So continues my September Stories project! If you missed any of them, you can find the full list here.
Dragon Eyes: An Unconventional Fairytale By Danielle Davis
Once upon a time, there was a princess whose parents locked her in a tower.
Once upon a time, there was a dragon that guarded a tower rumored to house a beautiful princess.
Once upon a time, these were different stories.
King Prince and his wife Mylena loved their daughter, who was born after a long period of doubt whether an heir would even be possible. From the start, she was like something from a fairytale. Her hair curved in long, silken waves the color of ripe chestnuts. Her figure was slight, her skin fair. Such were the luminous nature of her eyes, people several kingdoms over heard of the clearness of their hazel depths and how they sparkled with intelligence and wit.
What they didn't know was that she could also turn into a dragon.
Well, that's mostly true. She couldn’t change at will, but rather was forced, by whatever element of nature caused the transformation, into her dragon form for three consecutive months out of the year. Usually, this took place in the winter months, when her warm dragon's hide favored the brittle kiss of ice and snow. But it meant that for every nine months of dancing and fostering and treatise counciling the kingdom enjoyed, there were three months of solitude. Visitors to the gate were turned away regardless of their standing. All but essential personnel were granted winter leave of their duties at the castle, to resume at the beginning of the new year. It was a tidy solution to a rather awkward problem.
However, it only worked for a few years. At first, keeping a dragon child secreted away in the castle, playing games and learning lessons from only a handful of personal servants and tutors, was easy. But as the child grew, so did her dragon form. So it was, on the eve of her ninth birthday, that she was sent to another area of the kingdom: in an isolated, abandoned castle that had once housed a minor Duke before his family fell ill to a plague. There she and her contingent of servants stayed for the winter months, until the spring buds showed their naked tips to the world and they were able to travel back to her parent's castle.
So it went, for a little over a decade. Princess Sheena grew from a smiling, observant child into a beautiful, witty, young woman.
Well, a beautiful, witty young woman and a fantastically large dragon. Who learned to breathe fire. But more on that later.
What's important to know now is that this...peculiarity...affected how her parents raised her. There were no lessons on proper harp playing, a common practice when it came to beguiling potential suitors. No embroidery, to sew favors to give to knights at tourneys. Her parents were careful to ensure there was no expectation on her part, as was instilled in the other princesses she knew, of snaring a likely Prince Charming of her own.
Their intent was benevolent—to save her from the disappointment she surely would face later. They could not, in good conscience, give her hand away to a man who would shortly discover exactly what he'd married come their first winter together. What that gave to Sheena, however, was a freedom of study unknown to the other princesses she knew.
Instead of learning the harp, Sheena decided she preferred the jingling johnny, a clashingly raucous percussion instrument she'd once seen a minstrel play at the Summer Fair. She built one herself using a sturdy staff and fixing all manner of tin items to it: small bells, rocks trapped between two tin plates...you get the idea. Instead of embroidery, she learned darning instead—an ironic joke considering her likelihood of becoming the Spinster Princess. She spat when she coughed up a snot during cold season. She played chess better than her father's military general and argued politics with his councilors. She wore men's riding pants when she charged out on the fat warhorse she'd begged off her parents because she loved his dapples.
And when suitors arrived, she behaved as she normally would. Over dinner, she asked their opinions on the likelihood of a peace treaty with the barbarian tribes of the south. She asked after their kingdom's imports and offered suggestions for improving their economic leverage. Most got the hint before dessert. Those that didn't got to enjoy her warbling rendition of "happy birthday" with jingling johnny accompaniment.
Then, with the last leaves of fall making their sad descent to the ground, she and her attendants bade her parents a tearful goodbye and left for the Iron Castle, so named for the iron bars that fortified the doors and lower windows.
What nobody counted on was how, well, tedious this whole procession began to be for Sheena. Year after year, it was always the same: come home, pretend to be a normal girl, then hide away in her tower. Transform, rinse, repeat.
And though she appeared to take great delight in besting suitor after suitor, it wore on her. Her parents were thrilled—it seemed their diffidence to the idea of finding a man had worked to everyone's advantage. But she had a longing in her that she couldn't quite name, a desire to actually find a like personality, to be able to debate about topics of interest with one who matched her enthusiasm for them. To find someone who accepted her as she was rather than what she pretended to be.
She also noticed, as she moved from teenager into young woman, certain changes in her dragon form that her human one didn't share. Not the obvious ones, mind you. The internal ones. As a dragon, she retained the power of speech and intellectual reason—that remained about the same regardless of her form. But most of the emotions she felt with raw acuity as a girl—love, fear, sadness, hatred, and (most especially) boredom—were dulled to the merest afterthought when she was a dragon. All her dragon form cared for, foremost, were those emotions attributed to lesser creatures: hunger, territorialism, mating instinct. She could still feel the "human" emotions as a dragon, but their importance was minimal.
