Never laugh at live dragons.
Shadrik opened his eyes and listened. The screaming from the East wing of his castle had gone silent. He sighed with relief, hoping that it would not begin again. As he lay on his pile of riches, the bed of choice for most dragons, he began to wonder. Had she died? Had she killed herself? It wouldn't do at all if she was dead. In fact, it would be most disappointing.
Dragons are not used to disappointment.
Shadrik sighed and rose to his feet. He stretched like a massive cat while he listened contentedly to the tinkling of coins, gems, and ornaments dropping from his scaly underbelly. "Soon, my friends,” he purred to his treasure, “soon you will have more brothers and sisters to play with."
He sighed once more as he plodded reluctantly out the door of his bedroom and into the great hall of the castle. Shadrik rarely used this part of his home. It was made for humans, not dragons, and he had little use for the broken furniture and empty suits of armor littering the floor. Dust and cobwebs stirred as he passed.
Dragons do not care much for housekeeping.
The aged dragon clambered to the main staircase (the only one that could accommodate his bulk) and ascended the steps to the east wing. He shuffled down the hallway at a crouch (being himself taller than the arches at his full height) until he reached her chamber, one of the few that still had a working door on it. He pushed aside the rubble he had piled there and opened the door with his snout.
The screaming met his ears anew as soon as the door was opened. He frightened his guest even further by bumping his head on the doorway and cursing. The girl (for it was a girl, a princess in fact) threw a long unused chamber pot at his head, shattering it harmlessly against his hard scales. He rolled his golden eyes at the futility and resisted the urge to incinerate the entire room.
"Shut up! Stop screaming!" he shouted in the least ferocious voice he could manage. He was used to being intimidating when dealing with these human creatures. It never occurred to him to ever need to be civil towards them, (or to anyone, really) and he was having a very difficult time minding his manners. "It won't help you to carry on so, and it really is most irritating!”
She did not stop, and Shadrik began to lose his patience, which had already been worn dreadfully thin. “I'll eat you in a single bite if you don't shut up!” he roared. “I'll burn you to a crisp!"
This was very little help at all. In fact, it sent the poor girl into a high-pitched wail that made Shadrik bump his head on the doorway a second time. He cursed in dragonish, which is really quite awful to human ears. Luckily the girl did not hear him over her wailing. Finally, after making herself hoarse, the girl calmed enough to beg for her life. She was on her knees in front of the dragon, pleading incoherently, tears streaming down her face, mucus dribbling from her nose. It was most undignified. Shadrik was almost embarrassed for her. The mewling noise she made was nearly as bad as the wailing.
"Here now," he said, his mind churning for something comforting to say. Dragons are not naturally the nurturing type. "How about I find you something to eat?” he asked through gritted teeth. His attempt at being hospitable was rather terrifying in itself. In attempt to smile, he made a rather frightening face, nostrils flared and teeth gleaming. The girl covered her mouth, unable to find words to answer a smiling dragon. “It's been at least a day, and I guess you people eat more than once a year, yes?"
Shadrik, being as old as he was, only ate once or twice a year - three times if he was nervous or upset about something, or particularly bored. He heard somewhere that people ate much more frequently, though never spoke with one long enough to find out.
She stared at him, the color draining from her face.
Shadrik took her lack of screaming or wailing as a yes. "I'll fetch something for you, then.” He said still smiling horribly. “As soon as your rescuers arrive with your ransom, this will all be over. Oh, and do consider shutting up, now there's a good girl.”
Shadrik was very pleased with himself. It would finally be over. He would kill whoever showed up and take his treasure. Dragons love treasure, and they lay on it like great expensive mattresses.
The girl continued to murmur, her voice quivering with fear, but managed a nod. Shadrik sighed puffs of smoke, almost immediately regretting his own suggestion. He didn't want to hunt for food today. Unfortunately, the smoke from his sigh managed to upset his guest, and he quickly retreated from the room before she got to shrieking again. She managed enough courage to rise to her feet and slam the door in Shadrik's face, which he didn't so much mind, as it was difficult in such tight quarters for him to close it himself anyway.
Shadrik replaced the debris in front of the door, which he afterward decided wouldn't keep her in if she had really wanted to escape. The door opened inward. Anyway, he couldn't imagine that in her state she would attempt to escape.
Actually, he was beginning to think that none of this was worth the trouble, and if she did manage to escape he'd kill her and be done with it, ransom or no ransom. He almost hoped she would try to escape.
Drat that witch for suggesting he kidnap a princess. It was becoming more troublesome every minute.
Shadrik shuffled backward down the corridor, returning to the stairs where he had room to turn around. He descended back to the great hall and turned away from his bedroom and out to the front courtyard. Once there, he stretched his wings and looked up to the sky.
It was a bright sunny day outside, and Shadrik cursed again in dragonish. Dragon curses are the worst sort, and can easily cause a person to faint from their awfulness.
Shadrik hated hunting by day, especially when there were no clouds to hide him. Some local shepherds would likely spot him and there would be archers upon him in no time at all. He hated archers almost as much as he hated hunting by day. But he said he would get her something to eat, and if dragons are anything they are honest. Well, they are when it's in their best interest to be. He took to the air and ascended as high as he could while still being able to spot things on the ground.
