THE PRINCE AND THE DRAGON
"You have got to be kidding me."
The words were uttered in an urgent whisper, pointless because the creature ransacking the farmhouse in the distance – not enough distance for my taste, but hey, what can you do – was making so much noise it could probably have woken the dead. But it was a whispery sort of situation, crouched behind some bushes that would no doubt burn as easily as the farm house, feet in the mud, cold armor uncomfortably chafing my arms and legs and shoulders.
I wasn't built for this. I wasn't tall and handsome and dashing, riding a white horse, armor shining so brilliantly it hurt to look at it. I would never be prince charming, dazzling princesses with my witty conversation. I wasn't even a mysterious black knight, silently brooding, never opening the visor of my helmet to keep the ladies from seeing my scarred face. Scars which, no doubt, I would have gotten fighting evil magicians or hordes of trolls or fire spewing dragons, like the one we were watching destroying the farm house right that moment.
The only thing that was slightly true of aforementioned things, was the fact that I was a prince. And since I was the only prince in the entire kingdom – which happens when your parents manage to have seven daughters before finally managing to produce a boy – certain things were expected of me. The usual stuff, showing up on banquets, opening new schools, making intelligent sounding speeches to welcome royalty from other kingdoms. I was able to converse in five different languages, not counting my own, was a fair chess player and I could manage to stay upright during boring conferences which usually were well supplied with wine. I once even managed to last longer than the king of Gurundia, which is saying something as the man is a notorious drunk.
Don't get me wrong. I liked being a prince. True, there were some drawbacks like the stupid conferences, which usually only ended when everybody was so bored out of their minds that they accepted any sort of agreement just to get out of there and go back to their polo games or whatever it was that they did for pastime when they weren't governing countries that basically governed themselves. And one day, I would be king, which, I had determined early in my youth, didn't differ all that much from being a prince. You got to sign documents the ministers brought you. I could totally do that.
The only thing that bothered me in the whole prince job description, was the part about dragons. It hadn't for the longest time. Dragons hadn't been seen in the small kingdom of Armagondia since forever, and I remembered reading the part about being responsible for keeping the kingdom safe from them and thinking, haha, right, good one.
And now I was sitting here, in a cold ditch, way too close to the largest dragon I had ever seen. And it was large, even though I had never actually seen one before. Large. Red. Breathing fire. Doing all the things a dragon is supposed to do. I supposed I should be thankful that at least it only had one head, but I couldn't quite get myself to feel lucky there.
Brendon. I had almost forgotten him. Exasperated, I turned to him.
"Don't call me that. You know I hate that name."
"It's your name," he said, "Trying to call yourself Flint doesn't change that. Besides, it's an honorable name, your great-great grandfather..."
"It's a girl's name," I said, "At least 'Flint' sounds manly. And I know all about my great-great grandfather, thanks to those totally insufferable royal history lessons, thank you very much. Do you know how much I had to suffer because of that name? Do you know what they used to call me, in school?"
"Really, prince Florian..."
"Florina. That's what they called me. Florina. Oh Florina, where's your pretty pink dress? Florina, where are your dollies? Florina, shall we help you with your pigtails?"
"You know your hair is required to..."
"I know I'm required to have the stupid hair in a pony tail. I'm doing it. But what kind of parent names their child 'Florian'? They already had seven girls, surely they could have come up with something more..."
We ducked down deeper in the ditch, trying to stay hidden from the dragon which now seemed to be feasting on the bodies of the farmer and his family. I winced and felt sorry for them. It didn't, however, invoke a burning rage in me that had me abandon all prudence and rush forward with my sword drawn, bellowing things like 'Get thee away from those innocent peasants you monster', or something like that. If anything, it made me want to turn around and run away, screaming like a girl. Twenty two was just too young to die.
Not that I have anything against screaming like a girl. I mean, girls do it all the time, right? It would be hard for a girl to not scream like one, because it's kind of the definition. If a girl screams, she screams like one. But somehow, for a man to scream like a girl, that's all wrong. As if men can't get afraid (I should know), as if they don't feel like running away and screaming sometimes. The fact that they don't has, in my opinion, more to do with the fact that they're not supposed to than that they don't want to.
I wasn't supposed to run away. So I stayed. Barely.
Brendon seemed more or less unperturbed by everything. "Your great-great-grandfather was a very brave man," he said, "By naming you after him..."
"They thought that by naming me the same as him would somehow make me be like him?"
Brendon looked pensive. The orange flames of the farmhouse that lit his face made him look almost demonic. His eyes were deep pits, his crooked nose looked like the beak of a hawk. And he had come with me when nobody else would, for which I was thankful. Even if he was only a bard.
