Tied to the sacrificial pole, Princess Alana waited for the sun to rise. She dug her nails into the wood and bit her lip to keep from pleading with the peasants to untie her. She scanned the western skyline instead of scolding her parents. For the tenth time she wished her hands were loose to scratch the itch on her shoulder.
The first rays of dawn shot past her, marred by a black dot. Squinting, Alana focused on it. A small figure flew towards them, gathering speed and size as it neared.
The dot grew into the form of a dragon. A forty-foot wingspan generated a gale of wind, blowing back the peasants. Light gleamed on a glossy black belly and a ruby-red hide. The pole shook as clawed feet wider than oak trees slammed against the ground.
A silence fell across the gathered crowd. The long neck snaked upwards. Brown eyes sprinkled with gold flecks surveyed the crowd and focused on the pole. The round pupils contracted as the dragon studied Princess Alana. The gigantic head swung around, gaze narrowing on her father King Theidric the Bold and her mother Queen Poedith the Beautiful. The dragon opened his mouth. The sound of brass gongs rang. Words emerged from the cacophony. “She is the sacrifice?”
Mother spoke in a respectful voice instead of the screech she used to address her servants. “We are here to see that you keep your end of the bargain. In return for our sacrifice, our fields and our livestock will no longer be subject to your predations.”
“I would believe that if it were you and your most loyal retainers here.” The dragon waived a red claw at the cringing crowd. “Are they here to see a sacrifice burnt to a cinder? Devoured before them for their entertainment?”
“No, no, Bright One!” Father squeaked. Princess Alana didn’t think he sounded bold. “They are here to–”
“Liar! Your knights failed to kill me. Now you attempt to bring me down by overwhelming me with numbers, no matter how poorly armed?” The dragon faced the crowd and drew in a deep breath, jaws opened wide.
Alana had seen drawings of that pose in the treatises on dragons – the position of a wyrm about to spray fire. The mob stampeded, sweeping the royal entourage with the panicking crowd. Her last sight of her mother and father were them running for their lives without a backwards glance for their daughter.
She stiffened when she felt the ground shake beneath the dragon’s steps. She closed her eyes and shivered since there was no one to be brave for. She did not want her last vision to be the cavernous maw that would swallow her whole.
The steps circled behind her. She squeaked when a sharp claw cut the ropes, nicking her in the process. She reached for her shoulder and scratched, wondering if she was staining her dress. Perhaps the beast would suck her blood out of her like the juice from an pomegranate. “If you are going to eat me, please be quick about it.” She hated the tremor in her words. The voices of princesses in the stories didn’t quiver.
“I’m not going to eat you. Climb on.”
Alana opened her eyes. This wasn’t the fierce gong voice. The inviting words were muted wind chimes. She turned around to look at the dragon.
“Climb on,” the beast repeated. He lay down, belly flat against the earth. “They will be back soon. We best be gone.”
What choice did she have? She wrapped her hand one of the large, black spikes protruding along the dragon’s spine. She slid between two of them, clamping her legs against the scaly side. Her nursemaid would be scandalized that she sat astride. She sat sidesaddle when she was still allowed to ride, as proper princess should. She hated being a proper princess.
“Hold on!” The dragon lurched to his feet. Alana wrapped her arms around the spike to keep from sliding off. She felt her mouth form an ‘O’ of amazement as the pole splintered from one well-placed blow of the dragon’s tail. Alana felt the massive shoulder muscles beneath her coil and spring.
Then they were in the air. The ceremonial pole swiftly became splinters as the dragon flew. Alana squinted into the wind. She was going faster than she could run, than the four horses pulled the parade carriage, than the one time she convinced her old, fat pony to gallop. Trusting the grip of her legs, she let go of the spike and spread her arms wide, laughing in pure exhilaration at the feel of wind rushing through her hair. If the dragon was going to eat her, at least he had given her this joy.
* * *
The sun hung high in sky when they landed. Alana was uncertain how many leagues the dragon’s flight had taken them. For all she knew, the land the dragon set down on belonged to someone other than her father. It no longer mattered. As far as her parents were concerned, she was dead.
