Once, there was a dragon.
There are many kinds of dragons: Great dragons, terrible dragons, ancient dragons.
But this was just a dragon.
He slept on a pile of trinkets (as shiny objects feel warm to dragons, and make excellent beds) and was, if not precisely content with his lot in life, was happy to collect more trinkets and sleep in a larger bed and slowly get a little bigger and older and more dragon-like every day. And then, he met a maiden. All wise men can tell you that this is where the trouble began.
The dragon fell in love with the maiden. But the dragon also knew that in a kingdom like the one he dwelt in, a powerful reptile was far from the ideal mate. He couldn’t help himself, however, couldn’t ignore the maiden, and sometimes he lay on his warm bed and stared at his cave and thought how large and empty it was without a maiden, and how if there was a maiden, it would still be large and empty, but it wouldn’t seem quite so.
And so he spent more and more time lurking on rooftops that happened to be near where the maiden was going about her business, happened to be just across the street when she left her home for the day, and then happened to always be looking for trinkets close enough that – even if no-one else knew, or would have said so – he knew that she was nearby.
There is only so much that a dragon can do, however, before he attracts attention. A Prince rode down, his armor shining in the sun like a polished mirror, with fine silks tastefully draped here and there.
“Ho, dragon!” The Prince hailed. It wasn’t a friendly sort of hail, either.
The dragon tried to creep back into what he thought was a shadow, but was actually a dark patch in the tiles over the blacksmith’s shop.
“Dragon.” The Prince put a hand on his hip.
“Eh?” The dragon shook his head.
“I can see you, dragon.”
The dragon hesitated. “You can?”
“Oh. Damn.” And then the dragon pulled himself up and shook his head as if he had merely been stretching himself.
The Prince, for his part, watched the dragon stretch himself out across the rooftop and flex his wings. In that instant, he realized just how small a thing a prince was, and how large a thing a dragon could be. He laid a hand on his sword and cleared his throat.
“Dragon. The time has come for you to cease threatening this humble village.”
The dragon raised one eyebrow and looked about for help.
The Prince, meanwhile, watched the monstrous beast lift his head back and eye the village and the little man before him.
The Prince drew his sword as little as he could and tried to look menacing. “I’ll have you know, dragon, that this is a vorpal blade.”
The dragon scratched his tummy and tried to remember if he’d ever heard this before. “What’s ‘vorpal?'”
The Prince watched the dragon rasp his claws over his hide and slyly whisper at him. He drew his vorpal blade entirely – and he felt a little bit pleased that it glimmered in the sun like a proper vorpal blade should – and prepared to opine that it meant ‘especially deadly,’ or at least, that this was the impression he got.
“Prince!” The maiden cried. “Dragon!”
Both of them froze in place at the call. Then, together, both cried, “You know him?”
The Maiden clutched onto the Prince’s arm. “Prince, this is The dragon. He’s quite a nice dragon.”
The dragon, for his part, had never before been glad that he could not blush.
“And this, Dragon, is the prince, my love.” And she planted a kiss on the Prince’s cheek.
The dragon realized, then, that she was not so much clutching the Prince’s arm as holding it. And when she looked up at the blond locks of curling hair and the neatly trimmed beard, it was with a wide-eyed wonder.
Dragon snorted, once. He was feeling a great many things at once, which is never good for a Dragon.
The Prince flinched at the snort, then put himself forward, thrust his vorpal blade towards the dragon, and cried something challenging.
When a Dragon feels a great many things, they try to grab one that will help them, something that they understand to get their feet beneath them once again. This dragon was bewildered at the array of thoughts, and when a simple sword-thrust (something all dragons are used to) came at him, the Dragon seized on the one thing he understood. Dragons, you see, quite understand anger.
The Dragon snapped at the Prince. It was, to another dragon, an irritable sort of snap, like someone who wouldn’t stop bothering you when you were trying to read a very good book. But to someone the size of the Prince, it was a terrifying snap indeed.
