He’d heard them announce her into the wind. Sounded like a bardic spell the way it carried. ‘Princess Amela’ something something something ‘appease the hunger of the beast.’
Insulting. Humans always make the worst assumptions but he’d hoped that they’d know better. Especially here of all places.
They were sending a princess. He hated princesses.
He wondered how she’d ended up being the first up the mountain. Maybe these people had actually held a fair lottery for the first time in the history of ever. Maybe some good had been done here?
It took her a long time to climb up the steep path and she came alone. (‘However fair they might be, looks like they’re still cowards!’ he thought). She was tired, out of breath and in considerable pain by the time she reached the top. She bore the look of someone long since frustrated and it was clear that she didn’t have a great deal of time for marauding dragons.
‘I hate dragons,’ she burst out bitterly and wheezily and she entered the cave.
‘Well, I hate princesses,’ roared Bob in retaliation, piqued. The Bob was short for Robertinian Eagleflight Flameheart of the Fire Mountain Krasni Dragons. His mother always said that Dragons needed long names for their long bodies; he thought this was ridiculous. He couldn’t help the roaring though. It was a dragon thing.
‘Dragons! Just flying around thinking they’re owed food. Just because you’re big… and you can eat people whole. Pfft!’ She glared at him.
‘Princesses!’ he returned. ‘Wander about like they own the place…’
He wasn’t finished before she scowled back, ‘Dragons! Favourite food: virgins. Female, of course. Typical.’
Bob wasn’t to be deterred from finishing, ‘…PRINCESSES! Think they deserve to eat because they’re all pretty and rich!’
Smoke tendrils started to curl out of Bob’s nostrils. She looked at him askance, her eyebrows mocking.
‘Temper, temper! Fire solves all your problems, does it?’
‘Servants solve all yours, do they?’
‘Don’t get your own way… BOOM! Everything’s incinerated…’
‘Click your fingers and the whole world jumps…’ They were interrupting each other in good earnest now, their voices becoming increasingly shrill, which is quite a feat for a dragon.
Amela stabbed a purposeful finger at him. ‘…EVERYONE’S incinerated.’
He unfurled a claw and pointed back. ‘Princesses would let the world burn if it saved them!’
She stared at him in astonishment, paused and with a dramatic hand gestured to herself. ‘Well, that’s just un-fucking-fair!’
‘What?’ queried Bob, rearing his head back in shock, his argument broken off for a moment.
‘You heard me!’ she repeated pugnaciously.
‘Princesses don’t swear!’ he roared quietly.
She cocked an eyebrow. ‘Really, mate? Really!? We’re talking about whether I get to swear when you’re about to eat me? That’s a bit bloody rich.’
‘No, that’s not…’ he stuttered to a halt. He’d definitely lost the high ground somewhere. Princesses!
She sighed. ‘Come on then. Let’s get on with it. Sacrifice of the princess, town saved, dragon moves on et cetera, et cetera. Do we have an accord?’
He huffed and puffed up chest. ‘If that isn’t just like a princess! Thinking they mean more than anyone else. Sacrifice a whole city and then, ‘Wow, look at me, I’m the best. My sacrifice means more! Leave now.’ His high-pitched imitation of a princess, claws ripping apart the air in what she assumed was an imitation of fluttering hands, was not entirely successful. She couldn’t help a smile quirking up the corner of her mouth but she quickly controlled it.
She stared at him with the coldness of a teacher at a particularly demanding day’s end until he sat again and then asked. ‘Well, isn’t that how it works?’
He looked a little sheepish (insofar as that was possible for a dragon). ‘Just because it’s tradition! We can’t get away with it for long after that. They start asking too many questions.’
She narrowed her gaze thoughtfully. ‘I’m crying you a river right now. Also, you might want to think about whether you’re part of the problem, mate, when it comes to the whole princess question.’
Bob sputtered indignantly. ‘But…but…I mean…’
‘And,’ continued Amela confrontationally, ‘while we’re at it you might want to reconsider your ‘virgins’ policy.’
‘Tradition. Yeah. You’re the ones eating people. I’m thinking you get to make the rules, you know. I mean, as it stands, seems you’re just a bunch of assholes who think virginity is so inherently valuable it makes girls taste better or something.’
Bob shuffled awkwardly. ‘Good point,’ he glared. ‘Hmmm, an open call might get more of the people we…’ He coughed. ‘Well, all of this is beside the point…’
‘I wouldn’t be so sure about that,’ mumbled Amela under her breath.
‘What?’ demanded Bob.
‘Nothing,’ snapped Amela. ‘Can we get on with this?’
Bob whipped his tail in response. ‘It’s really most inconvenient that you drew your lot first. Now I’ll have to leave the rest of them.’
‘Oh, boohoo!’ cried Amela, collapsing to sit down on a handy rock formation. ‘I’m not standing to watch you bemoan the lack of delicious delicious virgins in your near future. Angst it out, I’ll be over here.’
Bob huffed smoke out of his gigantic quivering nostrils and advanced on her, tail beating slowly back and forth. Amela braced herself involuntarily but gamely stuck a mocking smile to her face. Bob clacked his teeth and inched closer.
