Below is the latest installment in the fairy tale/kingdom short story series that I’m messing around with. The original one can be read here. :)
Once upon a time, there was a joyful kingdom ruled over by a peaceful king and queen. They had four children: two princes and two princesses. Prince Riordan the powerful had joined forces with the influential Princess Heidi; Prince Eli the clever had married the ever-reading Princess Candice; and Princess Audrey the beautiful had married the warm-hearted Prince Jordan. Princess Deborah had recently begun to court Sir Evan, a knight of the kingdom, after a disastrous two years with Korbin, a court singer and “complete pile of shit from an ancient pox-ridden lactose-intolerant donkey,” as they say.
Sir Evan had begun to spend quite a lot of time over at the castle. Though everyone liked him, Prince Eli pointed out that it was only after Korbin had moved into the castle that his true issues had begun to reveal themselves.
Princess Candice nodded. “I sure hope he doesn’t turn out to be a complete pile of shit from an ancient pox-ridden lactose-intolerant donkey too. No kingdom should ever have to deal with two of those.”
Prince Jordan ran past them chasing his daughter, the princess Maya. He spoke as he swooped her up. “If he ever became anything like Korbin, I’d make sure your dragon ‘accidentally’ got loose in plenty of time to take care of him, Candice.”
She nodded and grinned.
But this is not that story.
This is the story of how Princess Candice ended up with her dragon in the first place.
She’d grown up in a kingdom much different than the one Prince Eli was privy to: wars, discord, bandits, rats, all the dark side of things that Prince Eli’s kingdom in its benevolent splendor had never been required to deal with. It was fine; it had made her grow up tough and wise. She knew life was rough and reality was as un-fairy-tale like as anything could be.
But youth has its perks, and so the princess would often escape from the stress of the world outside by climbing up one of the cool, grey, stone towers with a book in her hand. Usually one of the palace dogs would follow her. Her favorite was a dark brown shepherd with a furry white star on his chest, who was called Noah. Noah and she would reach the tallest room and gaze out the window at the vast expanse of the world below them. Then, Princess Candice would bundle them up among the pillows and blankets that had been placed there for her comfort, and read the story aloud to her dog.
Stories were magical. Some told of far-off places, daring adventures, the joy of romance or the despair of defeat. She read about evil witches, horrible rulers, true love’s kiss, and the power of a defiant woman.
And she also learned about dragons.
Dragons, so said the books, were even more magical than the stories themselves. They could read words, breathe fire, and–her favorite–fly.
Princess Candice dropped the book then, and draped a wool blanket around herself so she could peek once more out the open window. She shivered at the breeze and let Noah stand close.
“A dragon could fly me away from here,” she told the dog quietly. The kingdom below reflected the weight of the world back–a fire burned on the horizon in some new hooliganery and a line of beggars wailed for coins at the well-dressed courtesans hurrying past.
“Noah, I love you, and perhaps I could one day make a difference in a world like this. But I can’t get my start here, and you can’t take me away. No prince will want an alliance with a kingdom like mine right now.” She thought back through the many fairy tales she’d read, and pictured Rapunzel in her own tower, even less free than Candice. Though she had her long blonde hair for a savior to climb, the princess remembered, stroking her own long brown locks. And I am not looking for a suitor to rescue me.
“I need a dragon,” she resolved, and marched back down the stairs with Noah.
The slight hitch in Princess Candice’s plan involved the distinct lack of dragons in the area. Indeed, when she’d mentioned it to her father, he merely laughed and tousled her hair.
“Sweetheart, there haven’t been dragons for a thousand years,” he’d said, and turned back to care for one of her many siblings.
Candice sighed and returned to the palace library, where she combed through every tome looking for information on where one could find a dragon.
Nobody agreed on the appropriate method for dragon-catching. Some said only a powerful knight could manage it, by besting the creature in a battle and wounding it by sword. Others said they could only be tamed if stolen as an egg and the hatchling raised by hand, perhaps among eagles and hawks who could teach it how to fly (if not roasted and eaten at some point before that). One book claimed they could be caught only by a pure virgin who waited in a meadow with the innocent intention of befriending the dragon; but Candice thought the author had obviously gotten dragons and unicorns mixed up.