The Prince threw the Maiden one direction, his vorpal blade another, and he himself fell back into the dirt. The Dragon snorted, once, great loud snorts that ruffle the Prince’s golden locks.
The Maiden shrieked, and suddenly the village came rushing out to the streets to see what was going on.
Once the Maiden had shrieked, the Dragon froze in place with his eyes opened wide (or would, if a dragon could open his eyes very wide). The townsfolk, then, stopped and took in the sight before them. On the one hand, the Dragon was terrorizing a Maiden and a Prince, and the steps that any good village should take were fairly clear. On the other hand, they had all seen the Dragon creeping about and carefully not destroying any of the buildings, settling on rooftops as gently as possible, and generally being quite thoughtful for a dragon; besides which, he didn’t seem to be taking any particular interest in hurting either the Maiden or the Prince at the moment. In fact, he seemed to be quite still and not at all threatening.
Except, everyone reminded themselves, that he was still a large dragon, and possibly a large, fire breathing dragon, and his teeth were quite sharp, and his eyes were particularly glittery. It was all threatening, but not to other people.
The Dragon, meanwhile, had a sudden hold of himself. He knew better than to snap at people. They didn’t like it, and the Dragon never wanted to hurt anyone. There was no point, when such little and squishy things tended to hurt themselves easily enough. Most of all, though, the Maiden sounded distressed, and he knew that it was all because of him.
Someone in the crowd immediately realized that there was an answer that would leave everyone happy. Or rather, wouldn’t cause a fight, and for most people, that’s simply all that’s needed to smile and say that everything’s OK.
“The Prince was trying to show off, and he fell.”
And within a single whisper, a guess became a fact, and everyone knew that the Prince had fallen trying to show that he was braver and stronger and more skilled than a great dragon, which everyone knew was very silly, and only seemed more silly when you knew that he couldn’t even stand upright long enough to do that properly.
“I didn’t,” The Prince said hotly, his face quite red, just as soon as he realized what everyone was saying. “The Dragon bit at me.”
Which everyone knew couldn’t be true, because if a dragon bit at you, you weren’t able to tell people later that a dragon bit at you.
“He did!” The Prince picked up his vorpal sword, which went a long way towards calming the population. “He bit at me for no reason!” And he looked to the Maiden for help.
The Maiden was very quiet, and only lay in the dust for a moment before the Prince thought to help her up.
Meanwhile, the Dragon swallowed a few times – a deep and rumbling sound somewhere in his chest. He thought that perhaps he should say something, but knew that immediately after trying to take someone’s head off (not meanly, only angrily) was not the time to try and smooth things over. Instead, he spread his wings out and beat them a few times, hovered for a moment (kicking up billows of dust that nearly blinded many of the people in the square), and then swooped off with a snaky swoop that only a dragon can really manage.
Inside the shop, the blacksmith began doing battle (metaphorical battle, though, you see) against an enormous billow of sparks that a breeze coming down the chimney flung out of the forge, choking on smoke. Actions, you see, sometimes have consequences you don’t foresee.
After the square, the Dragon decided to become a hermit. It wouldn’t be hard, he thought to himself, as most dragons are already hermits of one sort or another. He would creep about at night and collect his bedding and food, and sometimes a villager would see him and tell stories, and the wizened old man would nod and stroke his beard and say that yes, there were stories about a dragon that lived in the area, that had had his heart broken and so he pined every day since, still strong and fierce but somehow, inside, being something kind hearted and really deserving of love.
And so for a week, the Dragon stayed inside, sleeping on his pile of trinkets (which no longer felt quite so warm as they used to) and growling at his shadow and thinking about the Maiden and the Prince, wondering what they were doing now. Then, he would snort and go back to counting his money.
