~ I ~
The knight charged forth, shield up and spear ready. His armor glistened despite the dreary overcast sky like a chrome beacon amidst his hellish surroundings. The horse’s neigh was loud and triumphant as the clopping if its hooves echoed on the scorched cobblestone. The knight’s banner, an orange lion against a black background, billowed in the wind.
He would’ve been a majestic sight to behold had Hildy not seen it already or known what was coming.
The knight crossed the stone bridge and charged into the castle’s courtyard where the dragon awaited. Their confrontation was brief and it ended like all the others. The knight did better than most and actually got within striking distance, but with a swipe of its tail, the dragon swatted the horse and sliced the poor animal in half.
Its rider flew through the air and landed with a metallic clang like the sound of dropped pots and pans. The dragon paused, allowing him to regain his bearings, with no evident fear of its latest enemy. It waited for the knight to get to his feet—whether out of curiosity, boredom or sadism, Hildy couldn’t guess.
Alas, the knight froze upon seeing the great beast before him. Although his face couldn’t be seen due to his helmet, his body language suggested his courage had been cut in half like his steed.
A muffled scream echoed through the courtyard as the knight was snatched in the dragon’s jaws. The sound of crumpling metal, crunching bones and desperate howling could be heard even from the tower as it chewed on its prey. When it was satisfied, the dragon spat him out in a ball of fire.
Whatever was left of the knight hit the ground with an explosion, and Hildy winced at the sight. No matter how many times she’d seen it, she could never get used to such brutality. Before turning from the window, she saw the fallen knight’s tattered banner drift across the ground like autumn leaves and lamented yet another brave life lost for nothing.
She sighed and scratched another mark on the wall. That was thirty-one. Thirty-one would-be heroes had come and died trying to slay the dragon. And thirty-one times she hoped against hope someone would succeed and free her.
But after three thousand, two hundred and ninety-seven days, Hildy was done waiting.
~ II ~
Day two thousand, one hundred and seventeen.
Hildy began her day finishing The Princess & the Farmer. It ended the same way it had the previous dozen or so times she read it: the heroic farm-boy, with the help of the magical weapons and skills he’d acquired on his journey, rescued the beautiful princess from the diabolical villain. And they lived happily ever after.
She put the book aside and looked out her window. It was another dreary day on the mountaintop. From her tower, she saw the castle’s courtyard, which was a blasted ruin of rubble and debris. Past the lone bridge was the cliff leading down the mountain. Through the haze and fog, Hildy could just make out the valley that lay at the mountain’s base and the rolling hills beyond.
“You think there’s a place where the sky meets the earth?” she asked. “Or is the world really a globe and it just circles around? I bet if there really is an end to the earth it’s quite a sight. You think I’ll ever get to see it, Ziggy?”
She looked at the patchwork doll sitting on her bed. It was a tattered, brown and gray thing held together with fraying threads. One eye was gone, marked with a stitched X, while the other black marble eye stared at her in silence.
“Yeah,” she said. “I hope so, too.”
Taking Ziggy, she left her chamber and descended the tower’s stone stairwell. As she approached the castle’s lower levels, the smell of sulfur and ash filled the air. She slowed to tip-toes when she passed the hall leading to the courtyard—out of habit more than anything else. Although the dragon never troubled her as long as she stayed within the confines of the castle, she still felt obliged to move quietly.
Down further was the hot spring of fresh water the castle had been built over. She lit the brazier, which bathed the cavern in gentle orange light, undressed and slipped into the warm water. The spring was soothing, but she was never comfortable in the cave. She felt cramped and confined, and the firelight with its flickering shadows always made her think of the dragon.
“I had a dream last night, Ziggy,” she said. “I was on a beach and the ocean was just ahead of me. I felt the sand between my toes and sun on my shoulders, and I just kept staring at the ocean. It was so wide and open it stretched on for as far as I could see.”
“I know I’ve never been to the ocean,” she said. “But I’ve seen pictures. I have an idea what it looks like. Anyway, I was walking to the shore, but then I started sinking into the sand. The more I tried to move, the faster I sank. When it was up to my waist, I saw my father. He told me to stay still and help would come. So I waited.”
She looked at Ziggy.
“No, he just stood there and watched me. So I was stuck in the sand and I couldn’t move. And no one came. I waited and waited, but no one helped me. Then this shadow came over me, and I was sure it was the dragon.”
She sighed and stepped out of the water.