So, with little guidance but much curiosity, Candice saddled up her lovely dun mare, borrowed one of the swords from the weapons room, and headed out on a quest for a dragon. She traveled at night and wore a thick cloak that covered her features so none would know the princess galloped among them. Her tutors had been thorough in her education, so the roughness she passed did not surprise her. She thanked the stars that her mare’s steps were sure as they raced safely outside of the gates and entered the dense forest beyond.
Surely a dragon would dwell in a forest, she reasoned. There are plenty of deer to hunt, and certainly some sort of cave in which to rest. But the farther she traveled, the closer together the trees grew. Her horse whinnied nervously as she had to pick her way through darker and less obvious trails.
Finally, Candice decided a dragon would not choose to live in such a place–it would need room to stretch its wings. So she set her eyes to the mountains above, and led her horse yonder. Since they can fly, perhaps dragons prefer the heights of the mountaintops. She’d never seen the telltale signs of fire and smoke from the mountain range, but then, the castle was rather far off from them. So up they climbed–and ran straight into a dragon adoption center.
Candice rubbed her eyes and stared at the large, semi-charred wooden sign again, reading it over and over to make sure she had it right. “Dragon Adoption Center” was carved in straight lines in the wood. To prove the point, a green dragon swooped low overhead and flapped its wings to soar over the horizon.
“Ye lookin’ for a dragon?” a man’s voice asked from the shadows. Candice nodded and dismounted, tying her mare up to graze next to the fence.
“Aye, sir. I didn’t expect it to be quite so easy, though.”
“It ISN’T,” he said with a glare, stepping out from the shadows to reveal his grizzled old face. He wagged a finger in her face. “You first must prove that you are worthy of being a dragon master!”
Candice cracked her knuckles. “Alright.”
The old man stared at her intently. “First: d’ye know wha’ dragons EAT?”
She thought. “Flame-broiled meat, I expect: goat, deer, and the like.”
“THAT WAS THE EASY QUESTION,” the man snarled. Candice hid a grin. The man continued, “And d’ye know wha’ dragons do for FUN?”
Again, Candice thought. “… Fly?”
“THAT ONE WAS EASY TOO,” he said. “If you truly want to be the master of one of my dragons, tell me now: wha’ do dragons treasure and desire above all else?”
Candice reflected on her various readings of dragons, and the claims made of the beasts: that they loved gold, wisdom, damsels in distress; melting knights, perhaps; or sleeping for eons in hidden caves. But she thought too of what she wanted a dragon for, and had an inkling that it was the most correct of all possible answers.
“Freedom,” she answered confidently.
The old man stared at her. “That be yer final answer?”
He whistled so loudly that the low trees nearby shook as though facing a breeze. A jet black dragon shot down from the sky and landed with a resounding thud next to the wizened, strange man. The dragon’s tail had spikes running down the center, and his opal eyes twinkled intelligently at the princess. “This is Corleone,” he said. “No dragon has a master, for all wan’ nothing more than freedom.” He gestured to the fenced area behind him, completely devoid of dragons. “They come and go as they please. They don’t need us. But since you understand that, he will befriend you ‘n remain loyal ’til the end of your days.”
Candice reached out a hand and Corleone pushed his massive head in to meet her palm, doglike. His scales were as hard as rock and radiated a quiet warmth. The princess couldn’t help but smile at her new friend.
“Hello,” she said happily. “May I fly with you?”
The dragon roared and sent a flame up into the sky above them. He then knelt, offering his withers for the princess to climb.
“Keep my mare groomed and fed, please. I shall return for her before long.”
So Princess Candice and Corleone the dragon took their first flight of freedom together.
The wind ran its cold fingers through her hair as they climbed higher and higher. Riding the dragon felt natural; Candice could tell when to shift her balance thanks to her time logged on horseback. The trees below shrunk into tiny green triangles as they flew over the world. It was a new view, so much more than what a window could ever show her.
“Thanks, Corleone,” she whispered in his ear as they soared through the sky.
Princess Candice did return for her mare, and to her kingdom. She finished up her studies and princess duties, formed an alliance, and found a role that worked for her–though more on all that later. But the best part of her life was the fact that she was no longer trapped: Corleone and his wings set her free.
Never underestimate the importance of freedom.