Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a land very far away, there was little kingdom, situated between two large hills, next to the town of Percival. The ruler of this kingdom, King Montague, lived in a tall stone castle with his wife, Queen Astrid, and daughter, the good Princess Cordelia.
King Monty (as he was known), a kind and generous man, and Queen Astrid, patient and fair, were both much revered by their subjects. Their daughter Cordelia was born when the king and queen were no longer young, long after they had given up hope of ever having an heir. She was adored by her parents and all the servants and nobles in court, and therefore perhaps a bit over indulged. But she was basically a sweet child, and grew into an intelligent and confident young woman.
This happy kingdom had only one problem – a dragon. The hill on the right side of town was called Percy’s Folly, after King Monty’s great, great, great-grandfather Percival, for whom the town was named, and the first man to be eaten by the dragon. The hill on the left was known as Dragon’s Hill….for obvious reasons.
The people of Percival traveled to and fro beyond Percy’s Folly to reach neighboring villages and trade their goods. But they never traveled in the opposite direction, beyond Dragon’s Hill. Parents warned their children of the danger that was located there, and children were careful to heed them, no matter how strongly tempted they were to explore.
It is well known that dragons keep a hoard of priceless jewels in their lairs, and over the years mercenaries from other villages came to the kingdom to try their luck at finding this treasure. They never went back home with the riches….indeed, they never went back home at all.
For no sooner would they round the hill, when a great black shadow would block out the sun, and the stench of burning sulfur would fill the air. The winds would whirl with the thunderous flapping of gigantic wings, and the poor travelers would be snatched up into the air, never to be heard from again. After awhile, folks decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
King Monty offered a handsome reward of their weight in gold to anyone who could slay the dragon and make the passage beyond Dragon’s Hill safe for all. Word of this incentive spread to several kingdoms beyond Percival. One day, a brave knight arrived at the castle, accompanied by his squire, several footmen, half a dozen horses and a handful of archers.
“Good day, Sire, Milady. I, Sir Rodney of Appolonia, have come to slay the dragon, uncover its treasure, and perhaps…..win the hand of a fair maiden?” he winked at Princess Cordelia.
Several ladies of the court fluttered their fans furiously at the sight of his curled, perfumed locks and proud bearing.
“Oh Cordelia,” said Queen Astrid to her daughter, “what a handsome warrior! Such a fine match he would make, don’t you think?”
“He certainly hasn’t missed many meals,” observed Cordelia dryly. “I wonder what breed of horse that is, to carry such a burden, encased in armor no less, without buckling at the knees? I must certainly speak to his groom.” And with that she disappeared before her mother could do more than sigh and shake her head.
King Monty was pleased as punch at the knight’s pronouncement and pledged a few of his foot soldiers to accompany Sir Rodney on his journey. The very next morning they set out to fight the dragon, and by midday were heading round the side of Dragon’s Hill. Suddenly, one of the archers gasped and pointed skyward. High above their heads was a creature, black as a bat but with a sinuous neck and tail. With horrifying speed it descended, till the misleading bat shape grew into a charcoal-gray cloud the size of house, swooping over them and causing the horses to scream and bolt. Some of the archers loosed their longbows, sending arrows streaking skyward. But the steel-tipped arrows, which could pierce chain mail as if it was soft cheese, seemed to bounce off of the shiny scales of the dragon’s underside.
Alarmed, the archers broke ranks and ran after the fleeing horses. The foot soldiers stood frozen, gripping their halberds and staring in horror at the nightmare over their heads.
Sir Rodney swore and drew his sword. “Fight, you cowards!” he exhorted his companions. “Don’t let an overgrown salamander send you running!” His words ended in a screech, for at that moment a huge claw, with curved talons a foot long, seized both the knight and his steed. The last they saw of Sir Rodney, they would report to the King and Queen later, was his panicked face before the visor of his helmet snapped shut as he was borne into the air.
After that, the mood around the court was quite somber. Many of the ladies-in-waiting shed tears over the loss of the brave knight, though Princess Cordelia’s reaction was less sentimental: “Pity…that stallion would’ve made a fine stud.”
But a few days later there was once again celebration, as a rich merchant rode into town and headed immediately for the castle. Behind him, on a long wooden cart drawn by six brawny horses, lay something large, which was covered by an even larger tarpaulin. He had a great many curious peasants from the village following him, hoping to get a glance at what lay beneath the covering.
The merchant told the guard at the gate that he had come to slay the dragon, and was immediately admitted into the courtyard.