"They honored you with that name," he said, "King Florian has slain four dragons in his youth."
"Yes," I said, knowing my family's history by heart, "And he lost an eye..."
"Yes, that was unfortunate..."
"And a leg..."
"Painful, that must have been."
"And both his arms. How the man ever managed to have children is beyond me."
Brendon stayed quiet after that, for which I was both grateful and a little annoyed. Even though the man had been annoying as hell during our long trip through the woods, and had gone on and on about duty an honor almost the entire time, at least he provided some sort of distraction from the thing right in front of me, the reason we were here.
Sighted first less than a month ago in the mountains. Reports had come in, scantily at first, about the red creature, attacking livestock and occasionally a wagon carrying cauliflowers. I hadn't really forgotten about the little part in my job description about slaying dragons by that point, but I hadn't thought it would be taken so literally. So when my father called me in, telling me to appear in full armor, I had somehow thought it was ceremonial, like everything else I did. I would make a little speech, denounce the dragon, send the men who were going to deal with it on their way and be done with it. Imagine my horror when I discovered that my father, my own father, went and told the people present – nobility, ambassadors and wealthy merchants – how his brave son Prince Florian was going to go and slay the dragon himself.
And after that, people had congratulated me, and wished me well, and bards had come in and had played their songs, heralding great heroes and princes and describing how those princes had struggled and suffered on their way to victory or, worse, their heroic death, all of which had made me thoroughly miserable.
The party was great though. I know, because I don't remember much about it.
Next thing I knew, I was riding out of our beautiful, bright, sunny capital towards the dark forest, accompanied only by a grumpy bard, the only person who had volunteered to go with me. At the time, I was sporting a humongous headache, so I hadn't really felt like protesting all too much. I had sort of let it happen to me, still stunned about the fact that it was even possible. My mother had been all teary eyed, my father had looked proud and a bit sick. I must have looked... I must have looked like an idiot.
Prince Florian. The dragon-slayer.
Looking at the beast, the thought seemed even more preposterous than it had back then. I turned to Brandon, who seemed fascinated by the thing.
"Well?" I demanded, "We're here, obviously. You're the bard. You know everything. Don't you have something clever to say about this?"
He glanced at me briefly before returning his gaze to the dragon, who had settled down somewhat. Maybe his stomach was full. Maybe he would go to sleep right then and there, and I could sneak up to him and slit his throat while he was sleeping. Not very heroic, but very, very effective.
"You're the prince," Brandon said, "You have trained for this your whole life. Surely you didn't think all that sword play was to impress the ladies?"
Yes, as a matter of fact I had. Because I really hadn't had much use for it. It had been fun though, all the tournaments and matches. I had won quite a few too, and not just because I was the prince. People never seemed to give me the respect I deserved for being high born, and I was fine with that too. Mind you, the teasing about my name at school had been a bit much, but besides making me miserable, it had also made me realize that just because my parents happened to be the king and queen, it didn't make me any better than them. Which had driven me to try my best, to earn their respect on my own merits. So when I won a tournament, I won it because I really was the best there was.
Girls loved that sort of thing, too. I got to play the dashing prince, and they swooned all around me, making me feel all heroic. I didn't feel so heroic now. If I had known in advance what it all would lead to I would have... well, what could I have done? Say no? Sit on my ass all day and refuse to touch a sword on principle? It wouldn't have gotten me out of this predicament. At least now I was a little prepared. As if my tiny little sword would do any good against the bulk of the dragon.
I ground my teeth and joined Brandon in staring at it. Every time I looked at it, the thing seemed bigger. It was at least as big as the barn standing next to the burning farm house. I wondered for a moment why the dragon hadn't set the thing on fire, until I heard the distinct and familiar sound of cows mooing. I hadn't heard it before, because of the noise the dragon was making, but he had definitely settled down now. He was almost laying down, his belly on the ground, his head softly swaying, sniffing...
Oh no. Sniffing.
I nudged Brandon. "Hey," I whispered, "He's going to find us here, he'll smell us!"
Brandon shook his head. "Relax, prince Florian," he said, "He can't smell us. We're on the leeward side."
Oh. Should have realized that myself. I could smell the smoke, and something else which I didn't want to think about but did anyway, namely the barbecues my father loved to have in our rather large garden. Burnt meat. Because if there's one thing my father can't do, it's cooking. Even so, sitting here, I remembered it fondly. At least it was safe.
In any case, it meant the thing couldn't smell us.