Soon, though, the Dragon encountered the banes of everyone who has sworn that they would become a hermit and only creep out at dusk. His cave was large, but not so large for a dragon, and he grew very restless. He didn’t speak with the villagers (for he was, after all, still a great and terrible dragon) but he did miss seeing the goatherd on the side of the hill, and the old blind woman who never seemed to know that he was a dragon and not a very large dog, and the sun had felt so good on his wings, and would feel especially good after a week of nothing but darkness. And besides, if he was too good at creeping about, no-one would ever see him, and if no-one ever saw the dragon, how would they know he was being a hermit?
With this reasoning, the Dragon ventured out one day, minding that he looked as unapproachable and angry as possible.
The Dragon tried not to look surprised, or – he noted with a sort of odd twinge – pleased. He tried to pretend as though he was thinking hard about who was talking to him before he answered. “Maiden?”
He turned to look at her, wishing that he knew more about the kind of expression dragons who have exiled themselves tend to wear. He imagined that it was quite a stern expression, something that would take away the breath of anyone who saw it and make them think “My, what a grave and stern dragon that is.”
Seeing the Maiden, though, removed any thought in his head about his expression.
Her long golden hair was mussed, her cheeks had marked blotches, and her ordinarily clear features had little rings below her eyes.
“Maiden?” The Dragon said again.
“I found you,” The Maiden repeated.
The Dragon shuffled in place a little bit, which, because of his great size, put large furrows in the soft earth. “Maiden,” The Dragon finally said. “Are you well?”
The Maiden made a listless little move that was probably a shrug. “Everyone is making fun of him.”
The Dragon frowned. “Making fun of who?”
“Of the Prince.”
And all at once the Dragon remembered why he was a hermit, and that he didn’t want to see anyone ever again, and that maybe he should have just waited to creep about in the night – after all, someone would have seen him eventually.
He didn’t leave, though.
“Why? He’s brave and strong and has a vorpal sword. Why make fun of him?”
“Because they say he couldn’t even show off to a dragon.”
The Dragon mentally objected to the word ‘even’ for several reasons.
“They think he’s a fool, and a clumsy ox, and even the butcher pretends to swing his knives like swords and drop them every time I walk by.” The Maiden sniffed and gathered herself up taller. “Dragon, he’s so kind and brave, they shouldn’t make fun of him.”
“He shouldn’t have been showing off, then,” The Dragon grumbled.
The Maiden looked so hurt that the Dragon instantly regretted having said anything. He tried to look away – so as not to stare – and to look directly at her at the same time.
“I mean, he was showing quite well,” The Dragon added, then scuffed at the ground again. A farmer somewhere was going to be pleased with how well his field was plowed. Or would be, if it wasn’t a meadow.
“He wasn’t,” The Maiden whispered. “He was trying to confront a big, scary dragon who tried to bite him.”
The Dragon froze in place. “I’m not scary.”
“You’re very scary when you try to bite off someone’s head.”
“I didn’t!” The Dragon cried, louder than he intended. A flock of birds burst from a copse of trees.
“You certainly looked like you did.” The Maiden stuck out her chin, which only made her lower lip quiver more strongly. “And he can’t be blamed. He tried to save me.”
“I wasn’t even. . . But he. . . It was vorpal.” The Dragon felt a little desperate, which was a feeling that he absolutely did not understand. Dragons do not, as rule, feel desperate. They make other people feel desperate. He bowed his head. “I’m sorry.”
The Maiden looked up at the great dragon, his head bowed nearly to the ground, his eyes fixed upon the ground, and she reached up one of her small hands and laid it on the Dragon’s muzzle. “You didn’t mean to?”
The Dragon shook his head, miserably.
“Not at all?”
“Not at all.”
The Maiden fell silent. “You are a nice dragon.”
The Dragon shook his head. “No.” And then he was quiet again. There are two different kinds of quiet thinking. There is brooding – which is when someone is thinking about what has happened – and there is thinking – which is when someone is thinking about what they’re going to do next.