He flapped his leathery wings and caught a tailwind across the deep gorge that separated his castle from the rest of the countryside. His castle was built into a mountain, and the only access to it was from the other side of the gorge. It was an ideal location for a dragon. Once he had slain all the people inside, and burned the bridge down, an invading force would have to travel miles in either direction to cross the gorge, and then back again over mountainous terrain to come to his front gate. As if a dragon weren't enough deterrence for besieging a castle, such a journey surely made it a questionable choice for even the noblest of knights, which was good for Shadrik because a dragon's natural enemy is the knight, and any knight that noble would surely be a terrible annoyance. Thus, Shadrik was able to live here relatively unchallenged for more years than he could now remember. It was quite a long time though, even by dragon reckoning.
Dragons, as it happens, can reckon quite a lot.
Shadrik loved his home and the noticeable absence of knights within it. Wizards were bad news too, of course, but they rarely went about in armor. Rather, wizards seemed to favor robes and ornate wands, wooden staffs, and tall hats. This stuff was all highly flammable, so a wizard to a dragon was little more than kindling. Witches, however were something different. Witches tended to be less direct, less apt to anger dragons, and carried fewer flammable things on their person.
The witch that had convinced Shadrik to engage this silly ransom plan (which seemed sillier the longer he surveyed the countryside for human food) had snuck up on him before he had time to kill her. Luckily for her, she talked well and fast enough to avoid being killed instantly for her intrusion. Hopefully, the scheme would pay off, or Shadrik would be conducting a study on the flammability of witches as compared with wizards very soon.
Shadrik continued to survey the countryside, using his keen eyesight and sense of smell to find some sort of food animal fit for a human. Sure enough, he found a flock of goats liesurely grazing on a hilly field. Surely, humans weren't above goat meat. Goats were quite delicious. As a dragonling, Shadrik had loved popping a few goats in his mouth as a midsummer breakfast.
This flock of goats appeared to be unguarded. Shadrik pondered whether a group of goats was actually called a “flock” as he descended upon them. Despite his dragon memory, which as far as he was concerned was infallible, he still had some difficulty with some of the finer points of human language.
There was a donkey with the goats that began braying as soon as it noticed a very large dragon with death in its eyes, and Shadrik was reminded of the girl back in his castle. So many unpleasant noises there were to be found when one ventured outside.
Piles of gold were silent. Dragons value silence as well. “Silence is golden,” is a phrase coined by a dragon.
Shadrik puffed a mouthful of flame at the donkey and reduced it to ashes then snatched a goat and crushed its spine before it could bleat out more unpleasant noises. He took to the air again as the (flock?) of goats dispersed, braying loudly as they went. Shadrik was happy there were no people about. Goat noise was bad enough. People would yell, and scream, and curse, and get weapons, and tire themselves out trying to fight, and get killed, and it was all so bothersome. There never were knights around when you wanted a good fight, just peasants with staves and crooks and maybe a shortbow or two. More kindling.
In a few beats of his wings he was back across the gorge and descending toward his castle. He hadn't looked at it on the outside in the daylight in quite some time, and it seemed to him that the place was in need of some repairs. He thought about setting out to find a better one, but it was such a grand location, and all of his riches were here. He would make do.
It wasn't as though Shadrik was trying to impress anyone. He hadn't seen another dragon since he was very young. Dragons love to show off to other dragons, but as they are generally solitary creatures, they seldom meet one another. Still, they delight in trying to maintain an impressive home even though they hate company, and almost never willingly let anyone inside.
Dragons are quite the paradox sometimes. Being a paradox can really take it out of a dragon.
A broken down old castle isn't much for guests, Shadrik thought, but then this girl was the first guest he had ever entertained, and judging by how it had gone thus far, was in no hurry to repeat the experience.
He landed gently in his courtyard, despite his ponderous size, and entered the main gate to the great hall. He ascended the stairs, shuffled down the hall of the east wing and burst through the princess's door, hoping that she would be dead, or gone, or both.
She was still there, irritating as ever. She huddled in the corner, rocking and muttering. Oh dear, I've broken her, Shadrik thought. He dropped the goat from his mouth which landed on the floor with an unpleasant thump.
"Here," he said, trying not to shout. "Food for you. It may not be what princesses are used to, but it's the best I can offer." (He didn't really know what a princess was used to, but assumed raw goat flesh wasn't a delicacy among their sort.)
She looked up at him with some puzzlement. Shadrik continued with his dragonish hospitality. "I could cook it for you, or rather, sort of burn one side, and maybe some might still be edible," he said. He paused to reconsider whether he could really perform such a service when she spoke for the first time since he welcomed her to his home.
"I- I'm n-n-n-ot the p-princess. I'm h-her lady in w-waiting. I... I'm n-not the princess. I'm not. I'm not. P-please... I'm... I'm not. N-not the princess." She quivered and continued repeating herself.