The dragon crouched. Without waiting for him to ask, she slid to the ground. Her legs were stiff and sore, muscles cramping in places that would make her nursemaid blush. She wished for the hot bath in her chambers. Alana stifled a giggle. Perhaps the dragon would like some princess soup.
The dragon squinted at her. “Hmmm. You’re older than they usually give me. Nineteen, twenty summers? You’re not wearing the rags of a scullery maid. I haven’t seen silks sewn with pearls like these in almost a century.”
His words stung her wounded pride. “I am no scullery maid.” She drew herself up to her full height. The top of her head barely reached the knee of his foreleg. “I am Princess Alana, daughter of King Theidric the Bold and Queen Poedith the Beautiful, rulers of Dylvia.”
“Oho, a princess.” The corner of the dragon’s mouth curled in what Alana thought might have been amusement. “Forgive me for asking this, your royal highness, but shouldn’t you be married by now?”
Alana ignored his mocking tone. “I have a deformity, my lord.”
“Yes.” Bitterness filled her voice. She gathered her courage and turned away from the dragon, exposing her back. “My spine is twisted.”
The rasp of scales rubbing against each other made her blood run cold. Heat blew past her with every bellow of the dragon’s lungs. She gasped as the tip of a claw traced the S-curve from neck to waist. “One would not notice if one did not know to look.”
“Men do not notice my twisted spine, but they do my lack of grace. I was thought to be merely clumsy until my tutors noticed I walk with a limp.”
She turned and found the dragon’s brown and yellow eyes even with hers. His forefeet framed her, leaving her no place to run. One claw the thickness of her thigh tapped the ground behind her. “Is this the reason for your virginity?”
“Yes.” She dropped her gaze to the ground as color flooded her cheeks. “Father and Mother sent for the best healers to cure me.” She endured being laced into corsets so tight it hurt to draw breath. To maintain her posture, she had worn harnesses that reminded her of her father’s carriage horses. One healer had the temerity to suggest she be stretched on the rack until her spine realigned. That healer ended up giving an involuntary demonstration of his prescription.
“The healers halted the curve in my spine before I became a hunchback. None of them cured me.” She heard the words ‘Twisted Princess’ whispered when she passed courtiers in the halls. “I was told not only was there no cure for my twist, but it would prevent me from bearing children.” When the gossip of her hips being askew and not giving her womanly parts enough room to carry a baby had been confirmed, the betrothal that had been in place from the moment she was born was invalidated. “What use is a princess who cannot provide an heir?”
“What use indeed.” the dragon echoed in funeral bells. He looked down at her and to the mouth of a dark cave, and back to her. “Come with me.” The dragon folded his wings against his back and entered the cave.
She stood, uncertain. For a second she thought about running away. The red tail uncurled from the darkness of the cave. The tip with its triple spike waved in a beckoning gesture. “Come,” the cymbals chimed.
Alana followed the tail into the darkness of the cave. The light faded after a few steps past the threshold. The further into the cave she went, the more unsteady her steps became. She stumbled, bashed her shoulder against the rock wall, and fell. She landed on her hands and knees. She bit her lip to stifle her cry at small, sharp stones cutting into her flesh.
“Are you all right, Princess Alana?”
“No.” The scrapes stung less than her pride. Worse, she could not tell which direction the dragon was heading in, nor the way to the mouth of the cave. The tears that had been threatening since her father announced she would be sacrificed spilled. Princesses didn’t cry, her nursemaid had told her over and over. Hot tears slid down her cheeks. She was the Twisted Princess. Why did she have to play by their rules?
The tip of tail brushed across her hand. “What is the matter?” tinkled harness bells.
Alana grabbed it as if she were a drowning woman thrown a lifeline. Everything, she wanted to wail. Instead she spoke of the most immediate problem. “I cannot see where to put my feet.” Relying on her vision to tell her which direction she was facing and how rugged the ground was the only way she could remain upright sometimes.
“I understand.” The tail she held on to twisted free from her grasp. It curled around her waist, lifting her to her feet as tenderly as a mother would a child. “Lean against me. I will keep you upright. We do not have much further to go.”
