon might see it too late, hit a cable and crash to the ground which will either kill it or break enough bones to incapacitate it preventing escape. Naturally no or small fires would be used near the scorpions to make it equally hard for the dragon to attack. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Mar 1 at 22:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan Anti air balloons are definitely a valid tactic and were used in WWI. But the dragon might very well have enough night vision and agility to avoid entanglement $\endgroup$ – NixonCranium Mar 2 at 2:35
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    $\begingroup$ The first hot air balloon wasn't made until the late 1700s, which is way past the medieval period. $\endgroup$ – Richard Smith Mar 2 at 2:50
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    $\begingroup$ Depending on prevailing wind and weather around your castle, kites might be a viable alternative. It's not too hard to make a kite that will fly by itself as long as there's a bit of wind and its tether remains attached, and kites were invented literally thousands of years ago - even by medieval times, they'd be considered ancient. $\endgroup$ – anaximander Mar 2 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan Nets won't stop a shower of acid, nor a napalm-equivalent. Balloons are a better idea - but the riders can most likely spy them in advance, and either plan a route around (or over) them, not use the dragon at all, or target the outermost balloons with acid spray, so that they burst and weigh the rest down. The ropes will creak under strain, so the dragon might be able to detect or avoid them just by flying or gliding slowly and listening out... $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Mar 2 at 10:40
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Wait for rain.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scorpio_(weapon)

The complexity of construction and in particular the torsion springs (which the Romans referred to as tormenta) led to great sensitivity to any variation in temperature or moisture, which limited their use.

I was thinking of this because of the misadventure of the Genoese crossbowmen at the battle of Crecy.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genoese_crossbowmen

At around 4 PM, a sudden rainstorm arose. The English longbowmen simply removed their bowstrings, and stored them under their water-resistant leather caps to keep them dry. Crossbows, on the other hand, cannot be unstrung and restrung without tools. The strings of the crossbows thus became stretched upon being drenched by rain. When the rain-soaked and now-stretched crossbow strings were used roughly an hour later during the initial attack against the emplaced and defending English, the crossbows were largely rendered useless.

It did not get better for the Genoese crossbowmen. Roman-type scorpions had strings similar to those of crossbows and would be similarly incapacitated by rain. Since this is a siege, you can attack when you choose. Attack when it rains.

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  • $\begingroup$ The dragon breath may be neutralized by the rain too, so it won't be as useful. $\endgroup$ – Echox Mar 2 at 8:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Echox The described battle took place after the rain stopped falling, so that's not likely to be an issue. $\endgroup$ – Spitemaster Mar 2 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ In a world where a castle is fortified with ballistas in a region where it rains, you'd think they would rig up some kind cover at least. What's more, be aware that "largely useless" means there is still some kind of threat. If I were a dragon in that situation I would like some serious proof that the ballistas are disabled. $\endgroup$ – user72778 Mar 3 at 6:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Echox If this were a fire-breathing dragon, the rain might be a problem, since it's harder to set things on fire when they're soaking wet. But according to the OP's description, it breathes acid, which would work perfectly fine in the rain. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Mar 3 at 20:25
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I am not sure I understand what the problem is.

As a tactical weapon, the main use of a dragon, I submit, would be to surveil the enemy, and to communicate orders during the battle. Against a castle, a dragon would not have much practical offensive use. Sulfuric acid spray would be an annoyance, but I don't see it as providing a decisive advantage. But knowing where the opposing forces were, and their strength, would be a substantial tactical advantage. Using the dragon for its ability to monitor the battlefield would not be impaired by the scorpions.

On the other hand, I really do not see the advantage of scorpions in a defensive strategy against an infantry, either. One scorpion arrow against a single infantryman seems overkill to me. I suggest a cross bow would be more useful. The main use of a scorpion would be against larger siege weapons, where the kinetic energy of the arrow would be practical. Building that many scorpions just to defend against a single dragon would not be a practical use of resources. How many men would it take to crew a scorpion? But if you have unlimited resources, why not?

