~ VII ~
Her time with the dragon carried on like that for the next forty-three days. She would enter its lair and be greeted with snarls and roars, but it made no attempt to harm her. When it finished its tantrums, it turned its back to her while she talked which didn’t bother Hildy as much as she might’ve thought it would. As it was, talking to the dragon was no different than talking to Ziggy.
What was disappointing, however, was her lack of tangible progress in earning the dragon’s favor. The roaring and stomping eventually stopped altogether and it seemed to begrudgingly tolerate her presence, but she never got the impression it was growing to like her.
Periodically it flew off and barred the castle’s entrance with a wall of fire, as it had that first time. Every so often, it would swipe at her with its tail or wing—not to hurt her, but an attempt to frighten her off. Sometimes it blew smoke in her face.
Nevertheless, she refused to let that get her down.
“It’s only been forty-three days,” she told Ziggy in her chamber. “I knew when I started this it would take time. I just need to be patient.”
After washing and eating a small breakfast, Hildy returned to the dragon’s lair that morning and found it in its usual position of a curled semi-circle atop the treasure. She greeted it with a smile and wave, and her good cheer was returned with a growl and huff of smoke.
“And Guten Tag to you, too,” she said.
When she wasn’t talking to the dragon, Hildy passed time counting the gold coins it hoarded in its lair. It proved a difficult task because the dragon constantly interrupted her attempts to organize the treasure into manageable piles. She wasn’t sure if it preferred everything scattered or was deliberately antagonizing her, but she persisted out of spite.
She’d only managed to count a small portion of coins, but had reached as high as two hundred before the dragon disrupted her piles. She could only guess, but she estimated there had to be five-hundred thousand coins at least. And that wasn’t accounting for the various jewels and other trinkets.
It seemed whoever slew the dragon would not only win her hand in marriage and, by extension, her father’s kingdom, but a mighty treasure on top of it. She supposed it was no wonder so many had come to try their hand—twenty-six by that point.
It was then Hildy remembered the thief. Would-be rescuer number eleven who tried to sneak into the castle with stealth and regarded her presence with surprise and confusion. Since then, she rarely thought of him—no more than the twenty-five other attempted rescuers—but at that moment, the look of confusion on his face stood out above all.
“Did he not know I was here?”
She looked at the dragon, its back to her as usual, and considered a question she never thought to ask and had taken for granted.
“How did my father convince you to guard me?”
The dragon stirred, but only to spare a glance at her in indifference.
“All these knights and thieves and heroes,” she continued. “How many of them are coming to actually rescue me? Or are they just coming for your treasure?”
It was a grim thought that gave her a chill despite the dragon’s heat so close to her. With it came another and far more distressing possibility.
“Am I … am I just…?”
The truth was there, on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it. The dragon looked at her, its red eyes uncharacteristically cold. She wondered then, as she would from that day on, what it would have said to her if it could talk.
The dragon then sprang to its feet with such speed Hildy flinched. It sniffed at the air and growled before leaving its lair. It wasn’t going to fly and it wasn’t storming away in anger. Something had caught its attention.
“Oh, no,” Hildy whimpered, already knowing what was coming.
By the time she reached the courtyard, the latest knight was charging down the bridge as many had before him. Shield up, spear ready, and banner flying. The dragon waited, having no more fear of this latest gallant fool than any of the previous.
“Stop!” Hildy screamed, rushing from the lair’s passageway. “Please don’t! Don’t do it!”
She wasn’t sure who she was yelling at—the dragon or the knight—but it didn’t matter. The knight and his trusty steed were already consumed in its fire, and she heard the horrid shriek of pain and horror that followed.
The dragon roared in triumph and ate the cooked horse carcass in a sickening display that almost made her vomit. It all happened so fast she might as well have not been there. Perhaps for the first time, she truly saw the creature for the monster that it was.
It would continue slaughtering knights, and it would never let her go. And just like that, whatever plan she had for befriending the beast evaporated. In its place was desperate panic and pleading despair.
“Please!” she cried, running up to the dragon. “Please let me go! I can’t take it anymore!”
The dragon stared at her as she sank to her knees with tears streaming down her face and ash getting into her hair.
“Please,” she repeated. “Keep the treasure … take whatever else … but please, please let me free. Please … no more.”
There was a flicker in its eyes, and for one brief moment, she thought she saw something close to pity. But the monster merely hissed and turned around to return to its lair.
Intense fury came upon Hildy. Rage that burned as hot as the dragon’s fire. Her breathing frantic, she looked around and snatched the nearest weapon she could find—some rusted sword covered in dust—and charged the monster, aiming for the supposed weak spot over its heart.
She didn’t get close. The dragon swatted her aside with its wing, and a bolt of pain she’d never known before shocked her right arm. The sword shattered, and she was sent tumbling through air. She landed with a howl and clutched her broken arm in agony.
