The Princess and the Dragon
The rain had all but stopped, leaving Sir Rorik to contend with only a light drizzle as he rode down the rocky hillside path that led to the village below. For a man soaked through and through, he was in unusually high spirits, for he knew that the object of his quest was now in sight.
The village itself was nothing that would have stood out anywhere in the kingdom; a small cluster of rough stone houses, surrounded by wattle-and-daub huts that were rougher still, and those in turn surrounded by farmland dotted here and there with simple barns and grainstores. The smell of wood smoke and farm animals mixed with that of wet vegetation as he entered the village, and all was silent but for the pattering of intermittent raindrops, punctuated by the lowing of cattle somewhere in the distance. He could see the dim glow of candles and hearthfires in the homes that he passed, and though no one came out to meet him, he felt that he was being watched.
Presently, he arrived at what passed as the town square, a simple stone well surrounded by those houses that seemed least likely to blow over in a high wind. Dismounting and tying his horse’s reins to the well’s winch handle, he approached the largest house, knocking at the door. At first, he heard nothing in response. Then, after a minute or so, a soft shuffling was followed by a muttered curse, and the door opened but a crack. The face on the other side was round and soft, the nose almost spherical, the piggish eyes a watery blue.
“A fine afternoon to you, goodman,” replied Rorik, mustering as much cheer as he could, given the weather. “Do you know where I might find the master of this village?”
“If you’re looking for the mercenaries, they’ve already passed through, heading south.”
“No, my business is not with them,” said Rorik.
“We’ve already paid our monthly taxes to the Palatine, then.”
“No, you misunderstand me,” said Rorik, his smile now starting to fade somewhat. “I wish to speak with the village master, regarding the castle to the west.”
The door closed, and Rorik could hear another soft curse. Then it reopened, wider this time, to admit Rorik into the house. The short hallway on the other side of the door was dark, lit only by a guttering candle set on a small table.
As Rorik entered, the man spoke. “I am Hakon, the burgomeister. If I may, I’d ask you stay here, in the hall, as I don’t want my house any wetter than it already is.”
“Fair enough, Master Hakon,” replied Rorik.
“Now,” said Hakon, “what’s this about the castle?”
“Well, I recently heard a tale of it…”
“You’re here for her, then,” said Hakon. He looked Rorik up and down, slowly. Rorik had left his mail wrapped in oiled leather on his horse, rather than wearing it, in order to keep it from the worst of the weather, but he still sported his swordbelt. “A knight?”
“Yes,” replied Rorik, “a free rider, Rorik by name.”
“A shame,” said Hakon, “you’ll have no one to pay for your funeral should you go to that castle. We certainly can’t afford the expense.”
“What did your tale say was there?” asked Hakon.
“A woman. A princess, actually, the daughter of the man who once ruled there. The story said that she’s been there for a hundred years or more, eternally young, but trapped by the castle somehow.”
“The story didn’t say what kept her there, then?” A phlegmy laugh rumbled in Hakon’s throat.
“No,” replied Rorik, “but I assume it’s some sort of curse.”
“Indeed it is, boy, indeed it is,” said Hakon, again punctuating his words with his rumbling laugh.
“Can you tell me anything about it, then? What it is? How to get past it?”
“The best and only advice I can give you, lad, is this: Find another wife. There is a beast that guards that place, and if you try its patience, it’ll snap you like a rotten branch, and make a meal of what’s left.”
“There is no animal, no monster, that doesn’t have some sort of weakness,” said Rorik, a stern look of resolution coming into his eyes. “I’ll face it in combat, I’ll find that weakness, and I’ll free that girl from her imprisonment.”
“The most I can offer, then, lad, is a kind word at the next Mass.”
“So be it,” said Rorik. “I thank you for at least taking the time to speak to me on the subject. Might I ask if there is a place here in this village that I might spend the night, the better to face tomorrow well-rested?”
“There is a barn behind my house, with room enough for you and your horse. I offer it freely, for it may be the last comfort you experience.”