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    $\begingroup$ Historically, the scorpio was used against humans by the Romans on occasion. They were, however, significantly smaller than the fantasy-railguns featured in Game of Thrones, which seem to be the inspiration for this question. I think it makes some sense -- the flatter trajectory would make aiming more intuitive, which helps when you are aiming at something smaller than "walls, in that general direction." And presumably it could still be dangerous to enemies with shields. $\endgroup$ – Zwuwdz Mar 2 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Zwuwdz In that regard, it would be an effective weapon against the Roman 'turtle (testudo) defensive formation'. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme the Second Mar 2 at 16:55
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Deception and Fear

Do not use the dragon in force-on-force combat -- that's not it's strength.

Encourage the enemy to waste their treasure and effort on these expensive boutique weapons, instead of more practical and flexible units, weapons, and fortifications.

Use deception to give the scorpions seemingly more attractive targets than your attacking units (mock siege towers and mock trebuchets, for example.) Then roll right over the (comparatively) lightly-guarded scorpions and mis-equipped enemy with ordinary infantry and artillery and cavalry.

Once you have cleared some areas of the scorpion menace, then loose the dragon as a terror weapon within the cleared area -- hunting fleeing nobles and brigands, burning out their estates and allies. Let some escape, telling terrible tales of the dragon's power...so that the enemy will keep building those silly scorpions instead of more useful defenses.

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  • $\begingroup$ Couldnt they just use the scorpions on the ground troops as well ? It doesnt mention anything about them being limited to attacking the dragon. $\endgroup$ – GamerGypps Mar 2 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ @GamerGypps Have your dragon fly around on one side of the castle, then your troops attack from one of the other 3, to split their forces. Plus, (based on the Roman Scorpio) a Scorpion has the same range a crossbow, is harder to get into position, has a 3-man crew, and can still only hit 1 target at a time, but the bolts are between 6 and 8 times the size & cost. 30 enemies can fire 30 crossbows, or 10 Scorpions: please waste effort using them against my ground troops. $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Mar 2 at 12:02
  • $\begingroup$ It would depends wildly on the types of troops attacking. A Scorpion will go through almost any armour or shield of the time and would absolutly destroy a horse. A normal crossbow for instance would not. While i agree its slower fire rate and the need for more men operating it are disadvantages, it could easily be used to break a shield wall or cavalry charge or even damage or destroy sieging equipment. As for having the dragon attack the other side of the castle i would assume that all angles of the castle are guarded and as such have scorpions too. $\endgroup$ – GamerGypps Mar 2 at 12:13
  • $\begingroup$ @GamerGypps edited the answer to more clearly address. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Mar 2 at 12:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal I mean, Julius Caesar mentions using them against people so it can't be that bad of an idea. I think you are short-changing the chance of going through shields. The attackers aren't going to just stand out in the field, they'll probably be advancing in formation, and they'll have a pretty good idea of which way to point their shield wall. $\endgroup$ – Zwuwdz Mar 2 at 17:00
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Longer range siege weapons. The scorpio must be exposed to shoot at the dragon, so the natural reaction (hide behind the walls) doesn't work here. Fire bundles with lots of small rocks, rather than one big one -- the goal here isn't to take down the walls, just kill the relatively fragile devices on the walls. The natural backup plan -- sally forth and destroy the siege weapons -- is made much more difficult by the dragon.

The dragon can also drop things. In my experience as a dragon, an object the size of even a skinny human makes a perfectly adequate projectile (Although, turns out, actual humans will loudly and irritatingly object to this plan. Use the aforementioned bundles of rocks, just smaller bundles). Because all of the potential energy is transferred to kinetic when dropping an object, the equation is simply E=mgh. (m=mass, g=gravitational acceleration, h=height). So, any weight restrictions can be compensated for by increasing the height (assuming air resistance isn't a big deal -- rocks are pretty dense).

Finally, neutralize the scorpios by not engaging them. Just do a normal siege, but use the dragon to prevent all the normal defender hijinks. No sneaking supplies in, the dragon can scout them. No sallying forth, the dragon will get them. No surprise reinforcements -- the dragon will either spot the messenger making the request on the way out, or scout the approaching armies.