Shadrik had no idea what to do. He looked her up and down. His dragon heart began racing, which is a rare occurrence in itself, as dragon hearts generally only beat once every few minutes. Shadrik pondered whether she was telling the truth or not, as all human girls looked more or less the same to him. He considered what reason she would have to lie. Surely she knew that if she wasn't who he thought she was, and he knew it, then she would know that he might kill her rather than release her. Then again, maybe she was counting on him knowing that. Or was she? Or would she? Or...
Shadrik paused to think. Dragons are very thoughtful creatures.
"Lying," he accused, after deciding there was no way he had made a mistake. Dragons don't make mistakes. "You lie." He stomped the goat corpse, squashing it and sending the girl into hysterics again.
Shadrik simply didn't believe, or couldn't believe that she wasn't the princess. Dragons are very proud creatures, and for one to admit a mistake is very rare. "You're the princess. Lying won't make it any easier for you." He tried to convince himself of his own words as she continued insisting between sobs.
"I'm not! I'm not!" she shrieked.
Shadrik's jaw clenched. Finally, after listening to “I'm not” over and over again, he had enough. Right or wrong, he was fed up with the whole thing. All the noise, the day-hunting, the mess in his castle-the lot of it was too much bother.
"Foolish girl," he boomed. "You shouldn't have told me." He struck out like a giant serpent and chomped her between his massive jaws. Her scream was cut off almost immediately.
Shadrik hadn't been particularly hungry, but he always ate when he was upset. He was very upset indeed. She was actually quite delicious. Castle girls were tender, not having had to labor outside much, and he began to calm down as he enjoyed his meal. At least she made a decent breakfast.
Dragons love breakfast. They eat so infrequently that every meal is breakfast. Still, even after a good breakfast Shadrik was troubled. He was certain he had taken the right girl. The witch even told him, gave him a description and everything, showed him a vision in her cauldron. She told him this was a sure thing. Why she cared if he got richer he didn't know, or care to ask at the time. Come to think of it, she hadn't asked for any kind of fee either. Shadrik slowly began to understand that he had been had.
He felt very foolish, which is another quite unusual thing for a dragon. “For a dragon to feel foolish is for a knight to come out of his armor in one piece,” is another, less well-known dragon saying. This was turning into a most unusual day indeed.
He should have known some kind of treachery was behind this witch's plan. The more he thought on it and convinced himself it was all the witch's fault, the angrier he became. Dragons are very proud, as mentioned before. If one should happen to have the opportunity to trick a dragon, it is advisable not to go ahead with it, as they take that sort of thing very badly. At least make sure that they can never find out.
Shadrik found out.
He was about to rush off to the witch's house intending to burn it to the ground with her inside when he heard a low thud. His ear twitched and he stopped raging long enough to listen. Dragons have excellent hearing, but an angry dragon is a distracted dragon, and he had to stop to make sure he wasn't imagining things, or that his massive dragon heart wasn't beating in his ears.
Again, he heard the dull thud. It was the front gate that lead to the courtyard. The gate had been well-braced when he took possession of the place (quite useless against a dragon attack, really) and he had left it as such. Someone was here for the princess perhaps? But she wasn't princess of anything. No, it had to be for her. It was too coincidental that someone had chosen now to take the long way around the gorge just to come knocking.
Shadrik was puzzled. He slipped backward down the hall, turning round at the stairs and exiting out to the courtyard. Once again, a loud boom shook his front door. The bracing held. The wood was petrified by now, after long years of disuse, and stronger than it had been that day it failed to keep him out.
"Again, brave men of Melborra," a masculine human voice shouted. "Batter down the dragon's door. We'll rescue our Princess Eleanora and smite the creature that took her."
Smite? Shadrik almost chuckled. He hadn't been smitten since he was a wyrmling. Dragons love a good joke. He decided to have some fun with these people, quite forgetting the business of taking the wrong girl for the moment. This was just what he needed to lift his spirits.
"Who comes to the dragon's castle?" Shadrik boomed, almost breaking into dragonish giggling. Dragon giggling is significantly more dangerous than it sounds.
The castle walls were high, and the people hadn't attempted to scale them, so no one noticed that Shadrik had come outside. They must not have brought proper siege gear save the battering ram. "Your insolence will be rewarded with charred flesh," he continued, trying to remember a speech he'd used once on a knight before they fought. This was long ago before he had a castle to live in, but dragon's memories are very long. "Who is the leader of this intrusion? I want to know who I am going to have the pleasure of killing very slowly and painfully."
The deep voice commanding the men outside replied confidently, which pleased Shadrik. He hadn't had a good fight in... he couldn't remember. Not since he'd set himself up in this castle. Dragons love a good fight when their opponent is over-confident. There is nothing more satisfying than the look in a knight's eyes when he realizes what a tremendous idiot he's been to challenge a dragon.
"It is I, Sir Frederick of Melborra here to rescue Princess Eleanora and to slay the foul beast within these walls. Open your gates, that I may fight the loathsome dragon."
Loathsome? Foul? Shadrik could hardly contain his glee. This was an old-fashioned knight all right. The noblest kind there were. He'd done his homework. He had the speech down and everything. It would be glorious!