“Thank you again, Hakon Burgomeister,” said Rorik. “Your generosity will be remembered once I have won my princess, and my kingdom.”
A look of sadness flitted across Hakon’s face. “And I will remember your bravery, Sir Rorik, as best as I can.”
* * *
The next morning dawned brighter than the last, though a light fog still clung to the lowlands. Hakon gave Rorik some hot food to supplement his breakfast of dried beef and bread, and volunteered to help the knight prepare his horse for the ride.
“Are you sure that there’s no way for me to talk you out of this, Sir Rorik?” asked Hakon, as Rorik swung himself into the saddle.
“No, Master Hakon,” Rorik replied with a smile.
“Farewell, then,” said Hakon, waving as Rorik left the square.
Rorik’s route took him away from the roads, and into the fields and heaths that spread west of the village. As the morning sun burned away the last of the mist, he could see the landscape spread before him. Flat and rocky for the most part, Rorik would occasionally pass a stand of trees; as often as not, these trees would be gnarled and burned, as though a fire had raged through them, though there were no scorch marks on the ground leading away. Lightning, perhaps, thought Rorik, as he rode with the sun warming his back. His mind was preoccupied with the task ahead of him. Hakon had told him that some sort of monster lurked within the ruins of the castle, both guarding the princess and preventing her from leaving that place. Rorik was no stranger to battle: He had ridden at the front of a dozen cavalry charges, fought his way out of a besieged fortress, and had even killed a troll that had menaced a small fishing village near the place of his birth.
This was different, though. In each of the previous cases, Rorik had known what he was going into, what would be at stake. Now, he certainly had an idea of the reward, but what exactly was the risk? He wished that Hakon had been able to tell him more.
After an hour’s ride, Rorik stopped at the base of a hill. The hill rose gently to the northwest, and at its top Rorik could see the shattered remains of a keep, a single tower seeming to be the only building still standing. Dismounting, he now went to his saddle bags and, after donning his mail and shield, rechecked his sword and knife before tying his horse to a tree and venturing up the hill on foot.
The sounds of birds and insects had stopped now, leaving only an uncomfortable silence hanging in the air. A scent of fire—of burning wood, and burning flesh—crept into Rorik’s nostrils. As he came to the summit of the hill, he could see that, though the fallen gates blocked the entryway proper, a great rift had appeared in one of the fifteen-foot stone walls, and it was through this that Rorik entered the courtyard.
The damage only seemed worse from this side. Any wooden buildings that had been here had been reduced to ash long ago, and those made of stone looked as though, at any minute, they might crumble to dust. Here and there lay charred corpses, of deer, of cattle, and, yes, of men, still dressed in their armor, exposed skin scorched black to the bone. Rorik knelt and ran his hand lightly across a flagstone; four great furrows had been carved, side-by-side, into its surface. Whatever made them, he surmised, had exceptionally large claws…
Gingerly, he picked his way through the rubble toward a set of stairs that curled up the outside of the tower. In contrast to every other building here, it seemed to be in good shape, and bore very few scorch marks.
“Hello?” called Rorik, looking toward a window that opened onto the courtyard. “Is anyone there?” He reasoned that, as he had not been slain yet, the beast had not become aware of his presence, and was perhaps even away from the castle.
“Hello!” he called again, a bit closer to the stairs now. “My name is Sir Rorik. Is there anyone up there?”
In a flash, the face of a young woman appeared in the window. An oval face of milky skin, wide grey eyes, and full lips, all surrounded by a cascade of coal-black hair. Rorik was, for a moment, taken aback; after seeing the devastation of the castle yard, a small part of him refused to believe that anything could still be living here.
Quickly, he composed himself. “My lady, my name is Sir Rorik. I am here to—”
“You must leave now!” the girl shouted, “before it comes!”
“Princess, the beast is gone, but I know not for how long! If you hurry, we can leave this place, but you must come with me now!”