Alana placed her hand on the dragon’s hide, expecting her flesh to be torn further by steely scales. Instead the surface felt pebbly-smooth, like the pavers lining the path to the entrance of the Great Hall. The dragon radiated heat, which her body greedily absorbed.
They walked in complete darkness, Alana trusting the dragon to keep her upright. Before long they were in a fire-lit chamber large enough for the dragon to stretch his wings. Round, smooth stones formed a hearth in the center of the room. A cairn of similar stones stood in one corner. Against the wall appeared to be the contents from a farm house – cooking pots, an ax, and a pile of assorted peasant clothing. There was no sign of the fabled hoard, not even a single copper piece.
The dragon uncurled his tail from her waist. He settled between the fire and the pile of stones. “I will offer you a deal, Princess Alana. Normally I eat sacrifices, but I have more need of aid than the pleasure of a delicious morsel.”
Alana eyed the dragon askance. “What aid could you possibly need?”
The dragon jerked his muzzle towards the rough circle of stones. “That fire must be kept burning. You will gather tinder and see that it does not fall low. If it does turn to ash, you will stoke it to flame again. In return, not only will I spare your life, but I will see to your needs. When I have no further need of your aid, I will grant you a quick death.”
Alana shook her head. “Keep your fire? But, my lord, you are a dragon. You are fire!”
“No. I am not fire. Nor am I male.” The dragon rubbed a spot near the base of her throat.
It made no sense, she thought as she looked at the female dragon. But she dared not to ask too many questions. “So if I have the right of it, I keep the fire, and you keep me until you no longer need me.”
The dragon nodded. “Do we have an accord, Princess Alana?”
Alana stared into the brown-and-gold eyes. Was it a trick of the firelight or was there a hint of desperation in them? She was resigned to her death, but now she saw a way to live and grabbed for it. Chamber maids kept the fires going in her father’s keep nonstop. How hard could it be? “We have an accord….” Alana paused. She couldn’t keep calling the dragon ‘dragon.’ “What is your name?”
“My name is–.” The words disappeared, leaving a delicate, metallic sound. “I doubt your tongue can pronounce it.”
“It is beautiful.” It reminded Alana of the church bells ringing in celebration. Bell was not a proper name for the dragon. She remembered the word for bell in another language. “May I call you Campana?”
“Campana.” The dragon fitted the chime around the word. “Yes, call me Campana.
* * *
Alana realized the chamber maid’s job of tending the fire was not easy.
First was the problem of getting up and down the long tunnel leading into the cave. Campana scraped her sides as she squeezed through the tunnel, but Alana’s arms couldn’t touch both sides.. The side walls were rough and the floor uneven under her feet. After several falls, Alana learned to carry a small pot of coals from the fire with her. She left a handful of sticks smoldering at the mouth of the cave while she searched for wood.
The first day, after changing out of her wedding dress and into the itchy homespun peasant garb, she gathered what she thought would be enough for the night. Half the night had passed when she fed the last of the branches to the fire. Campana chimed worriedly as the flames grew low and turned a dull red. The danger of the forest at night kept her from foraging for more.
When dawn came, she left the cave. Determined not to make the same mistake, she struggled to carry back several large logs. That was also a mistake. Instead of the fire blazing to life, the bulk smothered it. A few half-burnt sticks revived what flame there was until the log caught.
Through trial and error she learned to let sap filled branches dry, oak burnt longer and warmer than pine, and to gather twice as much as she thought she would need to store against rain.
Campana brought her small game, mostly squirrel and rabbit. She seemed amused Alana insisted on removing the fur and cooking the meat. Alana remembered watching the cook dress meat for both the servants and her father’s table. She kept an eye out for wild roots and vegetables while foraging for wood, so on occasion she was able to make a stew of some fashion.
Over time her hands grew callused and the ache in her back, which never went completely away, lessened. The itchiness of the wool never disappeared, but grew less noticeable. Although she still walked with a limp, she did not fall as often. All the time she wondered about the task Campana had set her to.
