The prince fought valiantly and slayed the dragon. The princess wept for days. She loved that dragon.
She wept when he carried her out of the burning remains of the cavern, clutching the dragon’s last egg. She wept when he laid her in his carriage and took her on the long journey home. She wept when his servants tried to serve her food. She wept when they set up her tent to sleep. She stopped weeping when they tried to take the egg away, just long enough to go for the jugular.
By the time they approached the castle gates the prince had had more than enough time to decide he would rather take his reward in gold than the hand of the mad princess in marriage, stunning as she was in the rare moments she wasn’t crying, throwing things, or cursing his ancestors in alphabetical order. So weary of her was he, in fact, that he sent a manservant to escort her in to the king and fetch the reward. Then, gold in hand, he ran like hell.
Inside, the king and queen exchanged a look and a sigh, eyed their disheveled, angry, wild-eyed daughter who was currently stomping around the throne room ranting and raving, and said, “well, maybe the next one will marry her.”
They first noticed her oddity at infanthood, when she seemed more fascinated by clouds, sky, and candle light than pretty baubles and children of her own age. She spent the days of her toddlerhood staring at the birds flying by and nights watching the candelabra flicker. If someone tried to distract her from these activities, she fell to fits or bolted toward the nearest open door without a look back, trailed by the river of auburn hair she refused to have cut. Prior to adolescence her behavior was easy to pass off as mere eccentricities, but as she approached adolescence, it became more and more difficult to ignore, especially as the neighboring dukes and princes began to notice her blooming bust line.
The first dragon was the suggestion of a doctor, one of many they consulted with to break through her shell. She received the hatchling and attached to it immediately, somewhat to the dismay of the royal family as dragons were savage things, not suitable for the only royal daughter of the kingdom. But having the dragon at her feet brought a rare light to the girl’s eyes. She spoke more, usually to the dragon, but occasionally to those around her as well. She smiled more, which was always to the dragon, but at least those who happened to be around got to glimpse it and could convince themselves she was a cheery, proper princess underneath.
Another snag came when she reached sixteen, when she ought to have been betrothed for the good of herself and the kingdom. But rather than parading herself before the qualified young men of the court, winking and blushing as they invited her to dance, the princess, frequently praised to be the most beautiful creature in the country’s history, sent her dragon to cook the ankles of each prospective suitor to a perfect medium-rare. Angrily, her father ordered the dragon cast out of the castle into the mountains. The princess followed. They found her three days later, lying curled up against the dragon, at this point the size of a small horse, and dragged her back. She snuck out again a day later, and this time when the servants came for her, she ordered the dragon to set them ablaze.
The king sent soldiers, then knights, then mercenaries. The princess’s dragon burned them all and grew larger and stronger with each passing season spent in the open mountain air. She slept among their bones and her parents denied rumors that she also occasionally ate their flesh, when wild fruits and mushrooms were hard to find. All in all, however, it was terrible publicity.
One of the king’s advisors came up with the best solution, after the eighth failed attempt to retrieve the princess. Run with the story, she said. Tell the story to the neighboring kingdoms, but with a twist. Say the princess has been kidnapped by the dragon, and the fitting suitor must slay the dragon and bring her back to be wed, killing two birds with one stone.
And so the princes came, drawn by the romantic tale and prospect of heroism.
It wasn’t long before one succeeded. The handsome lad slew the dragon, smashing nearly all the eggs it had laid with a mate it had encountered in the wild. The princess saved one and refused to part with it. The prince seated her on the back of his horse, beaming all the way back at the thought of marrying such a prized beauty, until she reached over his shoulders and scraped off part of his right ear and a sizable chunk of his cheek. He was the first of many to run like hell.
The wedding off, the princess sequestered herself with the egg until it hatched a new dragon. Within a year it grew to a troublesome size and the old problems began once again, and the king and queen found themselves seeking champions to fetch their daughter from the mountains once again, this time having to add a prize of gold. The amount grew with each dragon slayed and still no prince would take the princess’s hand, but the king and queen remained hopeful, and soon the seventh dragon would hatch.
The old nanny washed the princess’s long golden hair and slowly untangled from it bits of mud, twigs, and shells of small animals. It had become a ritual at this point, each time the princess was brought back. Sighing, the old woman stood and poured the last of the hot water over the young woman’s head. She saw what the rest of them missed – those blue eyes growing a little dimmer, a little wilder, with the death of every dragon they saw.
“Will you never give in, my girl?” she asked, as the princess wrapped her naked body around the dragon egg in her lap a little tighter. “You are older now, a grown woman. Will you not give up the dragons, and give people a chance?”