“You are too late! It comes for you!” At that, the girl disappeared from the window.
At that point, Rorik heard a loud hiss behind him, as though a red-hot iron ingot had been dropped into a pond. Turning slowly, he beheld the beast emerging from the ruins of the great hall. A full forty feet in length, its reptilian hide was covered in thick, black scales, its tail thrashed restlessly from side to side, and its jaws dripped with molten flame. It was a dragon, then, that guarded the princess.
The monster wasted no time, and charged at Rorik, its jaws opened wide to close around the knight. Rorik, seeing an opening, lunged forward, wedging his shield between the monster’s teeth, preventing it from closing its mouth. Instantly, he could hear the cracking of wood as the shield started to buckle, and in one smooth motion, he drew his sword and aimed a wide swing at the dragon’s head. The blade connected, tearing a gash along the soft skin of the monster’s cheek. The dragon screamed its rage, then, and with a violent twist, wrenched the shield from Rorik’s arm. As it went, Rorik could hear a loud popping sound in his elbow, and an incredible pain shot up his arm.
The two combatants circled one another, slowly, and Rorik tried as best he could to inch his way toward the cleft in the wall. If he could reach the open country, he might be able to put some space between the beast and himself.
Like a bolt of lightning, the dragon threw itself at Rorik again. Rorik managed to narrowly avoid the snapping jaws, but the monster’s shoulder smashed into him, pinning him against the keep’s outer wall and driving the air from his lungs. His sword flew from his hand, clattering to the flagstones a good ten feet away. He wrapped his right arm about the beast’s jaws, trying to keep them closed and avoid being burned alive. Simultaneously, his wounded left arm clawed at the knife at his belt, desperately attempting to unsheathe the blade and bring it up. As the monster wriggled free of his grasp, he flailed out at the beast’s head with the knife, and was rewarded with the sight of the blade striking home, lodging itself in the dragon’s right eye. It screamed and backed away, and Rorik wasted no time running for the broken wall. As he reached the cleft, he could hear the dragon’s footsteps behind him, and as he turned to confront it, the beast’s massive skull struck his chest with full force, jarring every bone in his body and knocking him through the rift. For a split second he flew through the air, and then he was tumbling down the hill side. As his head struck a rock embedded in the hard earth, everything went black.
* * *
Rorik’s eyes slowly opened. He tried to sit up, but the intense pain that shot through his body as he did so made him think better of it, and so he simply laid still. Looking around as best he could, he saw that he had been placed on a straw-stuffed mattress, in a wattle-and-daub hut. Around him were various roots and herbs, tied and bundled, hanging from the supports of the house. The smell of wood smoke reached him, and he instinctively recoiled.
“H … Hello?” he called out faintly. “Is anyone here?”
After a moment, he heard footsteps, and delicately turning his head, saw a young woman approaching his bedside. She appeared to be no more than nineteen or twenty, dressed in woolen homespuns, her curly blonde hair pulled into a ponytail.
“Ah, you’re awake! The best sign we can hope for, aside from a heartbeat and breath.”
“Who are you?” asked Rorik.
“I am Jutta,” she replied, gently unwrapping the bandages that encased his left arm. “I’m a midwife here, and the one that people come to see when they’re sick or injured.”
“I don’t understand. Where am I?”
“You don’t remember?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“We heard the beast’s screams all the way here, in the village. Hakon thought that you might have gotten the better of it, and worked up the courage to ride out, to see if he could find you. And find you he did, though not in the best of conditions.”
“I’m at the village, then?” Rorik smiled faintly.
“Of course,” replied Jutta, now rubbing some sort of foul-smelling salve across Rorik’s arm. “A lucky thing, too. Your chest is one big bruise, and you’re lucky that you were wearing your coif when your head struck that stone. Your arm is, of course, the worst of it; I think that it will heal fully, given time, but that time will come slowly, and I would advise against using it any time soon.”
Rorik groaned at this, closing his eyes again.
