Daily Life

A Bedtime Story

Aman requested a bedtime story, so I started telling him this one. After awhile, he was nearly asleep and asked how it ended so he wouldn’t miss anything. I said, “Oh, I don’t know yet. I’m making it up as I go along.” He was shook. Now I’m rounding out an ending for him to read when he wakes up.

Update: This story really got away from me and took off on its own, so quit now if you don’t feel like reading 3,000 words.

Once upon a time in a far away land, there lived a king, a queen, and a young princess. The king ruled over a vast land with many subjects, many allies, and just enough enemies to keep things interesting. The queen spent her time writing music and painting portraits and landscapes until she was a renowned artist performing for dignitaries and town folk alike. The princess wandered silently through the castle, waiting and dreaming.

The king and queen were elated when the princess came of age. They spent weeks sending out invitations to all the eligible bachelors near and far to attend a grand ball with the princess as the prize to a lucky young man. The queen composed some original pieces to play during the ceremony, though of course, she would spend most of her time dancing and schmoozing. The king took some time away from the exhausting politics of running a nation to order food, decorations, and all new outfits for the royal family.

The king looked forward to impressing his friends and allies as this would be the first time in ages they were all together again. He employed the best chefs, commissioned an ice sculpture of his daughter, and called for more and more and more flowers until the castle and its courts overflowed with blossoms. And then, his treasurer requested a meeting.

The royal treasury was running low, and he hadn’t even begun interviewing performers yet. How could he show his face to the kings of the neighboring lands if his only daughter’s grand ball was not the grandest ball anyone had ever seen! He couldn’t bear to think what they would say about him.

The king brooded and puzzled over how to save face. Then a local legend came to mind. Beyond the western forest, where children and rabbits did not wander, there was deep and dark cave that housed a dragon guarding a hoard of gold and gems. If the king could just get to that gold, he could throw a party that would turn the other kings green with envy!

The king sent his captain of the guard and his most fearsome knights to slay the dragon and seize the gold. The men marched down the streets, through the forest, and beyond the trees to the deep, dark cave. They crept in. A terrible battle ensued. The knights swung their swords and let loose their arrows while the dragon bellowed and breathed fire until the cave nearly became a furnace. After what seemed a weeklong struggle, the king’s captain of the guard managed to strike the final blow. The dragon fell, silenced, to the cave floor.

Victorious, the men marched home laden with the contents of dragon’s cave – gold, diamonds, jewels, and precious gems. They were sure to be honored at the grand ball. With thoughts only of a cold mug of beer and warm bed, none of the knights noticed a dark figure streak through the air above them.

_____

The witch urged her broom faster and faster. She whipped between the trees of the western forest. She shot into the deep, dark cave and screeched to a stop. The cave was empty. Not a single gold coin, not even the smallest pearl was in sight. But the emptiness was worse than that. The witch fell to her knees before her beloved friend and wept bitter, angry tears.

Centuries ago, she and the dragon had entered into a truce: the witch would store her treasure in the dragon’s lair where it would be protected but also bring the dragon comfort with the splendor and shine. As the witch earned gold through selling her spells and potions, the dragon’s hoard grew vast and rich, and so did their friendship. The witch loved spending hours in the dragon’s cave, chatting about the old days when knights hadn’t yet invented shields and folks hadn’t been so PC about using the eye of a newt in their potions.The witch knew the dragon was getting older and slower as the time passed, but thanks to the ferocity of the local lore, it had been ages since their cave had been attacked. She hadn’t suspected this, but now she wouldn’t stand for it.

_____

Guests had begun to arrive at the castle. Everyone wore bright, new dresses and crisp, sharp suits. They fawned over the flowers. They were delighted by likeness of the princess carved into a towering block of ice. They laughed as trapezes artists swung overhead, a juggler stole their biscuits for his show, and a dance troop guided them onto the ballroom floor. The king sat upon his throne absolutely beaming as the guests gazed awestruck at the finery around them. He had done it! He pulled off the grandest ball in all the allied kingdoms.

It started faintly, so as you almost wouldn’t know. But it grew so quickly until the screams were echoing off the walls of the great hall. The king jumped to his feet just as the witch’s broom blazed through the entry, over the heads of the terrified guests, and came to a halt inches from the king’s nose.

The witch’s fury bubbled over as she spat accusations at the king and hurled blasts of fire at the flowers throughout the hall. He would pay for what he had done to her. Fearing for his life, the king promised all the gold and riches would be returned to her. She laughed. What a fool he was.

Still cackling, the witch jerked her broom around and flew up the staircase. Higher and higher she careened through the castle. The knights, their captain, the king, and the queen all ran up the stairs as fast as they could. But they were too late. By the time they reached the princess’s room, she was gone. The elegant dress she was to wear that night still lay draped across her four poster bed, waiting to twirl in a dance that would never come.

