Start with Part I.
8:00 AM, Saturday, April 15th, 2006
I am a young man, now, perhaps 13 or so. The old man has long since passed away — or perhaps just disappeared. It does not matter. I was not emotionally attached to him. I am not emotionally attached to anyone. I am attached to my studies.
I had been gradually taking on more and more of the simple chores needed to keep up the castle, so his departure was not a radical shift. We never really talked or socialized, though he would teach and quiz me as needed. Which was not very much, since I soon learned to read and taught myself from his library. My horse — the only other living thing in the castle — had soon grown bored and wandered off. I felt a brief pang at the time, but since I was already too busy for him it didn’t really seem to matter. Did it? As usual, I just returned to my studies and moved on.
Alone in my castle, with few distractions and no visitors, life was placid, but never boring. I took joy in the simple tasks of self-sufficiency, conjuring food, mastering new ideas, maintaining order in the castle so it wouldn’t get it my way. There are no wild plants or dust to disturb my tranquillity, just a few herbs in a box for my research. The armor of my childhood still lay in my room, and I would polish it and magically stretch it to keep it in my size and in good condition — for I was well brought up — but I never needed it, since I never went out, and nobody ever came.
Which is why the knock on my chamber door is so startling. I am not scared, exactly — what need I fear? — but sufficiently surprised that I spill ink over the parchment I’m annotating. Actually, so surprised I don’t even mind my clumsiness, but — without thinking — get up and answer the door. For I was brought up well.
I open it, and there stands a well-built, bearded man in his early thirties. I’ve never seen him before, but he looks at me with a smile of recognition.
“Hello Ernie,” he says, and walks into the room, as if completely certain of his welcome. For my part, I am so unskilled in social custom that his effrontery passes right over me, and go with him as he sits down on the bed, while I resume my chair by the desk.
He introduces himself as a family friend, whom I remember from my family’s letters. They eventually found out where I was, but the wizard’s reputation kept them from visiting. I write them religiously every week, and they reply in kind. But we do not live in the same place. They ask little of me — which I give freely — and I ask nothing of them. We get along fine.
Which is why I am unprepared for the request of the stranger, when he says, “I have a dragon I want you to fight. There is a princess that needs rescuing”
I ponder his statement. I know from my reading that it is typical for men of my age to fight dragons. I also realize that peasants often come ask wizards to help rescue maidens. Put in that way, the request doesn’t seem so unusual, or inappropriate for my station. For that matter, I am confident that my wizardry skills should make this an easy conquest. The stranger is perhaps less sanguine — forgive the word choice — and insists I take along my armor.
The stranger drives a wagon, which carried my armor and our supplies while we sit on the buckboard. We speak little on the trip. I watch the scenery, and take notes, while he watches the road. Or me.
The cave is at the top of a large hill — rocky, but with a good trail. Apparently the dragon often likes to walk rather than fly down, and does not fear anyone climbing up after him. The stranger tells me only one other has tried this ascent. He apparently was nearly killed by the dragon — and nearly killed the princess — and has not been seen in these parts since.
We reach the top, and without a word I dismount and walk towards the cave. The dragon comes forth, huffing and puffing, but I am not concerned. I speak a Word of Warding, and a shimmering field springs up between us. The dragon pauses, stops, and stares at the Warding. It appears perplexed, and I smile. Clearly it fears my magic. I speak a Word of Control, and a glimmering cage appears around the dragon. It shrinks in upon itself, apparently afraid to touch the glowing lines of force. I grin openly. This will be the shortest dragon fight in history. Keeping the Ward between me and the dragon, I sidle around the cage towards the cave to rescue the princess.
And am caught completely off guard as the dragon walks right through the cage, leaps through the Ward, and knocks me over with a breath of ice-cold air. I am shocked beyond belief, and would have rested their, stunned — easy prey for the dragon — if the stranger had not run up and dragged me off while the dragon was busy crowing its victory.
“What happened?” say I. “Why did my Words fail?”
“They never worked,” says the stranger, who appears more amused than surprised. “Dragons are immune to magic.”
I absorb this surprising fact. I had been taught by my books and Master that magic is the foundation of the universe, and the stranger’s claim seems impossible — save for the hard cold evidence of my defeat. With a sigh — for I am nothing if not a learner — I go back to the wagon for my armor, grateful that I had kept it in shape, and that the stranger told me to bring it.
Once properly clothed, I realize I need a weapon. I express my concern to the stranger, who produces one from a silk roll in the back. I take a few practice swings. I had read much of swords, as their dynamics share much of the same logic as that of spellcasting. Now properly equipped for material combat, I advance again upon the dragon.
The dragon gazes at me warily, its eyes upon the sword. I attempt to reason with the dragon, explaining that I do not like to use physical force, but will do so if it prevents me from entering the cave. The dragon stares at me for a second, and emits a short blast of cold air. I pause in mid-step, frozen — not in fear, but literally. My armor has effectively been welded shut by the dragon’s breath. I am safe, perhaps, but utterly useless. The dragon, though it has me at its mercy, does not advance. It is… laughing?