“Your Royal Highnesses, I am known as Philip the Canny, and I have come to save your kingdom.”
Cordelia snorted loudly at this, but even she was curious to see what the merchant had brought with him.
“A brave young warrior who stood where you are standing now, just days ago, proclaimed the very same,” said King Monty sadly. “But the wicked beast took him in the blink of an eye. Are you sure you want to chance the same fate?”
“Brave he may have been, but regular weapons are no match for a dragon,” Philip said smugly. “What he lacked was this!” So saying, the merchant walked to the back of the cart and dramatically pulled off the tarp.
There were gasps and murmurs and everyone pushed closer to see.
“What is it?” asked Queen Astrid.
“I call it my ‘baliste,'” said Philip proudly.
“It looks like a big crossbow, mounted on a machine,” said Cordelia.
“Her Highness is intelligent as well as beautiful,” replied Philip. “But this has the strength of a hundred crossbows!” He reached into the cart and lifted out a javelin-sized arrow, its shaft as thick as his own bicep. The sharp steel tip glinted in the sun.
“This will penetrate five men and two horses, when fired from my baliste,” Philip boasted. No one wanted to ask how he knew this. “Even a dragon’s scales cannot withstand the power of my weapon.”
There were shouts of excitement from the crowd in the courtyard. The king, much impressed, sent a few more foot soldiers to accompany Philip the Canny on his quest to slay the dragon.
They returned, two days later, minus Philip and his baliste.
“What happened??” the king and queen (and assembled courtiers) wanted to know.
“We followed the merchant to Dragon Hill,” began one man in a trembly voice. “The weapon was loaded halfway there, to be ready, just in case.”
“I’ll wager no one wanted to ride in front of that thing, with all the ruts in the road!” Cordelia muttered under her breath.
“As we neared the bend in the path, the merchant ordered the weapon pointed skyward, and took his place at the back,” the man continued his report. “And we all waited.”
“And then?” asked King Monty, when the silence lengthened.
“Nothing,” his subject confirmed mournfully. “We stood there, staring at the sky, poised for battle. There were only a few clouds, and the sun, hotter than a smith’s forge, shining down on us. There was no sound – no birds singing, no insects buzzing….even the wind refused to stir.”
The courtyard grew as quiet as the afternoon he was describing.
“How long did you wait?” the queen asked, in a hushed voice.
“All the way till nightfall,” answered the soldier. “As the shadows lengthened, the men grew uneasy. But Philip said that if we had trouble seeing anything, so would the beast, so it would not dare to fly at that hour.”
“Actually, dragons have excellent eyesight,” Cordelia put in at that point. “It could’ve found you easily in the dark.”
The man glanced her way with a frown. Several of the Queen Astrid’s ladies-in-waiting pursed their lips in censure.
“What?” asked the princess defensively. “It’s the truth!”
The man continued his story. “Just to be safe, we did not light a fire. And no one slept that night.”
“But the next morning? The dragon appeared then?” the king prompted, growing impatient to hear the end of the tale.
“Yes, he attacked at first light.”
“And the weapon? Did it work?” Queen Astrid wanted to know.
“It shot into the air faster than anything I have ever seen,” was the reply. “And went so high the eye could not track its destination.”
“But it missed, obviously,” the princess said.
“It missed….because the dragon was on foot.”
“On foot!” Those gathered gasped in unison.
“Yes. No one knows where it came from, but suddenly there it was. Wider than 50 horses, taller than a watchtower. Its eyes were the size of carriage wheels, and full of cunning. It moved faster than a striking serpent. The ground trembled and the dawn air was a red haze of fear and rage. There was barely enough time to flee. We were helpless.”
“And the merchant??” King Monty asked. “Where was he?!”
“He was struggling to lower the weapon, to aim it at the beast. It was in vain. As he was pulling on the winch it fired, loosing its bolt into the air. The dragon was stalking him….and he was unarmed.”
Queen Astrid winced. “The dragon took him?”
“In a plume of fire, My Lady. One giant breath and they were engulfed in flame – Philip, the baliste, and a team of horses – there was nothing left but a scorch-mark on the ground.”
The crowd was silent. Then Cordelia made a sound of disgust.
“That’s it, one ridiculous fool after another! It’s time someone with a bit of sense took some action!” And she stormed back into the castle, slamming the big wooden door behind her. No one knew quite what to make of that, but it wasn’t the first time Her Royal Highness had expressed herself so forcefully. There were tuts of disapproval at her behavior, but most paid it little heed.