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  • $\begingroup$ Exactly. Your ace-in-the-hole can be a defensive weapon as well. $\endgroup$ – bta Mar 3 at 23:41
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A lot depends on how your ballista can move, and how fast.

Your most obvious tactic, like NixonCrinium suggests is night raids. But there are a few other options.

Bombing
You don't need to lift anything heavy, if you can be accurate. Molotov cocktails can be quite effective in destroying the ballista, end they don't need to carry more than a few bottles.

Death from above
Not many, if any at all, ballista can shoot straight up. You could drop straight down, or at a very steep diving angle, to grab the ballista and rip it to shreds, before ascending again. This does however get more dangerous if there are other ballista nearby.

From the depths
Opposite of the above, if it was possible to safely approach the front of a wall, the dragon could fly close to it. It could pop up close to a ballista and destroy it before they knew what was happening. The enemy couldn't use other ones in range, as they would hit their own soldiers and equipment. Just be sure not to take them out in one line, but pop up randomly, as being predictable gets you killed.

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    $\begingroup$ Easy peasy to fly overhead and drop festered flesh to spread disease behind enemy lines. For any flying species, 500 meters is trivial. Fly above and drop stuff, safe and easy. $\endgroup$ – Gustavo Mar 2 at 9:34
  • $\begingroup$ Festered flesh would work, surely. But this takes some time to gestalte, and will only help for an assault a couple of days later, and you just gave those plans away with this attack. Large rocks, molotovs, or makeshift bombs will be much more effective for an immediate assault. Besides, who needs a dragon for that when a simple catapult would do it just as well? $\endgroup$ – Plutian Mar 2 at 9:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Gustavo, festered flesh look like a good idea but your trainned military troop and your dragon crew are valuable ressource. You don't wan't disease in your army. $\endgroup$ – Drag and Drop Mar 2 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ That was comon tactic on sieges, capatult dead stuff. And engineers were a scarce resource too. $\endgroup$ – Gustavo Mar 2 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ It would probably make sense to just bottle his own acid and drop jars of it. A dragon could surely carry a couple hundred pounds, as an eagle can carry a fish, and for the same reasons: there's good evolution in being able to snatch your food and fly some distance with it. So dropping bottles of acid or something explosive would do damage and be perfectly safe for the dragon. $\endgroup$ – JamieB Mar 3 at 16:25
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Well, a Scorpion isn't much more effective against normal troops than a crossbow is - the range is about the same, it's harder the maneuverer, and the ammo is more expensive. Every Scorpion they have is about four crossbows that they don't. Flying your dragon around on one side of the castle will keep troops there, while your actual army attacks the other.

Use your dragon to launch gliders. At first, this will make the enemy waste their ammo shooting the gliders down. Later, they will get lax and complacent, no longer paying quite the same priority to the airborne "threats".

At this point you have two options - either send your dragon on actual raids, or fit fuses to your gliders. After a certain amount of gliding, the wings collapse, and they dive into the enemy, delivering incendiaries or diseases. You can even do this during stage one - any gliders shot down can still do damage when they land.

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It's a siege so use standard siege processes and employ sapping.

Sapping was a highly effective strategy used as early as ancient Greece where sappers would dig trenches and tunnels to undermine defensive positions. Once undermined a fire could be set to burn away the supports and collapse the tunnel underneath the defenses causing walls and towers to collapse. If your world has gun powder or other forms of explosives sapping becomes even more deadly as explosives can create larger craters and cause massive damage to defenders above and around the tunnel such as was employed during World War 1's trench warfare.

If you're looking for the best way for your army to overcome a castle sapping is your best option, dragon or no dragon.

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  • $\begingroup$ "During the Middle Ages, victims of the bubonic plague were used for biological attacks, often by flinging fomites such as infected corpses and excrement over castle walls using catapults." - either way, ending the siege is the objective, neither of which would employ a dragon better spent elsewhere projecting power unto the next to be besieged should they happen to not pay their taxes. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Mar 2 at 22:53
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Eyes in the sky.

