The Dragon and His Human

Once upon a time, in a far-away land, two very different people met quite by accident. One was a princess. She wasn't a fairy, or an elf, or anything similar, but she was immortal and more beautiful than any human could be. Some say that she was half-star. It is possible she was. In those days stars took human form when they grew tired of being stars and wished for a holiday. Some of them married – I will not say "humans", since back then many of Earth's inhabitants were not human – but some of the stars married people of Earth, and the Princess may have been descended from one of them.

The other person was a young human man. He was only a locksmith, not a Prince, or a Lord, or any sort of aristocracy, and under other circumstances he would never have met the Princess at all. But, you see, there was a war, and the Queen, the Princess's mother, sent her children into hiding in various cities in the kingdom. Providence had decided long ago that the Princess should go to the city where the young man lived, and that the two of them would meet. And, as is always the way in stories of this sort, they fell in love and wished to be married.

The Princess wrote to her mother – who was ruling the kingdom – and her father – who was off fighting the war – about her husband-to-be. Both King and Queen were happy for their daughter, but they were also sad, for she had told them that the man she loved was human, while she, like the rest of her family, was immortal.

The Queen sent her daughter a letter, and asked her to return to the palace with the young man. And so the Princess, her fiancé, and the Princess's old nurse – who was there as a chaperone – left the city and went to the palace.

As the Queen awaited their arrival, she thought long and hard on how she could ensure that the human the Princess wished to marry was worthy of her daughter. She knew little of humans, but she had heard many stories of how they were selfish and cruel, and did not wish her daughter to marry a man who only loved her for her beauty or title. Finally the Queen came to a decision.

In the mountains in the far south of the kingdom there lived a dragon. It was a very peaceful dragon, as dragons go, and was perfectly happy to simply collect shiny, glittery things and add them to its hoard. All dragons collect treasure, you see. I've no idea why. In this respect they are rather like giant reptilian magpies.

As I was saying, this dragon was happy to stay in its lair most of the time. But somehow people of surrounding kingdoms came to know of its treasure. Some people who truly needed money came to its lair and asked politely for some, and it always gave them the money they asked for and more. Many people who did not need money came to try to kill the dragon and steal its treasure. None of them succeeded, for the dragon did not take kindly to strangers barging into its home and trying to kill or rob it.

The Queen decided that the best way to see if the young man was worthy of the Princess was to send him to the dragon's lair and ask the dragon for a jewel to give as a wedding present. If he was able to withstand the temptation of the dragon's treasure, she reasoned, it would prove he was good enough for her daughter.

When the young man heard what the Queen asked him to do, terror gripped him. He was only a locksmith, the son of a farmer and a baker. Until a week ago he had never gone more than ten miles from his home. Now he was expected to go to a dragon and ask it for some of its treasure?

If he hadn't loved the Princess so much, he would have turned and gone right back home. But he loved her more than life itself.

"I will go," he told the Queen.

He set out for the southern mountains, where the dragon lived. It took him over a month to reach them, and with each step he took he became more afraid of what the dragon might do. Dragons could breathe fire, after all, and they had very sharp teeth, and they could fly. What chance did he have if it decided to attack?

The young man finally reached the entrance to the dragon's cave, and his nerve failed him completely. He was too afraid to go in, but he also couldn't bear to go back empty-handed. He stood there outside the cave, frightened and miserable, for what seemed to him like hours but was probably only a few minutes.

The sun drifted down towards the horizon. The mountain air became cold, the wind began to howl, and the cries of wild animals reached his ears. The young man decided that facing a dragon would be less frightening than staying outside all night, so he gathered his courage and stepped into the cave.

His first thought was that it was surprisingly warm and well-lit. His second thought was that there was surprisingly little treasure. The cave was large, with a high domed ceiling and a smooth floor, and in the middle of the floor was a pile of gold, silver, jewels and similar things that glittered when the light struck them. It was more money than he'd seen in his entire life, but it was still much less than he had expected to find.

Then he saw the dragon.

It lay curled up against the far wall. It was small – for a dragon, that is. It was roughly as long as two average-sized houses right next to each other, and when it was standing its head would be level with the young man's shoulder. Its scales were bright shades of blue, green and purple. And strange to relate, it was chained to the wall by a long chain wrapped around its neck.

This puzzled the young man. None of the stories of this dragon said anything about it being chained. Why would it be chained, anyway? It made no sense.

The dragon raised its head.

It stared at him in silence. He stared back, too afraid to move. And then it spoke. Its voice was like the crackle of a fire burning merrily in a hearth mixed with the roar of a furnace.

"Have you come to kill me?" it asked. "Or do you come merely to steal yet more of my treasure?"

The young man began to feel that there had been a misunderstanding somewhere. He hurriedly explained his errand, since he had a sneaking suspicion that a "misunderstanding", when a dragon was involved, would end with someone being turned into a well-cooked snack.

The dragon listened to his explanation in silence.

"If I may ask," the young man ventured, his eyes drawn back to the chain. "Why–"

"Why am I chained?" the dragon finished for him, in a tone that had the slightest hint of a roar in it. "I am chained because of the greed and hubris of humans!" As it spoke, its voice rose until it was a roar that made the cave shake and the young man cover his ears.

"I am chained," it continued more quietly, "because a human king wished for gold to fight a war and decided to steal from me. I am chained because he sent his cronies to chain me and steal as much of my gold as they could carry while I slept. I am chained because this king, in his arrogance, believes he can "break" me as he would a horse and make me his pet!"

"I'm sorry," the young man said meekly. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

The dragon looked at him with what might have been surprise. He found it hard to tell, since he had very little experience in deciphering the facial expressions of giant lizards.