Not all her life was wood gathering and fire tending. During the quiet times, Alana and Campana would exchange stories. Alana didn’t try to sing the bards’s tales, but spoke them the best she remembered. She wasn’t so crass to tell Campana the tales about knights slaying dragons. Campana told her the legends of her people. Alana noted, her mouth twisting in a wry grin, Campana’s stories didn’t mention the princesses who were devoured.
It was one of those nights she learned of why she was charged with taking care of the fire. Alana sat next to Campana in their customary spot for storytelling. Campana lolled in front of the fire. Alana sat back to Campana’s stomach, half-tucked under a tree-trunk sized foreleg. The heat of the fire reflected off red dragon scale, keeping both her front and back warm.
The firelight glittered off of Campana’s scales, making them glimmer like rubies and onyx. But, above the shoulders where the wings joined, she noticed a ring of missing scales circling the broad neck like a collar. It had the pink shininess of a fresh scar. “How did you come by that wound, Campana?”
Campana stared at her, the expression in her gold flecked eyes distant. Her jaw shifted back and forth before she spoke. “My mate and I were attacked by a knight.” The dragon looked at the cairn. “He died protecting the last of our clutch. I killed the egg-breaker, but not before he wounded me.”
Alana gasped. “There’s an egg under those stones?”
The dragon nodded. She touched the scar with her claws. “My wounds left me unable to breathe fire. My egg needs heat to hatch, and I am unable to warm the stones myself. I can manipulate the rocks with ease, and fell large trees, but the wood needed for the fire splinters from the pressure of my teeth.”
Alana leaned her head against the warm hide. She could hear the deep thrum of the dragon’s heart. Campana and her mate had fought to protect their child. Her mother and father had handed her over without any hesitation. So why did they call dragons monsters? Alana turned that thought over in her head as she fell asleep to the massive heartbeat.
* * *
Her first warning was the clothing Campana provided for her. One day, Campana returned from her hunt with a fur lined cloak clutched carefully in her claws. The following day, a man’s shirt and trousers were presented to Alana. Part of her protested putting on men’s clothes. A lady, let alone a princess ,most certainly did not wear men’s clothing. Warmth trumped propriety, she decided after donning the breeches. Alana discovered it was much easier to gather wood in. Soon after Campana provided a second set. She didn’t question where the dragon got the clothing and ignored the faint stains of blood soaked into the fabric.
She did not make the connection until the dragon returned from the hunt bearing a whole sheep in her jaws. Alana’s mouth watered at the thought of mutton instead of rabbit, but her fear was sharper than her hunger. “Where did you get this?”
“There is now a flock not two-thousand wingbeats from here,” Campana chimed. “The shepherd has a beautiful plaid cloak I could fetch for you.”
“No! You mustn’t, Campana!” Alana cried. “If he saw you take the sheep, if he saw you at all, he will send word to my father. He will send knights to slay you.”
“Let them come!” Discordant gongs filled Campana’s voice. “They will tremble before my might of my claws. I will beat them back with the hurricane of my wings. I will char them to ash with my fiery breath.”
“You can’t breathe fire,” Alana said in her gentlest voice.
Campana’s head whipped around. From the anger smoldering in those eyes, Alana wasn’t sure Campana would forget her deal and not eat her on the spot. “Your baby will need you,” she said around her heart pounding in her throat.
From belly to head, the dragon thumped hard on the floor. Her whisper was the sound of the bells decorating the horse’s winter harness. “You are right. I will not hunt any more sheep.” The corners of the dragon’s mouth curled in a sly grin. “Goats, however.” She smacked her lips.
Alana laughed and hugged Campana, wrapping her arms as far as she could around the thick neck.
* * *
Alana had returned into the cave with her latest bundle when she heard Campana’s chiming over the sound of stone hitting stone. Grabbing her torch, she hurried down to the end of the tunnel to the chamber.
Campana clawed rocks away from the cairn, revealing the opalescent surface of the egg. As she did so, fine cracks appeared along the surface and widened. Campana made a sound of crystal striking crystal. A softer tinkling answered.
The egg is hatching, Alana thought. Campana would have no more need for her to tend a fire. She swallowed. She should run away before the dragon realized she had returned. Maybe she would get lucky and be able to hide. She stood rooted to the ground as the cracks widened.