One of the bigger if not more annoying problems in warfare is the lack of awareness. Where the f*** are my troops and where is the enemy? If you have found them, what are they doing, are they ready? What is their setup?

With a dragon that is intelligent, or a skilled observer with him, you remove a lot of guessing. You know where your troops are, you can see where the enemy is AND what they are doing.


Sieges

No need to endanger your dragon, just fly high and observe. Then learn how to do precision bombardments. Not with bombs, but with rotting carcasses, into the drinking wells. If at night, even better.


Scorpion ballistas

Just do not engage with them. Might use propaganda to spread fear of your dragon. With a lot of emphasis that a scorpion ballistas can kill one. That hopefully will make your enemy get lots more, and doing so spend a lot of gold on that. Wasted gold, as they will not be able to do their thing if you don't get close.

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In your description, you say the effective range of the sulfuric acid spray is 6-9 meters. However, you don't mention what happens thereafter. Does it dissolve into the air? Or does it fall?

Assuming it doesn't magically disappear, your dragon could use his spray as a bomb from higher altitudes. It may take some practice, but a non-moving target is a sitting duck.

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  • $\begingroup$ higher altitudes tend to have stronger winds than closer to the ground, this with how inconsistent winds can be would make aiming difficult. Not to mention the effectiveness of the acid spray after higher altitude dispersion would be entirely insignifcant $\endgroup$ – BKlassen Mar 2 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ Good point - I didn't think about wind. Depending on the wind, the consistency of the dragon's spray (droplets or mist), and the actual altitude required to avoid the defenders this may or may not work. These sort of situational difficulties are perfect for a story - in some situations it will work, in some it will not. $\endgroup$ – Scott Hammer Mar 3 at 15:06
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They attack swiftly, from great heights. Only best of the best are allowed to raid the dragons into battle. When situation calls they soar high, risking their life, and quickly approach on the enemy. Idea is that raiders need to get to the target before loosing conciousness, some die in the process, sure, but at leat dragons return back home.

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(I can't comment yet, so I'd suggest a different approach here.)

Do not fight enemies head on.

Dragons have a superior mobility and assuming the balistas are not very mobile and every supply wagon has some...

Do you even need to conquer the fort?

If the conquest doesn't have a time contraints and the enemy fort is not completely self-sustaining, you can just siege them and wait out.

The dragon can easily fly over the fort and prevent them getting supply wagons. Wait until they are lacking fresh water and/or food and they will resign.

It was the tactic used by Ottoman Empire at the beginning, (before they were an empire). Most small Forts/cities can't hold longer than 3 days, especially if reinforcements are not an options they will just give up as to prevent vain suffering.

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  • $\begingroup$ This answers the question of how to defeat the enemy, not the question that OP asked which is specifically about how to neutralize the ballistas. At least you could suggest that the dragon's use may be to make reinforcements pointless to include the dragon in your answer $\endgroup$ – Thymine Mar 3 at 15:41
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The dragon's sulfuric acid breath will eat through whatever the scorpions are made out of. Your only problem is range. The breath is a fine mist, so you have to be close to use it.

Or do you?

Several weeks before your planned attack, have your craftsmen build a bunch of glass bottles about a half-liter in capacity. The dragon would spend several days breathing into the bottles, collecting and concentrating the acid. When it comes time to siege the enemy, the dragon carries a wyrmspit bottle (not very large or heavy) and drops it on the enemy scorpions from a safe height. The bottle encapsulates the acid and prevents it from scattering until impact. It's hard to aim from that high up but as long as you hit something inside the castle, it's still a successful attack. Once your enemy sees that you're willing to dissolve his castle and army and he can't effectively guard against it, he'll likely surrender.

Just be careful handling and storing the filled bottles. Store open containers indoors and you could accidentally build a gas chamber. A cork stopper will get eaten away, but it's probably sufficient for a week or two as long as it's not in direct contact with the acid. Any humans working with this stuff will need serious safety gear like thick leather aprons, long leather gloves, and limited exposure times. Gear made of dragon hide would be ideal, but the dragon might find that offensive.

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