The dragon, infuriated she would attack it, roared. It stomped and slashed and spewed fire into the air. Devastated walls and debris crashed and crumbled all over the courtyard. Dust and ash rained from the ceiling, and Hildy lay curled on the floor, holding her arm and crying and screaming.
When it was satisfied, the beast stormed back into its lair with final roar. Hildy remained where she was, silently weeping.
~ VIII ~
Hildy mended her arm as best she could based on what she learned from her anatomy book. She fashioned a splint and sling, and soon the initial pain dulled to an ache. Her arm would heal, but she’d never be able to fully extend it without cringing just a bit for the rest of her life.
The following days were spent on her bed in silence. She barely slept and wouldn’t eat. A part of her wondered what the dragon would do if she refused to feed herself. Would it let her starve? Would it find some way of forcing her to eat? Did she care either way?
She eventually returned to her routine of washing and eating. But she gave up drawing and reading and cried more often. She felt as though her soul had been drained from her body. More knights would come. More knights would die. Days would drip by, on and on for years, until she was old and mad from isolation. The harshest thing, she realized, was that it wouldn’t matter.
“I’m just a treasure, Ziggy,” she said. “A prize to be won. No one coming here cares about me. Some of them don’t even know I’m here. They want the treasure. They want my father’s throne. I’m a bonus.”
She looked through her books—almost all she’d read a hundred times each. She knew math and another language, but had no reason to apply her knowledge. She could cook dozens of meals, but had no means. She could recite the entire history of a country, but to no one but a patchwork doll. She looked at the mystery book, with its beautiful calligraphy and symbolic language, and she would never know what it meant.
She flipped through The Princess & the Farmer and understood there was no destined hero out there coming to save her. No more than any of the other princesses and damsels she read about in her book of fairy tales.
She thought back to her father and the day he left her. He talked of great heroes and worthy warriors, but not a word about a loving man. No concern for whether her alleged rescuer would be kind to her and treat her well. The only thing that mattered to him was a proper dragon-slayer inherited his property.
“His property,” she hissed, her face turning to a bitter scowl.
For so long she identified with the patient mouse. For so long, she thought the right thing to do was wait. Wait for her savior to come, and the other mouse—the mouse that dared try to leave—was the fool. The hot-head who shouldn’t have been so hasty.
“No more,” she growled, clenching her fist and ripping a page.
She hesitated, but then with a grin, began tearing every other page before throwing the tattered book out the window. She did the same to the fairy tales and the book detailing the line of kings.
“I can’t do this anymore, Ziggy,” she said. “I can’t stay here hoping for a miracle that will never come. Look at me! You’re a damn doll! Ich kann nicht länger an diesem verdammten Ort bleiben!”
On day three thousand and thirteen Hildy vowed to escape or die in the attempt. She would kill the dragon herself if she needed to. Better to die trying than sit and wait. Better to take the chance than leave her fate in the hands of others who didn’t care. If that made her the hot-headed mouse, then so be it.
“Diese Maus wird gewinnen.”
~ IX ~
Day three thousand, three hundred and three.
Storm clouds shrouded the sky and made the day seem like night. Rain drummed against the castle walls. Wind howled like a worried ghost, and the rumble of thunder sounded angrier and angrier with each passing moment. It was as if the storm was anticipating Hildy’s confrontation with her captor and eager for the climax.
She wore her blue and white gown, though she had refashioned it into something more practical with bits of armor sewn on top. She’d been exercising regularly for months and saw to it her healed arm was as strong as it was going to get. She armed herself with the strongest weapons she could scrounge from the courtyard: a Bastard Sword with a long blade, a spear, and a nasty looking battle-axe.
Her stomach churning, she looked at the old patchwork doll that had been her only friend through the years. The fabric Ziggy was made from had worn to the point where she could see through it. Fluffs of cotton poked out the seams, and his left arm was falling off. He stared with his one marble eye and stitched X—blank and silent as always.
She gave the doll a gentle kiss and said, “Wish me luck.”
Taking a deep breath, she walked down the tower’s seventy-three steps. As she made her way through the castle, she recited other measurements she knew by heart: “The ballroom’s ceiling is ten meters high. The hall from the throne room to the ballroom is four meters. The dragon is eighteen meters from nose to tail.”
She stopped outside the corridor that would lead to its lair. Her heart pounded and she was already sweating, but not once did she question her resolve. She closed her eyes and said a prayer to whatever god might be listening and whispered one last measurement—more of an estimate, but possibly the most important one:
“One and a quarter meters.”
Gripping her spear, she strode into the dragon’s lair and found the beast sleeping atop its hoard of treasure. She glanced at the passageway that led to the ballroom and inched toward it, keeping her eyes on the dragon.
