THE DRAGON'S TALE
The girl collapsed gracefully, looking more like she’d simply swooned than that she’d received what for any mere mortal would have been a lethal dose of venom with a simple prick of her finger.
But she was no mere mortal.
“I told you it wouldn’t work,” Dur Drache said.
The woman at its scaly side chose to ignore the creature’s smug manner. “She’s human, you fool beast. I tripled the amount to ensure success.”
“Doesn’t matter,” the dragon insisted. “She was protected from harm, particularly harm of your making.”
“Of my making? Who gathered the venom? Who distilled it in the fires of Hell?”
“What fires of Hell? I hit the most convenient volcano. However, I was indeed the one stuck doing all the work,” Drache allowed. “Collecting that foul stuff to smear on the spindle was going beyond the articles of our contract. I had to eat the evidence and viper is not my favorite meal. Contrary to the praises the troubadours sing, it tastes nothing like chicken.”
The woman the dragon worked with, a being with a soul so dark it made the clear night sky look a pastel gray, snorted. “So, it wasn’t to your taste.”
“Could have been,” the creature said. “A nice spicy barbecue sauce, some curry, maybe a touch of teriyaki…”
She glanced sharply at it. “Some what?”
“Oh, pardon me,” Drache murmured, more than a hint of sarcasm in its tone. “I forgot you’ve never mastered the art of traveling through time, of tasting the delights the future holds for the true immortal.”
“Such as yourself?” she sneered. “Seems to me that your kind is in decline. How many of the great lizard lords are left, by the way?”
The dragon ignored the slur against its kind and shrugged one massive dark shoulder. “So, we’re an endangered species.”
“Forget it. It’s future speak. You wouldn’t understand. Neither would she,” it said, gesturing a highly buffed talon toward the girl on the floor.
She looked very picturesque, her hair spread in lush, well-mannered waves against the stone floor and her pale blue velvet gown draping her shapely form as if arranged by an artist. Just the toe of one small, delicately embroidered slipper peeped from beneath the folds, the sort of erotic glimpse that would drive any chivalrous human lout into a bout of slavering lust. Her eyes were closed now, her ruby lips parted in one last gasp of surprise. Despite the poison in her system, her cheeks held the warm blush of health, the smooth perfection of youth.
“I suppose we’ll have a horde of Georges at the drawbridge now,” Dur Drache grumbled. “One knight after another disturbing my well-earned rest.”
“And why is that?” the witch demanded. “She’ll be dead any moment now.”
As if to prove that statement wrong, the girl on the floor sighed, a sweet smile curving the rosebud perfection of her lips, and turned over, resting her flushed cheek against the back of one slender hand.
“She’s not going to die. I told you that before we ever started any of this,” the dragon reminded.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Me? Heaven forefend,” the beast declared dramatically. “I have two words for you: Enchanted Princess.”
“That’s asinine,” the witch insisted. “What do you think this is, the pagan past?
“Well, the close of the Great Warming Period, at least. Shall we say a generation or five shy of the High Middle Ages?”
“There are no such things as Enchanted Princesses,” she declared.
“Which part are you having difficulty with?” the dragon demanded. “The enchanted or the princess? I’m guessing the latter, but that’s only because you’ve been advertising yourself as an Enchantress. I’ve heard the heralds’ decrees in the High Street. What’s the special this week? Three love potions for the price of two? What a bargain!”
The wicked one ignored him. “She should be dead. D-E-A-D!”
The beast sighed. “Cast your mind back a decade and a half ago. You know, the fateful day when you gave one golden-haired tyke a really nasty welcome-to-the-world present. How did it go?” It cleared its throat before intoning. “And on her sixteenth birthday she shall prick her finger on a spinning wheel and…”
“And DIE!” the witch shouted in frustration.
“Well, I’m sure that’s what you intended to say. But it’s not what you did say,” Drache said. “No, you noticed that strapping young knight fingering the hilt of his sword. You know, the one you fancied – the knight, not the sword – and you softened the curse.”
“I did no such—”
“Tell a lie and your nose will grow,” the dragon warned.
“Not in my story it doesn’t,” she snarled. “All right, what did I say?”
The dragon smirked in pleasure. “You said, and I quote, and she shall sleep until awakened by love’s first kiss.”
“What balderdash!” the witch cried. “I didn’t!”
The wicked witch stared hard at the sleeping girl. “He was handsome, wasn’t he?” she murmured at last.
“And tasty,” the dragon added. At her affronted glare, it apologized. “You know quite well that knights and my kind do not rub along well together.”
The witch turned back to her contemplation of the girl on the floor. “Now what do I do with her?”
“Whatever you wish,” Dur Drache said. “Personally speaking, I’m quite full of viper yet and have never truly fancied princess as a main course, although I have had cousins who were partial to a bite of royalty now and again.”