“What do you have to complain about?” asked Jutta, smiling, “You killed the beast! Hakon said that it was nowhere to be found when he arrived, and thinks that it must have crawled back into the ruins to die, otherwise, it would’ve eaten you.”
“No, not dead,” replied Rorik, “though as badly injured as me, I think.”
Jutta’s smile faded. “That’s it, then. You tried your best and, honestly, coming away from the attempt with your life means that you’ve fared better than any that have come before you. Were I in your place, I’d call it a victory, of sorts.”
“No,” said Rorik, “I have to try again. When will I be able to use this arm?”
“I couldn’t say,” said Jutta, wrapping fresh bandages about his arm. “And even with two good arms, I fear that your brains have been jarred hard enough to put you in no good position for a fight, especially against a foe that came so close to killing you the first time.”
“Then what am I to do?”
“Give up,” said Jutta, standing. “There’s no shame in what you’ve done. You’ve faced an enemy that has killed all who have gone before you, and lived. Accept that you’ve won a victory, even if it doesn’t come with the prize that you had hoped for.”
“Jutta, there has to be a way. Please, help me.”
A look of consternation came over Jutta. She seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then retook her seat by Rorik’s bed.
“Hakon wouldn’t want me to tell you this. He fears her.”
“There is a witch who lives not far from here, in the wood to the north,” said Jutta, her eyes now wide. “They say that she has lived for over a hundred years. That she knows the true history of the princess, and the beast.”
“Why does Hakon fear her?”
“I don’t know. Superstition, I suppose. She comes here once a year or so, for those things that she cannot make herself, metalwork and the like. She barely speaks to anyone. She’s never seemed angry, only distant.”
“Jutta, be honest with me,” said Rorik, now using all of his strength to rise to a sitting position. “Do you truly believe that she can help me?”
“I don’t know,” said Jutta, standing once more. “She is wise, though, that much I do know. And I would rather see you go to seek her council, than return to the castle to what would most assuredly be your death.”
“Then I will rest here for today, and tomorrow I will ride to seek her out.”
“As you wish,” replied Jutta, almost in a whisper, as she turned to leave the room.
* * *
It was, in fact, two more days before Rorik felt well enough to ride. During that time, Jutta tended to his injuries almost wordlessly, and Rorik, for his part, was just as silent.
On the dawn of the third day, Rorik thanked Jutta profusely for her help. He then went to see Hakon, who had recovered the knight’s horse shortly after he found Rorik, and who had been keeping the animal in his barn. With Hakon’s help, he climbed slowly into the saddle, and was soon headed north, the horse’s every step sending a shiver of pain through his skull.
The northern wood was closer than he had realized, and even riding slowly to avoid aggravating his wounds, he reached its edge shortly before the sun rose to its highest point in the sky. He had studied maps of the area before coming here, in order to locate the castle, and he remembered seeing the wood on those maps. He also remembered that it was not very large, a mile across at most, and figured that he would be able to find the witch’s house before the sun set. Coming to the treeline, he could see now that it was old growth, tangled with brush and brambles, and that he would not be able to take his horse with him. He dismounted, then, tying the animal to a convenient tree branch, and started in, heading in the direction of what he believed to be the wood’s center.
As soon as stepped inside the forest, the sunlight grew noticeably dimmer. Looking up, he could only make out patches of sunlight through the tangle of branches and vines, and knew that it would be hard to tell the time; he would have to move quickly to avoid being caught here after sundown. As he walked, his left arm clutched tight to his stomach, he could hear movement in the leaves and undergrowth, the croaking of ravens in the trees, the rustling of dead leaves as wind blew through the trees. It was cold here, colder than in the surrounding lands, and it felt as though autumn had come early to this place. Rorik did not think it a natural thing, and the thought only made him more determined to find the witch’s house.
