My horse munched on the abundant clover as I looked through my spyglass at the rocks and the cave above. The entrance lay high up on the mountain with a commanding view of the local terrain, including much of my Lord’s kingdom.
If I were a dragon it’s where I would live.
I had been a knight now for less than a week when my king sent me on an errand.
“Do go and fetch my daughter back for me, so she isn’t late to her own wedding,” and his Highness waved me off.
Perhaps I should not have made such a fine new sword for him at my forge. I had been content as the junior blacksmith in our small village of Vern. Then the offer went out to all the blacksmiths in the kingdom.
“Whoever shall make the finest sword for his royal majesty,” the herald repeated in every town and village in the kingdom, “shall henceforth be made a knight.”
It seemed the crack in his majesty’s current sword had split the blade.
My father, the senior blacksmith, warned me against it.
“Pah! And why would you wish to be a knight? All that armor to shine, all the ceremonies, and for what? A chance to die gloriously? Rubbish,” my father waved his index finger at me. “Nobody up in that fancy castle has even heard of Vern. We should keep it that way.”
I mined the iron ore myself and hand selected every chunk of coal for the forge. The herald had said the sword would be selected in two fortnights hence.
For three weeks I worked the iron, slowly turning it into the purest steel with forge and hammer, then shaping the blade. Once shaped, I spent days sharpening and polishing until the sword boasted of a keen edge and bright finish.
My father laughed aloud when I affixed the polished stone that I had chosen for the hilt.
“Now I know you’re daft!” he said, laughing.
Days later, at the castle, the king held each sword to the light, and then smashed each down hard on an anvil. Many blacksmiths were shown the door when their swords shattered.
Those few remaining, most with gemstones in their hilts, were looked over more carefully.
Our king laughed aloud upon examining my sword, with the polished piece of basaltic granite mounted in the hilt where normally something a mite fancier would be found.
“Perhaps you should stick to making plowshares and horseshoes.” He laughed his dismissal and handed me back my sword.
Instead of leaving, I stood my ground.
“Granite is the strongest of all stone. It shows the strength of our land and the strength of our king.”
The King looked up at bold words. For a moment I thought he would call the guards. Instead, he walked back to me and held out his hand for the sword.
“Heavy for its size,” he commented, “and a bit shorter than is the norm, but of excellent balance and edge.”
“Yes, Sire,” I answered, “the weight adds power to your blow, and the shorter length puts you inside your adversary’s swing, with deadly results.”
“Kneel,” he ordered, and to the surprise of all, he knighted me on the spot.
“You will need a sword,” he said.
“If I may, Sire?” My father asked, walking up with a blade extended toward me that I hadn’t previously noticed. Had he made a sword for me? He had never doubted me it seemed. The sword’s hilt held neither granite nor gem, but a common stone. He obviously wanted me to remember my humble origins.
The king’s beautiful daughter, the Royal Princess Samantha, ran off three days later.
Hence my present errand.
I tracked her easily; her horse had a notch in the horseshoe on the left rear hoof. Poor workmanship on the part of the castle blacksmith for any one of my father’s apprentices could have done better.
She had stopped at a number of small villages to eat or sleep. At a couple she made inquiries of alchemists, herbologists, and doctors. Her journey sidetracked on occasion, but returned each time to the trail leading up into the mountains.
The same mountains that many dragons called home.
Putting my spyglass away, I mounted my horse and continued on up the trail. I muttered to myself about headstrong women—the Royal Princess in particular.
“Women are a most difficult breed,” my horse commented.
I nearly fell out of the saddle in shock.
“You speak?” I asked in amazement.
“All animals can speak in the presence of a dragon,” he said. Then Chester, my now talking horse, turned his head to look at me, the fear evident in his eyes.
“A dragon must be nearby then, I reckon,” I smirked. I belatedly craned my neck around to see the fearsome beast gliding through the air to my—our—left.