His snout was inches from her face and he seemed to be enjoying the sight of her clenched fists and the shivers that she couldn’t quite control. His breath was hot on her skin. She refused to shut her eyes and stared at him.
‘I’m not going to eat you,’ he chuckle-roared directly into her face, sitting down heavily right in front of her.
‘You’re not?’ she asked, her firsts still clenched and back ramrod straight. Her tone was half-disbelieving. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘Nothing! We don’t eat people you know. Don’t judge a dragon by its teeth! It’s all just a scheme to rescue the ones they’re happy to throw away. Surely you know…you’ve heard about it? You must have.’ He smiled, teeth glittering. He was surprised she wasn’t more overjoyed. Instead, she slumped forward as though a line pulled tight had just been slackened. Relief. But it looked almost like disappointment, or defeat.
She raised her eyes to him, thought knitting her brow. ‘I’d heard,’ she said hesitantly. ‘I’d thought it was myth. The other stories are more recent. Marauding dragons. Kingdoms laid waste. Murderers…’ Her voice carried accusation.
‘It’s just stories!’ he said, a dragonish smile suggesting his delight in so befuddling and surprising her. ‘Your town was the first dragon-rescued settlement. It must have been, what, 200 years ago now. Honestly, we hoped you’d do better. Doesn’t seem like you learnt anything from last time.’
‘It was a long time ago. Many human generations,’ she replied tiredly.
‘Yes, but, you know, we had hoped you wouldn’t be quite so willing to throw each other to the sacrifice.’
Bob laughed, smoke billowing from his snout. He pointed a claw at her. ‘Exhibit A.’
‘I volunteered,’ she said, teeth clenched on the words.
‘Yeah, there’s always someone who volunteers. They still happily let you go! A princess volunteering though…that’s a first. Maybe you guys did learn something.’
‘Oh, shut up!’ she snapped suddenly. ‘Stop being so damn patronising! I’m not a princess, we don’t have them. ‘I’m the leader of the town council. I came because it was my duty. Plenty of others volunteered. But I knew I had to be the one. That’s what leadership is, right? Sara didn’t want me to. She didn’t say anything though. She just said goodbye. She knew I had to…that we had to.’ Her eyes were becoming blurred with tears she was reluctant to shed. ‘Oh God, what have I done?’
Bob looked on in surprise. Humans were unpredictable things. He darted his glance away. Tears always made him uncomfortable. They were such a rarity among dragons. ‘Who’s Sara,’ he blurted out, the first thing that came to his head so he wouldn’t have to see them fall.
She glared at him, angry at the tears that clouded her vision. ‘My life-companion. So, extra bonus screw you, I’m not a virgin either, mate!’ He voice was scathing.
Bob’s green cheeks blushed a reddish brown. ‘I mean, it doesn’t matter, you know. You don’t need to… None of my business.’ He paused and then continued with faux-nonchalance, ‘You’ll be wanting to go home then.’
She closed her eyes. ‘I can’t.’
‘Can’t? Why not?’
‘Poison. I’m covered in it and for good measure I took enough to kill me and you. We didn’t want you moving on even if the whole fake princess thing worked for us. I should be dead already. That’s what we calculated.’ Her voice was hollow. ‘I am in…a lot of pain.’
‘What?!’ he breathed, hardly a roar at all. His speech continued. ‘There wasn’t any need…’ He snapped a claw against the ground, breaking himself off. ‘But you wouldn’t know.’
She just stared in reply.
‘You didn’t know. Oh, Dragon mother. I’m sorry.’
She reached out a stiffening arm and touched the end of his nose. She was patting him, he realised, though he couldn’t feel a thing. Dragon hide. Her voice seemed distant. ‘I couldn’t even kiss her goodbye.’ She chuckled mirthlessly, ‘Too poisonous, you know. I guess it won’t matter against dragon hide.’
‘No,’ he said, sober, his mouth pulled down at the edges. ‘My mother never spoke of such a thing before…no-one did. You are very brave.’
She summoned up a smile. ‘Thank you. Some might call it stupid!’
‘No. No-one would,’ he returned seriously.
Her body started to spasm, her control slipping. Her jaw snapped shut, limbs twitched. ‘I don’t…’ her voice got lost suddenly in choking coughs. When it came again she continued hoarsely, barely audible and each word came painfully. ‘I’m not so brave. I’m afraid. I don’t want to die alone.’
There was no more strength for words. The fight had gone out of her. As she jerked fitfully, Bob scooped her up gently with his outstretched claws and lay her down with the curve of his arms as he put his head down on the ground beside her. He was hardly the companion she would have chosen, he assumed, but she reached out a hand and left it on his snout. She blinked a ‘thank you’. He watched as she slipped way. She didn’t make a sound.
Dragon tears can heal almost anything but dragons rarely cry. That’s the point. That’s what makes them so valuable. Bob had never cried before. He hadn’t thought he could. She drew a last arduous breath. A tear fell from his eye and trickled down his scaled cheek.