The next morning, it was discovered that both Cordelia and her horse were missing. The castle was in an uproar and the king and queen were frantic with worry. It was clear that she had gone after the dragon. Alone.
King Monty told the Captain of the Guard to assemble a band of soldiers, but most of them had seen firsthand what had happened to Sir Rodney and the merchant Philip, and they were understandably reluctant to engage such an enemy. The king then promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to the man who would rescue her, but for some reason this was not as strong an incentive as the gold had been.
Two days had gone by before Cordelia’s horse was found, unharmed and still wearing his saddle. This was surely a sign that the dragon had taken her, and the king and queen were inconsolable.
It was at this point that a mage stepped forward to offer his services.
He stood before the king and queen, dressed in a robe of midnight blue, which draped him from head to foot. Brown leather boot tips peeked out from beneath the hem, and long tapered fingers grasped a twisted staff of ironwood. But the hood that covered his head and prevented one from seeing his face was most unsettling.
“Master Magician, I would prefer to see who we are dealing with,” said King Monty. “After all,” he joked uneasily, “you could be the devil himself for all we know!”
“I mean no disrespect, Sire,” was the low reply from the shadowy aperture where his face should have been. “But my identity is the source of my power, and so I keep it closely guarded. I assure you, I am as human as anyone in this kingdom. The devil is the beast that has your daughter.”
At this reminder of Cordelia’s fate, the queen gave a small sob. “You think you can rescue her? At least…return her body to us?”
“I will do everything in my power to bring her back,” the wizard assured them.
“Then God be with you,” King Monty declared. “Is there anything I can give you to aid you in your quest?”
“A good horse to speed my journey,” was the magician’s reply. “Perhaps the steed that carried Princess Cordelia?”
“Done,” the king agreed.
And so the next day the mage departed before daybreak, just as Cordelia had done. By request he traveled alone (though none were particularly anxious to accompany him). By midday he was nearing Dragon’s Hill, and he dismounted under a stand of trees.
“You’re still alive, and I’m certain it’s because she sent you back,” he murmured softly to the horse. He patted it on the neck and tied the reins to the saddle, untying his staff at the same time. “I think you know the way back home….go on, now.” Then he turned and looked at the hill, a huge mound of earth that just missed being a mountain, disarmingly green and quiet in the bright sunlight.
The mage believed the headstrong princess was also still alive, and he was convinced that stealth was the way to proceed. So he waited till nightfall, then crept silently toward the hill. Under cover of darkness, he was able to reach the very bottom of the hill, where the road curved around its base. It was the farthest anyone had gone in centuries.
As he rounded the bend in the road, several large shapes cast their shadows onto his path. From beneath his cloak he withdrew a perfectly round globe of crystal. He waved his hand over it in a casual gesture and suddenly it was lit from within, casting a pale glow of illumination. The shapes alongside the road proved to be huge boulders, many of them blackened and scorched, as if touched by a passing flame.
Further along, where a muddy patch in the road had dried, there were footprints sunk into the earth. The mage kneeled down to look at them. Four large claws, three in front and one in back, and pressed deep enough to suggest a very heavy animal. He paced off from one to the next – five full spans between the front and back legs – the beast was formidable indeed.
The footprints led the mage off the road and right up to the hill itself. There, the prints seemed to disappear.
“Most interesting,” the magician murmured to himself. Perhaps the dragon took to the air? He looked up, but there were no scrabblings against the mountainside, no opening above his head. He lowered his gaze back down to the wall of earth in front of him. Suddenly he noticed how the foliage of a large bush fluttered, as if in the grip of some unseen breeze. “Ah….” the mage exhaled in satisfaction.
The opening wasn’t difficult to find after that, hidden behind another boulder and several bushes. The cave entrance looked smaller than one might expect, but no doubt the sinuous creature managed to squeeze into surprisingly compact spaces when it needed to. The mage took a deep breath and climbed down into the opening, using his staff to feel his way.
The entrance opened immediately into a bigger chamber, with a floor of hard-packed earth and a temperature slightly warmer than the cool night air outside. The mage followed the tunnel, which led a twisting path ever deeper into the earth. As he made his way further into the cave, the mage was careful to step cautiously and be utterly silent. He had no doubt he had entered the dragon’s lair, and the creature would defend it unyieldingly.