Then all at once, Shadrik remembered the ransom. The thought of more treasure in his bedroom, and this easily gotten was even more exciting. His dragon heart was pounding now, almost twice a minute. He became somewhat lightheaded. He tried to be casual, but couldn't help inquiring about the treasure. Perhaps he'd not kill the witch after all. She seemed to have known her stuff.
"Fight the dragon?" Shadrik asked with a flair, trying to put on a good show. "What of the gold? The princess's ransom? If you pay for her life, you can sheath your swords, and no men to be roasted alive in their armor today."
"HA HAAAH!" the knight laughed in answer, never missing a beat. "There be no ransom for you, wretched beast, but cold steel!" Oh dear, thought Shadrik. This fellow thinks quite a lot of himself. How unfortunate.
Then he thought on it. No ransom? It must be a part of the show.
There was definitely a ransom.
There better bloody well be a ransom.
Shadrik decided to continue with the exchange, but once again felt he might have to kill the witch after all. "Well then," Shadrik answered, still looking forward to a bit of a fight. "There be nothing here for you except a fiery death, sir Frederick."
Shadrik took to the air. Arrows hit him almost at once. Of course, they were merely an annoyance so long as none hit him in the eyes. He could smell the archers well enough to close his eyes as he crashed upon them, blasting his fiery breath on a wide swath of the assaulting forces. He opened his eyes to survey his carnage.
It was a rather small army, smaller still now that he had crushed most of the archers. He made straight for a company of lancers, they being the most dangerous to a dragon. If any of their lances were enchanted, they might be able to hurt him, but none seemed to be. Any and all blades or points that hit him were turned aside easily by his thick dragon hide.
Shadrik blew fire, and bit, and clawed, and stomped. He had a grand time. It was a delightful romp unlike any he'd had in recent memory. He should have thought of this long before spending so many long boring years in his castle alone. He was once again happy with the witch, treasure or no treasure. He'd still kill her, of course, but it wouldn't be particularly unpleasant for her.
Dragons are fickle creatures.
Shadrik caught sight of a fellow in shining armor atop a white stallion, and thought that it must be this Sir Frederick. The knight's forces were completely decimated, but he still held strong, his sword at the ready. What a fool. What a wonderful, noble, sad, dead fool. Shadrik clutched two men who were trying to retreat and took flight. He flung them into the gorge and landed in front of the knight with the most menacing snarl he could muster.
"Your forces are destroyed, Sir knight," Shadrik said, really getting into the knight versus dragon charade. He wanted to play along a little, for the sake of fun. This thing happened so seldom anymore. Dragons love killing knights. They make the most satisfying 'crunch'.
"Foul beast," Frederick said, his sword aloft. "For Eleanora, I will slay thee."
Shadrik grinned his best villainous grin. "For her memory you mean. She was my breakfast."
The knight's sword wavered. His noble grin faltered. Shadrik savored every moment. This was the most fun he could ever remember having. But wait, something seemed to be wrong. The knight's sword fell to his side, and he made a face, one Shadrik didn't interpret as terror or foolish heroism, which were the only two human expressions he was really comfortable recognizing.
"You ate her?" the knight asked. "You... what? That wasn't supposed to happen. You ate her? What is the matter with you? I thought we had a deal." Sir Frederick stared at Shadrik shaking his head, incredulous. A few of his surviving men exchanged bewildered glances.
Now it was Shadrik who was confused. "What do you mean deal? Our deal was for ransom. You have no treasure, you have no princess. That's the deal."
The knight removed his helmet, tossing it to the ground. "The hell it is. Larissa assured me that you were completely instructed and fully ready to cooperate. I come here, we do battle, I "wound" you, (at the word wound, the knight made quotation marks in the air with his fingers. Dragons hate air quotes.) and you depart the land. The "princess" (more air quotes) is rescued and all is well in Melborra. I marry her, become king, you get your cut of the riches, blah-de blah blah blah. Why on earth did you eat her? What am I supposed to do now, hmmm?"
Shadrik listened to all this as he pondered the best way to kill this nuisance, and the second best would be applied to the witch. "I know of no such deal,” Shadrik hissed, “and anyway, that wasn't the real princess. She swore to me that she was just a lady in something."
"In waiting, yes, yes," the knight replied, exasperated. “It was so simple, dragon," the knight muttered. "But no, we couldn't use the real princess. She's far too fussy about her daily routines and whatever else concerns princesses. She couldn't be bothered to get kidnapped, so we had her lady in waiting all ready to go. Have you forgotten everything the witch told you? I thought dragons were supposed to be smart, and great at scheming and such."
Shadrik was mad now. He liesurely killed another man who had been standing too close, squashing him underfoot. "That's quite enough from you, Sir Whoever-you-are. This is not my scheme, but the witch's. I'm afraid we've both been had. Unfortunately for you, it will not end how you planned it. I am sure 'get eaten by dragon' (at this Shadrik made mocking air quotes with his bloodstained claws) is not one of the steps in your plan."
Of course, Shadrik didn't really plan to eat him. He was still quite full from the girl he'd eaten earlier, and knights are very tough and stringy.
Dragons do not overeat at breakfast.