“Got it in one!” the dragon commented, adding. “So glad you are able to comprehend the obvious.”
“I have come to rescue her royal highness, Princess Samantha,” I boasted with more bravery than I felt. “Should you attempt to interfere, I shall be forced to slay you!”
The dragon’s laughter followed us up the mountain as he paced us.
“Sarcastic beast,” Chester commented.
“He doesn’t seem to see us as a threat,” I returned I gripped my spear tight. “We likely look like a nice entree.”
“There is no need to be so rude,” the dragon said.
“Rude?” I shot back, “I presume it’s considered polite to kidnap and consume beautiful maidens?”
The scaly beast laughed at that. “No one has been kidnapped. Your beautiful maiden is here of her own free will. While here, she is under my protection.”
“Wither under your protection or on your dinner plate, I am here to return her to her father, our king. I recommend that you do not interfere.” I warned him; at least I thought the thing was male due to his baritone voice.
“Your beautiful maiden told us the males of your species were ‘most stubborn and pigheaded.’ I see now she was not exaggerating. And stop trying to ruin my appetite, it’s nearly time for dinner,” the beast said.
“Us?” I inquired, adding, “So you do plan to devour her, which I warn you against, on pain of death. If it costs me my life to save the princess, I will count it not as loss.”
“When I said us,” the dragon answered, “I meant myself, my wife, and our three children. Besides being rather brave, are you stupid, stubborn, or deaf? Can’t figure it out yet.”
Gliding along on our left, looping back due to our slow pace, the beast used one forepaw to scratch his chin, eying us. “Perhaps you are merely naive. I’ll see you at our cave. Feel free to join us for dinner.”
He then flew on, ignoring the dire threats I shouted after him.
“I think he is laughing at us,” my horse remarked.
“I fear you are right.”
We continued up the mountain toward the cave and whatever fate waited for us there.
True to his word, the dragon waited outside his cave, perched on a rock like a cat.
“So, knight, do we fight to the death now?” he ask, his tone mocking.
“You will release the princess to me,” I demanded, “or prepare to meet your death.”
The beast clamped his jaw shut, but little snickers escaped; I could tell he had difficulty controlling his laughter.
“Hmm,” he mused, “all that armor and chain mail, do you really think it will protect you from dragon fire?”
“If you do not release the princess, we shall both find out!”
The huge beast snorted and sent a small gob of fire to land on the business end of my spear. Feeling the heat through my gauntlet, I flung the spear aside, only to watch the steel point melt like snow. A bit of dragon fire had also landed on my armor, which scorched my chest so bad, I ripped at the side straps of the chest plate and tossed it aside next to my now useless spear.
“Oh, dear me,” the dragon chortled, “was that the weapon you were going to kill me with?”
“Doesn’t seem so practical now,” I muttered shaking my head in sadness.
“That was a mere sneeze,” the dragon said. “Here’s what happens when I get mad.”
The beast leapt into the air, flapping his scaly wings to gain altitude. Suddenly he swept down and gouted flame over a row of boulders.
The boulders glowed red with the heat, melting and solidifying into a single mass, upon which he landed.
“Must you toy with the poor man,” a female voice called from within the cave. “Why not invite him for dinner instead?”
Then a second dragon peered out from the cave. “Dinner is almost ready. And I’m certain the princess would like the company.”
“If you have harmed her,” I cautioned the second beast, “both of you shall die. Nor shall the princess or myself, be considered as entrees.”
“Hurumph!” My horse cleared his throat.
“Nor shall you devour my horse.”
“My husband has already told you that the princess is our guest, please stop being so vulgar,” she leaned out to stare sternly at me.
Being scolded by a dragon, there’s a first.
“We are nearly done here,” the male dragon informed her. “We shall be in promptly, my dear. I did get this evenings couch finished.” He indicated the still-glowing boulders.
“Is that the best you can do?” she asked with such derision my horse and I both laughed at the male dragon’s discomfort.