The Dragon, at first, seemed to be brooding, and then he reached out one of his clawed back feet, clutched the Maiden around the waist, and with a pair of wing beats lifted straight up, then swooped forward.
The Maiden shrieked the whole time.
“Dragon!” The Prince cried. He had a shiny helmet, now, one that matched his gleaming armor. His sword was out of its belt, glimmering impressively in the sun. On his horse, he cut a very fine figure indeed.
The Dragon growled from inside his cave. It echoed and came out much louder than he’d intended, and the Prince shook in place, just a little bit.
Then, the Prince got off his horse and walked inside, his chin up and his sword ready.
“Feeble Prince,” The Dragon hissed. “Why have you come to my cave?”
“I’ve come to save the Maiden,” The Prince said. His voice shook a little bit, but he stood with a manly determination.
“You cannot save the Maiden, feeble Prince. Not from a great dragon.”
The Prince could hear the Dragon moving about, shuffling rocks and slithering from shadow to shadow.
“I am still here to save her.”
“Noble, prince, noble.” He huffed and several sparks shot out. In the light, the Prince could see the Maiden tied to a standing stone.
“Maiden!” The Prince cried, then started towards her. He then stopped as he remembered the Dragon who was quietly putting out sparks. “Dragon. I will slay you!”
“Well, get on with it.” The Dragon charged from the shadows, a loping trot that barreled at the slim Prince. He took in a great breath and spewed flame in a circle about the Prince’s ears.
The Prince ducked down from the heat of the blast, his armor beginning to glow, and he stabbed up at the Dragon’s vulnerable stomach.
The vorpal blade scratched off of the hide and nearly fell out of the Prince’s hand.
The Dragon paused for a moment, then circled around the Prince and snapped at him. The Prince swung, and the blade bounced away again.
“Ow,” The Dragon said, his eyes crossing.
The Prince swallowed. “Oh, dear.”
“I thought you had a vorpal blade,” The Dragon said, rubbing the miniature cut on his snout.
“I do.” The Prince wavered.
“What’s the point of that, then?”
“It’s. . . It’s especially deadly.”
The Dragon stopped rubbing his nose. “Not a special dragon-slaying sword?”
The Prince shook his head.
“What’s ‘vorpal’?” The Dragon asked
“Oh.” The Dragon slumped. “I thought it meant ‘Dragon-slaying.'”
The Prince shook his head. “It doesn’t.”
“Just a regular sword.”
“An especially deadly sword.”
“It’s a sword,” The Dragon said, a bit crossly now that his nose was itching. “If it wasn’t especially deadly, it’d be a a rubbish sword, wouldn’t it?”
The two of them fell silent, each feeling especially silly.
“Now what?” The Maiden said.
“I suppose I let you go.” The Dragon clomped over to the stone.
“That’s it?” The Maiden and the Prince said together. “That’s all?”
The Dragon harrumphed. “That’s it.”
“You’re not a very good dragon, are you?” The Prince asked.
“He’s a lovely dragon,” The Maiden said. “He’s just not very good at being a dragon.”
“Aren’t you going to kill me and leave my bones and armor as a warning to others?” The Prince said.
The Dragon gave him a look. Unfortunately, Dragons do not have eyebrows, otherwise he would have raised one of his.
“Well, what was the point of all this, then?” The Prince started to walk towards the stone where the Dragon was fumbling with the knots.
“So that you could slay a dragon and be a hero.” The Dragon very carefully studied the ropes, not looking up.
“But. . .” The Prince cut the ropes with his sword, without even seeming to think about it. Then, he swept the Maiden up in one arm. “But why?”
“So that you could be a hero,” The Dragon repeated. He sounded even crosser than he had when he was rubbing his nose. “Just tell everyone you slew the dragon, and I’ll go away.”