Either way, the knight's knighting days were behind him. Shadrik charged at him, caring very little if his sword was enchanted or not, and stomped him to the ground. The horse screamed and promptly died, possibly from fear. It's very scary when dragons do things like this. The knight, who had been fairly well crushed, coughed and sputtered and then died, his body broken by Shadrik's weight.
Shadrik didn't care to waste fire on the fool, such was his displeasure at the whole situation. Plus he hadn't been much of a knight in the first place. Knights don't go in for all this deception and nonsense.
Dragons dislike poor knights.
Shadrik rummaged through what was left of the knight's invading forces. There was no treasure to be found. No ransom. Not a coin. He intended to find out about this straight away. So determined was he to get to the bottom of things that he left several men alive, cowering beneath their slain companions.
Generally, dragons are more thorough, but Shadrik was distracted.
The men, being without a leader and without a princess to rescue, decided together that it would be best to return home and make straight for a tavern and do their best to wipe this day from their memories using strong drink. That is exactly what they did.
Dragons, however, do not drink. Nor do they easily forget.
Shadrik remembered exactly where the witch said she lived. He had been very suspicious of her the day she came knocking, and he would have killed her simply for her intrusion except for the riches she promised him. She was a fast talker, this witch, but Shadrik had made sure to question her thoroughly and not listen to her nonsense about “only being a messenger” and “not really important”. He reluctantly allowed her to leave, but not before extracting the exact location where she could be found.
He now thought it would have been much better to kill her then and there after her plan was explained to him, but oh yes, she still had work to do to make sure the princess was in the right place at the right time. He'd had to let her go to finish her part in it. The dratted witch. Some job she did making sure. She was a cunning one.
In fact, now that Shadrik thought on it, she was a bit too persuasive. Unfortunately, “hindsight is twenty chests of silver and twenty chests of gold,” as the old dragon saying goes.
Shadrik flew angrily. Dragons can fly in a multitude of different fashions to convey emotions, some being quite proud of their angry fly, or sorrowful fly, or some even having a pensive fly, which is one of the more difficult ones.
He arrived where the witch said she lived, believing it to be false, another ruse perpetrated by a most shady character, but sure enough, there was the small stone house in the middle of the Shadowood near Melborra, and a plume of purple smoke trailing up in the slight breeze. It was just like she said. Too bad for her.
Perhaps the witch wasn't as foxy as Shadrik thought after all. He landed with a thud just a few yards from her door and bellowed for her. "Larissa! This plan of yours has fallen apart," he raged, "and I am beginning to think it is all your fault. Come out of there at once!"
Part of him wanted to immolate her immediately upon exiting the house and watch her dance the way people do when they are burning alive. This is humorous to dragons. Shadrik had only done this a few times over the years when he especially hated someone, and he usually felt badly afterward. Dragons are not wholly without compassion, depending on the situation, of course. This time, however, he wanted to question her before roasting her, mostly out of curiosity. Just what the devil was going on here?
The purple smoke billowing out of the house shifted to white, and Shadrik heard movement inside. After some clattering of bolts and chains and locks on the heavy wooden front door, it opened with a creak and out stepped Larissa. She was tall and stately in a black dressing gown, and hair pulled up with ornate combs. She was not the ugly sort of witch that had grown very stylish of late.
Most royalty held a witch under contract for any kind of counter-spells against assassination attempts or hexes, and for setting up their own hexes, and lots of other courtly things that Shadrik didn't want to think about. Humans were always trying to murder each other discreetly and in private, and magic was apparently a pretty good way to go about it. It disgusted Shadrik.
If a dragon wants to kill you, you know it. First he tells you he's going to do it, then he does it.
Anyway, the old ugly sort of witches were more popular these days, being rather more menacing, and also less likely to attract the eye of courtly men. Larissa was somewhat of a throwback, being a middle-aged woman who might be considered lovely if Shadrik had any idea what loveliness entailed among humans. She smiled at him, which he didn't like in the least. People don't smile at dragons, not if they have any common sense.
"My dear dragon," she inquired. "Whatever is the matter?" This was not good at all. She was far too confident. Shadrik wasn't used to being treated like this, like some common house guest. He was quite off his guard and getting madder and more confused by the second.
"Larissa," Shadrik began, speaking quite calmly, though he thought he might explode in a fireball of rage at any second.
Dragons are skilled at containing their anger, but only for so long.
Shadrik’s ears rang. "This plan of yours that I have undertaken, it has quite come apart at the seams. The girl you described to me IN GREAT DETAIL was the wrong girl. What is more, a knight and a full complement of his men came knocking at my front gate, and without any sort of ransom to pay me. They seemed to think they would simply slay me, an idea too vulgar to even be humorous. Did you put them up to this, Larissa? Your name was mentioned. This knight fellow seemed to think I was in on some sort of scheme, and definitely not the one that you and I discussed IN GREAT DETAIL. Why are you bargaining with knights AND dragons, Larissa? Are you mad, or just a fool? Just what exactly is going on here?"
The witch did not betray any surprise at the dragon's words, but listened as he blustered with a calm expression on her face. Shadrik wished she would give him something, anything that told him what she was thinking. A raised eyebrow, a drop of sweat, the wringing of hands, anything at all would suffice. She was a closed book.