Inevitably, she learned the one major down-side to being a dragon: knights. One injudicious outing on her part—a brief foray into a nearby farm for a midnight snack of raw lamb chops—resulted in accidental discovery by the farmer's son, who had gone out to make sure the cows had enough hay for the night.
Rumor being what it was, word spread about the dragon scourge that had taken up residence in the abandoned Iron Tower. And, since rumors reproduced like bunnies, there were soon others. The dragon guarded a princess trapped in the tower. There wasn't one dragon, but five! That the dragon had slain three members of someone's uncle's second cousin's daughter's family.
The average number of knights she had to dispatch every winter was about five. The first one or two were usually rookies, newly knighted youths whose shiny armor reflected the sun from two counties away. These she usually ate before they even knew she was nearby. With a carefully angled aerial attack, she found she could eat both knight and horse in a single gulp, if the horse was smallish.
The third, and sometimes fourth, knights were usually more seasoned. Their armor had nicks and dings from a few significant battles, maybe they'd led a war party or two for their king. These knights put up more of a fight on account of being handier with a sword. Sheena learned that a few fireballs distracted them enough for her to unhorse them with her tail and then swallow them whole.
The last few knights of the season were the worst. These were the battle hardened warriors. Those whose armor had faded to a dull glint from the countless battles they'd fought. After nearly losing her head (literally) to a fellow calling himself Sir Thomas the Bold, she learned to blast them with fire before they got close enough to use their swords. Under a steady stream of flame, they usually cooked within their metal boxes in under two minutes. She did sometimes like her meat well-done.
The year Princess Sheena turned twenty, though, everything changed.
"Regina, can you bring me another of those memoirs from the library? I've finished the one on King Balgus the Huge last night." Sheena's voice rumbled through the room like the sound of distant thunder, making Regina flinch. "Sorry," Sheena grimaced. Or rather, she grimaced as much as her sinuous neck would allow.
Regina gave her a dark look but put down the tray of smoked meat she'd brought and turned to leave. "Mistress, you read faster than I would have given you credit for, given how small those pages are."
Sheena grinned, revealing her double set of needle-like teeth. Her long, black tongue lolled from the side of her mouth. "I learned a new trick for turning the pages. If I just hold the covers with my claws and blow gently to one side, I can turn the page. It helps me read much faster than before."
With a laugh, Regina's dark look turned to an affectionate glare. "At this rate, you'll run through the entire library before December!"
"Ugh." Regina sent a disappointed puff of dark smoke from her nostrils. "That would make for a tedious winter."
Regina grinned and left the room. Aside from her, Sheena only took two other attendants these days: a cook and a tutor. Since both of them were out on errands for the afternoon, Sheena was surprised to turn towards the rock slab that served as her bed to find a young knight standing in the middle of her room.
Sheena reared back. The movement brought her head several feet off the ground—and out of reach of the knight's sword, though it remained sheathed at his hip—and close to the ceiling. Her neck coiled into a curving S shape as she flexed the muscles along her back to flair the sharp scales at the base of her neck and shoulders. Though most of her was covered in tiny, fine scales as soft as hide, her protective scales were thicker and more rounded, able to deflect a sharper blow that might otherwise break the skin elsewhere on her body. She flexed her scythe-like claws and fixed the knight with her best glare.
"Who are you?" she demanded. When she didn't try to soften it, the natural volume of her voice made the furniture in the room tremble.
The knight remained in place, silently regarding her as he leaned slightly back to take in her full height.
"Answer me!" She stomped one foot and rattled the protective scales threateningly. The knight didn't move, even as small pebbles rained down on his armor with small pings.
Sheena rolled her eyes and snorted, which sent the frills at the back of her jaw fluttering. “This is the part where you draw your sword, genius,” she said in a stage-whisper.
The knight slowly reached up and slid his helmet off his head. He stared at her with wide, wonder fill eyes. An unruly lock of dark hair fell over his forehead and he brushed it back as if it barely registered. “I had heard tales of you, you know. How fearsome your teeth. How hot your fire. How querulous your temper—“
“Querulous, me?” she interrupted. She snaked her head down so that it was at eye-level with him. “Are you sure you heard that right?”
The knight paused. Even with that cow-like expression of confusion on his face, she had to admit he was good-looking. Not that it mattered.
“I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard.” He lowered his gaze and frowned, thinking. “I mean, it sounded similar…” He looked up and met her gaze directly. She marveled at the lack of fear and guile she saw there. “What sounds like ‘querulous’ but means ‘dangerous’?”
For a moment, she wasn’t sure how to respond. Was he mad? Didn’t he realize he was staring down a dragon that had not only spoken to him, but which had killed several men before him? But he continued to stare at her, with a little frowny line between his eyes that she found endearing.
“Perilous?” she suggested.
He clapped his gloves together and pointed at her. “That’s it! For some reason, I always confuse those two.”