The dragon’s laughter shakes the ground so much that I lose my balance, and roll — painfully — back to the wagon. The stranger is gazing at me soberly, but I could swear he had been laughing as hard as the dragon while my back was turned. He helps me out of my armor, and for the first time I address the stranger directly.
“You knew my magic would not work, so you told me to bring my armor.”
“Yet, you knew the armor would be useless due to the cold.”
Again he nods.
“So, why tell me to bring it?”
He smiles, “So that you wouldn’t waste time going back for it. Now you know.”
I ponder. He does know. In fact, he clearly knows far more about dragons that I do, despite my book learning. Apparently the magicians who wrote my books do not know as much about dragons as they thought they did.
“Teach me what I must know to fight this dragon.” My pride has been stung, but I am still humble enough to know when I need help.
He nods, and we drive back down the hill.
We camp near the foot of the hill, and my training begins. He teaches me the ways of the sword, and of sword-fighting. I learn to use my agility, rather than armor, to protect myself. He carves a wooden stick from a tree, and uses that to fence with me. I am young, and not unhealthy, so I practice long hours and soon build up both my endurance and my skill. At last, my teacher tells me I am ready for my Final Exam. I know what he means.
This time, we walk up the hill at night, to gain an element of surprise. We crouch outside the clearing in front of the cave, watching, listening, learning. Suddenly the dragon bursts forth — but not to attack us. It goes off, on an errand known only to it. Perhaps this is our lucky break!
As soon as it is out of sight, I dash into the cave, looking for the princess. To my shock, I see nothing beyond a few bones — obviously cattle, by their size — and piles of gold. No evidence of any human habitation whatsoever. Dismayed, I run back outside. To my horror, the dragon is returning.
When it sees me, it becomes enraged at my impertinence. The battle is hard and long, but ultimately inconclusive. My speed and agility saves me from a crushing blow or freezing breath, but the dragon is too well armored for me to wound. Plus, my heart really isn’t it, as I wonder whether we’re even fighting the right dragon. Finally we break apart, and as if by mutual consent and exhaustion retreat from the battleground.
My mind is awash in questions as the stranger leads me back to camp, but I am so exhausted I fall asleep before I can ask them.
When I awake, the stranger is feeding me a curious mixture to relieve my aching muscles. I sit up, and tell him — a bit petulantly — that there is no sign of any princess, and that either she was killed right away, or this is the wrong dragon.
He looks at me for a long time, and finally says, “The princess is the dragon.”
I stare at him stunned. When I finally find words, it is to say, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He grins back, “You didn’t ask,” and goes off to make another potion.
I sit, abashed. It is true. In my confidence — my arrogance — I only asked him how to do what I wanted done. I took his acquiescence to my demands as a sign of my correctness and authority, rather than tolerance of my folly. It was a long day, recuperating; followed by an even longer night, meditating.
The next morning, I awoke refreshed — the potions had done their work. And I realized I had a choice. Give up the whole fool enterprise and return to my studies. Or…
I walk up to the stranger, and without preamble ask him. “Why did you call me to fight this dragon?”
He pauses from his chores, stands up, and looks me straight in the eye. I stare back.
“Because you are born to be a knight, not a mage.”
I frown, incredulous. “But my master said I was one of the most gifted mages he had ever met.”
He nods. “And you are. But your calling is to be a knight. Your magecraft will help you along the way, but it is secondary to your skill with the Sword.”
I ponder this strange truth. True, I have relied on my mage power to guard our camp and replenish our supplies, but — surprisingly — I have found the greatest joy in disciplining my body for warfare. Perhaps this stranger knows me better than I know myself.
“Very well. But was this all a ruse to teach me my true calling?”
“Not at all. I did — and I do — really want you to fight the dragon.”
“But there is no princess to rescue; she’s the one you want me to fight.” I counter.
He smiles. “No, it is exactly as I said, if you had ears to hear. You must fight the dragon to rescue the princess.”
“But the dragon is the princess!” I yell back.
“Exactly!” he roars.
My head hurts. I sit down. Finally, I realize I’m trying to reason my way out of it, and ruefully remember how poorly that has served me. I stand back up.
“Okay,” I say. “Tell me what I must do. Clearly, you have a plan, and a purpose. I give up trying to make sense of it all on my own. I submit to your will. What do you want of me?”
Suddenly stern, he pulls an amulet out of his pouch, and places it around my neck. It is gold, with a small ruby in its center. It feels light, yet massive, as if it contained both a star and an anti-gravity machine at the same time. Then he looks around, and whispers into my ear a battle plan. At first I am incredulous. And then, I smile.
It is night. We have crept as close the dragon’s cave as we dare. Quietly, I remove my shoes, my belt, my compass — anything with the least bit of metal. Even the padded armor I used for practice is back down at the camp, due to its buckles. All I wear is my tunic, shorts, my sword — and the amulet. It must be enough.
Stepping boldly into the clearing, I speak a World of Illumination. Suddenly the cave is filled with a brilliant light. The dragon awakes with a roar; though immune to direct magic, it — she — must still react to my power over reality. She is enraged, disoriented, and charges directly at me, the source of her frustration. Exactly as we had planned.