Even though he was getting deeper, the tunnel was growing inexplicably brighter, and the mage put away his glowing globe. The reason for the illumination became clear as the tunnel suddenly ended, and the mage entered a chamber larger than he’d seen in any palace. An opening in the far wall created a natural fireplace, banked down to bright coals which warmed the air and brightened the room.
To his right, the magician saw a pile of jewels heaped up taller than he stood: rubies and garnets and emeralds sparkling in the firelight. And in the middle of the room, in a slight depression in the smooth stone floor, lay the dragon. It was sleeping soundly, four legs tucked underneath it, head and tail curled round like some great cat. Its leathery wings were folded against its back, but looked as if they could span the entire chamber.
“I wouldn’t, if I were you.”
The mage jumped at the sound of the voice, which came from his left, back in the shadows. The princess came forward, arms crossed as she surveyed him coolly.
“Wouldn’t what?” asked the mage, when he had recovered himself.
“Wouldn’t try to steal those jewels. She’s very fond of them.”
“She,” the princess confirmed.
“How do you know?”
“Because of those,” the princess pointed.
The mage followed her gesture, and saw at once what he had missed before. The dragon lay curled around a clutch of eggs.
“Ah….she has a brood.”
“She will, if you lot could learn to leave her alone instead of being so greedy!” Princess Cordelia scowled at the hooded figure. She could not see his expression, but the voice that answered her was mild enough.
“What makes you think I am after her jewels?”
“Why else would you be here?” Cordelia wanted to know.
“For you, My Lady. Your parents are quite worried, and your father has even offered your hand in marriage to the one who would rescue you.”
“What!? Well, you can forget about that!” Cordelia said angrily. “As you can see, I’m perfectly safe, and am perfectly capable of returning when I am ready to.”
“You do not seem to fear awakening the dragon and facing her wrath,” the mage observed. “She already knows you’re here?”
“She knows you’re here as well,” the princess replied scornfully. “She’s not asleep.”
At that, the dragon raised its head, long neck stretching, to gaze at them both. Her eyes, golden irises unclouded by slumber, showed complete comprehension.
“I see. Well, then she also knows that I mean her no harm.”
“How does she know that? Name one good reason why she should not eat you right now!”
“Because I can make sure she raises her brood in peace,” the mage replied. “You know that the treasure she guards will always attract mercenaries to this hill. But I can place a spell on the entrance to her cave which will make it invisible to the human eye.”
Cordelia looked at him suspiciously. “Why would you do such a thing? And why should we believe you?”
“You think you are the only one with a conscience?” said the magician. “And as to why she should believe me….” he leaned his staff against the wall, reached beneath his cloak and withdrew a parchment scroll, which he carefully unrolled. “Because I have performed such a service for her kind before.”
“You have?” Cordelia was taken aback, but the mage was no longer paying attention to her. He carried the parchment over to the dragon, and lifted it up for her to read.
“They can read??” the princess asked incredulously.
“Of course they can. They can write too….beautifully. Where do you think I got this from?” He looked at the dragon for her reaction. “Madame Dragon?”
After a few moments of scanning the parchment, she inclined her head regally, then rose slowly to her feet. Carefully stepping around her eggs, she made her way over to her pile of jewels and selected a large emerald, which she picked up between scaly lips and placed at the magician’s feet.
“What does that mean?”
“I believe it means she accepts my offer,” the mage replied with satisfaction. He rolled the scroll back up, tucked it back into his cloak, and bowed gracefully to the dragon, before reaching for the priceless jewel. It, too, disappeared into his voluminous garment.
“You are like no man I’ve ever met,” Cordelia said slowly, frowning.
“Truly, that is the wisest thing you have ever said,” replied the mage, his voice brimming with amusement.
Annoyed, Cordelia stalked over to him and reached up to pull back his hood. She was determined to see this mysterious stranger’s face. He made no move to stop her. She pulled back the material to reveal….
“You’re a woman!” Shocked, Cordelia stared at the long silky hair and flashing dark eyes, the decidedly feminine features. The woman bowed again, this time with a touch of mockery, to the princess.
“Mariel the Mage, at your service, Milady.”
“Well, I’ll be damned! No wonder you were able to make it this far without becoming dragon bait!” She burst out laughing and looked at Mariel admiringly. “It took a woman to display the common sense those oafs were lacking!”
“It did? Then what is your excuse?” Something in Mariel’s quiet tone sent a tingle down Cordelia’s spine.
“What do you mean?” she asked, flushing slightly.
