Published on 2011/05/15

The Dragon's Ploy

David W. Landrum

I

They caught me kissing Matilda. Four guards came out of nowhere and surrounded us. The King walked up, leering. He had always been suspicious of me, though I had done him good service these past two years. He suspected I belonged to the conspiracy that was gaining ground in his kingdom, and I knew he would use this infraction to get rid of me.

“Well, love will find a way,” he sneered. Then he said to his guards, “Imprison them both.”

They put me in the keep—a dirty, smelly, lightless hole crawling with rats, spiders, and yellow scorpions. I heard the feeble moans and sighs of other prisoners chained to the wall, though I could not see them in the thick darkness. I prayed they would not treat Matilda this badly. After a while, a door opened. Two soldiers came in, undid my chains, and pushed me out into the corridor.

I blinked in the bright light. They shoved me along until I came to the judgment hall. Past the door, I saw King Rimauld sitting on his throne surrounded by his advisers. At his feet sat Feste, his fool. From the smirk on his face, I knew immediately that he had found out about Matilda and me and let the King know. In the choirs on either side of the throne sat the nobles of the land. Several members of the conspiracy were among them, but they would do me no good now. The guards shoved me down to my knees before him.

“You are charged,” he said, “with misconduct—to wit, engagement in lewd acts with a virgin, one of the Queen’s serving maidens. What do you have to say for yourself?”

I only shook my head.

“I wondered for a long time what to do with you,” he continued. “I think I have the perfect thing. The crime you committed is not punishable by death—at least not death as we usually think of it. Yet I want to make an example. You will not die, Terrowin. But after you see what we’re going to do with you, you may wish you were dead.”

With this they, tied me up, put a hood over my head, and dragged me out of the King’s chamber.

I had the sensation of being carried down flights of stairs then thrown in the back of a cart—I heard wheels creak, smelled the oxen and heard the driver call to his oxen, felt the sway as we set out on a bumpy, rutted road. I heard noises all around me—horses’ hooves, men shouting and talking—and knew I must have come with a considerable entourage.

We went a long way before we stopped. They allowed me to relieve myself and gave me a drink of water (pulling the hood up enough to uncover my mouth. The coolness, the smell, and the sound of rustling leaves suggested we were in the Forest of Ulrich at the foothills of the Sluys Mountains, which rose abruptly where the forest stopped. We went on and, sure enough, began to roll upwards.

The Sluys Mountains were sparsely populated, largely because there was a dragon’s lair in the Maidenstone, the highest of the peaks. The dragon had not disturbed anyone for centuries, but records existed of its burning and wasting the land in times past. Not far from the main palace lay a scorched ruin of a castle the dragon had destroyed in one of its rampages. It was kept standing as a warning that no one was to steal anything its lair.

As we wound uphill, I smelled something. It smelled like sulfur but also, I thought, like a decaying animal. The smell grew stronger and stronger. Finally, the cart came to a stop. The driver harangued the oxen and whipped them, but they apparently would not move. Someone pulled me out of the cart and jerked my hood off. After adjusting to the light, I saw we were about halfway up the Maidenstone. We began to walk toward the summit.

The smell nauseated me. I looked around for its source but saw nothing until we came over a rise to a flat, rock plain in front of a sheer cliff of grey rock in the center of which stood a yawning, black hole.

But what made me cold with terror was what loomed over us, rotting in the spring sunlight, putrid, fetid, its flesh collapsing into it a massive cage of bones.

It was the decaying corpse of a dragon.

I began to realize what they planned to do to me.

They pushed Matilda who, I did not know, had been back further in the line. Hands bound, she stood there. They had cut her hair short like a boy’s and dressed her in a smock—the kind women wear when they are burned at the stake. King Rimauld walked around in front of me, his nose twitching from the stench.

“It seems the old fellow died. How and why we don’t know, but he’s dead. We looked into his cavern, which is full of cursed dragon gold.” He grinned. “Cursed it is because now that its owner is dead, anyone who touches it becomes a dragon.” He nodded to his guards. They seized me. I heard Matilda scream and plead. Four soldiers held me, pushing me down to my knees. One closed off my nose and pulled my mouth open. Gaspar, one of the King’s sorcerers, poured something down my throat—it tasted like sweet wine. I gagged on it and it came out my nose, but a lot went down to my stomach. Matilda wailed. I caught a glimpse of her kneeling, her body shaking with sobs. Anger over the insult to her womanhood by cutting her hair and dressing her in only a smock filled me with rage. The king seized my hair and pulled my head back so I was looking up at him.