I continue to advance, careful but unhesitating, with the amulet held before me. The dragon shrieks forth a cloud of cold. It strikes the amulet, and seems to pour into it. The air is frigid, and my flesh screams in agony, but I am unwounded; if I had had any metal on me, it would have welded to my flesh and crippled me. I continue forward.
Again and again the dragon breathes her icy breath, with similar results. The pain is nearly unbearable, but I hold fast to my purpose, and my trust in the stranger’s plan. Finally, she is literally out of breath. She leaps into the air, and rises up into the sky. For a moment I fear she might escape, but then remember her jealous protection of her lair.
Releasing the amulet to fall upon my chest, I raise my sword in both hands and charge into her lair. Sure, enough she shrieks and dashes after me. I race into the cave before she gets there, then turn to meet her. This is it. Six legs have entered, and one way or the other only four will leave.
She enters warily, my earlier battles having taught her fear of my sword, especially shorn of her most potent weapon. I myself stand stock-still, barely breathing. She and I both know that given enough time, in these close quarters, I may yet find a way to drive my sword through her armor. Her strategy must be to destroy me quickly, before I can discover any vulnerability.
She stalks towards me, tail up in the air, and for the first time our eyes meet. In the heat of battle earlier, I had never noticed the distinctively feminine cast of her eyes, and the very human soul behind them. Not that either of them took anything away from the implacable rage the dragon radiated at me. Our eyes locked, and she raised her neck to strike as I lifted my sword over my shoulders, point-forward.
Then, before she could move, I quickly drove the sword into the soft dirt of the cave, burying it halfway to the hilt. So surprised is she by this that she stops in mid-strike, fighting her own momentum. In her confusion, her neck twists around, and I see the single blue scale on the back of her neck — the mark left by the evil sorcerer who had placed this curse upon her.
With a victorious cry I dash around her, and up the rocks on the side of the cave. Without a moment’s hesitation I give a mighty leap and land full upon the dragon’s scaly back. She screams, and before I know it she has fled the cave and taken to the air. I quickly scramble upwards and grasp her around the neck, knowing I’m in for the ride of my life. She twists and turns and loops and dives in the effort to get rid of me, but I hold on, as unshakeable as death itself.
Finally she heads back toward the ground. Though she still bobs and weaves to keep me off balance, I know her next tactic will be to roll on her back and crush me to the ground beneath. This is my most perilous moment, but the dragon doesn’t realize it is also her last. Assuming our plan works.
Timing is everything. She spreads her wings as she approaches the clearing in front of her cave. At the exact instant she touches down I release my grip, and grab the amulet around my neck. I stand precariously on her neck for the precious split-second she takes to regain her balance, then use both hands and all my weight to smash the amulet upon her blue scale.
Immediately streaks of purple lighting erupt, as two opposing magics come into violent collision. The dragon screams, thrashing me into the air in the violence of her paroxysms. I fall to the ground with the wind knocked out of me, bruised but otherwise undamaged. The stranger is at my side in a moment, helping me to my feet. We watch as the dragon erupts into a shower of sparks, roaring in agony.
Then darkness, and silence.
Wordlessly, we make our way to the dragon’s last resting place. By the light of the newly risen moon we behold a giant pile of ashes. He motions to me, and I dive in. The smoke is suffocating, and the heat scorches my clothes, but at least I emerge bearing the treasure buried within.
We place it on the ground, and at first I think it but a newly hatched dragon. Then slowly the outlines become clearer as the moon gains in altitude, and I realize it is the figure of a woman, clothed on a gossamer gown of dragon skin sheerer than silk. Her hair is the same color as the dragon’s scales
She murmurs in her sleep, then suddenly suddenly snaps awake, opening her eyes and staring directly into mine. Her eyes — though smaller — are the exact same ones that so recently stared at me with murder in them. I draw back, stunned by her beauty as much as her transformation. Though this time they carry no anger, just fear.
I fall to my knees, in a combination of exhaustion, pain, and awe. I try to speak, but no words come out. She tries as well, but merely produces a pale imitation of the dragon’s cry. I reach out to help her up, and her hand grasps mine. But her weight, tiny as it now is, is too much for my reduced strength. I collapse, and blackness overtakes me.
We are in the camp. I can tell that much from the feel of the ground, sounds of running water, snuffling horses, and rustling grass, though my eyes are not open. I must’ve slept a long time — or the stranger’s potions are getting better — as my muscles have nary a twinge. My head seems to be resting on an unusually comfortable pillow, and there is a scent of lilacs in the air — with just a touch of ash. I hear a soft intake of breath, and open my eyes.
There above me I see the most glorious face the mind of man could imagine. It is impossible to say how I could ever have considered those eyes threatening, or bestial. Her dress is still of dragon skin, but washed free from ash and polished to a shine that rivals the noonday sun. Yet, even that fades into blankness compared to the brilliance of her smile.
“Hello, Ernie,” the vision says.
“Hello, Princess,” I reply.
“Well done,” says the stranger.
Good night, say we all.