_____

Back in the grand hall, the queen requested her violin. The king had not heard her play the violin since her father had passed away. It bore the song of her greatest grief.

All the allied kings pledged the service of their knights to hunting the witch. They would send out troops to every corner of the kingdom. They would search the neighboring lands. They would not stop until they found her. What are allies for.

The heat of the charred flowers made the ice sculpture begin to drip, drip, drip onto the floor.

_____

For two years, there was not a trace of the witch. For two years, the knights searched in vain. For two years, the queen neither painted a picture nor sang a tune – only the mournful notes of her violin rose from the tower where her daughter use to sleep. For two years, the king permitted not a single party.

And then finally, a rumor – just a little rumor – that a dragon had been spotted in the mountains at the southern border. It was the only lead they’d ever gotten. The king mounted his horse and rallied his troops: Since the witch had worked with a dragon before, this could be their chance at finding her. They would slay the dragon. They would lure the witch. And then, they would have their revenge!

For ten days, the king himself led his men in the longest march of their lives to the distant mountains. They climbed the slopes. As they neared the top, they began to see clawed trees and scorched earth. One man nearly fell into a giant, reptilian footprint. They were close.

The cave sat just shy of the mountain’s peak. The earth at the mouth of the cave was blackened, and looking into the depths, they could see nothing. The king and his knights entered the cave.

The first thing the king saw in the light of his torch was modest pile of gold, incomparable to the hoard his knights had first brought back but plenty for a dragon to curl up on. The men fanned out along the walls of the cave and slowly moved toward the center. Nothing came to light under their torches. The dragon was nowhere to be seen.

Crestfallen, the troops turned back toward the mouth of the cave, but before they had a chance to take a step toward it, a giant rock fell blocking their only exit. Fire rained from above, and the dragon leapt down from where it had been clinging to the rocks of the ceiling. The mighty tail swept away one group of archers. The unrelenting claws destroyed a dozen shields that were useless in the creature’s fury. The powerful wings beat up a flurry of dust and dirt that extinguished the mens’ torches and clouded their eyes. The great mouth unleashed an avalanche of fire.

Knights chopped their swords at scales that would not yield. Archers launched arrows that would not find their mark. The king dodged bouts of fire. His captain of the guard devised a plan. By throwing chains across the cave to the men that were still standing, he managed to ensnare the dragon in a web of steel. Each man pulled with all his might, and they pinned it down.

The king ran to center of the cave and jumped onto the overturned dragon’s chest as it inhaled deeply to fuel the flame that burned within. Before it could have a chance to unleash that hellfire again, the king lifted his sword to plunge into the dragon’s heart. The dragon swiveled its head and glared at him with its black eye. The eye widen in surprise. The dragon gave a smokey little cough and said, “Dad?!”

The king staggered. His blade fell to the floor. The voice of his long-lost daughter rose from this terrible beast. Perhaps he was having a stroke.

“Dad, what are you doing here? I can’t believe you’re really here! And trying to kill me.” The dragon with his daughter’s voice gave a high-pitched chuckle that was impossible to match with her cavernous mouth of dagger-like teeth.

The knights were too wary to release her – you never know what kind of tricks a dragon might come up with. From beneath their chains, she told the tale of the last two years.

_____

The night of the grand ball the princess had sat in her room staring out the window of the tower. Her whole life had let up to this ball. Down in the great hall, one of the many men who had come to inspect her was her future husband, whichever man made the best proposal – to her father. She heaved a sigh for she had dreamed of so much more.

Just then, the door banged open. A woman with wild grey hair rode a hovering broom and gazed about her room of rose gold and lace before fixing her eyes on the young princess in her frock. The words she spoke stirred the princess’s heart, and the girl joined the old woman on her broom. They sailed out the window together.

The breeze blew through the princess’s hair as they glided over the village rooftops. She skimmed her feet across the surface of a pond when they dipped low. A laugh burst from her lips almost without her permission as a flock of starlings raced along with them. It was the greatest night of the princess’s life.

For the next few months, the princess lived in the old woman’s hut. Over many cups of tea, the princess learned her story and fell in love with her way of life. For the first time in her life, she made her own breakfast and breakfast for someone else. She could take the broom out for a ride any time she liked. She was allowed to help create potions. Sometimes they blew up in her face, but the woman helped her clean up and try again. The princess tried spells, but when she found the lengthy, foreign incantations bored her, the woman did not pressure her to keep at it.

The woman warmed to the princess as well. For the first time in longer than she could remember, laughter rang through the little house. The way the girl lit up when the woman took her mushroom gathering made the tedious journey through the damp forest seem exciting. She felt her heart unlocking and opening up for someone again.