“Human women are much the same,” I pointed out to the beast.
“I heard that!” Princess Samantha’s melodic voice rang from within the cave.
“Indeed,” the male dragon agreed, looking back to the cave.
“My dear Princess Samantha,” he said with great formality, “would you please show this young knight that you are alive and unhurt? I tire of his silly threats.”
Out from the cave walked a vision of beauty, so intense I feared my heart would faint. I slid off the saddle, dropped to one knee and lowered my head in respect.
“See,” she said, teasing and doing a small pirouette, “I’m alive, unhurt, and uncooked, so please stop threatening Poet.”
“Poet?” I asked glancing at the ferocious dragon.
“My name in your tongue,” the beast dismissed the question with a wave of his paw. “Perhaps you might introduce yourself?”
“I am Sir Gilbert of Vern,” I spoke up, standing tall, “my horse is Chester.” The horse nodded his head. “We are charged, by our lord the king, to bring Princess Samantha back home in time for her wedding.”
“You two are getting married! Howsweet!” Poet’s wife squealed with delight.
“Not I, my Lady,” I said, hating the sorrow that crept in my voice, “I am a mere knight. Princess Samantha needs to marry a prince.”
“I will not!” Samantha said with such venom that Chester backed up a step.
“There are only three unmarried princes throughout the kingdoms of this land,” she continued. “Two are horribly fat; the third is seemingly allergic to soap and water! I will marry not one of them!”
Never in my life had I so wished that royal blood flowed in my veins. In truth, I had glimpsed her once when I was a child and been smitten ever since.
“Perhaps,” Poet suggested, “we could discuss this over dinner? I’m starved, and Melody, my wife, is a wonderful cook. Oh and there is a lovely patch of clover for Chester.”
Chester actually nudged me forward at that.
“We would be honored,” I said. As we walked up to the cave, I wondered what dragons ate.
Dinner was easily the most delicious vegetable and chestnut stew I had ever tasted. Three young dragons of different ages were seated by our hosts. A family dinner scene I would have never dreamed of gathered about a great table within the cave.
“Lady Melody,” I complemented with sincerity, “this stew is heavenly!”
“Thank you,” she said, “I did not know if you would like it. So many of your kind devour the flesh of animals.”
“Please, dear,” Poet interrupted, “not in front of the children.” He looked at me, adding, “Dragons are strict vegetarians.”
“Sorry.” Then to change the subject she asked, “Were you always a knight? Is this a heredity thing like being a prince or princess?”
“Until recently, I was the junior blacksmith in a small village. I became a knight when my lord, the king, chose my sword from among many.”
I refilled my bowl; I wasn’t kidding; the stew was delicious.
“Vern is a beautiful village,” Samantha said, sounding wistful, “so many lovely flowers. And the plum trees are so wonderful in the fall.”
She remembered my village and by name? My heart nearly stopped. It seemed she had traveled by more than once.
“You are kind, my Lady,” I said blushing.
Melody and Poet shared a look.
As the dragonets cleared away the dishes, Melody urged us outside to watch the sunset. Princess Samantha’s hand clasped mine for a moment as the sky was lit with reds and purples. Then she stepped away when the dragons’ settled on their couch.
“How did men and dragons ever become enemies?” I asked wishing I still held her hand.
“It was long, long ago,” Poet said.
“Tell me,” I asked him.
“It was after the Wolf Wars,” he replied. “Each kind went their own way and distance built distrust. Humans have such short memories.”
“I’ve never even heard of any Wolf Wars,” I said. “Short memories?”
“Samantha was right,” Melody said. “Our young knight shows both insight and wisdom. And he’s just as cute as she said.”
“My Gilbert,” Chester added, “has been sweet on the princess for years.”
The princess and I shared an embarrassed glance.
“It is no matter,” I said, “I’m not, nor can ever be, a prince.”
“Perhaps you could tell us about the wars?” I asked to change the subject.