He felt as though he had walked for hours when he first stopped to sit. He didn’t understand it; he should have reached the other side of the wood by now, even if he hadn’t found the house. He knew that it would be virtually impossible to retrace his steps. He was no woodsman, and there was no way to navigate by the position of the sun. He recognized no landmarks, and so believed that he had not been walking in circles, but he admitted that one tree looked much the same as any other to him. Taking a drink of water from the skin he had brought with him, he stood, and once again resumed his march.
He only stopped again when the sun had grown red and dim on the horizon, and still he had seen neither the witch’s house, nor the other side of the forest. It would be dark very soon now, and a sense of panic started to creep over him. He had become thoroughly turned around, with no way to even retreat from this place. His waterskin was almost empty, and he had seen no stream that he could either fill it from, or follow to leave this place.
“Hello? Hello out there!” he called to no one in particular. The only answer he got was the flapping of raven’s wings, as one of the birds launched itself from a nearby branch and went winging into the wood.
The trip here had been for nothing, then. As the last rays of the sun extinguished themselves, the forest grew truly dark, and soon a chorus of insects, and less identifiable things, had started to sing in the black around him. Hakon had been unable to retrieve his sword from the castle ruins, but he had kept his grip on his knife as he fell, and this he now grasped, to make sure that it was still in its sheath. In a blind fit, he started to run, every footstep a shock to his arm, tripping over fallen logs and narrowly avoiding collisions with trees in the blackness. His breath came heavily, and soon he was forced to stop his flight, no closer to his objective or to freedom.
Finally, he sat, and tried to compose himself.
“No sense in killing yourself, idiot,” he said to himself. “She’ll be there in the morning, and you’ve slept through worse. So we didn’t find her tonight. No one said that this would be easy. Have a little patience.”
Rorik was wrapping his cloak about himself, trying as best he could to get comfortable in a pile of fallen leaves, when through the darkness he spied a dim light. He remained perfectly still and silent now, until he could verify that the light was neither coming closer nor moving away, and when he did, he stood slowly, and started toward it.
No more than thirty feet away, he could see that the light was, in fact, leaking from around the door of a small cottage, one that he would have sworn wasn’t there before. Saying silent thanks, he approached the door, pounding at it with his fist.
“Hello? Please! Is there anyone there?”
The door swung wide, and standing before him was a woman. She was old, certainly older than Rorik, but still beautiful. Slight marks about her eyes were the only signs of age on her face, and her steel-grey hair, pulled back, matched the color of her eyes. She wore a simple dress and smock, but in any other clothes, Rorik would have guessed her a queen.
“And who would you be?” she asked, her voice clear and commanding.
“I … I am … are you the witch?” was the best reply Rorik could muster.
“I’ve been called worse, but my name is Matilda,” she said, frowning slightly.
“I was told, in the village, that I would find you here. I need your help.”
“Come inside, then,” said Matilda, standing aside of the doorway.
“Thank you,” replied Rorik, stepping into the cottage. Once inside, he could see that it looked quite like Jutta’s, with various plants, and less identifiable things, hanging about the rafters. It was warm, almost too warm, owing to the stone fire pit in the center of the room, and the smell of something delicious drifted through the air.
“You want help with your wounds, then?” Matilda said, turning away from him to stir the bubbling pot. “I have to say, they look well cared-for. I doubt that I could have done much better myself. Who is responsible?”
“Jutta, the midwife in the village,” replied Rorik. “That’s where I’m from. Rather, that’s where I’ve come from.”
Matilda turned back now, staring Rorik in the eye.
“Are you nervous, lad?”
“No … no, it’s just that…”
“It’s just that the people in the village told you that I was a witch, and that makes you nervous.”
“Yes, sort of,” gasped Rorik, find himself unable to lie to her. “I mean, I’ve never met someone like you before.”
“What, a woman who cooks and dries herbs?” Matilda smiled now.
“No, a … a wise woman. I’ve come to ask you about something. About the castle.”
Matilda’s smile faded then. “Then you’ve come to the wrong place,” she said, going back to her cook pot. “And I’m sorry that you’ve come so far to hear that.”