The princess pressed her forehead against the egg, her voice barely audible as the nanny dried her back. “I don’t like people. I prefer the company of myself and dragons.”
“You are the royal princess. They expect you to bear the kingdom a son.”
“There are plenty of sons in the streets. Let them pick one.”
“The children of the land hope to see you become a queen one day.”
“I don’t like children, nanny. They think themselves clever and laugh at their own jokes, but they understand nothing.”
“What of the young men? You are so beautiful, and they are all vying for your crystal eyes to look to them, for a chance at your hand.”
“I will gouge out my eyes and cut off my hands to give to them if they will leave me alone.”
The old woman patted her shoulder gently, hoping to offer comfort but knowing it was beyond her. “There is more to life than dragons, dear.”
“Like stupid children and vapid-eyed young men?”
“Like song and music and dance. Like fine foods and happy stories. Like wine and art and games. You’ve been missing out, child. All your life, you’ve only seen dragons before your eyes when there is a whole life to live.”
The princess shook her head, wet hair swinging about like ropes. “Dragons do not need those things.”
“Of course, but dragons are base creatures. They know only sleep, hunt, and fire. So long as there is a need for fire, there will be dragons, for they are as base as the elements themselves.”
Slowly, the princess lifted her head. Nanny smiled. Her words must have finally been heard. She fetched a silky gown and helped the silent princess into it.
“You are beautiful,” she told the girl as they stood before the tall mirror. “Pray tonight before you go to sleep. Pray to your fairy godmother, and ask that she grant you the gift of a good life.”
The princess nodded slowly, and the nanny praised herself inwardly as she saw a spark of light return.
As it so happened, fairy godmothers did occasionally answer the prayers of the hopeless. One could never be quite certain whether their prayers were heard, but usually a few tears and true despair in one’s heart could draw them near. As it also happened, not all fairy godmothers were created equal, which in its way was fair, since not every princess was Cinderella.
The golden-haired princess, fairest in the land, filled the garden fountain with her tears, dragon egg clutched tightly to her chest. The thing that answered her call was old, features wrinkled by age and tangled like the roots of an ancient elm. Age had taken from it the beauty it once had, as well as its kindness, compassion, and empathy. Trickery had kept it lively, and trickery was what burned in its eyes as it drew down from the sky. Leathery brown fingers slid across the princess’s cheek, wiping away the salty trails.
“What wish shall I grant you, sad child?” it cooed. “What has you so full of sorrow? Lost love? Desire for wealth? Or do you need to master the theremin overnight to show up that pesky princess from the next kingdom? Tell me, and I will help.”
The princess raised her watery gaze. “They wish to take away my true love,” she whispered.
“Oh?” The fairy’s mind spun. So many possibilities. “And what would you like? To keep your love by your side always?”
“I have done that. They only take my love away again. And again. And again.”
“I bet they would not do that if you were to share a heart, or perhaps a limb.”
“I fear they will cut it from me, just to separate us.”
The fairy clicked its tongue. “How vile. What is your wish then?”
The princess looked into burning golden eyes with determination that impressed the creature. It knew that this wish would be one for the ages. “I wish that there will always be a need for fire.”
Thin lips spread into a smile that revealed cruel, crooked teeth. “Done.”
Another morning dawned in the woods. The princess blinked to the sunlight peeking through the tall trees. She had time to shake the sleep from her eyes before she heard the footsteps. They always seemed to come at dawn, slow and shambling. She rose and stretched as the first figure appeared at the mouth of the cave.
She nudged the scaly body she’d been lounging against. The dragon snorted lazily and lifted its head. Another figure was there now, followed by a third. The first opened its mouth as if to speak, but the only thing that came out was its half-rotten tongue. She recognized it, as she recognized many of them. But this was an especially familiar one, with its royal robes and crown still half-sitting on its head. In life it had wanted to marry her off to the first passing prince; in death it only wanted her raw flesh. It reached out toward the princess, who sighed and patted the dragon again.
The dragon yawned, opened its maw, and cooked the dead thing and its companions to ash. The princess ran a hand through her hair and headed down to the stream to wash. The dragon followed, burning two more of the shambling dead on its way. Fire was the best way to be rid of them.
The princess was happy. Her days were peaceful. She had long lost count of how many moons it had been since she and Penelope had settled in the woods. The dead things were only a small nuisance, though she did feel the smallest twinge of sadness that time her old nanny lumbered by her cave. Small price, she had decided. Small price for a simpler, happier world.
A world where there would always be a need for fire.