~ IV ~
Things changed on day two thousand, eight hundred and twenty-nine.
Hildy paced around her room in a circle, alternating between hugging herself and chewing on her fingernails. Her stomach rumbled and her legs felt weak. She was pale, haggard, and her face was strained with anxiety.
“This is bad, Ziggy,” she said, looking out the window for a rescuer that wasn’t coming. “My father must’ve thought someone would have succeeded by now. Or maybe he … I don’t know.”
By this point, twenty-three heroes had tried and failed to slay the dragon. As disheartening as it was to watch the growing number of victims, Hildy eventually grew numb to the disappointment. Perhaps one day a warrior would emerge and finally destroy the beast, but she had stopped getting her hopes up every time a new challenger appeared.
Disappointment and heartbreak, however, turned to dread and desperation when she realized her food supply was dwindling.
For most of her time trapped in the castle, Hildy hadn’t paid attention to the food stores. The pantry next to the kitchen was a huge stockroom that, as far as she knew, had been packed with as much food as possible when she was left there. Whenever she was hungry, she simply rummaged through the pantry and found something to cook, although variety was limited and spices were unavailable.
A pair of cook books was included in her slim reading material, and she read both cover to cover nearly a hundred times each. She had every recipe memorized, but they only seemed to taunt her with potential meals she couldn’t make. All sorts of ways to cook steaks and chicken and fish and pork. Elaborate pasta meals and countless possible sides. Desserts and pastries to eat after. But no means to bake a single one of them.
She promised herself that when she escaped the castle, she would cook each and every meal suggested in both books and try every one.
But as the days ticked by, that ambition seemed a dream that wouldn’t come true. In retrospect, she wasn’t sure if she assumed she’d be free long before the food supply ran out or childishly believed it never would. Either way, she realized too late how naïve that was because starving was becoming a grim reality.
“Wouldn’t that be a cruel joke?” she said to Ziggy. “A great knight finally kills the dragon only to find me starved to death.”
She had been eating less and less with each passing day, hoping to stretch her supply until someone came to kill the dragon. She lost weight. Her stomach hurt more and more. She felt lethargic and weak. As the food continued to dwindle, she considered it might be time for drastic action.
“I might have to escape on my own after all,” she said. “I don’t … I don’t know what I’m expected to do.”
Three agonizing days later, Hildy—her stomach rumbling and legs shaking—left her chamber, clutching Ziggy as though he could protect her. Even as she descended the familiar stone stairway to the courtyard she had no idea what she intended to do. She had always tried to be the patient mouse and wait for her knight, but that had become unfeasible. She needed to try leaving or starve.
“Das ist Überleben.”
As the courtyard came into view she hugged Ziggy even tighter. The ground was littered with armor containing the scorched skeletons of fallen knights. The bones of their horses and even some dogs were scattered around, charred to black. The stench of ash, sulfur and smoke hovered over the area like a grim spectre.
Hildy gulped with an audible click and looked toward the corridor that led to the dragon’s lair. It was a foreboding black chasm that resembled a gaping abyss. Deep inside, the faint glow of orange light flickered, and a thin stream of smoke wafted into the air. Somewhere down there, the dragon waited.
Her teeth chattering and sweat pouring down her brow, she turned her back to it and started across the courtyard. She tried to calm herself by thinking of numbers. The courtyard was about thirty meters. The bridge appeared to be another twenty-five meters. As long as she put one foot in front of the other, she could cross that distance in no time.
A low rumble echoed behind her, followed by a warm breeze that smelled like fire. The ground shook, and she heard hissing emerge from the corridor.
“Maybe I can reason with it,” she whispered. “It seems smart. Maybe I can make it understand I need food. Maybe it’ll show me mercy? Maybe …”
The dragon could move silently if it wanted, but today it made no effort to conceal its presence. Hildy felt the floor shake with each step, and its hissing grew louder as it approached. She felt the heat emanating off its body and knew it was right behind her.
Her eyes locked shut, she wondered if she should keep moving or give up. On the verge of crying, she almost took another step forward, when a harsh and very hot wind blew down on her. The sinister growl that followed told her all she needed to know.
Whatever strength she had abandoned her. She sank to her knees, holding onto Ziggy for dear life. “I’m sorry!” she said. “But I can’t stay here! I need food or I’ll die!”
The dragon snarled, and she considered how absurd her plea was. As if it cared whether she lived or died. She didn’t know why it kept her trapped in the castle, but she doubted her health and survival meant a thing to it.
She held her breath, expecting get engulfed in flames or gobbled up like the twenty-three would-be heroes before her. But instead she only heard the beast hiss again, followed by the dull thud of something heavy hitting the ground. When she opened her eyes, a large sack had been dropped beside her.
