The Princess’ Rescue
Every tenth year in the Kingdom came slowly, on the arrested breaths of fathers and mothers. When that year came, and the winter wind finally blew warm, everyone stood up to listen. Apart from the quickening hush of the trees, the forest made no sound. Not an animal stirred. All the birds had flown away.
The entire Kingdom came to a halt. The people dropped their tools, drove back their livestock, and all at once ran into their houses to bring the news. “Wake up! Wake up! The Dragon is coming!”
Cedric Brickenden and his younger brothers were playing in the snow when they heard. They ran inside and found their mother, already awake, wearing her finest dress.
“Mama! Have you heard it? It’s the Dragon!”
“Yes, Cedric. I know. Get dressed now. You must look your best.”
“Why aren’t you smiling, Mama? It’s all right. The Princess is going to save us. She’ll protect us all.”
* * *
The King was sleepily allowing his attendants to dress him when Fargas, his advisor, opened the door without knocking.
“What have I said about barging into my chamber?” the King mumbled, too tired to be very angry.
“Sire, it’s about the Princess.”
“What does she want now?”
“It’s not about that Sire. She’s still asleep. It’s just that today—”
“Please don’t waste my time, Fargas. What is it about the girl?”
“The Dragon is coming.”
The King turned and looked at Fargas. He wasn’t drowsy anymore. With grey hands he shooed away his attendants and finished dressing himself.
“Wake her,” he said, “and bring me the Midwife.”
* * *
Meanwhile, at the center of the castle, in the most fortified room, Princess Lissa was dreaming. Her valets entered, tiptoeing around the luxury to her towering bed. They could hear her breathing softly amid the drapes and pillows.
The sound of the wind above hastened them. They awoke her.
“What do you want?” she said. “Where is my breakfast?”
“No breakfast today, Princess.”
She sat up. “Why not?”
“Today is a special day, dearest. The Dragon is coming.”
The girl’s freckled face changed. It was an expression the valets had never seen.
She threw aside the covers.
* * *
The streets were thick when Cedric Brickenden pulled his mother toward the center of town. People greeted one another heartily, anxious for what they knew would come.
Widow Brickenden ignored the crowd as much as she could. She was too distracted trying to keep her younger sons close by while Cedric was dragging her. It pained her to see him so excited for this day. Hardly nine, he had so much to learn about the Kingdom.
“Come on, Mama! We’re going to be late!”
“We don’t know how long it will be, Cedric. The Dragon comes when it chooses.”
“I know, but I want to get there first!”
His mother opened her mouth to say something, but she forgot her words. She saw the Midwife walking through the crowd with an escort of palace guards, who cut a swathe through the streets for her. The tall woman was wrapped in a fine cloak with a royal seal at its neck. Widow Brickenden met her eyes. For a moment it looked as if the Midwife would say something, but she continued on.
“Come on, Mama!”
* * *
Prince Orion was the last one in the castle to know that the Dragon was coming, and he had much to say about it.
“Tell Papa that I will save the Kingdom,” he said to his chambermaid.
“Please, master Orion,” the chambermaid hushed. “I’m only here to change your bedding and draw your bath. I’m not permitted to speak to the King.”
“Why does Lissa get to do it? I’m old enough.”
“You are seven.”
“And Lissa is ten. I could save us from the Dragon. I know I can!”
The chambermaid put down what she was doing and looked the Prince in the eyes.
“Now young sir, you know why Lissa must meet the Dragon, don’t you?”
“It’s her destiny,” he said with schoolroom accuracy.
“And what does that mean?”
“She was born to save the Kingdom.”
“That’s right. And what is your destiny?”
“To inherit the throne.”
“You see? You get to save the Kingdom, too. One day you will wear the crown, and you will save us from the Dragon over and over again, as your father has.”
Orion was glad to hear this, and when Princess Lissa walked past his bedroom door, dressed in her finest royal robes, he waved and wished her luck.
* * *
A heavy fist knocked on the door. When no one answered, the guard moved to leave, thinking the residents were with the crowd. The Midwife held him back with a hand. Fifty years at this profession had made no fool of her.
Finally the door opened, and a sleepy man peered out at them.
“Of course,” he said, seeing the Midwife. “I thought it might be you.”
He stepped aside and let her in.
* * *
Princess Lissa climbed the tallest tower. Made from ancient stones, it rose above the Kingdom’s rooftops by a flight of winding stairs. Two guards followed close behind her in accordance with tradition.
If her resolve ever wavered, it never showed on her face. She’d spent her entire life preparing for this day, studying, practicing, but never fearing.
When she reached the top, she looked all around her. The town square was flooded. The moment the crowd saw her they jumped up and cheered. She’d seen crowds this big before, but this one was different. Never had she been thanked so grandly.
The great castle doors opened beneath her, and Lissa saw her father addressing the crowd. His words cheered them, and they erupted with applause. When he was finished, they all looked up.
* * *
“You ask much of us,” Mr. Tucker said.
“This is our oldest tradition,” replied the Midwife. “Our ancestors made a pact with the Dragon, and we must honor it. I am powerless in the matter, as are we all.”
One of the guards stepped forward. “You should be grateful. A hundred years ago, no one would have bothered asking.”
“Stand down,” she said, and he did.
The cradle was rocking, and the little girl inside was murmuring out of sleep.
The Midwife cleared her throat. “I promise you, she will be rewarded. She will live in splendor all her days. She will never know hunger or thirst. She will never want for anything in the world. Many children would gladly give their lives to have what she will have.”
The little girl was crying now, and Mrs. Tucker picked up her daughter.
“The King is prepared to pay you quite handsomely.”
* * *
Prince Orion ran out to meet his father, who took his hand.
“Did I miss it, Papa?”
“No, my son, but it won’t be long now.”
“Supposing I did miss?”
“Then you would wait ten years for the Dragon to return.”
“That’s a long time.”
“I only wish it were longer. While the Dragon is gone we thrive, and multiply, and the Kingdom is safe.”
“And Lissa will save us next time, too?”
The King stroked his beard.
“Son, I think it’s time you knew something.”
“That girl up there isn’t your sister.”
Orion was about to ask what that meant when a loud roar shook the castle stones. Everyone looked up, except for the Princess, who looked straight ahead.
A carnivorous shadow swept over the land. Hot winds tore trees from their roots. The crowd screamed, and some ran away, but the Princess never wavered. The wind couldn’t knock her down, and the roaring of the Dragon as it descended couldn’t make her flinch. She looked into its eyes and spread her arms as if to say, “Come and get me!”
The Dragon caught Princess Lissa in its jaws and flew away.
* * *
The raging sky settled, and the crowd cheered.
All except Widow Brickenden, who ran away and fell to her knees, weeping for the lost Princess. Ten years of sorrow came welling up at once, and she finally understood why her husband had taken his life. Cedric ran up behind her.
“What’s the matter, Mama? It worked. The Princess has saved us. She’s a hero.”
Widow Brickenden looked up and saw the Midwife standing before the castle doors, her face stern as she placed another baby into the King’s arms.
“Cedric? There’s something I need to tell you about the Princess…”
◊ ◊ ◊
E.J. Hagadorn is the author of numerous works of fiction and poetry. When not writing he is often seen taking road trips, lurking in graveyards, and sleeping at his desk. His work can be found at www.ejhagadorn.com