“Have you ever heard of men who could become wolves?”
“Yes,” I said, “but werewolves are just an old myth, a story used to frighten children.”
“My friend,” Poet began, “may I call you my friend?”
“I would be honored,” I said, standing and extending my hand.
Poet and I shook hands and became friends. Friends with a dragon, who could ever have guessed?
“My friend,” he continued, “long ago, werewolves were real and fearsome, even to dragons.”
And so he told us the story over the next couple of hours. Frightened, Samantha edged closer and closer to me; my arm sheltered her.
Poet winked at his wife.
It was obvious they were trying to play the role of matchmakers, but the attempt was futile.
Princesses married princes; it was the way of the world.
The next morning I found Poet examining my melted spear. “You will need a new one, sorry.”
“I can make a new one at my father’s forge,” I told him.
“I could help you make a new one here,” he said, “if you wish.”
He showed me an anvil and tools. “A gift from long ago.”
Next to the anvil were several steel ingots. “Will these do?”
“Quite well,” I said, then smiled. “Your breath will be the forge?”
“I’ll try to tone it down to only heat the steel, not melt it into liquid.”
It took a couple of tries, but with practice we got the temperature right.
With the abundant steel and Poet’s cheerful assistance, I decided to make a halberd instead of a simple spear point. A halberd combined a spear point mounted above an axe blade, with a nasty spike opposite to the axe blade. Such a weapon was normally mounted on a shorter staff, about six or eight feet long as opposed to my former spear’s twelve-foot length.
Melody and Princess Samantha searched for, found, and then prepared an excellent ten foot shaft. It was a type of oak I had not seen before—denser and heavier than the common oak.
Shaft and halberd formed a perfect match. Once mounted and properly attached to each other, Poet asked to borrow it.
He held it over his shoulders and proceeded to scratch his back with it, to the laughter and applause of family and friends.
Days later Samantha drew me aside.
“If I return with you,” the princess insisted, “I will not marry any man, except one of my own choosing. If my father insists that I marry one of the three princes, I want your word that you will help me escape.”
“I cannot, your highness,” I said, hating every word. “When I became a knight, I swore a holy oath to serve your father. Please do not ask me to break my word.”
She sighed. “Had you agreed, I fear I would never have trusted you again. But we do need a solution.”
“I know of none.”
“Perhaps we might have an idea,” Melody said as she and Poet joined us.
The discussion that followed was both intriguing and hilarious.
It might even work.
Our return home would at the very least prove noteworthy.
The sentry on the castle wall called for me to halt and identify myself.
Chester and I stopped short and waited on the cobbled road. Samantha’s mare, Lilac, trailed behind us.
“Please tell my lord, our king, that Sir Gilbert has returned with his daughter and new allies.”
“I see just you astride your horse, Sir Gilbert, and a second, riderless horse. Perhaps you forgot your errand?” Perhaps the guard thought I joked with him.
“Please relay my message,” I insisted.
“Wait there,” he ordered. Another sentry took his place as he hurried off to relay my message to the king.
We weren’t kept waiting long. Soon the huge gates opened, and to surprise my surprise the king rode out, surrounded by his bodyguards and knights.
“I sent you to fetch my daughter, not her horse,” said the king in an unhappy growl.
“And I have done so, my lord,” I said. “Princess Samantha merely chose to accompany our kingdom’s newest allies.”
Before the king could demand to see his daughter, Poet and Melody swooped in to land on each side of me.
Samantha sat astride Melody’s neck. She waved to her father.
“Hello, father, I’m home,” she called as Melody settled herself on my left.
“Dragons!” the king bellowed, “You have brought dragons down upon us!”
His circle of bodyguards drew tighter around him.
“May I introduce the Lady Melody,” Samantha said formally, “and her mate, Sire Poet.” Both dragons bowed their heads in greeting.
“And this is my father, King Gerard of Stonegard,” she finished the introductions.
“We are honored to meet you, your highness,” Poet said.