I shivered. When we had arrived at the scene, it had already been getting dark. We had seen the fire burning from miles away, and had made our way through the trees to sneak up on him after we had left our horses tethered to a tree. All our supplies were still there, and I wished we, meaning I, had thought about bringing some food. And a blanket. Something to drink would have been nice too, even though the only thing we had left was water. The dragon definitely called for something stronger, but I hadn't thought that far ahead while on the road. In fact, I hadn't thought much of anything, other than my misery and the absolute certainty I was going to die.
And nothing had changed about that.
I shifted. The armor, although tailor made just for me, was uncomfortable. The helmet was heavy, The shoulder plates chafed my shoulders, the wool in the steel gauntlets was itchy and extremely annoying. I supposed it was all very handy when fighting a war against other knights, who were also wearing armor, and in fact it did come in handy in the tournaments, when being unhorsed by my opponent while trying to unhorse him. The joust was not my strong point.
Coming to a decision, I started tugging the gauntlets until they came off. I wiggled my fingers and moved my hands in relief, and then proceeded to take off my helmet and unstrapping the shoulder plates. The greaves were next, and the breast plate. The pile of steel next to me was growing steadily, and I was feeling better by the moment. I did hesitate taking off my chainmail shirt, and after some consideration, decided to leave it on. It wasn't too uncomfortable, and it might save me at some point, although I had a hard time coming up with anything else than dangling from the dragon's mouth, being squashed by its teeth. During all this, Brandon managed to tear his eyes away from the dragon. He was staring at me.
"What are you doing?" he asked, looking incredulous, "You're supposed to fight a dragon! You'll need all that!"
"No I don't," I said, rolling my shoulders in a way that was impossible to do when wearing armor, "The only thing that armor serves is making me slow and sluggish. I'll be cooked alive if I wear that. If I'm going to do something, and please take note of the word 'if' here, I want to be able to move as fast as possible. Which means no armor."
"You're going to run."
It was a statement, not a question. It was true too. What I really wanted to do was run like hell. Still, it stung.
"I'm not going to run. I'm just saying, if I'm to do something about that thing, I'm not going to do it in a direct confrontation. I'm not my great-great grandfather. I'm not stupid."
"Are you suggesting King Florian was stupid?"
"Well," I said, unsheathing my sword, "Rushing a dragon seems pretty stupid to me. But hey, who am I, I still have all my limbs."
Brandon clearly disapproved, but he said nothing. Well, he wasn't supposed to. I had just had about enough of his tales anyway. He had come along to watch me slay the dragon and then make a nice song about it which would make him famous. Which was alright by me as long as I got to live and hear it.
Now free of the annoying pile of iron, I peered through the bushes again. The fire was still burning, but it seemed less bright now. The house was burning out. I could see the shape of the dragon, completely laying down now, its head close to the door of the barn filled with cows. No doubt, he was planning to have those for breakfast.
I was really starting to like my plan of sneaking up to him and simply slit his throat in his sleep. That would save me all sorts of trouble. And then I would simply threaten Brandon until he made a nice and heroic song about it and we would ride back into town carrying the dragon's head. I was pretty sure my reputation with the ladies would be rock solid then. They'd be standing in line. I turned to Brandon.
"Wish me luck," I whispered.
He looked at me wide eyed. I turned around and wiggled my way through the bushes, holding my sword in my right hand. Within minutes, I was completely soaked and covered with mud. Cursing softly, I worked myself up first on my hands and knees, and then to a low crouch, trying to blend in with the landscape. I was already regretting my plan then. Nobody ever told me these things, these adventures, could be so cold and uncomfortable. I felt like complaining, but Brandon wasn't there to hear it so I just kept my mouth shut and slowly made my way across the muddy field to the farmhouse. At least it'd be warm there.
The smell of burning meat became stronger as I approached the house, and I wrinkled my nose in disgust. Obviously, whoever had run out had been slaughtered by the dragon, and whoever had stayed inside had been burned alive. Nice choice to make. I reached the fence and, after a moment of hesitation, quickly scaled it. I landed on the other side and immediately crouched down, fully aware I was now in plain view of the dragon, should he care to look my way. He didn't.
At that point, my nerves almost got me. A sudden wave of fear made me freeze on the spot. I just couldn't move, couldn't get my feet to respond to my urgent telling them to take me away from there, to at least hide behind the barn for a bit to catch my breath. I tried to swallow, but my dry throat wouldn't let me.
Right beside the dragon, in plain view, were the remains of at least five people. At least, that's what it looked like. There wasn't any sure way of telling, but I thought I saw at least ten arms laying scattered about. The ground was red. The same color, I dimly noted, as the dragon. The dying flames of the house were still bright enough to allow me to clearly see all of it.