Campana shoved the stones aside. The egg shivered, rocked, and split in two, revealing the glistening hindquarters of a dragonet. The feet scrabbled, tiny claws flashing like rubies, until they caught the rim of the broken egg. The forequarters pulled free with a pop. The dragonet chimed, stretched, and unfurling tiny wings. The baby shook off the egg slime.
Campana lowered her head. The baby would barely reach the tip of her mother’s snout to the corner of her mouth, Alana thought. The dragon chimed softly, the sound she had identified as her name. The baby replied. Alana could hear a different pattern in the higher notes.
The dragonet scampered over to her, stumbling as she figured out where to put her feet. She tilted her head, studying her. She reared on her back feet and put large clawed forefeet on Alana’s shoulders and leaned. Alana, unable to handle the shift in her balance and the additional weight, fell to the floor. The dragonet chimed a laugh and lay stomach-on-stomach on top of her.
Alana looked at Campana from under one of the baby’s legs. The mother dragon lowered her head alongside them. “Well, she clearly likes you,” she chimed softly. “What will you call her?”
Alana ran her hands along the soft nubs of spikes down the baby’s spine. Her dragon-name reminded Alana of the tiny instruments played by the scantily-clad dancers whose costumes her mother had pronounced scandalous. “Cymbal”
Campana hummed in pleasure, a cat purr played on a gong. “Yes, that is a fitting name for my daughter.”
* * *
Alana expected for Campana to eat her as soon as her egg hatched. To her surprise, the dragon did not. “She will not be able to breathe fire until her head reaches the top of my back,” she explained. “That will take at least three months. Until then, Cymbal will need the warmth of the fire.”
Alana nodded. The perpetual knot of worry in her stomach untied. Now she knew the span of her life.
One month later while she was gathering wood, she heard the heavy clops of a horse’s hooves. She dropped her bundle of sticks and dashed into the nearby brushes as the sound drew nearer. Alana hoped it was a traveler using an almost forgotten path. To her dismay, the heavy bay horse carried a man wearing a long sword. She had seen enough similarly arrayed men to know a knight when she saw one.
The horse plodded out of sight. She dashed out of the bush. Ranging far and wide had provided her with a familiarity with the woods. Quick as a rabbit, she darted between the trees, praying she made it to the cave before the knight did. She ran over the uneven ground, using her hands to propel her off of tree trunks when she stumbled. When she reached the clearing, there was no sign of the knight. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Cold steel pressed into her neck. An arm snaked around her stomach from behind. “Make not a sound,” whispered a masculine voice. The pressure on her throat grew, forcing her to step backwards into the trees.
She was guided to a where the horse was tethered. The steel retreated from her throat. Alana turned to look at the knight. He wore the finery of one of her father’s vassals, but stained and in need of mending. His hair needed washing and his face bore several days’ worth of unshaven beard. “Who are you?” he grunted.
The lie came to Alana’s mouth without prompting. “I am a woodcutter’s daughter, my lord. He is ill, and sent me to gather wood for the fire.”
The knight barked a laugh. “I know who you are, girl. You are the Twisted Princess. Your father sent me,”
Her heart beat faster. Had her parents repented and sought her out? “Are you here to rescue me?”
“I’m here to slay the dragon.” She could see him calculating her worth by the gleam in his eye. “You look healthy but for the twist in your spine. Have you been in the dragon’s clutches all this time?”
“There is no dragon here.” She had to convince the knight to go away before Campana came out of the cave or returned from her hunt.
“There is too. I have seen the smoke rising from the ground not half a league from here. No fires burn underground.”
“‘Tis the fire I use to keep myself warm.”
“Show me. If there is no dragon sign, I will return you to your father before resuming my hunt.”
So he can sacrifice me again, Alana thought. That was when she heard the distant cry Campana used to alert her that she was returning.
“Dragon,” the knight whispered. He turned towards the mouth of the cave, raising his sword.
“No!” Alana grabbed his arm, yanking on it to halt him. “There is a harmless dragonet within.”