She stared at him for a long moment. “Right… Well, let’s rewind this a bit and get back to my original question. Who are you?”
“Gareth.” He said the name in an offhanded tone, as if it were unimportant. He was still staring at her with a mixture of awe and fascination.
Sheena rose to her full height and fixed him with her most menacing glare. She prepared to launch into her speech, the one she used for the more experienced knights in the hopes she could dissuade them from a fight. So far, it had worked on two of them. “Well, Gareth, I will give you one chance to leave without issue. If you choose not to heed my warning, I can guarantee your death will be most… Why are you looking at me like that?”
He shrugged and grinned at her. “Are you sure the rumor I’d heard wasn’t actually ‘garrulous’?”
She lowered her head again to his level. “You have got to be the rudest knight I’ve ever met. How did you ever make it to knighthood?”
His grin didn’t falter. “I kept my mouth shut mostly.” She noticed his eyes were blue as a summer lake and sparkling with mischief.
“I doubt that’s an ability you possess,” she muttered and huffed a dark cloud of smoke into his face.
He twisted away, hacking and waving to clear the air around his face. “You surprised me. I expected you to ask why I was here.”
Sheena gave the best approximation to a shrug her dragon form allowed. “Why would I ask that? Past experience would tell me you’re here to kill me.”
“That would be a most unwise thing to do, I think.” He turned away from her and strolled around the room, pulling his armored gloves off as he spoke. It was the first time a knight had ever—knowingly—turned his back to her. “I imagine you could kill me faster than if I jumped from this tower.” His fingers grazed over the periwinkle tulle that formed the canopy of her bed. He made an appreciative noise and turned his attention to a painting on the wall.
“Care to get to the point anytime soon? I have a Latin lesson in a half hour.” Sheena let him hear the irritation in her voice, but inwardly she was intrigued. This had gone like no other meeting she’d ever had.
Instead of answering, he pointed to the picture. “This you?” He looked over his shoulder at her with raised eyebrows, waiting.
The painting showed her, sitting demurely on a chair with her body turned away from the viewer. But her face curled back over her shoulder to return the look. The painter had captured her eyes almost perfectly so they dominated the entire image with a piercing gaze.
She gave him a suspicious look, then nodded.
He looked back to the picture, then turned and fixed her with an appraising look. “I think I like you this way better, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
Her eyes widened in shock. For a moment all she could do was stare at him. Then she moved with the liquid grace of a predator to stalk a circle around him. “Explain yourself.”
“You’re certainly a beautiful woman, don’t get me wrong. But the eyes. In that picture. They don’t look any different on you as a dragon. But they suit you better this way. At least as a dragon, you don’t have to hide what you are.”
Despite herself, she was curious. “And what is that?”
In a soft voice so low she had to ease closer to hear, he said, “Wild. Fierce. Maybe a little bit feral around the edges. But smart. And brave. And…” He looked down again, struggling to find the words. “Oh, I can’t define it. It’s just…as a girl, those eyes make me think someone’s hiding on the inside, that there’s more to her than I see on the surface. As a dragon, your appearance personifies what I feel like might be hiding there.”
She gave him a long look and saw something similar within his eyes. There was a look of wildness there, too. Something unconventional. Something searching. Something exotic, but at the same time familiar. Something that beckoned her. Something waiting for the right person to unlock the secrets there.
“Tell me,” she said in a coy voice. “What are your views on the prospect of the local kingdoms expanding their trade options with the southern nomads?”
Gareth thought for a moment. She watched the ideas flicker within his eyes as he formed his answer. After several long moments, he met her eyes. “I think it would be a wise move if we could get their guarantee of safe passage through their territories. They have a textiles reach to the east that we haven’t been able to extend, no matter how hard we’ve tried, and we have an agricultural advantage they might appreciate given their nomadic culture.”
Sheena bared her teeth in a wide smile. Gareth returned it. “I don’t know how you got up here, Gareth Silvertongue, but I hope you’ve given some thought as to how you’re going to get back down. If you’ll excuse me, I have a Latin lesson to prepare for.” Still smiling, she turned to leave.
“Wait!” Gareth called. “Can I come see you again?” The naked hope in his voice made her heart turn over.
“I won’t be here. My transformation ends in a few days. Then I’ll return to my human form and my parent’s castle. Since you prefer my dragon form, I’m sorry to say I won’t be in it for quite some time. Much longer than a knight like you cares to wait.”
In a gentle voice heavy with emotions she didn’t dare name, she heard him say, “My cares are my own business.” When she reached the doorway and glanced back over her shoulder, he was already gone.
The disappointment she felt surprised her, but she knew it was for the best.
The next day, she woke to find a white rose lying on the windowsill. Around the middle, a silk ribbon attached the rose to a note. In a simple, unadorned hand she read: You aren’t the only one who isn’t what they seem on the surface. See you in a few days.