“I wasn’t going to suggest you eat her,” its mistress declared. “There are a number of options.”
“Then what’s behind door number one?” the dragon asked.
“I could put everyone else in the castle asleep as well to keep news of this reaching the town heralds.”
“You do know we’re the only ones here? Everyone has gone off to the local marketplace for some festival or witch burning or something.”
The dragon’s employer was not amused. “I don’t see a problem,” she said.
“Well, I’ll admit that, assuming no one stops by to sell the girl’s family any morality play tickets, the slumbering castle trick would work,” the beast said.
The witch drummed her fingers against a table in thought. “So, you’re saying we need to keep people away?”
“I’m guessing a No Vendors sign will not do the trick.”
“No,” she mused, her nails picking up speed as they galloped against the aged wood. “But a forest of thorns would deter even the most persistent of drummers. And her family wouldn’t be able to return either.”
The dragon nodded in agreement. “Should cut down on the number of knights able to slog their way through the brambles, too. I like it.”
“You’d still have to remain on duty,” the witch said. “It’s in our contract, the paragraph that begins ‘In the event that life does not wink out—’”
“Yes, yes,” Drache replied, letting a warm draft of disgusted air escape in a deep sigh. A slight hint of brimstone scented the air briefly and then was gone. “I knew I’d rue the day I signed that bit of parchment without reading it through first.”
“I offered you the chance.”
“I’d forgotten my spectacles!” the beast snarled. “But I have them with me now.”
“So, you plan to further your knowledge of mankind by reading the classics as you guard that bit of crumpet on the floor?” the witch asked.
“The hell I am,” the dragon said. “I’m going to study law!”
~ ~ ~
So, the Medieval period whisked by, followed by the Renaissance with the dragon and the snoozing princess being little bothered by the concerns of daily life. A few knights put in an appearance now and then, the legend of a sleeping beauty rousing their interests, but they were easily discouraged by the thicket of thorns, or a dragonly roar accompanied by a fiery blast, heavy on the special effects but rarely sustained long enough to melt a decent sized bag of marshmallows.
One or two thoroughly misguided knights pushed their way through enough to get more thoroughly cooked, which supplied Dur Drache with a few tins of cooked meat to vary its diet, but for the most part things were quiet. So much so that the beast was bored.
No company came to call. Not even the witch who’d contracted for its services. But then, being far closer to mortal than immortal, the hag had most likely taken the short road to Hell either with the aid of a riled-up countryside longing for a witchy roast, or from falling off her broom in a strong gust of wind. Unfortunately, a few centuries of reading law books had shown the dragon that something as simple as her death wouldn’t get him off the hook when it came to their contract. She’d written in a mortality clause that bound Drache to its duty for eternity or the princess’s unlikely awakening. Whichever came first. And eternity, for an immortal like itself, was far more time than the dragon wished to spend babysitting the never aging Enchanted Princess.
Therefore, some devious plan had to be devised. The dragon knew by the close of the Enlightened Era that hundreds of years of studying law books had given it the most devious mind in the Universe. All that was missing was the main elements of its plot.
The first element on the list was learning to shape shift, and a quick correspondence course delivered by gargoyle once a month, along with a claw full of current broadsheets to keep up with what was going on in the outside world, took the dragon ever closer to being able to leave the thorn bound castle.
Fifty years of shape shifting practice before an unenchanted mirror were necessary to avoid any slip ups. Besides, fifty years to an immortal creature was just a drop in the bucket. The beast settled on being a tall gentleman, because it was loathe to look any less impressive than it did with scales, claws, and the trickle of steam that it occasionally allowed to escape from the corner of its massive jaws. It would be sad to lose its tail during the transformation though. It was an awe-inspiring length and had swept many a knight’s steed off its hooves and stolen a few formidable dragonesses’ hearts as well. But those years were sadly in the past. It was time to greet a new age.
And so, it did, with an aquiline nose, and a squared jaw with neatly trimmed dark beard, transforming itself into a rather dashing rogue, or so the dragon thought, who answered to the moniker Herr Drache. The eyes of its human form in particularly were nicely placed, and radiated confidence as well as intelligence. How could they not? Dur Drache asked the man in the mirror, before letting the image melt back into its own comfortable form once more.
There were still things to be done that were best accomplished by a dragon rather than a mere man.
Over the years, the broadsides had become newspapers that told tales of the New World, although the dragon felt the sort of things lauded were rather trite. However, two articles in particular caught Drache’s attention. One was the oddities put on display by one P.T. Barnum in America. The second was a set of folk tales penned by a set of local brothers with the unfortunate name of Grimm, although once the dragon got its claws on a copy of the book, the authors’ surname seemed quite appropriate to their literary style.