“All the better to slay it now, before two dragons roam the land.” He shrugged her off with a flick of his arm. Pushed off-balance, Alana stumbled backwards and fell, landing hard on her bottom. The knight turned to face her. “You are enchanted by the dragon’s magic. Once I slay it, your eyes will be opened to the truth of your situation.” He tightened his grip on the sword and walked towards the cave.
All she could picture was the young dragon laying by the fire, bloodied and dead. The thought turned her stomach. Flashes of the nights she and Campana had spent telling stories, how the dragon had presented her with clothes, and how Campana had flown her over the valley rushed through her. She could not repay her friend’s kindness with treachery.
As she pushed herself to her feet, her hands grasped one of the large branches she intended to cut smaller. Brandishing it like a club, she ran for the knight. She ran past him to crouch in front of the cave, brandishing her improvised club.
The knight laughed. “What are you going to do? Poke me with your stick?” He batted the branch out of her hand with the flat of the sword. Knocked off balance, she fell hard on her bottom. The knight laughed. “I am going to take care of the dragon. Then I am going to return you where you belong.”
As the knight disappeared down the cave entrance, Alana rose to her feet and picked up her club. She hurried down the passage without lighting, relying on memory instead of her vision before stumbling into the chamber.
The knight had backed the dragonet into a corner. Cymbal arched her neck and hissed, but no flame shot out of her mouth. The knight laughed and advanced, leveling his sword.
Alana raised her club and ran for the knight. She tripped over an uneven patch of the floor just as she reached the pair. The knight turned towards her, a look of shock on his face. She swung and landed a blow between his eyes, backed by her falling weight. She heard a sickening crack as the knight fell. He landed on her, knocking the wind from her lungs as he pinned her to the ground.
Alana drew a pained breath as Cymbal dragged the knight off of her. Hand on the dragonet for balance, she rose to her feet. Alana turned to the knight laying crumpled on the floor. Cymbal followed, hissing. She prodded him with her toe. Then she kicked his side. He didn’t grunt in pain. He didn’t breathe at all.
She looked at the dragon. A wet sob bubbled up her throat as she slid into a sitting position. Cymbal sounded a worried tinkling. Alana wrapped her arms around Cymbal’s neck, cradling the dragonet close as she cried. She and Cymbal were still in that position when Campana returned.
* * *
Two months passed in the blink of an eye. Alana watched Cymbal grow. She could see the dragonet gain inches in height after each meal. It wasn’t long before Cymbals breath grew warm, and then hot. The same day Cymbal could rest her head on Campana’s shoulders without standing on her hind legs, she lit a tree on fire.
Alana smiled at the dragonet’s accomplishment. Tears of pride and sorrow welled in her eyes, but she did not cry. She looked up at Campana, meeting her friend’s gaze. “I am ready.”
Campana’s head twisted to one side. “For what?”
“I’ve kept my end of the bargain,” Alana said. Cymbal looped her head over Alana’s shoulder. The princess stroked her head without thinking about it. “Cymbal can breathe fire. You have no more need of me.”
Campana scratched behind the webbing of one ear with her massive forefoot. “Ah, yes, I see. The bargain.” She looked from the dragonet to Alana. “Cymbal sees you as her mother also. I will not deprive her of another parent since she will never know her father. Therefore, I propose I not fulfill our bargain her until she reaches full adulthood.”
Alana looked from the dragonet to the dragon. “How long will that be?”
“For dragons, a blink of the eye. In the terms of your people, two hundred years.” The dragon tilted her head. “I know it is a long time for you to wait to be devoured. We can pass the time by telling each other more stories. Do we have an accord?”
Alana smiled through the tears of joy running down her face. “We have an accord.”
About The Author:
Sheryl R Hayes’s three cats graciously allow her and her mother to live in their house in the Silicon Valley, Ca. In addition to writing her urban fantasy series and short stories, she works full time at a private utility. She has a short story coming out in the upcoming anthology Alterna-Teas, published by Sky Warrior Books. You can follow her blog at http://www.sherylrhayes.com, on Twitter @sherylrhayes, or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/