"My poor Shadrik," she condescended. With those three words, her fate was sealed, gold or no gold. Shadrik felt the fire welling within him, begging to be unleashed.
"I'm sorry about all this.” Her voice was dripping with sympathy. “I promise you will be paid what's owed you, but I'm afraid a little deception was necessary. Not to you, of course, for who would be foolish enough to lie to a dragon?” Shadrik nodded. That certainly made sense. Who would be foolish enough? No one.
“No,” she continued, “I lied to the knight. I lied to him in order to get him to lead the assault upon your castle, for which I am deeply sorry, of course. But he had to be gotten rid of, and I knew you would do it for me. You performed splendidly, I must say, even leaving a few men alive to tell the tale."
Shadrik enjoyed the compliments despite recognizing them as shameless flattery. Dragons know how wonderful they are, but it never hurts to hear it from someone else, genuine or not. He was, however, still raging and puzzled and unsure if he could take her at her word. Also, her voice had a peculiar timbre. It made his thoughts all jumbled. He was certain she was using magic on him, or trying to. How had he not noticed this before?
"What is all this then?" he asked, snapping out of it. "Is this more human foolishness? Why don't you just kill each other like civilized people? Bite each other on the neck, or run each other through with those lances you're so fond of. I can't be bothered with all your silly lieing and scheming."
Larissa smirked. "Yes, it is human foolishness, but it concerns me greatly. If you like I will tell you the whole story so that you aren't in the dark."
"Please, do. Especially the part about how I still get my treasure," Shadrik said thinking of a hundred different ways to slay her, starting with the messiest and working his way up. He decided to risk more of her speech, believing she had no real control over him.
She blinked at him, the first real betrayal of deceit she had let slip. Shadrik began to lament that he wouldn't see a gold farthing, but he'd have some more fun before the day was out, anyway.
"You see," she began, "the princess you were to have captured is my daughter. Long ago, I was in service to the king, in more ways than one. I was both his witch and his concubine. I bore him a daughter. Well, actually, through magic I caused the queen to bear our daughter, but the princess is my flesh and blood. She is the eldest of two royal children."
At this point Shadrik had lost interest in her human prattling, having narrowed it down to two ways to kill her, but not being able to decide which one to use. Human politics are extremely boring to dragons. Larissa’s voice had taken on that strange quality again, but Shadrik wasn't paying any attention. The witch, thinking she could still use her magic to talk her way out of this, continued weaving her tale as Shadrik thought about gold and blood and fire and bloody gold and burning blood and golden fire and other dragony things.
"Her younger brother, the prince, is actually her half-brother, but he is every inch a schemer. He wants the throne for himself, even though royal order dictates that she, being the eldest, inherits the throne. The prince came to me, his father's former witch, to help him carry out his plan with promises of reinstatement at the palace. It was I who suggested having you kidnap her for us. Of course, I would never betray my own daughter. Once she is queen, I will once again be the royal witch. But I had to make good on my plan or the prince would have gone to someone else, and likely my daughter would be dead."
"So," she continued, and Shadrik began listening again, sensing that she was reaching something of a point to all this drivel. "The plan was to have you kidnap the girl, and to send out Sir Frederick, whom the prince also despises, to rescue her. This would almost certainly get the princess killed as well as Sir Frederick. Everyone knows you don't trifle with a dragon."
"Except witches apparently," Shadrik interjected jovially, having made up his mind how to kill her.
Larissa paused a moment, not quite sure how to take his sudden change in mood. She began to fear that her speech wasn't affecting him, and she pushed her voice even further. "Yes, well, it worked like a charm, except for the fact that the prince doesn't know that you kidnapped the wrong girl. He thinks the princess, my daughter, is dead at your hands. You performed so well. I'm very pleased. Now it's a simple matter of my daughter returning with the tale of her daring escape. She will be a hero. The prince will be furious. He'll look like a fool. If I know him, he'll try to kill her in the open, and will either be slain or caught and exiled."
"Hm," Shadrik grunted. This is all so ridiculous and convoluted, he thought. And that voice was too ridiculous. Now that he understood her tricks it worked as well as arrows against his scales. "How do you know he won't kill her?" he asked, not caring in the least.
"My daughter is well trained in the dark arts, as I am. He'll be no match for her. And even if he doesn't try to take her life in the open, his mind is now known to us, and he can be dealt with accordingly." She really looked quite pleased with herself. She didn't know Shadrik had ideas of his own.
"I missed the part where I still get my treasure," Shadrik said, advancing a step toward the witch. "When does that happen? Where is the part about emptying the royal coffers and transporting it to my castle?"
"Oh yes," Larissa stammered, not liking how close Shadrik was to her. "Obviously you will be paid as planned, but discreetly. A little bit at a time if you don't mind."
"Oh, I do mind," Shadrik said. "I mind a great deal, in fact. I believe that after all of this, the great service I've done to you, the damages to my front door and so forth, I wish to have double the payment, and in one lump sum. A goblin that I had the displeasure of eating once said to me that a gold piece today is worth more than a gold piece tomorrow. I'm not sure what it means exactly, goblins are a funny sort, rather gamey, but I like the saying. It sounds like good policy, and it's been a motto of mine ever since. So, shall I fly to the castle now, or wait until the prince is dead?"