A careful study of the contract the creature had signed with the witch centuries ago showed nothing bound it to the now thorn-covered Schloss, merely that it was bound to the tiresome girl who had begun to snore in an irritating way around 1647.
The dragon put the contract down and looked over at the girl. It had seen she was dusted at least twice a week over the centuries and so she didn’t look much the worse for wear. She hadn’t aged, nor had her clothing deteriorated, but that gown was seriously out of style. Still, for performance purposes, it would do.
The beast packed a light bag, taking with it the contract, a copy of the Grimm boys’ book, one of Barnum’s flyers, and a snack of freeze-dried Siberian rats, a delicacy one of the gargoyles had delivered on its last visit. Then it wrapped the girl in a cocoon of blankets, trundled her to the castle rooftop, licked a talon and held it to the breeze to check the meteorological conditions, and launched skyward, the princess in one claw, the portmanteau in the other. “Baby, we’re goin’ big time,” it said.
~ ~ ~
America was just as advertised, Dur Drache found. It landed in a convenient clearing in a wooded area just outside of the largest city it had ever seen. The natives were crude to the dragon’s mind, but that didn’t mean they weren’t interesting nor tasty if it found them overly curious.
Though reluctant to take a different form, the beast transformed into the human it had chosen to become, found a stream, and polished up the princess as best it could. She’d picked up a bit of soot on her normally rosy cheeks as they passed over the city, but from what he’d seen of the population, cleanliness wasn’t possible in this part of the world. Too many chimneys spouting grit, and too many factories going beyond the grit to contribute noxious fumes as well.
The dragon nearly missed the castle back in the Vienna woods.
But the old place had been sorely lacking in what this bustling city of the New World promised – the opportunity to slip free of the confining contract at long last.
Tossing the princess over its now manly shoulder, Dur Drache strode into New York City.
Finding Barnum’s museum was a cinch. Everyone knew of it and was more than happy to point the dragon in the right direction. Therefore, it was only lost in the metropolis for two hours before landing in the great showman’s office.
“So, what have you got for me, lad?” Barnum asked heartily.
The dragon swung the princess off its shoulder and arranged her sleeping form in a chair. It had to dab a bit of drool from the corner of her mouth, but she was soon as presentable as she was ever going to be.
“I give you Fraulein Schneewittchen,” it said, “who has carried the cat nap to extreme proportions. The girl hasn’t opened them peepers in years.”
Barnum gave her a once over, then slapped his knee. “Schneewittchen. Doesn’t that mean sleeping beauty?”
“You are correct, sir,” the dragon agreed. “I suppose she is a comely little pullet, but boring as hell.”
Barnum laughed heartily. “I’m sure she is. What do you propose to do with her?”
“Sell susceptible young scamps on the chance to wake her up, like the story in the Grimms’ book.”
“Hmm, just might work,” the self-styled greatest showman on Earth murmured. “So, you want to join my sideshow acts?”
“You betcha,” the dragon said, having picked up a bit of the local jargon.
Barnum held out his hand, ready to seal the deal. “What’s your name, lad?” he asked.
“Dur Drache,” the beast answered.
“Well, Derwood,” Barnum said – the creature flinched at such a common name – “what do you say we put the little lady on display this very night. I’ll invite the newspaper boys, talk up the fairy tale angle. By tomorrow night they’ll have brought crowds in by the wagon load. All randy young bucks willing to fork over their hard-earned cash for a chance to wake the little lady up. What shall we charge?”
“Quarter a pop,” Drache suggested. “And we split the profits fifty-fifty.”
“Sixty-forty,” Barnum countered.
~ ~ ~
Profits were good the first year. The dragon took up smoking five-dollar cigars and continued to wait for a miracle to happen. But bussed as she was nearly once every twenty seconds each day, not a single gallant managed to stir the princess from her slumber. After awhile the crowds began to drop off, which wasn’t surprising, the three-legged man in the next booth told Drache, because laying a wet one on an unresponsive woman was like taking a hatchet to a man’s ego.
“That’s true,” the midget across the aisle agreed. “She sure whittled me down to size.”
“You should have given up after the first five dollars-worth of smackers,” the bearded lady said.
“My momma didn’t raise no quitter,” the little man declared, but when the dragon offered him a freebee, it was declined. “Your girl’s getting a bit shop worn for my tastes,” the midget said. “No offense.”
“None taken,” the dragon assured, taking another puff on its cigar.
“You’re gonna have to change your act soon,” the three-legged man offered. “When things get stale, the crowds don’t come. They start giving you the go by.”
