The Princess in her worn and threadbare clothing peered out from behind the stalagmite, crouching low to avoid detection. Beyond the mouth of the cave, the combatants faced each other. To the Princess it was a familiar sight. At least twenty times before she had witnessed a duel between a man,
strong of muscle, stout of heart, but perhaps soft in the cranial area, and the Saurian, green-black its scales, golden yellow its eyes, and hot fire its breath. Each time the outcome had been the same: she had remained a captive in the cave.
[quoteright]It was not that she was hungry; the Saurian always roasted some freshly-killed flesh for her to eat. Nor was she always poorly dressed: sometimes the Saurian brought back some fine laundry. Nor did the Princess have reason to complain of the cold in winter: the dragon was a living furnace.
But the Saurian was not aware of the latest fashions or political intrigues, and therefore it was a poor conversationalist. He had two left feet and was therefore a poor dance partner (it also had two right feet but they were no help). Nor could the Saurian entertain on a musical instrument, and its voice always sounded like strained laryngitis. The Princess did not consider the Saurian a fit companion for one of her station in life. Unfortunately, the Saurian considered her a fit companion for one of its station in life.
The Saurian stomped its feet; the horse beneath the man pawed the earth with impatience. At the command of its rider, the horse charged. The Saurian also charged. The man lowered his lance, its point aimed at the armored chest of the great winged reptile. Closer they came, their charges like a slow-motion replay of an earlier clash at high speed. High speed was never attained. Had it been, the outcome would have been the same. It would have occurred sooner, but it would have been the same.
On impact, the lance broke. The horse screeched. The man shouted an obscenity. After inhaling deeply, the Saurian showered the man and his horse with brimstone breath and flames. Wearing fire-retardant armor, the man leaped from his charred charger, drew a sharp knife, and found the fabled soft spot which all Saurians are said to have. Penetrating the reptilian flesh, the blade sliced veins and arteries, puncturing vital organs. With complete surprise the dragon drew its last breath, but had no power to exhale one last flame. Down it dropped.
From the cave the Princess watched. The man kicked the carcass and looked toward the cave. "It is safe. You are free to come out now," he said.
The Princess nodded cautiously. She had heard those words before.
Then, like the previous times, the dragon's body disintegrated, and the charred remains of the horse crumbled to dust. The man's face turned a sickening green, as though his pre-battle victuals had disagreed with the adrenalin in his stomach. He dropped his sharp knife, which landed next lo his left foot, and clutched his belly.
"Here we go again," the Princess sighed, and turned her back on the transformation. After all, she had witnessed it at least twenty times. When the metamorphosis was complete, the Saurian ambled toward the cave. The ground quaked beneath its two left feet and two right feet.
The Princess hurried out of the cave, passed the new dragon, and lifted the knife that had done in its predecessor. She hid it in the folds of her ragged clothing and returned to the cave, where the puzzled dragon stood watching her. She sat down and propped her back against the wall. The Saurian found its niche and settled down to a well-earned nap.
Having lived with a dragon for more years than she cared to remember, the Princess knew the signs of a dragon in deep sleep. Seeking to test her hypothesis, she screamed loud and shrilly. The reptile budged not a millimeter. The Princess then approached the sleeping Saurian. Satisfied with its depth of slumber, she nudged it until it revealed its soft underside (all new Saurians have soft undersides). Again she screamed shrilly. Again the Saurian stirred not.
The moment had come. Out from the ragged remnants of her clothes came the knife. The Princess practiced various approaches, decided upon one, and followed through with the real thing. The blade penetrated the soft flesh deeply. Up came the Saurian with a start, awakened abruptly by the sharp pain. Simultaneously, the Princess released the knife (leaving it embedded in the dragon) and leaped back.
In a rage the reptile jumped about, causing the long sharp blade inside it to rip at more internal organs, slice more blood vessels, carve the meat of more muscles. The Princess backed out of the cave. Wild with pain, the dragon chased her. She turned and ran in earnest. Adrenalin filling her veins and arteries, the Princess posed a serious challenge to the fleet-footed creatures of the forest. She leaped bare roots and doubled past multiple tree trunks. She swung from the willow's droopy branch to the far bank of a creek. She vaulted over fallen trees without benefit of a pole.
Behind her, the dragon panted and puffed, inhaling and exhaling painfully. It kept pace until the creek, whose willow could not support it. At the first fallen tree it stopped, having no strength to clear it. Behind the Saurian, a trail of blood soaked into the ground. The knife was long gone, having fallen loose earlier in the chase. By the fallen tree the blood of the dragon formed a pool, soaking into the soil slower than it exited the Saurian.
Feeling no pursuit, the Princess stopped, looked back, retraced her steps (now slower than she had originally taken them), and came to the first fallen tree over which she had vaulted. She saw the green hulk of the reptile, its sorrowful eyes beholding her as its head rested upon the horizontal trunk.
"Had enough?" the Princess demanded, the adrenalin giving her a cockiness she had not felt in years. The dragon sighed wisps of weak, rusty smoke. "I've had more than enough!" she added when the Saurian squeezed a tear from one eye. "Don't feel so sorry for yourself. You had it coming. Like, I have nothing better to do than to live in a dank, musty old cave with the likes of you!"
The light went out of its eyes, retreated to the reptilian brain, and fizzled out.
The dragon was dead.
The Princess found her way home and was welcomed back to the Royal court. After a long hot bath and a change of clothes she looked more like the Princess she was.
Within the year she was married to a rich and powerful man who lived in a castle. In places it was dank and musty, moldy and nasty. In winter, cold wet drafts blew in past the heavy tapestries.
At first the Princess did not mind the occasional discomfort. There were, after all, rooms that were warm and dry. Too, the man was pleasant company.
But the years passed and the Princess missed the excitement of her youth. She took to exploring the old, unused wings of the castle, and its dark and deep dungeons beckoned to her curiosity. By and by she found a door rusted shut. With her old will intact, she kicked at it and managed to open it. Ancient air escaped, nearly blowing her down with its mustiness. When she had recovered her breath the Princess looked in, and her mouth and eyes smiled as they never had in years.
She had found the old armory. Time had not dulled the blades in this vault.
And on the floor near her feet lay a long, sharp one.
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