“Why would I say that?” The Prince said. He seemed, all in all, somewhat in wonder at the situation. He’d heard many stories growing up, and he couldn’t quite recall paying attention to any of the ones that would have helped him in this particular situation.
“Because then nobody will think about you falling down trying to show off. They’d just think about you slaying the dragon, like a very brave man.” The Dragon slunk a little ways away and began scraping his trinkets back together.
“Dragon,” The Maiden said. “What we want to know is, Why would you want that?”
The Dragon was very quiet, then, as he’d found several trinkets that needed a good deal of attention paid to them.
He dropped one of the pieces on the top of his bed. “Because you’d both be happy, then.” Which was only a sort of a lie.
“Dragon, you are not very good at being a dragon.” The Maiden left the Prince to give the Dragon a hug around one leg. “But you are a very lovely dragon, though you are a bit stupid.” And she said it so nicely that the Dragon didn’t even think to agree.
“Well, Dragon.” The Prince came up beside the Dragon. “We started wrong, didn’t we?”
“You’re a bit stupid–“
It didn’t sound nearly so nice from the Prince.
“–but you mean well, don’t you? I think you’re Alright.”
The Dragon snorted and looked away. Perhaps he did like being told he was Alright, but being told by the Prince, it was somehow a little bit more shallow, and the Dragon just wanted to explain all the reasons he wasn’t All Right. To begin with, he’d stolen some of the trinkets he slept on, and he wasn’t even sorry about that.
“Dragon, if you ever need a friend, we’ll be here.” The Maiden said.
The Prince shifted, a little uncomfortably. The Dragon was perfectly content with that. “Or, perhaps, just a good word. I understand: it’s really a very complicated thing. Feelings, I mean.” And the Prince sounded so compassionate and understanding that the Dragon almost took another snap at him.
The sun was going down early, now, around the frost and the snow all around these days. It was exactly the sort of night to spend with a warm drink and a cozy fire. Everyone was doing that by their own fires in a very pointed way; everyone but two.
The Prince sat amidst a pile of mugs serving as a little fort, some of them stacked up, but not very well. His head bobbed like it was on string as he sloshed drink across the table, very wastefully.
Next to him, the Dragon’s head lay on the floor, the rest of him not being quite able to fit into the tavern. Most dragon’s eyes can’t manage to look glassy, but the Dragon gave a very good impression of someone who would have glassy eyes, and he licked his lips, very slowly. Beside him were fewer containers, though they were much larger, usually the sort one could use to drown several mules at a time.
“Damn women,” The Prince said. Or tried to say, as he fell off his seat.
“Damn them,” The Dragon agreed, a bone-rattling agreement that knocked pictures from the wall on nearby houses.
“And damn blacksmiths.” The Prince managed to fall off the floor, now, and fell on his back.
“And double damn women blacksmiths,” The Dragon muttered, as one fellow to another. Though he wasn’t aware, his aside could be heard across the street.
The Prince began laughing until he couldn’t breath, then he wiped his eyes, and cried just a little bit (which did not make him less of a man. Just a very drunk one). “It doesn’t make sense, does it?” He said.
“No.” The Dragon agreed. “Was she even a character?”
The Prince stopped and thought. “Dragon, Maiden, Prince. . . No. No, she wasn’t.” He laughed again.
“Well, then, why does she get the girl?”
The Prince shrugged, then tried to make a rude sound with his lips.
The Dragon idly scraped a few coins together and rested his head on them. “This is cozy.”
“You know, smaller than my cave. But it’s cozy.”
“That’s the beer, and the, the. . . angry.” The Prince said with authority.
And they must have fallen asleep, then, because the pictures stopped falling off the walls then, and the innkeeper had to politely ask the Dragon to take his head out so he could cut out the draft, but that’s all that can be told.
Because sometimes, the story isn’t quite right, and sometimes, it isn’t entirely wrong, either; sometimes, it just happens about your ears and you have to put it together after.
And that’s the end.