“But they said that you would know!”
“And I do know,” said Matilda, sitting now on rough chair made from unpeeled wood, “but that doesn’t mean that it’s something that I intend to share.”
“But you must help me! Please! You’re my last hope to rescue her.”
“Then she has no hope,” Matilda replied, “for I’ll not help you kill yourself over that girl.”
“Why not?” asked Rorik.”
“Because she doesn’t deserve to be saved.”
“Why NOT?” asked Rorik, his voice now raised.
“Because I put her there!” spat back Matilda. “Yes, I am a witch, and she owes her current circumstance to me.”
“I don’t understand. Why would you do such a thing?”
“Do you truly want to know why? Or are you just asking, in the hope that indulging an old woman will make her more inclined to give you the help you seek?”
Rorik sat. “I … I think that I would like to know, truly.”
“Well, then, the first thing that you should know is that I wasn’t always … quite as old as you see me now. Once, I had youth, like you, and beauty, like her. And for as long as I have existed, I have had knowledge of … things.
“So it was, then, that one day I was summoned by the king, the father of the girl that you now pine over. He had heard of my talents, and hoped to gain my favor, that I might grant wisdom to him that would help him in the governance of his kingdom. He was a wise man, a just man … a handsome man. It was not long before I had gone beyond merely being his soothsayer, and had become his lover.
“It was affection that his daughter could not bear to see him lavish upon me. Since the death of her mother, she had been the only woman to whom he had paid any attention, and she had grown spoiled with the privilege. One night, half a year after I had begun living at the keep, a man came to me in the night, telling me that the princess wanted to see me in the courtyard, and that it was a matter of some urgency. I made my way there, only to find her in the company of three men, each one holding a club. They beat me, then, as she watched, and when they were done with that, they dragged me to the sally port and tossed me down the hill, telling me that worse was in store for me should I return to that place.
“It took me a month to recover from my wounds, and when I did, I began the casting of the spell that resulted in the princess’s predicament.”
“Why? Why would you do that to the king, to the man you loved?” asked Rorik.
“Because,” replied Matilda, shaking her head as though to clear the memories, “youth is a garden for impatience, and impetuousness, and hotheadedness. Now that I am older, I see the folly in vengeance, and wish that I had never acted so rashly. Perhaps, then, that is my curse in all of this.”
“I am sorry for you, truly. It was an unjust thing that was done to you, and you deserved a redress for your grievance, but unless I am mistaken, I can also hear regret in your voice. Help me, and I can undo what you have done, and offer both you and her some end to all of this.”
“What’s done is done, boy,” said Matilda, rising from her chair to ladle some of the pot’s contents into a small wooden bowl. “There is no end aside from what we have now. Some things simply can’t be undone.”
“This can be undone,” replied Rorik, now himself rising. “I can slay the dragon, and rescue the princess. I can bring an end to this.”
“Have you not heard a thing that I have said to you? Rash action is what brought all of this about; it can’t be fixed with more of the same.”
“My actions are not rash. I can fix this! And I will find a way to kill that beast, whether you will help me or not.”
“I believe that,” replied Matilda, quietly. “I will help you, then.”
For a moment, Rorik was struck speechless.
“Wonderful!” he finally managed. “I cannot begin to know how to repay your kindness.”
“Think not of repaying me until the deed is done,” replied Matilda.
“What must I do?”
“Take off your shirt,” said Matilda, rummaging about in a large wooden chest that sat in one corner.
After a moment of hesitation, Rorik did as he was told. As he wrestled the shirt over his wounded arm, Matilda approached him with a small brush and a jar full of a brown-black paste.
“I will mark you with this,” said Matilda, holding up the jar, “and it will render you silent and invisible to the beast. It will not even be able to smell you. Take the opportunity to retrieve the girl and to leave that place as quickly as you can. Do not think to engage the dragon, for though it cannot detect you, it will be as strong and as vicious as ever, and in its thrashings, it may yet strike you dead.”