On the whole, I thought, I would have preferred the fire.
Somehow, my feet suddenly got the message and I was moving, running, towards the barn. Once behind it, out of sight from the dragon and the gruesome scene of the slaughtered people, I threw up. Quietly.
After a while, when even the fruitless dry heaving had stopped and I was leaning against the wall of the barn, I came to my senses somewhat. What was I doing here? What was I trying to accomplish? I was going to get myself killed, torn apart like those poor farm people. There was no way I could take on a dragon, sword play champion or no. That thing was just too big. You'd need an army to slay the thing, not a bloody prince.
I pushed myself off the wall and took a step in the direction of the fence. It looked really tempting. I'd go back to Brandon, tell him it was impossible, I couldn't take on a dragon all by myself and then we would leave and go back to the capital and do... what?
What I wanted to do was tell my father to send out the army and then go back to my chess games and speeches. People loved my speeches. I could do those very well, I was good at that, even though the majority of them were written by some clerk. Why couldn't they be satisfied with that? Why, of all people, did they send me?
Of course, riding back into the capital without either at least missing a limb or carrying the dragon's head was out of the question. I'd be covered in shame, I'd be the laughing stock of the country. They'd make songs about me, Florian the Coward. My father would have no option but to banish me. If I ran away now, there'd be no going back. My life would be over.
Trying to somehow gain control over my shaking hands, I gripped my sword tightly. My life was over anyway. Might as well go out with a blast. Slowly, I turned away from the fence and returned to the barn. With my back pressed against the rough wood, I inched towards the corner and quickly looked around it.
As soon as I saw the beast, its head only twenty feet away from me, I retreated behind the barn and leaned my head against the wall. My breathing came in short gasps now, and I was shaking so badly I was sure the dragon would be able to feel the ground tremble. This was so not my thing. I thought about my great-great grandfather, the one whose name I bore, and started to wonder if maybe I was adopted. There was no way that man's blood was streaming through my veins.
I looked again, a little longer this time. Its eyes were closed, its mouth was half open, showing vicious teeth and a forked tongue. It was breathing through its nose, which I could see because light streaks of smoke came from it every time it breathed out. Close to its head, on the ground, laid a doll.
I stared at the doll. It used to have curly blond hair and a white dress. It looked like it had been made with love and care, maybe by the mother of the girl who had owned it. It was a beautiful doll, and I should know. I had seven sisters. I was an expert on dolls. Being the youngest, my sisters had often mistaken me for one.
It was covered in blood.
The anger, which up until that point had been absent, suddenly raged through me then. I retreated behind the wall once more and closed my eyes while my hand tightened around the hilt of my sword. That dragon had killed and devoured the little girl. The last moments of her life had been absolute hell. It was going to pay for it.
The shaking subsided a little. A strange determination flooded through me. My mouth set in a grim line, I carefully rounded the corner and crept closer to the dragon, making sure to place my feet where they wouldn't make any sound. Both hands on the hilt of my sword, I made my way to the beast until I was right in front of it. It burped.
I almost fainted from the smell. That was one nasty foul mouthed dragon. I kept standing perfectly still though, resisting the urge to tell the beast to get a mint. Whenever I'm nervous, I start to babble. It was a bit disconcerting to find that I had the same urge to do that while facing a killer dragon from less than two feet.
I studied it. My plan to slide its throat would mean finding a place to actually stick my sword in, and that proved to be harder than I thought. Which means, very hard, as I hadn't thought it'd be easy in the first place.
The neck of the thing was covered with scales. Back in my father's palace, we had a few dragons' scales, remnants of one of the dragons my great-great grandfather had slain, laying in a showcase. My father had demonstrated to me once just how hard these things were by letting me try to smash them. I hadn't even managed to so much as scratch them. So they were pretty though.
What I needed was a weak spot. A place which wasn't covered in them. Somewhere to stick my trusty sword in, my sword which now seemed thoroughly inadequate. I let my eyes slide over the body of the beast, what I could see of it. It was laying on its stomach, so I couldn't tell if it was there. What I needed for it to do was to roll over.
Thoughts about simply ordering it to entered my head, and I almost laughed. Then I realized what I was doing and I almost panicked. My breathing quickened again, and I had a hard time controlling both the urge to run away and the urge to burst out laughing from the absolute absurdity of me standing next to a dragon, trying to figure out how to kill it.
I turned and looked at the head again.
Straight into two enormous yellow eyes, staring right back at me...