“You’ve been a part of my life for so long,” she said. “I don’t remember anything else. I’ve dreamed of watching you die so many times. Probably more than I’ve dreamed about anything. For three thousand, three hundred and three days …”
The dragon twitched, but continued snoring. Taking one last breath, Hildy gritted her teeth and kicked a golden chalice as hard as she could. She had only wanted the noise to wake the dragon, but to her surprise and amusement, she hit it between the eyes.
The beast stirred, blinking in confusion, and she greeted it by bellowing: “Three thousand, three hundred and three days!”
Using all her strength, she hurled the spear at the dragon’s chest. It flinched and slipped on the coins it sat upon, falling over with a startled howl. The spear struck its neck and bounced off without a scratch, but that was enough. Its eyes glowing in fury, it let rip a terrible roar—probably the angriest she had ever heard it.
She grinned and shouted, “Oh, have I offended you, you bastard?! Then do something about it!”
Hildy bolted for the passageway. She dove to safety as the beast tried to snatch her with its jaws. Wasting no time, she got to her feet and ran down the hall as fast as she could before the dragon could engulf her in flames.
Once inside the ballroom, she took cover as an explosion of fire burst out the door. The monster’s enraged roars echoed throughout the castle, and soon the walls started shaking as it tried to smash its way after her.
Knowing she had little time to spare, she rushed to the thick chain that held up the ballroom’s chandelier and climbed. The wall cracked and shuddered as she inched up the metal links, praying it wouldn’t collapse before she reached her position.
Finally the barrier crumbled in a mess of debris and flames. The dragon roared upon its entrance and looked around, intent on consuming Hildy with its fire. It took a few steps, but hesitated upon seeing the charcoal drawings all over the floor.
It paid no mind to the portrait of her mother, but the various sketches of the dragon itself, with measurements and estimations of its head and skull, gave it pause. Hildy watched from her perch atop the chandelier and smirked. Playing chess with a doll might not have been the best practice, but she learned the importance of anticipating an opponent’s moves.
Maybe the fairy tales were true and a dragon’s weak spot was just above its heart. But if every knight aimed for it, then the dragon knew it, too. And if it only knew to protect its chest, it would never think to defend from above.
When the dragon was below her, she gripped her battle-axe and dropped from the chandelier. The blade sank into its snout and held her weight. Before the beast could react, she then drew her Bastard Sword and looked it directly in its eye.
She plunged the sword into the dragon’s eye down to the hilt. Just to be sure, she then kicked the handle and sent it even deeper into the beast’s head.
The dragon howled in agony and shook her off. She fell to the floor, but her armor took the worst of the impact. She watched the beast stagger as blood gushed from its eye. After letting rip a piercing shriek she’d never heard from it before, it steadied itself and looked at her.
There was a moment’s pause that felt almost like an eternity. Hildy stared at her captor and waited, wondering if she’d succeeded or would be engulfed in flames. The dragon then twitched and made a strange coughing sound before crumbling to the floor with a thunderous crash.
Silence returned to the ballroom, and she remained where she was, unable to believe it. A part of her thought this was some cruel joke on the monster’s part. But the dragon didn’t move. It only twitched and convulsed a few more times and then went still. Its breathing ceased and heartbeat slowed to nothing.
A dragon may have had different anatomy, but all living things had a brain in their skull. And judging from its size, Hildy guessed its brain was a meter and a quarter behind its eyes.
“Töte das Gehirn, der Körper stirbt.”
She backed out of the ballroom, refusing to take her eyes off the body. But once outside and feeling the rain on her, she sank to her knees and let out a triumphant scream. She had done it. The dragon was dead.
After three thousand, three hundred and three days, at long last, she was free.
~ X ~
As far as Hildy was concerned, the treasure was hers. The problem was she had no means of carrying it all by herself. After some thought, she packed as much gold as she could and beheaded the dragon. She then hung its head over the castle’s courtyard with a sign reading: Treasure’s gone. Better luck next time. She could always get the rest later.
She kept her Bastard Sword and battle-axe and used the leftover fabric from her blue gown to make a cloak. She also pried out one of the dragon’s teeth and made a necklace with it. Although reluctant, she chose to leave Ziggy behind. He was falling apart, and she decided it was best to leave him in the past.
The only book she took with her was the mystery one—determined to learn what it was. She had the two cook books memorized and had every intention of trying every meal listed in them. She planned to find an ocean and go swimming. She wanted to learn how to ride a horse. She also considered hunting down her father and killing him.
Hildy left the castle and didn’t look back. At long last the horizon was hers for the taking, and she would live her life to the fullest. She didn’t think of it as day three thousand, three hundred and four.
It was day one.
If you liked this and want to check out 13 other short stories, you can purchase
Ones & Zeroes: A Short Story Collection
on Amazon for Kindle or paperback.
And of course, there’s also my fantasy book series Graylands
©2018 by M. Walsh