“Yeah, I can guess what the dream means,” she said, drying herself with a towel. “No, the scary part was, when the shadow came, my father’s eyes turned red.” She paused. “No, they’re green like mine. When I saw this, I started screaming. And that’s when my father came to me, and I was sure he was going to push me under the sand.”
She finished drying off and looked at the patchwork doll sitting beside her. She shrugged and said, “Ich werde mich nicht sorgen.”
After getting dressed, Hildy cooked herself breakfast and went about her day. She began with mending whatever clothing that needed it. The few dresses she had were old, worn, and had been patched and re-sewn a dozen times over.
Unfortunately, of the few books available to her, a manual on sewing was not among them, so her efforts at maintaining and adjusting her clothes were improvised and amateur. But despite her lack of instruction, practice had refined her abilities to functional, if not exemplary.
There was a time she lamented her inability to keep her dresses pretty, but after a while, she stopped caring. Who was she dressing for after all? Ziggy? The dragon? As long as they kept her covered and comfortable, it didn’t matter how they looked.
One dress, however, she never touched and made sure stayed in good condition. It was an elegant gown of blue and white, embroidered with silver lace. That dress she was saving for when the dragon was slain. That dress, she resolved, was to be what she wore when she greeted her rescuer.
When her sewing was done, she took some pieces of charcoal she found near the courtyard and went to the castle’s ballroom. In truth she wasn’t sure it was a ballroom, but it was a vast, empty space with large windows and a massive chandelier hanging over the center that was held up with a thick length of chain connected to the wall. On the north end was a passageway she never went near, as it led to the dragon’s lair.
The white marble floor was a collage of drawings. One corner contained Hildy’s earliest pictures—stick figures and blocky shapes meant to represent animals and castles. As one went around the room, the drawings grew more refined and polished and ranged from the stylized and abstract to more realistic and detailed.
She sat on the floor and scratched away with the charcoal, occasionally rubbing with her fingers to blend and shade. A book titled The Human Body & Its Functions sat open beside her. It detailed the human anatomy, which she found fascinating, but it was also helpful as a reference for her drawing.
“Did you know, Ziggy,” she said, “the brain might be the most important part of the body? Most people seem to think it’s the heart, which is essential, but the brain controls pretty much everything. Without it, we die.”
She glanced at the doll and smiled.
“I know, right?” she said. “All the fairy tales I read always go on about the heart. Whenever they talk about love, it’s always the heart. Love, determination, strength … it goes on.
“Jeder geht für das Herz, aber niemand denkt an das Gehirn.”
She chuckled and put the finishing touches on her latest portrait. This one she’d been working on for weeks and was her most ambitious drawing yet. She made it separate from the rest and took special care to get every detail and contour correct. Her anatomy book was helpful in getting the proportions, but the actual face was based solely on memory.
Her work complete, she stood up and admired the charcoal drawing on the floor. It was of a lovely woman with soft features and a warm smile. Her eyes were gentle and curly hair draped her shoulders. Although drawn in shades of black and gray against the white floor, Hildy imagined the hair as golden blonde and eyes as blue as the sky.
“Yes,” she said, holding Ziggy in her arms. “This was her. I remember people would say I looked like her. Same hair and face. I have my father’s eyes, but … this was my mother.”
Hildy looked at the portrait she’d created and remembered a time when she was held in her mother’s arms. A time when she was happy and had people who loved her. When she wasn’t alone. She smiled, remembering the lullaby her mother would hum before she slept.
She sat beside the drawing and hummed the tune as best as she could remember it. How long had it been since she’d seen her mother? How long since she last heard music?
“Ich vermisse dich, Mama,” she said, tears coming down her cheeks.
The rest of the day went by as others had. She sat and day-dreamed in her chamber, staring out the window and imagining what was out there. She cried that afternoon. She exercised, as The Human Body suggested it was best to stay fit. Having finished The Princess & the Farmer, she started one of her other books. She fixed herself a light supper and cried again.
Around dusk, she was playing chess with Ziggy, when she happened to spot movement by the cliff. At first she thought it a bird or some other animal, but a second glance revealed it was a person scrambling toward the bridge.
She sprang to her feet and rushed to the window. Although she always hoped, she had believed the day would pass and dared not think someone would come. But it seemed another would-be hero was going to try his hand at slaying the dragon and freeing her after all.