She looked at the dragon, and it stared at her with its blood-red eyes. The message seemed obvious: take the sack and return to her chamber. Hildy understood that, but somehow the reality of it took a moment to register.
She almost spoke, but the dragon lost its patience and roared at her. Wasting no time, she grabbed the sack and dragged it to the stairwell where she collapsed to the floor. Trying to control her breathing, she watched the dragon turn around and slither into its lair.
When it was out of sight and she calmed down, she opened the sack and discovered it contained fresh meat, grain, bread, and fruit. She stared at the food, slack-jawed and dumbfounded, before the realization sank in: the dragon had brought her supplies.
She took the food to the kitchen and began cooking. With no spices or other ingredients, her meal was as basic as all her previous ones. But after nearly starving, even the simplest of meals was a grand feast which she savored. She was considerate of how much she’d been given and careful to conserve, but for the first time in weeks, Hildy ate till her belly was full.
While eating, she reflected on this development and its implications. For one thing, the dragon had known her food was gone. Had it been refilling the pantry all along, she wondered? She knew it would occasionally leave the castle and fly off, but always assumed it was just out terrorizing people.
“But the important thing,” she said, “is the dragon won’t let me die. It’s not only supposed to keep me here, it has to keep me alive.”
She chewed on one of the grapes that had been in the sack and looked at Ziggy.
“Yeah,” she said. “I probably should’ve always known that. If the dragon wanted me dead, it would’ve killed me a long time ago. But it’s got me thinking: what can it do or not do? Where is the limit?”
After finishing supper, she returned to her chamber and recalled another fairy tale that also featured a mouse. But this one involved a lion, a thorn in its paw, and the mouse managed to befriend him.
Hildy looked at the far wall, lined with thousands of scratches to count the days she’d been trapped in this castle. She would remain the patient mouse, but maybe she could also be the mouse that befriended the lion?
~ V ~
Hildy was ten years old when her father, the King, confined her to the old castle. She remembered little from those days, save that she was never close with her father. He was a massive wall of a man with a beard that was dark as ash and possessed narrow, piercing green eyes that always looked like he was on a hunt. From what she remembered of him, she had always been a little afraid of her father.
It was shortly after her mother’s death that he decreed she would be left in the isolated castle, guarded by a dragon until the day came a hero freed her.
“When that day comes,” said her father in a booming voice. “You and your savior shall wed, and he will inherit all that I have.”
“Papa,” she had said, her voice tiny and meek. “Why can’t I just look for a husband here? I don’t—I don’t need someone to fight a dragon to love them. I could—”
“But how else could I know he is worthy?” her father said. “How else could I know your husband is a great warrior? Only the bravest hero should inherit my kingdom! And only the man who proves himself by completing this task shall take my throne!”
It wouldn’t occur to Hildy until much later that her father didn’t seem all that concerned whether this supposed hero could or would make her happy. To her father, the only thing that mattered—that proved a hero’s worth and signified a true king—was whether he could kill a dragon.
So it was that young Princess Hildy was left alone in her isolated castle with her dragon guard. Left to fend for herself with her nineteen dresses, eleven books, a doll she would later name Ziggy, and whatever food could be packed into the castle’s storage.
One thousand, one hundred and five days would pass before the first of what became many would-be rescuers tried and failed to slay the dragon. That first failure was perhaps the most devastating, but Hildy kept up hope. She saw the dragon was a formidable beast, and as her father was fond of saying, only the most worthy hero would slay it. She told herself it was naïve to believe the very first knight to try would be the one.
But neither was the second. Or the third.
It wasn’t so much the sixth failed knight that inspired Hildy’s first attempt to escape on her own. It was more the milestone: one thousand and five hundred days. An even fifteen hundred days she had been trapped in her castle and already six men had died trying to save her.
“I have to try,” she said to Ziggy, already regarding him as her only friend. “How much longer can this go on? How many more have to die?”
Although she tried to maintain an air of confidence, it took great effort on her part to keep from shaking or vomiting as she descended the stone stairwell to the courtyard. She assured herself, over and over, that the dragon would not harm her. As far as she knew, it had been tasked to guard her, nothing more.
Therefore, she presumed, it knew who she was and, concordantly, who her father was. She couldn’t guess how her father convinced a dragon to watch over her, but it would surely let her go if she insisted. Despite whatever bizarre contest her father was trying to orchestrate, fifteen hundred days and six dead men was too far.
Her pace slowed once she reached the courtyard. Suddenly every step took concentrated effort, as though her feet had gained several pounds. She took a deep breath and forced herself onward toward the stone bridge outside.
She glanced over her shoulder where the passageway to the dragon’s lair stood—empty and dark, save for the faint hint of orange light deep inside. She heard the dragon’s breathing, and though she saw nothing, she was certain it was watching her.