Rorik nodded, and Matilda gestured for him to sit. Leaning over him, she began to paint upon his chest runes like those he had seen carved into ancient stones in the north. When his chest and stomach were full of these, she moved on to his sides, and his back, and finally to his uninjured arm, all the way to the wrist.
“A final word of warning,” she said, as she stood to survey her handiwork, “these will only last until the next sundown. After that, they will fade, and your protection with them.”
Rorik simply nodded silently.
“It is done, then. You have your help. There is venison in the pot should you be hungry, and an empty corner for you to sleep in. I would suggest that you take up the offer, as the wood is not kind to those who try wandering it in the dark.”
“Thank you, Matilda,” Rorik managed at last. “With this, you and I will be able to rectify any wrong you feel you might have done.”
“That remains to be seen, young knight,” she replied, “that remains to be seen.
* * *
In the morning, Rorik barely took the time to bolt down a bowl of porridge that Matilda offered him, and then, shouting his well-wishes, set off to find his horse. He was in high spirits, and eager to take up with the dragon where they had left off.
Unfortunately, the forest surrounding Matilda’s house had other ideas. Again, it seemed to close around him, feeling dark and damp even in the light of morning, and the more Rorik tried to push it aside in his thoughts, the denser and more difficult to navigate it became. After several hours, he had managed to become lost again, and had to force himself to sit, to remain calm, and to consider the idea that he might not make it out of the forest in time.
“I must be patient,” he said to himself, peering up at the sky in an attempt to see the sun. “If I simply thrash about as I did last night, I’ll find myself in the same predicament. Surely Matilda will help me again should I find my way back to her home. All good things come in due time.”
It was then, as though by some magic, that he heard a faint nickering, and, walking no more than a few yards, broke through the brambles and bushes to find himself standing once again at the edge of the wood, his horse a mere ten feet away. He removed its tack, then, knowing that it would barely carry him half the way without his giving it something to eat and doing his best to brush off the morning’s dew. More time wasted, he thought; pulling his sleeve back, he could see that the sigils that Matilda had given him were gradually growing lighter.
Once he was sure that his horse would bear him to the castle, he wasted no time in resaddling it, moving clumsily as his wounded arm did not afford him the opportunity for speed, and Hakon was not here to help him now. As the sun reached its zenith, he climbed astride the horse and set off, again going slowly as the horse’s movement jogged both his arm and his head. His confidence was tempered with patience, now; move forward as best you can, he said to himself, and you will arrive with time to spare.
The straightest path eluded him, as he was forced to find his way around a rocky ravine, and again around a low hill that his horse refused to cross over. So it was that he came upon the castle as the sun was sinking low in the sky, and he knew that time was short.
Now, he wasted no time in trying to find a place to tie up his horse. He took his mail from his saddle bags and, gingerly slipping his hauberk over his left arm, checked his belt once more to ensure that his knife was still there. He knew that it would be a paltry weapon against the beast, but he hoped that he would not have to use it.
Stepping into the cleft in the wall, he surveyed the courtyard. He could see the signs of his previous battle with the beast, blood spattered across the flagstones, the ruins of his shield, the great furrows the dragon’s claws had cut into the ground. Stepping quietly toward the corpse of one of the monster’s victims, he delicately pried the sword from its grasp, his own weapon being nowhere in sight. As he swung the sword once to test its weight, he heard the hiss, the sound that heralded the dragon’s coming, and saw the beast, emerging once again from the remains of the hall. It looked as though it had fared no better than Rorik in their last encounter; the gash in its cheek had not healed, and its left eye was a ruin. The beast sniffed the air, casting its good eye about the courtyard, and then moved to the tower, coiling itself up at the base of the stairs.
Rorik stood perfectly still, barely breathing, for what seemed to him like forever. He briefly considered some ruse, some trick to lure the dragon away from its roosting place, but ultimately decided against it, as he was not sure of the limitations of Matilda’s spell, and did not wish to be caught outside of them. So it was that, as the sun’s edge touched the horizon, he began to inch closer to the stairs, determined to ascend them, even if it meant climbing over the beast to do so.