It was difficult to see in the dim twilight, but it appeared to be a man dressed in dark leather with a sword strapped to his back. He crouched near the bridge leading to the courtyard and seemed reluctant to cross. She suspected he was plotting his means of getting in, perhaps hoping to get around the dragon rather than engage it directly.
Most knights and heroes charged the dragon head-on. According to one of the fairy tales Hildy read, a dragon’s hide is nearly impenetrable except for a single weak spot just over the heart. Previous attempted slayers always seemed to aim for that, usually with a spear or something similar.
None succeeded, much less survived, so she didn’t begrudge this latest challenger for considering a different approach.
She watched him begin crossing the chasm beneath the bridge with grappling hooks and rope. It seemed a slow and arduous process, but she watched with rapt attention. Although she was sure the dragon wouldn’t hear her, she kept her mouth covered and breathing quiet for fear she might somehow give her rescuer away.
He was halfway across and there was no sign of the dragon. Hildy rushed from her chamber, her heart pounding, and glanced down the stairwell to the courtyard. All was quiet and still, and she was sure if the dragon was in its lair, it must’ve been sleeping. Or, at the very least, unaware of the latest intruder.
She ran back to her chamber and watched her hero’s every movement with bated breaths. He made it across, but was careful to remain hidden. He sat crouched behind a slab of stone debris and appeared to be planning his next move.
When he was certain it was safe, he sprang behind another chunk of debris, deeper and deeper into the castle. He didn’t appear to be a knight, but a thief of some sort. He wore little armor, dressed more for mobility and stealth, and moved with great care and speed.
Hildy resisted the urge to shout encouragement, instead whispering to Ziggy, “He’s so close. He’s going to make it!”
She paced around her room in circles, unable to contain herself. She hadn’t felt this exhilarated in months. She looked at her blue gown and wondered if she should put it on. After all, she thought, this was what she’d been waiting for.
Then she saw herself in her cracked mirror and realized she was a mess. Her hair was tangled and lifeless, and her face was grimy with charcoal and dirt. In her anticipation, she had begun sweating. She could put on her special gown, but it wouldn’t change the fact she looked like a slob.
She glanced out the window and the thief was out of sight—well in the courtyard by now and likely approaching the inner hall. She rushed out of her chamber and down the stairwell. As romantic as looking beautiful for her hero seemed, she didn’t have the time and she was too excited anyway.
Knees shaking and heart pounding, she slowed to a stop at the main hall. She crept along and found the courtyard the barren ruin it always appeared to be. Once, long ago, it might have been a lavish and luxurious place, worthy of a king, but years of being used as a battleground between the dragon and its attempted slayers had left it a wasteland of scorched stone, shattered walls, and the burnt armor and weapons of fallen knights.
The stench of sulfur, ash and smoke filled the air. Twilight had left the courtyard even darker and more foreboding than usual. The arched ceiling was shrouded in shadow. All was still and quiet except for the rhythmic sway of the wind.
Hildy waited at the hall’s entrance, unsure what she would do when her hero appeared. She tried to imagine what sort of man he might be. Perhaps the suave, dashing rogue she’d read about in her stories? A quick-witted and bold scoundrel who laughs at death and dared to save the Princess from her dragon captor where so many others had failed?
Or maybe he was a brooding loner? A dark and troubled warrior haunted by a terrible past who set forth to save the Princess for redemption?
She supposed her father wouldn’t approve of either match, but she didn’t care. She could love either man. In fact, she considered, that only made it more romantic. In the end, it wouldn’t be a gallant but foolhardy knight charging the dragon head-on who saved her. It would be the crafty and cunning thief. An unlikely hero who came to her rescue, and she in turn could be what completed his life.
Finally, she saw him dash out from behind a broken wall to duck behind another piece of debris. He was not particularly handsome and had a rough, rugged look. His face was unshaved, a small scar marked his cheek, and his brown hair was tied in a tail that was coming loose.
But at that moment, Hildy couldn’t have cared less. After so many years of being alone, there was another actual human being standing only a few yards away. At last, someone had come. Someone had finally reached her. A living, breathing person she could talk to who would answer her back. With tears coming to her eyes, she saw an end to over two thousand days of solitude.
Resisting the impulse to shout, she waved at him. She caught his attention and was greeted with a look of surprise and utter confusion. The thief’s eyes widened and jaw dropped, as though he had seen a ghost.
She was struck by his expression. Was he not expecting her? Did he not know she was waiting for him? And if so, why was he sneaking into the castle?