“I …” she choked out, her voice sounding tiny. “I’m leaving.”
From the darkness, a guttural snarl emerged, followed by a warm gust of wind Hildy knew was the beast’s breath. She froze in place, hearing her own heart pound. Her spine locked, as if replaced with a metal rod, and her nerves flared like they were on fire.
“I …” she continued, trying to sound strong and confident with little success. “I can’t stay here any longer. This—this has gone on long enough.”
The corridor remained dark and still, but she saw two glowing dots appear in the blackness. They shined like rubies and seemed to burn.
“My father,” she said. “Um, you are meant to keep me here, but … um … I think my father … I think …”
She trailed off, running out of things to say that didn’t sound absurd and impotent. Unable to take her eyes off the corridor, she backed away until her foot hit something metallic. She looked down and found the charred remains of a knight. Through its helmet, she saw a blackened skull staring up at her—its jaw wide open in a silent scream.
She looked around and realized she was surrounded with the scorched evidence of the dragon’s fury. Six dead men, and their horses, who all died shrieking.
“I think I’ll go back to my chamber.”
Feeling those burning eyes watching her, she scurried back the way she came. Just as she reached the hallway, the dragon apparently decided to make itself clear with a bloodcurdling roar.
Hildy shrieked and ran back to her chamber in tears, having gotten the message: she was not going anywhere.
~ VI ~
“I can do this,” she said more to herself than Ziggy.
Hildy began her efforts at befriending the dragon on day two thousand, nine hundred and fifty-four. She wasn’t sure how she was going to accomplish this, but one thing she was certain of was patience would be crucial. If it was possible to get the dragon to like her—like her enough to let her go—it would not happen overnight. Probably not for weeks or even months.
But she could be patient. Like the patient mouse.
She wore a dress that was in best condition—aside from the blue and white gown—and tried to make herself as pretty as possible. She didn’t know how much the dragon would care, but it couldn’t hurt. She even saved an apple from the last time it brought her supplies. Again, she wasn’t sure if the dragon would eat it, but if nothing else, she thought she could use it to illustrate how grateful she was.
She took a deep breath once she reached the foot of the stairwell and assured herself the worst that would happen is the dragon would roar and chase her back to her chamber. And in that case, she’d be where she started and nothing would be different.
It was a surreal experience walking toward the dragon’s lair for once. In all the years she’d spent in the castle, she knew every inch of the place that was available to her. Yet she had never seen its lair or gone near the corridor leading to it. If nothing else, she thought, she’d have a new experience when her experiment was over.
The air grew warmer as she went deeper into the part of the castle the dragon had claimed as its own. She entered a massive chamber that seemed to have been the throne room. The throne itself sat at the far end by a pair of shattered stained-glass windows—dilapidated and covered with dust and cobwebs. A relic of a bygone time that gave her a chill upon seeing it.
Further in, the smell of sulfur and ash grew stronger, along with the stench of rotten meat. Ahead of her was a passageway she knew led to the ballroom, and in between, the marble floors were caved in and gave way to a cavernous pit that glowed with orange light. Upon looking inside, Hildy gasped. The dragon was there, as expected, but she wasn’t expecting the massive hoard of treasure.
The beast lay curled in a semi-circle atop a great pile of gold coins, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds. Shining plates and chalices and medallions glistened in the warm light. Climbing inside, she found the piles of gold reached higher than her head with a rainbow of various jewels littering the floor all around her.
“Scheisse …” she whispered under her breath.
The dragon slept. Its wings were folded around its body, as if cocooning itself. She heard its harsh snoring and steeled herself. She had seen it plenty of times—a handful up close—but this was the first time she ever had the opportunity to truly take in the great monster.
She estimated it to be at least eighteen meters from snout to the tip of its tail. The wingspan had to be over fifteen. The scales on its back were dark green, almost black, and faded to a reddish white on its belly. The wings were leathery and bat-like. Its head was massive, with shiny ebony horns protruding like devilish spikes. The tip of its tail was also ebony—razor sharp like a blade and scuffed from its use as a weapon.
Hildy stood staring at the beast for some time and thought the thumping she heard was her own heart. But she looked at its chest and realized the dull but constant drum was coming from the dragon. Her body tensed as she remembered its supposed weak spot, and the idea came to her at once.
It was asleep. Plenty of swords and spears were lying around the courtyard. If she hurried, she could pierce its heart herself and end it all right there.
Then, as if hearing her thoughts, the dragon’s eyes opened.
It looked at her, but didn’t react, as if it took a moment for her presence to register. When it did, the beast rose to its feet, hissing and growling with smoke puffing from its nostrils. The dragon could not talk, but its body language spoke volumes: she was not supposed to be there and it was displeased.