During the fourth month, the king’s knights drew near to their home in the forest. With a heavy heart, the old woman sat the girl down for a cup of tea. If she wanted to go home, the woman would not stop her, as long as the girl was happy. “This is more my home than the castle ever was. I am happier here than I ever have been.” The woman turned quickly to window, in case a soldier was lurking outside or if perhaps a tear fell. “If you’ll have me,” the girl ventured, “I’d like to stay with you.” Of course she could stay! But they couldn’t stay here.

They made their way to the mountain that night and setup not far from the valley village. As her knowledge of potions grew, the princess began to venture into the village to sell their cures and charms. She and the woman began to earn a nice little collection of gold, which turned out to be a temptation for a few foolish village boys.

Though the attempted thieves never stood a chance against the woman’s spells and the girl’s explosive potions, the old woman lamented the days when her dearly departed dragon use to guard the hoard. It took only moments for the princess to know exactly what she wanted to do.

Cross-referencing a few spell books, the princess attempted a powerful transformation incantation. The woman happened to walk in and chanted a reversal spell just in time. What was the girl thinking! She couldn’t successfully enchanted a mouse, and it had been months since she’d practiced even one incantation! Let alone that fact that beyond the spell, this was a wildly dangerous mission to undertake.

“This thought has come into my mind like a key fitting a lock,” the princess pleaded, “I know that behind this door is everything I never even dared to hope for. Please do not think me selfish, but this change is just as much for me as it is for you.”

If it was truly what the girl wanted, then let it be so – but this time, with the woman’s help. There is no shame in asking for help. Together, the two wrote and practiced an incantation, making sure every piece of the puzzle was rightly formed before putting it all together. And it worked like a charm.

The girl changed and grew and grew and changed. Her cascading scales glistened in the sunlight. Her curled claws gripped the soil. And her wings, oh her wings unfold and expanded until they seemed to fill the sky. They lifted her, and she felt like singing. She swooped and soared and somersaulted through the air. This was everything!

_____

It didn’t make sense to the king. How could this, a monstrous brute, be his daughter’s true form and heart’s desire? He use to be able to hold his little princess one hand, and now she could swallow him in one bite.

“I am strong,” his dragon daughter looked right at him again with an eye that seemed an abyss, “I am powerful, strategic, and I strike fear into the hearts of men. I am free. And now with this transformation, I can fly too.” Her teeth bared in what could have been a grin. Suddenly, she slipped out the chains that had fallen slack during her tale. She made a quick circle above them before landing again on top of the pile of chains.

“Let me show you, Dad.” Before he knew what was happening, the king was snatched in a dragon claw and thrown upon the ridged back. They hurtled full speed at the rock blocking the cave. She rammed head first into the barrier, exploding it into pebbles, and rocketed straight up into the sky.

The king could barely hang on. He felt the earth falling away from him, the wind sharpening against his face, and everything he thought he knew was gone. When they finally leveled out and he managed to look over the dragon’s shoulder, he was mesmerized. The king was high enough to see his own castle, more than a week’s journey away. The world was so small, so precious. He felt something rise in his throat as he looked over the land that was his responsibility to care for and protect. It was almost the same feeling he had when he held his baby daughter for the first time.

_____

A half hour later, they arrived on the ground again. The king felt light. His kingdom did not feel like a burden or an obligation now. He felt like a young prince again, first realizing what his life had in store.

And somehow, he felt more connected to his daughter now as a dragon than when she was a princess. The way she laughed as they soared – he knew she had found her freedom. And he could swear he now recognized a twinkle in the depth of the abyss.

But what would he say to her mother.

_____

A bunch was planned for the following weekend. At long last, the castle kitchen began to whip up pastries, a cheese board, some wine just in case, and more. The kitchen finally felt alive again. Someone even whistled a bit.

The meal was arranged in the courtyard – the king hoped there would be enough space out there. He set a vase with a handful of flowers in the center of the table. The queen took a seat and waited to find out what her husband’s surprise was.

It turned out to be a surprise for both of them. Their daughter, in human form, walked up to the table. There were hugs, kisses, tears, laughter, and eating. When things calmed, the queen held her daughter’s hand told her how happy she was to have her home.

“Well,” the princess hesitated, “I’m only visiting.” She kept pushing on past the shock on her mother’s face. “I have a job now – more of a passion than a job really. I have a place that feels like home, and I have something like a family. I’ll come see you on the weekends, but I love the new life I have. I finally feel like me.”

There were a few more tears and a lot more hugs and kisses, and they settled upon the new arrangement. Her home would be here, and it would be there. Her family would be here, and it would there. But there was one compromise she no longer wanted to make.

Before she left, the princess told her mother, “Next weekend, I’d like to come to brunch not as the princess but as myself. But now, I’m off to go meet an old friend for tea.” She kissed her parents and walked out the door murmuring a little chant to herself. Then in a rush of wind and heat, the dragon was gone.

That night, the sound of a harp danced through the castle.

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