She had little time to ponder these questions, as she glanced over the thief’s head and spotted something in the shadows of the stone rafters. The ceiling had appeared to be nothing more than a solid black mass, but Hildy saw the striking glow of something like rubies. And it was then she realized that sound she heard was not the wind, but breathing.
“LOOK OUT!” she shrieked too late.
From the darkness above, the dragon’s bat-like wing shot out like a lightning bolt. It severed the thief’s leg at the knee, and Hildy watched in horror as blood spurted from his wound. The dragon slithered down from the ceiling and seemed to grin at the screaming thief as he feebly crawled away, leaving a trail of blood behind him.
Skin turning white and tears pouring from her eyes, Hildy let out a piercing scream. She screamed at the horror of it all. She screamed at the unfairness. And she screamed in despair that she would be again denied freedom.
The dragon turned its serpentine neck to her, its red eyes burning and ebony horns resembling a devilish crown. It roared, filling her nostrils with the wretched stench of sulfur and fire. A faint glow emerged from down its throat, and for one petrifying moment, she thought it meant to consume her in flames.
She shrieked again, this time in terror, and ran back up the stairwell. There was no fire, but the dragon’s hellish roar followed her all the way to her chamber. She slammed the door shut behind her and covered her ears as she heard the thief’s final desperate screams.
Day two thousand, one hundred and seventeen ended with Hildy crying herself to sleep, praying her nightmare might one day end.
~ III ~
The castle had been built at the behest of a king. Apparently, he was an eccentric and paranoid old man who shunned those around him and chose to hole himself in a private castle till the end of his days. The location was chosen for its isolation atop the highest mountain in the land, and only a select few of his most loyal servants were kept around to cook, clean, and get fresh supplies.
When Hildy was confined to the castle by her father, it had been abandoned for over a century. She wasn’t sure when the dragon had claimed it as its lair, or if it had anything to do with the old king, but she knew its presence played a part in her father choosing the site.
Although she was free to go anywhere inside, there was little for her discover. Most of the rooms were barren and empty, containing nothing more than spider webs, dust, rotting wood, faded portraits, spinning wheels, and crumbling paper. Other parts of the castle were caved in and unreachable—likely due to the dragon or simple age.
If she wasn’t in her chamber, located in the high tower, Hildy passed her time in the ballroom, kitchen, or the study. Being a shut-in, the old king’s study held an impressive library of books, scrolls, and papers. Unfortunately, by the time Hildy had been left there, most of them were faded, rotted, or illegible—useful only for kindling. Only eleven books were still in decent enough condition, and in the years she spent there, she read each one many, many times.
There was the old king’s memoir, which she enjoyed the least. When she was younger, she didn’t care for the insight into a paranoid old man’s mind, but as she got older, she grew to resent his insistence on staying locked away in his castle. Many times, reading passages that detailed his fears of assassination and treachery, she wished she could scream in the old man’s face how ungrateful he was to waste his life and power holed up like a hermit.
Most of the other books were for educational purposes. Aside from The Human Body & Its Functions, there was a math book which taught basic equations and measurements. It was dry reading material, and she found little use for math in her situation, but Hildy refused to let it go to waste—counting, measuring, and calculating whatever she could.
“There are seventy-three steps in the tower staircase,” she would recite at times of boredom. “The hall leading to the rest of the castle is nine meters. The ballroom is twenty-one by nineteen meters, and the ceiling is approximately ten meters high. The human body contains two hundred and six bones …”
Another book was a tedious tome detailing a royal bloodline going back centuries. She assumed it was the hermit king’s line, but it could’ve been her family’s for all she knew. Deliberately left by her father so she’d know her ancestors? She didn’t know, but she didn’t find much interest in the history of old dead men either way.
The other history book was more interesting, as it was more about actual events than the kings. She wasn’t sure if the book told the history of her homeland or some foreign country, but she didn’t care. Learning about the wars, politics, and drama that shaped the country proved far more interesting than its rulers and their personal habits.
One book was a tutorial of another language. She didn’t know what language it was—the book was simply titled: Gemeinsames Sprechen—but she enjoyed learning a way of speaking beside her own and often talked to Ziggy in it.
“Ich muss sagen, Ziggy,” she would say, “ich bin mir nicht sicher, wie nützlich der Satz ‘Die Ziege hat meinen Kuchen gestohlen’ ist, aber laut diesem Buch ist es eine gute Sache, das zu wissen. Genau wie ‘Wo ist das Badezimmer?’ Und ‘Mein Vater ist verstopft.’”
Two books were fiction. The Princess & the Farmer was a romance that told the story of two star-crossed lovers and their quest to be together against all odds. For many years, it was her favorite. Reading it, she would wonder if her savior, when he finally came, would be more than a mere dragon-slayer who happened to win the day, but her destined lover.
There would be times at night Hildy looked out her window, trying to picture this alleged soul-mate whom she was destined for. Was he out there, she’d wonder, waiting for his chance to venture out and face the dragon? Did he know she was waiting for him? Did he even know what grand destiny fate had in store for him?
The other book was a collection of fairy tales—each with their own little moral about hubris, devotion, loyalty, and love. Most seemed to revolve around beautiful princesses getting taken prisoner or placed under a magic spell or finding themselves in some sort of peril, only to be saved by courageous heroes. One involved a dragon, which is where she learned of its supposed weakness.
But the one story that always stuck out to her was the tale of the two mice:
There were two mice living in a field. One was impatient, hot-headed, and ambitious. He wanted to venture out beyond the field and see what was out there. The other mouse was reserved, humble, and rational. He thought it was dangerous to go out into the unknown, believing it best to wait and make sure it was safe.
The reason for the patient mouse’s reluctance was a vicious cat that lived somewhere in the field. He insisted the cat was out there prowling and waiting for the opportunity to eat them up. The hot-headed mouse, however, didn’t believe there was cat, and even if there was, they needn’t fear it.
So the two mice lived in their tiny hut hidden at the edge of the field, until finally the hot-headed mouse could take no more and ventured out without telling his brother. Sure enough, the mouse was quickly devoured by the cat.
Things looked grim for the other mouse, but his patience eventually paid off. Soon a dog appeared and chased the cat out of the field. Once he knew for sure it was safe, the humble mouse left the field where he discovered riches and companionship and lived happily ever after.
In the years Hildy lived in her castle, guarded by the dragon, she had read each book dozens of times—to the point where she could recite every word on memory alone. She sometimes wondered if the books weren’t owned by the hermit king, but deliberately left for her by her father. Was she meant to know these books for some reason?
The nonfiction books were practical in their own ways, but she especially wondered about the two fiction books. A romance and a book of fairy tales—one of which contained a story that seemed to speak to her directly. Two mice trapped in a spot with a threat outside keeping them in place. One desires escape, the other advises patience. One mouse tries to go and dies. The other waits, is saved, and is rewarded. It was difficult not to see the parallel with her situation.
“I need to be the patient mouse,” she said to Ziggy. “If I just wait and stay safe, one day my dog … er, knight will come and save me. And I’ll live happily ever after.”
She looked at the patchwork doll. It remained silent, as always. It was just a doll—she knew that. But somewhere in the back of her mind, she thought she heard Ziggy respond. His voice was not dissimilar to hers, and it only came as a whisper, but she heard it all the same: Try to escape.
It was certainly tempting. Probably like how the hot-headed mouse was so tempted to leave. But she wouldn’t do it. Unlike the mouse, she knew there was a threat out there that was determined to keep her in place.
“I am the patient mouse,” she said. “And I am going to wait.”
The last book was in another language she didn’t know. The text was written with an elaborate calligraphy that she thought looked pretty, but was otherwise unreadable to her. Whether it was fiction or nonfiction, practical or spiritual, she had no idea what the book was about.
Although unable to read it, she often looked through its pages, trying to guess what it was. What answers did it hold? What messages were hidden in this language she couldn’t read? Something profound? Some grand truth that, once understood, would change how she looked at life?
Or was it just another cook book?
The other books grew more worn and beat up as time passed, but like her special blue gown, Hildy took care to keep the mystery book in as good a shape as she could. She promised herself when she was freed from the castle she would take it with her and finally learn what it was.
She imagined that day, whenever it might come. She saw herself wearing her gorgeous blue and white gown, greeting her heroic rescuer and riding off into the sunset with the book in her hand. Off to live happily ever after, just like the patient mouse.
“Glücklich bis ans Lebensende.”
If you want to read the whole thing right away, you can always check out
Ones & Zeroes: A Short Story Collection
which contains this and 13 other stories for you enjoyment.
Available for Kindle and print on Amazon.
©2018 by M. Walsh