“Is that ever right,” the bearded lady murmured. “I used to weigh five hundred pounds, but when they got tired of looking at my well-honed rolls, I had to shed the weight and cultivate a beard. That got them coming back for another look see.”
“Hmm,” Drache mused, taking another puff. “What else can one do with a sleeping bit of muslin? Prop her mouth open for a penny toss?”
The midget shook his head. “Naw, that’s been done to death. You need to wake this cookie up. That’ll make a few headlines.”
“Wake her up?” The dragon nearly choked on its smoke. “What the hell do you think all these boys have been trying to do?”
“Now, Derwood, don’t get your knickers in a twist,” the bearded lady counseled. “Shorty’s got a point. Have you ever kissed her?”
The bearded lady exchanged a speaking glance with the three-legged man, who passed it on to the midget.
“You’re trading on that tale in Grimm, right? Well, doesn’t the princess awaken to love’s first kiss? Who would love her more than you do?”
“Anyone!” the dragon insisted. “That’s not the sort of relationship we have. We’re not of the same species.”
“Racist,” the midget snarled.
“This has got nothing to do with race! We’re not of the same genus,” Drache explained.
The three rolled their eyes at each other. “So, it’s a religious thing. Folks work those sorts of things out, you know,” the bearded lady said. “I’ll bet Adam and Eve didn’t think things would work out for them a time or two either.”
“Go on, Derwood,” the three-legged man urged. “Plant one on her.”
In frustration, the dragon threw its cigar away. “Okay, fine, if it will get you off my back.”
It took a lot of courage to step up to the cot, though. Such a repulsive task was best dispensed with quickly. Dur Drache got down on one dark trousered knee and leaned toward its victim – er, charge.
Her breath was a might off, but only for a human. Dragons were used to noxious fumes and the last half dozen swains to kiss her had been drinking heavily before they gave it the old college try, so Drache wasn’t overly concerned.
“Go on,” the humans at its back urged. “She can’t bite you, Derwood.” They chortled at such a gem of witticism.
The dragon held back a shudder of disgust and rushed to finish the task. Mouth met mouth. The princess gave a little sigh that slipped past the beast’s bared teeth.
Drache pushed back to its feet quickly, putting as much space as possible between itself and the girl. “There, satisfied?” it demanded of the three humans grouped around the bed.
The bearded lady sighed. A soft smile curved beneath her mustache.
Then there was another sigh, one from a quarter the dragon had not expected. In horror, it turned back to where the princess lay.
Only she was laying no more! She was sitting up. Stretching. Yawning. Blinking those big blue peepers.
“Oh, no,” Dur Drache moaned. “It can’t be.”
“Sure it can, pal,” the midget said. “Who has been taking care of her while she’s been in that coma?”
The dragon sighed. “I have.”
“And for how long have you been doing it?”
“Centuries,” the creature admitted.
“Naw, it just seems like it,” the three-legged man said. “You’re a young man and she’s a young woman. What could be more natural than that you fall in love?
Drache pointed toward the princess, who was now tossing her hair in a flirtatious manner. When it realized its hand was shaking, the dragon quickly shoved the offending member into its pants pocket. “But I don’t love her, and the legend specifically states that she’ll only wake to love’s first kiss.”
“Well, is this the first time you’ve ever kissed her?” the midget asked.
It was the princess who answered. “Ja, it is,” she said, sounding like a poorly scripted Alpine Heidi.
The dragon squared its shoulders. “I repeat, I do not love her.”
“But I am loving you,” the princess declared, her words ringing with the metal of a royal degree. “Ve vill be happy you and me, ja?”
Dur Drache tried one last ploy. “You know that I am a dragon, don’t you?”
The princess exchanged a speaking look with the bearded lady. “All men are, dis is true?”
“From my experience,” the woman said. “He’s just scared, honey.”
The three-legged man slapped the dragon on the back. “You’ve had it now, buddy. There’s no getting away once a woman gets her claws into you.”
“At least she’s a beauty,” the midget added. “Congratulations, Drache.”
The princess held one lily white hand out toward him. “Ve go now, ja?”
The dragon sighed deeply. Despite all the years of studying law, it could see no way to escape the contract that was clearly written in the girl’s big blue eyes.
“Oh, hell,” it muttered beneath its breath, then repeated tamely, “Ja, we go.”
The Dragon’s Tale © 2009 Beth Daniels / J.B. Dane
Originally appeared in the anthology Mother Goose is Dead: Modern Stories of Myths, Fables and Fairy Tales edited by Michele Acker and Kirk Dougal, published by Damnation Books, 2011
Cover graphic from Dreamstime.com
Cover design and formatting Beth Daniels
All right reserved by the author. This is a work of fiction. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying, recording, or file sharing, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without written permission from the author. All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author, including this representation of the historical P.T. Barnum, and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.