“You have a lovely daughter,” Melody added.
“Dragons speak?” King Gerard glanced at his nervous men and perhaps realized his rudeness to creatures that could reduce his staff and himself to cinders with a good sneeze.
“Pardon me,” leaning back in his saddle to look up, he added. “Greetings to you, Sire Poet, and the Lady Melody. Welcome to Stonegard.” His bodyguards looked relieved and relaxed, slightly.
“Please pardon my ignorance,” the king continued, “but how is it you speak our language?”
“We don’t,” Poet answered, “but part of our nature allows different species to communicate with each other. You should have seen the look on your knight’s face when his horse spoke to him.”
“That would have been fun to see,” the king’s horse said.
King Gerard managed to hide most of his own surprise. Two of his knights nearly jumped out of their saddles when their own mounts said hello.
“You would make formidable allies,” King Gerard said, thinking. “Not merely in battle, but your ability to fly can provide a great deal of information based on your observations and any messages you might carry.”
“But not for conquest,” our king continued. “We live in peace with our neighbors. It would be distant threats where I see your value and potential.” He looked up, counting the young dragons, thinking.
“Five dragons would be of great help, but are other dragon families still living that could ally themselves with neighboring kingdoms?” he asked. And then rambled on without giving poet a chance to answer. “However, if people or beasts begin to go missing, it would hinder our relations.”
“Flesh-eating dragons are a myth, your highness,” I interupted. “Poet and Melody’s families are vegetarians, as are all dragons.”
“Forgive my ignorance,” King Gerard bowed his head to Poet and Melody.
Both dragons nodded, no doubt happy to have that subject cleared up.
“For this proposed alliance to work,” Melody said, “we would require a representative of your kingdom to live in our territory and a hostage of royal blood.”
This was nothing new, it was traditional among bordering kingdoms.
“I’m sure we can work something out,” said King Gerard, rubbing his chin in much the same way Poet did. He looked at me, nodding to himself. “You have anyone in mind?”
“Indeed we do.”
“What do you call the mountains where you make your home?”
“The mountains of Styrene, your highness,” Poet answered.
“Sir Gilbert, stand before me.”
I slid off of Chester’s back and walked to where King Gerard waited. As I drew close, he too slid off his horse, and stood before me.
“You are not of royal blood,” he said, “so a prince you can never be. But my representative must hold a title which commands respect. Kneel.”
I knelt on one knee.
“Extend your right hand,” he ordered.
He held my hand in his; then to my surprise slid a ring over my right ring finger. A signet ring.
“Rise, Duke Gilbert of Styrene,” he said.
I stood, and looked to Princess Samantha, her face was radiant.
The music played, and Princess Samantha walked with measured pace down the church’s central aisle, a vision of beauty transcending from heaven. The Bishop and the wedding party awaited her at the altar. I have never seen such a beautiful bride; I doubt the world has either.
To the left, the bridesmaids were arrayed in their finery. To her right, waiting with practiced patience, was her groom, flanked by nobles of the realm.
Lucky dog. The Princess’s chosen husband did not deserve her. At least I had bathed.
A gentle breeze floated through the open windows. Outside the dragons watched in fascination. They didn’t get invited to many human weddings.
I couldn’t imagine why not.
“Who gives this maiden’s hand in holy matrimony?” Bishop Renaldo asked.
“We do,” answered the king and queen.
Next the bishop had the bride and groom repeat the traditional vows. When Princess Samantha had to promise to “obey,” she kicked the groom.
A chuckle ran through the guests.
Bride and groom said their “I do’s,” and were pronounced man and wife. The kiss lasted long enough for the king to politely cough.
The newlyweds turned to face the guests as the bishop spoke.
“May I present the Duke and Duchess of Styrene!”
We bowed to the crowd of people inside the church and to the dragons outside.
Melody winked at Poet.
The moral of the story; Don’t annoy the dragon, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup!