IIn a castle far, far away there lived a young princess. Very young indeed.
She was beautiful and smart and curious, but also sometimes naughty and disobedient.
Peasants, hunters and knights who came to the castle were talking about seeing a dragon in the sky. A big black dragon, they said, soaring high then falling like a stone to steal a sheep or a calf. It never attacked people, but everyone knew that a dragon’s favourite snack is a princess. So mum and dad had a big talk with the princess, and told her to never, ever, for any reason, leave the castle.
Now a week had passed and the princess remembered it was time to pick her favourite mushrooms that grew in the wood nearby. She asked the guards, she asked the cooks, the hunters and the janitors – but nobody wanted to go because they were all afraid of the dragon.
The princess was really upset – those mushrooms were only tasty for three days a year until the moon got full. So she decided to disobey her parents and go to the wood really early in the morning, before everyone was up. She prepared two big baskets and a clever plan.
She got up with the first morning light, put on her lovely pink dress and ran downstairs. The castle was quiet and empty, with only a sound of one sweeping broom breaking the silence. It was the stable boy cleaning the yard in front of the stables.
“Give me your clothes this very minute!” ordered the princess. Then thought for a moment and added “This very minute, please.”
“But what will I wear?” asked the boy in surprise. “It’s a very chilly morning, your Highness!”
It really was a chilly morning, so the princess said “You will wear my dress. Don’t worry, it has a warm fleece underlay and it’s nice and clean. Well, almost – I ate a chocolate candy and there’s a little stain on the skirt.”
The princess and the stable boy swapped clothes. The princess looked as quite a good stable boy – well, maybe a bit baggy, but the stable boy made a ridiculous princess – with his big brown hands and bare feet sticking from the pink dress.
“I can’t let anyone see me like this!” cried the boy. “They will mock me for the rest of my life! Oh, by the way – there is still some chocolate candy in the big pocket!”
“Help yourself,” said the princess politely. “And no one will see you like this, because you’re coming with me to the wood to pick the mushrooms and help me carry them back. Then we’ll hide here in the stable and swap the clothes back.”
“But what about the dragon?”
“That’s why we changed!” explained the princess patiently. “Nobody could ever think I’m a princess when I’m dressed like that. And no dragon will think you are a princess either, because… oh, well, let’s just say you don’t look royal. Or pretty. Or appetising in any way. Come on, let’s go!”
And so they left the castle, crossed the drawbridge over the moat, and made their way to the wood, chatting merrily. When they were almost at the wood, they thought they saw a black shadow in the sky, so they got frightened and ran for the cover of the trees.
The dragon (if there was a dragon) didn’t notice them.
The mushrooms were very abundant that year – the children filled their baskets really quickly. There also found blueberries and wild strawberries. The stable boy asked the princess to take matches out of his trousers pocket and he made a nice bonfire so they could roast some mushrooms on the sticks.
The princess told him a story that happened to her not long ago. She dropped a jewelled hairclip on the floor and it rolled into a mouse hole. It was a very special hairclip – her dad, the King, gave it to her for her birthday, so she had to get it back. She had crouched on the floor, looking into the mouse hole, but it was too dark to see anything. She was very scared to put her hand into the hole because she thought the mice might bite her, but she did it anyway. No one bit her fingers, she only felt a tickle once, which must have been the mouse tail touching her as the mouse ran past. But she didn’t find the hairclip either. So she sat on the floor and cried bitterly, thinking of her father’s disappointed and upset face when she would tell him she had lost his gift by being careless. Between sobs, she heard a quiet rattling noise and a little white mouse pushed the hairclip out of the hole, looked up at the princess and disappeared back in the hole again.
“And I always save some cheese and toast from my breakfast in my pocket now to put into the mouse hole,” said the princess and wiped her mouth from the roast mushroom juice. “And sometimes apples too – they really like apples! Now you tell a story!”
The boy told her about a beautiful young mare that was brought to the stables not very long ago. She was black and glossy, with snow white long tail and mane. The stable boys had never seen an animal more magnificent. But the horse was wild and had a bad temper – she wouldn’t allow anyone on her back. People kept trying, but she would jump, bite, kick and neigh loudly all the time.
“And then I decided to talk to her,” said the boy, chewing on a dock leaf. “I talked to her for three days. I explained how upsetting her behaviour was, and how everyone really admired her beauty and was dreaming of riding like a wind with her. I told her that it’s actually her job to carry people, and why she gets all that nice food every day and a place in the warm stables. And on the third day she stood down and allowed me to climb on her back. And we ran so fast around the castle, and her gallop was so smooth, it was like a beautiful dream.”
“I want to see her when we come back to the castle,” said the princess.
“And I’d like to see your white mouse,” said the boy.
“Well, you see – as a princess, I’m allowed to go everywhere in the castle, stables included. But as a stable boy, I’m not so sure you’ll be allowed to my quarters, where the mouse lives.”
The princess jumped up and picked up one of the baskets with mushrooms.
“But I’ll think of something, I promise, because I’ve never had a friend who was as much fun as you!”
“You are not bad for a princess yourself,” mumbled the boy, blushing.
They poured some water from the stream onto the fire to make sure it was out, took each others’ hands and walked out of the wood.
“Gloomy,” said the boy, “It felt sunnier in the trees.” And he looked up just in time to see the huge black dragon descending on them, claws out. It was obviously aiming for the princess’s pink dress, not looking at the details as to who was inside it.
Before the children could react, the dragon grabbed the stable boy with both claws, black wings tore through the air and it was gone.
“Hey, come back, you nasty dragon! It’s me you want, put him down now! Aaahhh!” And poor princess was left all alone, jumping on the empty road and shaking her fists at the empty sky, with tears spilling from her eyes. Mushrooms lay scattered in the dust.
“I didn’t even ask his name!” said the princess bitterly. “I need to save him!”
And stopping only to pick up something from the road, she started running for the castle.
II“No, for the hundredth time: NO!” said the king.
“Sweetie, we already sent out all the knights we could summon. They left yesterday to find the dragon’s lair and try to, well, solve the problem. You just need to wait for them here in the castle,” said the queen.
The princess stomped her foot on the floor. She was still dressed in the boy’s clothes.
“The knights don’t know that a child was stolen! They won’t hurry and then it might be too late! And what are the chances that they really will find the lair? Most of them are way too old, fat and lazy. They’ll pretend to look but they won’t really. I must go myself!”
“NO!” shouted both parents. The king’s face was very red, and the queen’s very pale.
“Guards!” called the King. “Please see the princess to her room and tell the maid to lock the door.”
“And get changed please, dear,” shouted the queen as the guards carried the kicking and squirming princess away. “Your clothes are inappropriate and filthy!”
Before locking the door with a small golden key, the maid put a big tray of cakes and fresh rolls into the princess’ room. She looked very sad – the stable boy was one of her second nephews.
“What could you do against a dragon anyway, dear?” she asked the princess quietly. “You can’t fight, you don’t have weapons, and the dragon has probably already, well, had his lunch. Eat some cakes, those are your favourites, and try to sleep. Maybe the knights WILL kill the dragon.”
The door closed and the key turned three times.
The princess ran to the window and pulled it open. Under it there was a long wall down to a rocky river below. There was no way she could get out of this window in one piece.
She climbed into the fireplace and looked up the chimney but it was really narrow and she would have gotten stuck. Besides, all chimneys led to the roof and the princess was rather scared of heights.
She tried to open the door lock with the scissors, but they slipped and scratched her.
So she sat on the floor, licking the blood of her finger and cried with anger and helplessness. Some movement in the corner of her eye made her look up and she saw the little white mouse sitting at the wall, looking at her.
“I wish you could help me, little mouse!” said the princess. “And I wish I could help my friend. But they locked me in here and the nasty maid took the key away, and time is going by and by. I don’t know what to do!” And she started crying again.
The mouse squeaked and ran back into its hole. The princess sighed, took a cake from the tray and started chewing on it, without feeling its taste.
Now, the mice don’t just live in one particular hole. They make long corridors in the walls that go to all different parts of the building, and in a building as old and big as the palace, the mice could go absolutely anywhere. So the little white mouse had no trouble getting into the servants’ quarters, or in finding a small golden key hanging on the wall next to the maid’s apron. All the palace servants were having their lunch in the kitchen so the mouse felt safe and clever. He took a big jump, grabbed the bottom of the apron and easily ran up it, all the way to the key. It took him two tries to get it off the hook but then it fell to the floor. From there, the mouse just pushed it into the hole and all the way back to the princess’ room. It was hard work, as the key was almost as big and heavy as the mouse was himself. But there he was at last: at his own mouse hole in the princess room.
When the princes heard the rattling and saw the mouse pushing the key across the floor of her room, she gasped. Then she shouted “Thank you, thank you!” into the hole the little white mouse had already vanished into. She rushed around the room, stuffing things she thought might come handy into the only bag she could find in her room: a beach bag made of pink straw and decorated with huge flowers.
She grabbed a warm sweater in case it was cold at night, and a few cakes in case she actually managed to rescue the stable boy and he was hungry after all that time in the dragon’s lair. Then she took two pairs of thick woollen socks her grandma had knitted for her, because grandma told her to never go anywhere without an extra pair of warm dry socks. She took a big white blanket in case she needed to sleep in the woods. A pair of scissors, because they’re so handy; a bottle of milk, because it’s so good for you; and, finally, some bandages and plasters in case the stable boy was wounded, or if she fell down and grazed her knees.
Then she put the tray of cakes on the floor next to the mouse hole.
“Thank you again, little mouse!” she whispered. “Start with the yellow glazed ones, they have cream cheese inside.”
Very quietly she turned the key in her locked door and opened it. She carefully sneaked along the corridor, down the stairs, across the yard and all the way to the stables. Once there, she had to hide behind a tree and wait till it was empty, but then she quickly ran in and started looking for the black horse with the white mane and tail.
IIIPrincess told the horse what happened to their friend. The horse was looking at her in a gloomy way. “I know it’s all my fault!” said the princess. “That’s why it’s so important that we save him. Will you PLEASE help me?” and then she added another “Please” to make sure the horse understands that she is really asking. The horse blew some air out of her nostrils, then nodded. The princess said “Thank you!” and kissed the horse. It really was the most beautiful animal she’d ever seen.
The princess took her favourite saddle from the shelf and fastened it on the horse. As they started getting out of the stable, the sound of the hooves on the stones made them both freeze. It was so loud – there was no chance to get out of the castle unnoticed. Then the Princess had an idea, and she found her grandma’s socks in the bag. “Come on, lift your feet!” she said to the horse, and one by one the hooves were wrapped in the soft wool.
That was much better, and they were lucky enough not to meet any guards on their way out of the castle, and soon they were already crossing the drawbridge, aiming for the little wood to the left of it.
Once they were under the cover of the trees, the princess stopped, kneeled, took the socks off the horse and put them back into her bag. “I need to really look after them!” she explained. “Grandma is too old now and doesn’t knit anymore.” Then she tightened the saddle under the horse’s belly and took something else out of her bag.
“Now – I’m not quite sure it will work, but we should try” she said, holding the big black dragon scale right to horse’s nose. “The dragon dropped it when it stole our friend. It has a strong smell – even I can feel it. It’s not too bad, actually, kinda like a baked toffee apple… Anyway – I thought if you stood in the open and smelled the air, maybe you could feel a similar smell and we could try looking that way?”
The horse nodded and took a good sniff. Then she trotted to an opening between the trees and stood there without moving for a long time.
“Ahem,” said the princess at last. “I thought it was all going to be quite fast – sniff, then knowing the way. I don’t think it will be long before they start looking for me in the castle!”
The horse turned her head and neighed at her angrily. “On the other hand – you should take your time!” said the princess quickly and sat down under the tree. She didn’t even notice how she fell asleep. She dreamt of being the dragon herself and soaring through the blue sky and feeling so free and happy that she roared. The horse was gently nudging her on the shoulder and the princess woke up reluctantly.
“Do you know where to go?” she asked. The horse nodded. The princess quickly got up, shook the brown pine needles off her clothes and climbed into the saddle.
It was the longest ride in princess’s life. She considered herself a very good rider, but as she rode through valleys and hills, little woods and narrow bridges over rivers, her legs and back got so tired that she wanted to cry. At last the horse stopped on the side of a small stream in the shadow of a mountain. Very slowly, as if carrying a full glass of water, the princess climbed out of the saddle and walked to the river. She crouched and washed her face, then drank a few sips – the water was very cold and tasted great – and then just lay down on the dry mud. The horse neighed and pointed at the side of the mountain with her head. Princess looked and saw a large cave, quite high up.
“You found it!” she shouted. “That does look like a dragon’s lair. I don’t think you can climb up though, on your four long beautiful legs.” The horse nodded, went to the water and started drinking noisily. She was very tired too – and not too upset that she wouldn’t have to climb on a mountain ledge and face the dragon.
With an effort the princess sat up and then rose on her feet. “You wait here,” she said, taking her pink straw bag from the horse’s saddle. “I’m not going to tie you to a tree, because you are so clever and a good friend and won’t run away unless there’s danger. And if there is, you run straight for the palace, OK?” The horse nodded again, snorted and licked her cheek. It really tickled, making the princess giggle. And so she started climbing the steep side of the mountain.
Despite being really tired she moved quickly, and the climb wasn’t so much long as very steep. She soon reached the cave. It wasn’t too dark in there as the light was getting in through little cracks in the walls here and there. The girl took out her scissors as it was the only weapon she had, and she thought it would be very silly to enter a dragon’s lair without any weapon at all. As she slowly moved along the cave, holding on to the wall, the smell of the dragon got stronger. It was quite pleasant – like sneaking into the kitchen straight after they had finished baking bread. But the cave was really quiet.
“Too quiet!” thought the princess and, as if in response, a scary sound came from the depth of the cave – like a roar and a growl together. The princess shrieked and jumped, the sound stopped and then the voice asked in surprise, “Who’s there?”
“Stable boy?” cried the princess in delight “You’re alive!”
“Princess?” came the answer “Is it really you here? But how?”
“Can you come over here so we can talk?” asked the princess impatiently. “It’s getting darker further in the cave, and I don’t want to go there. There was a terrible sound of some scary animal right now. Was it the dragon?”
“Well, I can’t come,” said the boy, “you’ll have to come here. And the dragon is out, flying. And that sound; sorry, it was me snoring.”
“Oh, no!” said the princess “You can’t walk? The dragon did hurt you! Did it…eat your legs?”
“Just come here and you’ll see!” answered the stable boy impatiently. The princess sighed and moved further into the cave. “Wow, that’s some snore!” she was thinking, but then she entered a big cavern with a bit more light and stopped speechless.
“Is it…?” she was able to say at last.
“Yes!” said the stable boy, who was lying on a smooth rainbow coloured egg as big as a sheep. “I’m keeping it warm. It’s important for the baby dragon inside. He’s much happier now. You see, that’s why the mother dragon wanted to get a princess here: for the company, warmth and advice.”
“And what about all those stolen calves and goats?” asked the princess “Are they for the company too?”
“Nah, she ate those,” said the boy. “Oh, come on, you enjoy your roast chicken and meatballs too, don’t you?”
The princess thought about it and nodded. She touched the egg; it felt silky and alive, like stroking a horse. She was about to tell the boy how his friend the horse had helped her find him (and also to suggest to put warm socks on his big bare feet) when a loud roar made her jump and look for cover. The dragon was back and was looking straight at the princess; and she was huge – like five cows put together.
“That’s the real princess!” the stable boy told the dragon. “I told you I wasn’t one.”
“Does it talk?” whispered the princess. The dragon folded her wings and roared. This time while the roar rang in her ears, the princess heard a voice inside her head.
“Not like you do, little princess. But I can make you understand.”
“I like your smell,” the princess said. She hoped it was a polite thing to say to a dragon. “Can I…touch you?”
The dragon lowered her head and the princess put her hand on her long muzzle. “But…you’re so cold! Like stones in the dungeon; aren’t you supposed to be hot, like a stove? Is that why my friend is trying to warm up your egg?”
The dragon closed her eyes, and it was the stable boy who answered.
“She’s sick, yes; and she doesn’t know why. Her body just loses the heat and her fire is gone; she’s very scared and lonely. And she’s afraid her baby will never hatch but will die in the egg under her cold body and will turn to stone.” His voice broke as he swallowed down the tears.
“No!” said the princess loudly, and her voice echoed from the walls of the cavern. “That should not happen! We’ll all go to the palace, right now, and we’ll have all the best doctors and vets look at you. Maybe we’ll even find a wizard. Sure enough, they’ve never seen a dragon or treated one, but together they should be able to come up with something! And we have those hot springs under the palace – we could put the egg into the water, and the baby will be warm and safe until it hatches.”
“He,” said the stable boy, “It’s a boy dragon. I can feel him.”
The dragon opened her eyes and looked straight into the princess’. Those eyes were like deep dark wells with molten gold at the bottom. She gave a short, deep roar.
“Thank you!” said the voice in princess’ head.
“So, we’re all set: let’s get out of here!” said the princess.
And at this moment another voice came from outside the cave; a loud, booming voice. A voice that sounded aggressive, but a bit scared at the same time; and perhaps a little drunk, too.
“We’ve got you, dragon!” shouted the voice. “Saw you flying in. You won’t leave this cave again. In a moment we’ll be catapulting poisonous mud into your little burrow. It will block it up nicely and drown you inside. Don’t even think of flying away - we’ll shoot arrows at anything that tries to get out. Death to the dragon!”
“Death to the dragon!” many more voices joined in.
“Oh, no!” said the princess. “Those stupid knights have come!”
IV“I’ll tell them to go away!” said the princess.
“No!” said the stable boy. “You heard them – they’ll shoot first. And they won’t recognise you in those clothes anyway.”
“They should know my voice!” the princess stomped her foot on the stone. Then she ran to the entrance, but stopped at a safe distance, before the knights could have seen her.
“It’s your princess speaking!” she shouted as loud as she could. “I order you all to go away right now! Leave the dragon alone! She is not dangerous and she’s sick. Go now and I’ll tell my father to reward you!”
All was quiet for a moment, but then the voice came back, “Our princess is back at the castle. And you’re just using your black magic to confuse us! Give it a volley!” And the princess jumped back as several arrows hit the walls of the cave.
“Death to the dragon!” came from outside again.
“They are horrible, horrible!” the princess cried. “So what, we just wait till they prepare their poisonous mud? I saw the stuff once – it’s pink and foul and horrible, it smells of rotten eggs and eats through wood and flesh and cloth.”
The dragon was resting her head on her front paws, looking very tired and ancient. Then she lifted her head and gave a short roar.
“Another way out?” asked the princess. “Why, what are we waiting for then? Let’s escape!” And she ran to the far wall of the cavern, where the dragon pointed.
“But it’s too narrow,” she said in a broken voice, once she found the crack in the wall. “Only a child can climb through!” The dragon nodded and nudged the stable boy to go.
“No!” he was crying. “No, I can’t leave the baby! He’ll get cold straight away! He’ll hurt!” The dragon grabbed him with her paw and gently pushed him across the cave. She roared at the children.
“Thank you!” they heard. “You are young and brave. I enjoyed seeing you, and what you were saying, princess, that felt good. I felt hope, only for a minute but it was pleasant. Now go.” And she put her head down again and closed her eyes.
Shaky and reluctant, the children climbed out through a narrow chasm. They were on a little ledge on the side of the mountain, almost above the cave entrance. There were rocks and bushes covering the ledge and when they peeked out of them they could see a big group of knights down there. Some of them were holding crossbows pointed at the cave, a few were just waiting with their swords drawn, and others were assembling a big catapult of wood and metal.
“We can’t just wait here!” hissed the princess. She looked around in desperation. “Let’s throw stones or something.”
“They will throw arrows back,” said the stable boy. “And these bushes aren’t much cover against arrows.” He was looking around desperately too. He crawled to the edge and pulled at something, then turned back.
“The rocks of this cliff are very loose; they’d probably roll right at the catapult if we could get them moving, but roots and vines are holding them together, and they’re too tough for bare hands. They’re like a net. If only we had something we could cut through them with.” His shoulders slumped in despair.
“Scissors!” exclaimed the princess. “I knew they would come handy!” and she handed the scissors to the stable boy. While he went back to the edge and started cutting the roots, she found the bottle of milk in the bag and drank some. It took much longer then princess hoped to ready the stones – from her hideout in the bush she could see very well how the knights finished putting the catapult together and started carefully unloading big barrels with a pink skull imprinted on their sides.
“Hurry up!” she whispered to the boy. He didn’t answer; instead there was a big rumbling noise and the whole ledge shook. The princess grabbed the rock she was sitting at and bit her lip. She could see a huge mass of stones rolling down right at the knights. She jumped up and shrieked “RUUUUUN!” as loud as she could. The knights looked up, dropped the barrels and crossbows and scattered to sides. The carts and catapults did stop the stone avalanche, but they were half-buried now, and the catapult frame was broken.
“Well, I had to warn them!” she whispered to the stable boy, who joined her at the bush. “I’m angry and I want them to go away, but I don’t want them hurt!” The boy nodded and handed her the scissors, blunt and dirty.
“Well done!” she said, putting them back into her bag. Together the children watched as the knights clambered up the narrow path to the ledge; their faces angry and red. “Come here, you nasty little rascals!” they shouted.
“Will they hurt us?” the princess asked. The stable boy shrugged. “We can kick and scream,” he said.
And so they did, as the knights dragged them down to where their camp used to be, threw them down on the ground and stood over them, puffing with anger.
“Nice weather today, isn’t it, sirs?” asked the princess, hoping to break the uncomfortable silence. “They said it was going to rain in the morning, but the sky looks so clear.” She had never before tried to make a polite talk while lying on the ground in dirty clothes. It didn’t work very well – the knights’ faces just got even redder.
VThe biggest knight reached down, grabbed the princess’s ear – her pink tiny little ear – and pulled her up by it. The princess found it very seriously unpleasant.
“Mommy!” she screamed “Let go of my ear, you knightly pig! Mommy!”
“I’m here!” came with the wind, “I’m coming!” and with the sound of many horse’s hooves a big group of riders appeared at the foot of the mountain. It took the knights a moment to recognise the King and Queen, and another moment to let go of the princess and to bow.
“Mommy!” shouted the princess even louder than before, and ran towards the riders, and tripped, and fell over, and got up, and ran again, crying. The queen got off her horse and was running to her, crying too.
“You are alive!” she cried. “You are unhurt!” And she grabbed the princess, and rocked her like a baby, and squeezed her so hard that it hurt, but the princess didn’t mind. She closed her eyes and felt very safe and loved and happy. Then another pair of arms was around her, and the King was stroking her dirty hair.
“What is going on here?” asked he at last, once he and the Queen did finally believe that they got their daughter back and she was as well as ever.
“Oh, Daddy, you got here just in time!” said the princess – and she told them all about the dragon and the egg and the knights and the catapult and the scissors.
“Very clever!” said the king at last “You’ve been clever and brave and I’m very proud of you. What I can’t say about you,” he said, pointing at the knights. They were all standing together, looking down, and their faces were not red anymore at all. They were rather pale in fact.
“Although I DO wish that you sometimes would do as you are told!” added the Queen, kissing the princess’s cheek. “Can you imagine how scared and worried we were when your room was empty and you were gone?”
“But how did you find us?” wondered the princess. “It took me so long to find this place!”
“Well, we were just riding around, when your horse ran to us and showed us the way here. Very smart animal she is!” said the king. Princess looked around and saw the black horse nodding to her. She waved.
“Dad, Mom, this is my friend, the stable boy,” she said and ran to him, and pulled him by the hand to her parents. He was suddenly feeling extremely shy.
“Ah, I do remember you!” said the king. “I was told you were so good with horses. And your name is… is…” the king honestly tried to remember.
“Vovik, your majesty” said the boy. “Your majesty, and what about the dragon and the baby?”
“Yes, daddy, I promised that they can come and live with us, and that we’ll take care of them and find the healers! Please?” asked the princess.
The king looked at the queen and she nodded.
“The princess’s word is as good as the royal order!” said the king loudly. The stable boy ran for the cave.
Once the dragon came out, and people saw the size of her up close, and especially when she roared for the first time to greet everyone, people didn’t seem to enjoy it much. In fact, they looked jumpy and scared and looking around choosing where to run. But they got used to it really quickly.
“I still can fly” said the dragon. “But I can’t carry the egg with my claws, it’s too smooth and I might drop it. And none of you can carry it, it’s too big for you.”
The princess looked at her dirty pink bag and she had an idea. She looked around and her eyes stopped at what used to be the cover for the catapult. The fabric was very strong, it was big and had long strips that held it to the carriage. She explained her idea, and very soon the problem was solved – the egg was carefully carried out of the cave by four knights and safely wrapped in the cloth, with the big handles on the top for the dragon to grip.
“Thank you!” said the dragon. “I’ll meet you at your castle”
But before she could take off, the king shouted “Wait! If you fly to the castle alone, the soldiers will shoot at you from the walls. They won’t know you are not… (the king wanted to say “a horrible princess-eating beast”, but shortened it) you are not bad.”
He thought for a moment, then walked straight to the dragon and looked into her eyes. “I’ll come with you!” he said.
The queen shrieked with horror, but didn’t argue. The princess felt very proud of her dad. The dragon lowered her head and the king, being an experienced rider, easily climbed on her back and sat just behind the neck.
“Not too bad” he said. “I don’t think I’ll fall off.”
“Please don’t!” said the queen.
The dragon beat her wings and suddenly she was in the air, grasping the bundle with the egg in her strong claws. “Yuppeee!” shouted the king “This is the best thing ever! See you at the castle, slow coaches!”
So they rode back. The princess rode on the king’s horse and the stable boy – on the black horse. They tried to ride fast, but by the time they got to the castle, the dragon was already settled in a large barn they built out of haystacks right next to the wall of the castle that had a window cut into the hot spring room, where the egg was gently put into the hot water. And the king had already had a bath, a dinner and was reading a book about dragons from the library, dressed in a royal bathrobe.
“That’s so great!” he told his wife and daughter when they came into the room, all covered in dust, very tired and hungry. “I could see all the kingdom from up there! I could see that the old bridge across the Third river was falling apart, and the knights are going there tomorrow with wood, bricks and mortar to fix it. I saw that some farmers didn’t tend to their fields properly – and they are already invited for a royal talk. I can be a great king if I fly this dragon once a week and see what needs doing! But… well, we need to look after her and heal her first, of course!” And the king returned to his book.
The queen kissed her daughter and went to the bathroom, and the maid fetched the princess and led her to her room.
“See you tomorrow!” the princess said to the stable boy. “They’ll send you some good boy’s clothes, I already asked them!”
The stable boy, wearing the remains of the shredded and incredibly dirty pink dress, grinned and thanked her.
“I’ll just sneak into the hot water room and check on the baby dragon” he said. “You’ve been great today! Thank you!”
And the princess went to her room to the hot bath, hot milk and warm bed, where she had never slept so well and deep as on that evening.
VIA week later the princess and the stable boy were sitting on a back wall of the palace garden, eating green sour apples from the nearest tree.
“You are used to the ripe good fruit,” said the stable boy. “You’ll get yourself a royally upset tummy!”
The princess took another bite and stuck her tongue out at him.
“So what did the wizard say?” she asked. “And where did he come from? I didn’t even know that there were real wizards around!”
“Well, a month ago you didn’t know there were real dragons around, did you?”
With these words they heard a mighty roar from the other side of the castle. “Be careful with this cauldron!” the children heard in it. People around didn’t pay any attention – everyone was pretty used to it by now.
“Well, the good news was that he did cook a potion to make her better,” said the boy. “I saw it cooking – it’s more like a nasty soup then a potion. No magic in there, just a lot of really unpleasant stuff – like super-hot pepper, onions, garlic, and lots of special extra-stingy nettles that grow in the wood where we got the mushrooms, remember?”
“I didn’t notice any nettles there!” said the princess.
“That’s because you had my good long trousers and shirt!” said the boy grumpily. “I had your silly dress on and my legs and arms were bare. I noticed the nettles very well!”
The princess giggled and threw the apple core at a squirrel. She missed. “And what is the bad news?” she asked.
“The dragon needs to take a cauldron of that potion every day,” said the boy. “It’s not healing her; it’s just keeping her better. But to really heal, she needs to dive into a volcano. Then the hot lava will heat her through and she’ll get her fire back. And there’s the big problem – there are no volcanoes erupting now.”
“That we know of,” finished the princess. “Oh, well, there are other lands and kingdoms, we can write letters, send explorers… Meanwhile, Dad really enjoys having the dragon around. He flies with her every day, and he’s been working on improving the maps, and he’s fixing the roads and putting some new ones down, so people can travel easier and safer.”
“Oh, yes!” laughed the stable boy. “I heard of the new Knightly Road Crew. And the rest of them are harvesting nettles. We need a lot of those!”
Suddenly the children were startled with another mighty roar. It was different this time – it was urgent, and scared, and happy at the same time. “It’s time!” everyone heard. “The time has come!”
The stable boy jumped to his feet and pulled the princess up. “The baby dragon is hatching!” he shouted. “Let’s run, quick! I know a shortcut!”
And the children ran to the dungeons as fast as their feet could carry them.
The castle was built on the hot springs from deep inside the ground, and the dungeons had a lot of hot bath tubs, some of them lukewarm, and some so hot they could scald your skin. Those were mostly used for washing the bedding and tablecloths. The one where the egg was suspended in the water was like a nice hot bath, so the stable boy jumped right in and stroked the egg.
“You are hatching!” he whispered. “You are coming to us!”
Mother Dragon stuck her long head through the window. “It’s time!” she roared again.
The egg cracked all the way from the top, and then pieces of it started falling off and splashing into the water, and the baby dragon climbed out of it right into the stable boy’s hands. He was beautiful, all new, and his golden eyes were blinking blindly around him as he tried to pull himself up.
“He’s so light!” whispered the stable boy in awe, as he climbed out of the tub with the baby dragon. “And so hot!” The princess knelt beside them and put her hand on the baby dragon’s back. His skin was thin and soft as the butterfly’s wings, and it was changing from almost white to dark-blue.
The sound of many running legs came from the corridor, and the King ran in first, being rather short of breath, and then the queen and the rest of the castle. The queen saw the baby and gasped and ran to the window to stroke the Mother dragon’s head.
“He’s born! You saved him!” she cried. “It was so hard for you, but here he is, and he looks beautiful!”
The baby dragon licked the princess’s hand with his very hot tongue, pushed himself out of the children’s arms and stood on the floor. There wasn’t much light in the chamber, because the window was blocked with the dragon’s head and there were three dozen people at the door, all trying to look in. In the dim light the baby dragon was glowing inside, like a candle through the flesh of one’s hand.
He threw his head back and roared – it didn’t project any words, but everyone felt the happiness of being alive, the pleasure of cool air in their lungs, of light before their eyes, the great love the dragon felt when he was born and the wonderful promise of life ahead.
“I think he’s also saying his name is Rongo…” mumbled the stable boy, wiping tears of his face.
The princess nodded, helped him to get up to his feet and kissed him on the cheek.
Then the children put their hands on Rongo’s shoulders and led him outside, to see the world and his mother.