The urge to run hit Hildy like a bucket of ice water. Turn around, climb out of the lair, and run to her chamber. But she remained where she was—a part of her mind screaming: two thousand, nine hundred and fifty-four days! How much longer, how many more times must she scurry back to her room and hide?
The dragon hesitated, not expecting that response.
“Um,” she continued with a forced smile that looked almost deranged. “I, uh … it occurred to me that, um, all this time I’ve never seen your lair.”
The dragon tilted its head and roared in her face. The sweltering hot breath blew her hair back and made her flesh damp with moisture. Her ears rang from the deafening bellow. She gripped the apple so tight, it burst in her hand. Every instinct she had demanded she turn around and flee as she had so many times before.
But she stood her ground, repeating in her mind the number: two thousand, nine hundred and fifty-four.
When the roaring stopped, Hildy brushed herself off and cleared her throat. “So,” she said. “As I was saying—”
The dragon roared again, angrier, and swiped just above her head in an attempt to make her flinch. But she would not move. It flapped its wings and sent golden coins flying into the air. It slashed at a far wall with its tail. She still wouldn’t move, and it roared again. But through it all, the beast didn’t strike her or use its fire.
“My name is Hildy,” she said. “I think you should at least know the name of the person you’re holding prisoner.”
More roaring and stomping around. The dragon was frustrated. It didn’t want her in its lair and it didn’t care what she had to say, but it made no move to harm her—instead displaying a petulant show of anger. If nothing else, she took satisfaction in irritating it.
“You’ve kept me here two thousand, nine hundred and fifty-four days,” she said. “Did you know that? Because I do. I’ve kept count.”
More howling and thrashing, as if her words alone were inflicting pain.
“I don’t know how my father got you to keep me here, but I know you’re not to harm me. That’s why you haven’t killed me already. That’s why you’ve been bringing me food. And that’s why you won’t hurt me now.”
The dragon snarled and snapped its jaws a mere foot from her face. She jumped, her heart racing with the realization how close she came to dying that very moment, but her resolve was undeterred.
“So if you’re going to keep me here,” she said, her voice rising. “You better get used to seeing more of me. Because I’m not going to hide in my room any longer! If we’re stuck in this damn castle together, then you’re going to have to learn to live with me! You got that?!”
With one final hiss, the dragon knocked her aside with its wing and stomped out of the lair. Hildy lay on the ground, dumbfounded, as she heard the beast storm off howling and snarling every step of the way.
She climbed out and watched as it spread its wings in the courtyard and took to the sky outside. As its last roars echoed to nothing, Hildy stared at the castle’s entrance with wide eyes and her mouth agape. Was that it? Did it just leave her? After all this time, could she finally escape?
Unfortunately, the dragon would ensure she stayed in place while it was gone. It unleashed its fire on the entrance, and the front of the courtyard exploded in a massive wall of flames. The heat and force was so overwhelming Hildy was knocked to the ground.
When she regained her bearings, the castle’s entrance was a blazing inferno she had no way of passing. She sighed, knowing by the time the fire died down the dragon would be back.
“I’m not beat yet,” she said. “I just proved it won’t kill me unless I actually try to leave. If I can’t get its sympathy, I’ll just nag the damn thing until it gives up and quits.”
The dragon returned later that evening, bringing with it another sack of food. To its annoyance, it found Hildy waiting in its lair and greeted her with what sounded like a wounded moan.
“Yes, I’m still here,” she said. “I told you: you’re going to have to get used to seeing more of me.”
The dragon growled and dropped the sack of food on her, then curled in a semi-circle atop the treasure pile with its back to her. It seemed childish, but she supposed it was preferable to the roaring and smashing from earlier.
“This is an impressive treasure you’re hoarding,” she said, opening the sack and taking a bite of another apple she found inside. “Was this always here, or have you been stealing it through the years?”
The dragon didn’t respond.
“What’s the point of keeping all this?” she asked. “What do you need gold and jewels for?”
Still no response.
“Is it a challenge? Are you daring people to try and take it from you? Is that why you agreed to watch over me?”
Hildy chewed on her apple and waited. She didn’t know if the silence was uncomfortable for the dragon, though a part of her hoped it was. After finishing, she said, “I know you’re not some dumb beast. You might not be able to answer me, but you understand what I’m saying.”
She paused and let another silence drag out.
“Is it just because you like shiny things? Is that why you keep this treasure?”
The dragon lifted its head and looked at her, and though she couldn’t be sure, Hildy was almost certain it shrugged at her.
As ever, if you want to read the whole story, along with 13 other short stories,
check out Ones & Zeroes: A Short Story Collection, which is available on Amazon for Kindle and paperback.
©2018 by M. Walsh