"The chain is enchanted," it said. "I cannot break it. But perhaps you can unlock it."

No one who has never tried can know how terrifying it is to walk up to a dragon, even a chained one. It took all the young man's courage not to turn and run for his life. He focused on the floor, on putting one foot ahead of the other, and pretended not to notice the dragon looming ever closer.

At last he was right in front of it. He reached out gingerly and took hold of the chain. The dragon remained perfectly still as he studied the chain; so still, in fact, you would have thought it was only a statue of a dragon. There was a padlock on the chain. The young man had seen many such locks in his work, and he knew how to unlock it without the key.

"I believe I can pick the lock with my knife," he told the dragon.

"Do so."

He fumbled with the lock for several minutes before it sprang open. The chain fell from the dragon's neck. It immediately sprang to its feet. The young man leapt back for fear it might trample on him, accidentally or otherwise. But it seemed to have forgotten all about him. It stretched out its wings as if it had forgotten it was in a cave and intended to fly.

"Free," it said, in little more than a whisper. "I am free!" And it roared so loudly that the cave shook and the man covered his ears with a wince.

"Now," it said in a business-like tone, "you may choose whatever jewel you like for your lady."

The young man had heard many stories about dragons. None of them mentioned the dragons allowing humans to take jewels from their hoard. But so many strange things had happened to him lately that he shrugged and thought no more of how odd this was. It took him several minutes to choose a jewel. There were so many, and they were all so beautiful. At last he choose a large orange jewel, which he thought would suit the princess very well.

The dragon waited patiently outside the cave entrance for him to decide.

"You have made your choice? Good. Let us be on our way."

The young man blinked. "On our way... where?"

"We're going to the palace, of course, to give the princess the jewel."

"Oh, er, yes, of course." The young man was terribly startled. He hadn't expected the dragon to want to come with him, but he didn't dare object.

He put the jewel in the bag containing his food and changes of clothes. He turned to the dragon. It obligingly lowered its head so he could climb onto its back. He scrambled up and perched at the juncture where its neck joined its body, out of the way of its wings.

The dragon unfurled its wings and beat them once, twice. The young man clung to its neck, afraid he might fall off. Its body tensed like a cat preparing to pounce, then it leapt into the air.

The young man felt as if his heart and stomach had switched places. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and held on with all his might, not daring to look down. The dragon's wing-beats evened out and the wind ceased to buffet his face so fiercely. He cracked open one eye.

Below them he could see cities and forests, hills and lakes. Above them the clouds rushed across the sky, and around them was empty air. On the ground far, far below, he could see tiny white specks in fields that must have been sheep. As they flew over a high hill he saw a family sitting down to a picnic. They shouted and pointed as the dragon sailed overhead.

The dragon flew on, and the family was soon out of sight.

A curious black line appeared in the distance. It grew bigger and bigger until finally they were close enough to see what it was.

"Good heavens!" cried the young man. "It's an army!"

An army it was. He had never realised so many soldiers existed, let alone were in one army. They marched in rows of four that stretched out for at least a mile. Since the dragon was approaching from behind them, and none of them looked back, they had not yet noticed their air-borne observers.

The dragon growled low in its throat. "That is the army of the king who enslaved me. And unless my eyes deceive me, they are marching toward your future father-in-law's army."

The young man shaded his eyes and peered into the distance. All he could see beyond the army was another black line heading towards them. "Is there going to be a battle?"

"Yes, that is generally what happens when enemy armies meet," the dragon agreed dryly. "Shall we make a detour?"

"Do you think we should stop the battle?" the young man asked worriedly. He had yet to met the Princess's father. He began to wonder what would happen if the King's first impression of him was as someone interfering with royal business.

"We can try. And we will succeed, or I will know the reason why not."

They sailed over the heads of the army. Shouts and exclamations rang out from the startled soldiers. The formerly orderly lines disintegrated into chaos as soldiers ran for cover. The dragon made a noise somewhere between a cough and a roar. It took the young man a moment to realise it was laughing.

Onward they flew. They left the disordered army behind them and approached the other army.

The dragon descended slowly to land with a slight bump on the grassy field. It bowed its head to the astonished King at the front of the troops.

"Good day, your Majesty," the dragon said politely.

"Good day," the King replied, with admirable composure given the circumstances. "Might I enquire as to what you want?"

"That army over there," the dragon gestured with its wing, "is led by a man who did me a great wrong. If it wouldn't inconvenience you too much, I would like to avenge myself on him."

"I'm not so fond of marching to war that it would grieve me terribly to see someone else deal with the enemy," the King replied.

The dragon dipped its head and took to the air again. The young man, hopelessly confused by now, held on tightly and waited for someone to tell him what was going on. The only person around to do so was the dragon, who didn't seem inclined to explain things yet.

The army they had flown over had begun to reassemble itself. Once the soldiers saw them returning they panicked and ran again.

"Come back here, you fools!" called the man at the head of the army. "Dragons aren't dangerous!"

The dragon gave an offended snort. "Not dangerous indeed. We'll see about that." Louder, it addressed the enemy King. "I expect you recognise me?"

The enemy King nodded warily.

"I wish you to know that I do not take kindly to be treated like a dumb animal. Now, if you turn around and take your army back where you came from, I will let you go. If not, I will burn you to ash. The choice is yours."

The enemy King considered it for a moment and decided he didn't fancy being a pile of ash. He and his army meekly turned and marched back the way they came.

The dragon and the young man continued on to the capital. The young man presented the Princess with the jewel, and they were married. The dragon returned to its cave, but at least twice a year it would fly to the capital, visit the young man, and let his children ride it. The enemy King went home and never bothered them again. And so, they all lived happily ever after.