The witch opened her mouth once or twice without saying anything. She hadn't thought about the dragon refusing payment, nor had she realized her powers weren't working. She probably knew dragons were lustful for riches, but underestimated how deep that lust truly was. "Now, now, my good dragon, be reasonable. We can't be openly paying you. You are the villain after all. You kidnapped the princess. Why, if the people found out about it, there would be questions. No, no, you must let us handle it in the best way." Her voice was no longer confident and laced with whatever spell she had woven, but was shaky and panicked.
"I've let you handle it quite long enough," Shadrik boomed. "I am not your 'good dragon.' Dragons do not suffer human plotting, nor do we wait for anyone if we do not wish to. Do you think that my castle was acquired piecemeal as a payment for services rendered? I killed everyone in it, man woman and child, and I took it. I am not anyone's 'good dragon'. Dragons take what they want, when they want, and I think I'll be taking what's mine right now. The way I see it, this kingdom belongs to me now."
The witch said some strange words and threw a ball of light at him. Perhaps it was lightning or something magicalish. It made a loud noise and a flash as it hit his tough scales and dissipated leaving a slight whiff of ozone. He hardly cared what it was, as it didn't damage him at all. It did tingle a bit.
He killed the witch rather quickly, reducing her to ashes with a very powerful blast. He'd been itching to burn someone alive for the longest time, but had patiently waited for just the right one. It was very pleasing to see her vanish in his flames. She was really quite lucky to have died thus. Dragons know some awful techniques for inflicting pain.
Reducing her to ash felt so good that he burned her house to the ground, and took a good long whiff of the ashes. The scent of ashes is like catnip for dragons. Before flying off for the castle, Shadrik toppled over several trees in a rather silly manner.
It was a quick flight from the witch's house to Melborra. She, having been in the employ of royalty, kept her home nearby, though not within the castle walls.
Shadrik didn't like going to castles these days. He was but a young buck when he acquired his current residence. He had grown quite old and lazy, and attacking more castles meant more trouble; more trouble than he wanted to deal with, anyway.
Shadrik heard a multitude of screams and shouts and calls to arms as he flew over the residents. “That old chestnut,” he said to himself as people below shrieked and gibbered. One or two of them tried to be heroes and shoot him down, but simply found their quivers several arrows lighter. Dragons are not so easily felled. He spotted a courtyard within the castle, inside the inner wall of the fortress, and decided that would be a good place to land. There, they would be forced to deal with him.
Shadrik came down with a thud, knocking over a shrubbery and making great big claw marks in the grass. If this was a croquet field or other such venue for games which dragons have little interest in, it would need some work before functioning as such again.
Two guards were stationed at an entrance from the yard into the castle proper. They looked at each other and then at Shadrik. Neither guard uttered a sound, but stood mouths agape, trembling.
"Fetch me the prince." Shadrik said-in his most persuasive voice. Dragons can be very persuasive creatures. The two guards did not wait for any further instruction, but set about their task without even acknowledging their acceptance. Shadrik could not help but grin.
Dragon grins will wilt most flowers.
Finally, after several minutes Shadrik heard footsteps and clanking of metal from somewhere inside the doorway, which was a feat even for a dragon's sharp ears considering the commotion outside the fortress that even now was nearly deafening. The prince emerged in his finest armor. He must have been awfully rushed getting into it, thought Shadrik, or else humans are stranger than he thought going about clinkety-clank in mail all day.
About the prince's helm was a circlet, indicating his station, which as far as Shadrik was concerned didn't matter in the least. Princes die the same as any other men do: easily.
The prince raised the visor of his helm, revealing the smuggest grin anyone had ever dared show to Shadrik. He almost melted the tin-plated prince right then and there, but he wanted to hear what the little idiot had to say first. It ought to be entertaining. Dragons love to laugh, although it is very difficult to get them to, and a most frightening sight to behold.
Dragon laughs are a powerful ingredient in alchemy, but so rare and dangerous to harvest that they are worth more than the gold they can turn lead into.
The prince spoke, or more accurately, he oozed words, adding flagrant annunciation to everything, undoubtedly trying to sound excessively formal, but coming across as more addled in the brain than anything.
"My DEA-hest Dragon, THOU hast rrriddeth the kingdom, of my DEEV-iant of a sister. WE the PEO-ple of Mel-BORRRRA castle biddeth you.., ah-WELcome, and would prrrovide, AN-Y-THING thou dost desire." With that he bowed low to the ground.
Shadrik struggled to understand this odd pattern of speech, especially the rolling R's. He didn't say a word. He simply waited for the prince to straighten up again, wondering if he could, being all in plate mail.
The prince finally stood straight again with some effort, and was by now quite red in the face. Shadrik was slightly amused by the defective prince, but still more than a little upset about the whole affair.
"My DEA-hest prince," Shadrik began, mocking the prince's tone, which the prince didn't seem to appreciate at all. "I simply want my ransom. And no, I did not 'rrriddeth' you of your sister. I took the wrong girl. It was no fault of mine, but that hardly matters anymore."