“Come with me, I have something to discuss with you.” She led Cordelia over to where a jutting part of the wall formed a natural stone bench.
“Yes?” Puzzled, Cordelia went along, until the mage sat down and pulled her suddenly but carefully across her knees.
“What do you think you’re doing? Release me at once!” she began to struggle, but the position afforded her no leverage and Mariel held her down easily.
“There is the small matter of dealing with your disappearance from the castle,” Mariel said. “Do you realize how much you worried your parents? The queen actually begged me to bring back your body!”
Cordelia felt a pang of conscience over that. But it quickly disappeared as her captor landed a firm flurry of swats on her backside.
“How dare you! I shall have you arrested for striking a royal personage! You shall spend the rest of your days rotting in jail!” She began kicking wildly, but her legs became tangled in the long skirt of her gown.
“You are a headstrong little terror that has had your way more than is good for you,” the mage said, as her strong arm continued its assault on her wriggling target. “But if you ever endanger yourself again that way, you will sorely regret it, young lady.”
In spite of the many layers she wore, Cordelia found that the swats were beginning to sting. It only served to increase her outrage.
“Who in blazes do you think you are?!” She looked around for assistance from her friend the dragon, but was chagrined to see that the creature had gone back to lie in its nest, and was watching the proceedings with….was it possible for dragons to smile???
“I am your betrothed, My Lady,” Mariel answered, reaching for the back of Cordelia’s gown. Cordelia was dismayed to feel the skirt of her gown, and then the underslip, untangled from her legs and then lifted away completely. She reached back to secure her covering, but found her hand pinned to her side.
“You’re mad! The king and queen would never consent to such a thing! You must’ve spelled them! You are as deceitful as you are arrogant!” Her diatribe ended in a shriek as she discovered how much sharper the swats were without the padding of her gown.
“And as your betrothed,” the mage continued, ignoring the provoking words but pausing to reach for the ties which held the back of Cordelia’s knickers together, “I am responsible for your behavior.” She pulled on the tie and the fine white linen drawers flapped open, revealing a round bottom whose normally pale skin was beginning to blush pink.
The princess screeched at this humiliating unveiling and began to struggle in earnest. The sudden coolness at being exposed to the air was countered by the hot flush she could feel rising over the rest of her body. She let loose several words that princesses should not have any knowledge of, let alone use. And then suddenly Mariel’s hand landed on her bare buttocks with a clap of thunder, and she forgot about everything else.
“If *SWAT!* you ever *SWAT!* disappear like that again *SWAT!* *SWAT!* I will see to it *SWAT!* personally *SWAT!* that sitting *SWAT!* *SWAT!* becomes only a pleasant memory for you, *SWAT!* *SWAT!* is that clear?!” *SWAT!* *SWAT!* *SWAT!*
Cordelia howled as the spanks landed, frantically wondering if this was truly a mage’s hand and not a mason’s – how could it be so hard?! She squirmed to escape the fire building in her bottom, but it was clear Mariel wasn’t going to stop until she had an answer.
“Yes, all right! It’s clear!” she gasped, nearly breathless.
“No more foolish stunts, do you understand?” the mage’s voice was stern.
“For goodness’ sake, I said so, didn’t I?!” She cried out as four very hard slaps landed, echoing off the chamber walls and branding the skin where she sat. “All right, all right, I’m sorry! I understand, I understand!”
“Good.” Mariel did up the ties to Cordelia’s knickers and then helped her up. She pulled the disheveled princess onto her lap and kissed her softly. Cordelia gasped before pulling away – surprise, respect, and a spark of something else dawning in her eyes.
It was a somewhat subdued princess that Mariel later led back out of the cave, but the mage knew that was only temporary. Cordelia’s temperament was a spirited one, and once she recovered from her confusion at the unexpected treatment there was bound to be further skirmishes between them. In truth, Mariel wouldn’t have had it any other way.
And thus it was that the princess was rescued and delivered home to a very grateful king and queen. It took a little convincing before King Monty agreed to honor his pledge of his daughter’s hand in marriage, once it was discovered her rescuer was a woman. But Mariel could be very persuasive….and perhaps a bit of magic was involved there as well. Besides, it was clear that the mage was the best person to handle Cordelia. Even Cordelia acknowledged that….eventually.
So they lived happily ever after, in the best tradition. And the dragon raised her brood safely and free from interference by humans. Except that her hatchlings’ very favorite bedtime story involved a princess and a mage….and what can happen when one of them misbehaves.