As he moved to within thirty feet of the stairs, the beast shifted, now turning its blind eye toward the courtyard. Now is my chance, thought Rorik, and I will not get another. Slowly, he stepped over the dragon’s tail, and mounted the first step of the stairway.
Rorik could not believe his luck; it was working! Slowly, very slowly, he now crept up each step. The dragon raised its head as he passed the halfway point, and Rorik stopped, frozen in place. Delicately, the beast sniffed about it again, its tongue flicking out of its mouth in the manner of a serpent, and Rorik knew that Matilda’s spell had run its course. Instinct followed panic and, not thinking, he reversed his grip on the sword he held and jumped from the stairway, plunging the blade into the back of the dragon’s neck.
The beast reared while Rorik still sat astride it, blood welling from the wound in its neck. It thrashed violently, and managed to toss the young knight from its back. Rorik landed hard, slamming his wounded arm against the flagstones as he did. The pain was excruciating now, and his vision swam as he saw the beast, the sword still lodged in its neck, start toward him. Half a dozen staggering steps and the monster was practically on top of him, but he could see that the life was rapidly draining from its good eye, and even as it opened its jaws to crush him, it collapsed, choking its life’s blood onto the ground. Soon, the monster laid still. It was dead, and Rorik, as he has once promised, had been its slayer.
Now Rorik wasted no time in bounding up the stairs, the pain of his arm temporarily forgotten.
“Princess!” he shouted. “Princess, I’ve returned! The dragon is dead, and you can leave this place with me!”
No reply. He came to the landing, and tried the door; it was locked, or barred. He threw his shoulder into it, once, twice, and on the third try it gave, flying open to admit him to the room.
He could see now the princess lying on the floor. Kneeling beside her, he brushed her dark hair from her face, and startled, reared back. Across her right cheek was a long, jagged gash, and her left eye was nought but a ruined socket. A hole pierced her neck, and through it, her life’s blood was rapidly draining.
“Princess, I don’t understand…” started, taking her in his arms.
“Thank you, brave knight, for freeing—“ Her body seized, and then relaxed, as her last breath escaped her lips.
Numb, unsure of what to do next, Rorik picked up her body, leaving the room. He stopped at the landing outside of the door, glimpsing someone standing in the courtyard. As he descended the stairs, he could see in the rays of the dying sun that it was Matilda.
“Foolish boy. Foolish, rash boy! You’ve ruined it!”
“I … I don’t…” Rorik could barely speak as he gently laid the princess’s body at his feet.
“Of course you don’t understand,” shot back Matilda. “I told you not to kill the beast, simply to slip around it. But in your impatience, you did exactly the opposite. You slew it, and you slew her as well.”
“Tell me what happened. What did I do wrong?” Rorik now sank to his knees, pain and confusion clouding his vision.
“She was the dragon, and it was her,” said Matilda. “My spell … separated them. I thought that I could cast out her bad side, the selfish, envious, evil side. The side that had me beaten and sent away from my love. I never wanted this.”
Rorik searched for words, but found none.
“When you killed the beast, you killed the princess,” continued Matilda. “Don’t you see? She couldn’t live as half a person, no one can. There is good and bad in all of us, kindness and cruelty, rashness and sound judgment. It takes both to live. I had hoped that you would take her away from this place, take her somewhere that the beast could not find her. But you did not, and my one chance to make amends for my cruelty is now gone.”
Dumbstruck, Rorik looked up at Matilda. “What do I do now?” he managed.
“Live, I suppose,” replied Matilda, now sounding as though she were truly a century old. “Live, and take this lesson with you.”
She turned to leave, and the clouds that had gathered in the absence of sunlight opened, to once again rain on Rorik the knight.
James Stutz resides in Arlington, VA, where he is a tech writer by day, and a wannabe-fiction writer by night.