The prince did not look amused. His red color deepened.
"You see," continued Shadrik, "I now hold you and your entire castle ransom. Empty your coffers and load your wealth into as many wagons as necessary and send them on their way to my home. I am not hungry, having just had breakfast, so you may even get all of your beasts of burden back in one piece. If this is not done, it will please me greatly to take up residence here in this very castle, after killing everyone in it, of course." Shadrik began sizing up the fortress. "Yes, I think it will do nicely. I had been thinking of moving to a more spacious home."
The prince reddened further (something of an impressive feat) as Shadrik spoke his demands. The prince completely lost his temper, which was not a good thing to do near a dragon. His overly formal tone had vanished. "The wrong girl? What kind of... You think we will pay you a penny? You cannot threaten this palace. My witch is the most powerful in the land, and she will smite you down. You will pay for your bungling, dragon!"
Shadrik smiled. "Your witch," he teased. "The one that lives in the forest? The one who hired me and then purposely mislead me in order to foul up the deal? Her? The one who is the princess's real mother? That witch? Well, aside from the fact that she hated you, she's quite dead." Shadrik let the horror of the prince's situation sink in a little before adding: "...and so are you."
With that, Shadrik cooked the prince to death in his own armor. Honestly, who threatens a dragon and gets away with it? No one. Shadrik postulated that he hadn't been out terrorizing the countryside enough, and it had made the people soft and arrogant. He was about to go and remedy that, when someone else emerged from the castle. It was a woman dressed in plain robes, looking every bit a peasant.
"Dragon," she said, "what is your name?"
Shadrik rolled his eyes. Not another one... "To you, my name is fire and death and fear, little one," Shadrik said with a sinister grin and a puff of smoke. "But friends call me Shadrik the Bronze. You may begin shrieking in terror now." He waited. She didn't react quite as dramatically as he'd hoped; further evidence that he needed to reintroduce himself to the locals.
"Shadrik," she said with confidence. "I am the princess Eleanora, and rightful heir to the crown of Melborra. I humbly apologize for decieveing you and incurring your wrath, but I promise you will receive any treasure you desire from my kingdom."
Shadrik noticed a peculiar timbre to the girl's voice, something familiar and strange. It made his thoughts cloudy, and he smiled dumbly at her.
“Yes, well... treasure... I like treasure, you see,” he said.
All at once it hit him and he shook his great head. The magic dissipated and his mind cleared.
“Larissa, you sneak! How did you escape my fire? I'm hardly angry, such is my surprise! This really is a first. You had me going there, you really did. Now come on, out with it. Where is the treasure, and how would you like to die?”
Dragons are not easily fooled, and they don't like it, but they do love the moment where they discover the deception and watch as the culprit's best-laid plans unravel before their eyes. It makes them feel superior. Well, it makes them feel more superior than usual.
Larissa threw back the ragged hood. She looked like a much younger version of herself. She was not smiling.
“Princess Eleanora, I presume?” Shadrik asked with a smirk. “No, wait. I see now. I did eat the real princess. You magiced up her mind to thinking she wasn't the princess or something. You knew I'd carelessly slay her, didn't you? Remarkable.” Judging by the witch's horrified look, Shadrik had hit the nail on the head. “And so then you become queen, eh? Except, wait. There's the matter of the dragon.”
Larissa did not look happy at all. “Listen, dragon,” she began, pushing her voice again. Shadrik was quite immune to it now that he knew he was being manipulated. “This can still work out well for both of us. I can arrange a regular tithe to you from the kingdom, as we discussed in the woods, and...”
“No, no, dear me, no,” he cut her off. “This is all much too confusing for such a stupid dragon as me. That is what you thought isn't it? Fool the idiot dragon? Dangle gold and treasure in front of his big lizard nose, yes? He'll be your pawn and win the throne for you and then you can rip him off. No, I'm afraid we're past all that.”
He advanced on her. She backed away, maintaining her distance. He watched her carefully for more tricks.
“No, no, my queen. This dragon has been pushed too far. You ought to have known better than to involve me.” Shadrik was about to make an end of her when she spoke once more.
“I'll double it! I'll pay you all that was promised twice over! Think of it dragon! All these riches can be yours!”
Shadrik paused. His bed had been feeling small.
The witch's eye twinkled with hope. She smiled at him. “This can still work for both our advantages.”
He paused and thought for a moment.
Shadrik was very tired after destroying the castle and burning all the village surrounding it. He made sure the witch died slowly. She certainly deserved to suffer. The common people, however, he dealt with rather more compassionately for the most part. He ate two or three of them and maimed several more, but he only burned down six farm houses. They did need to be taught a lesson about dragons after all, but he was no monster.
After returning home, exhausted and depleted of fire, he decided that his bed was comfy the way it was. He knew this was sour grapes, but what is one to do in such circumstances? At least he had an amusing time. He slept for nearly a week before waking hungrier than he had been in over a decade, and quite ready for breakfast. No one came calling ever again, which was just fine by him.
Dragons enjoy peace and quiet.