“You will become our new dragon. As for the girl you liked to kiss, I will lock her in a tower for the rest of her life. You should not have disregarded propriety in my palace.”

By now I felt groggy. When whatever sleeping drug they had poured down my throat took effect, they would throw me in the dragon’s cave. And they would take Matilda back and lock her up. I hardly felt any grief or shock because the drug had dulled my mind. They began to carry me toward the opening of the cave. I lost awareness even before we got to the door.


II

When I woke up, confusion overtook me. I lay still in the dark, trying to remember. My mind was dull. Vague memories of being tied up and throw in a pit filtered into my consciousness—but it was hard to think for some reason, hard to keep my mind focused because a hot, rushing feeling, something like anger, kept welling up into my head. It came in throbs from my stomach—which also felt hot—and all but erased the voice in my mind, though when the spasm receded my thought returned. I moved my foot and felt a clank of something like coins. I could not see, though. My thoughts started to fade and the broiling emotion to crest like a giant wave on the beach, threatening to wash out my presence of mind.

I needed to rally. I summoned all my power and resisted the throbbing. It receded. I got up. More metallic clanking came. I smelled air and started to walk heavily toward the light. As I came near the place where the light of outdoors met the dark of the cave, I froze in fear.

I saw a huge claw on the floor. It could only be a dragon’s claw.

I wanted to run, but then the truth stuck me. Stilling my spirit, I listened and I felt. My body was not the same. I seemed massive. And I felt hot and angry—and driven. An odd weight on my back made me strain. I stretched my shoulders and heard a sound like a ship’s sail flapping in a strong wind. The weight on my back lessened and I felt my muscles churn. In a moment I lifted off the ground and swooshed through the opening of the cave. I was flying.

By now I knew what had happened, but I wanted to confirm it. I saw a wide, silvery lake and headed down toward it. As I swung low, I could behold my own reflection. Sure enough: reptilian, saurian, wings, scales, claws—I had become a dragon.

Realization jolted me so much I almost fell into the pond—a thing I knew would destroy me. Dragons and water do not get on. I rose high in the sky and, not sure what to do, headed back to my lair. Something inside me did not like the light, the openness, the bright green of mountain pastures, and the sapphire blue of alpine lakes that dotted the peaks all around me. I glided downward, passing over the rotting corpse of the former dragon, folded my wings, and crawled into my dark, snug cave. Inside it, I felt safe.


III

The next several weeks consisted of a battle between my dragon self and my human self.

I lived, of course, in the body of a dragon. This was to the advantage of the dragon. Blood, nerves, body, breath, were resources he could draw upon. I soon learned that the dragon self’s main technique involved sending surges of anger, fear, and bravado through the channels of my nerves to my mind in attempt to wash out my human consciousness. These bolts of intense dragon feeling came over me, rushing like a tidal wave to sweep away the human part of me. A scalding flash of anger would mount in my stomach, work its way up my throat, and burst into my brain. I would wheeze, choke, and want to fight against it by becoming ferocious and implacable. But when I did this, my mind receded. I would lose myself in a fire of emotion and destructive impulse. I had to still myself. The burning sensations would wash back, but I would be exhausted, certain I could never resist the next way—and the dragon body relentlessly attacked.

Several times the dragon self almost won. It would inundate me with dragonish emotion (the dragon self did not think, it only felt) and my thoughts would evaporate to that faint pulse, almost disappearing, seemingly as fragile as a candle in a hard autumn wind. But, for whatever reason, the spark of my human self always rekindled and my mind returned.

My military training taught me that a good commander attacked at the most strategically important point. If the dragon was repeatedly assaulting my conscious mind, I reasoned, the mind was what he knew he must conquer to win the war. So I focused my defense there. I tried to concentrate, to strengthen my thought, to meditate and recite. I did all I could think of to strengthen my mind.

Soon the dragon self’s assaults felt weaker. And I sensed (because despite being the two entities, we were also one) the force of its attacks weakening. I no longer blanked out when surges of dragonish emotion hit me. I developed a barrier against them as reliable as a wide, deep moat and thick, high wall are to the defenders of a besieged castle. Mixed in the dragon-anger I felt bewilderment and frustration. Then the attacks—the surges of emotion—grew less concentrated. My enemy was weakening. Eventually I hardly noticed my dragon self at all. I had mastered it, though I knew it would always be present and would never entirely go away.

But I was glad of that. I would need a dragon’s aggression for the thing I planned to do.

Only one time after this long battle did the dragon self take me completely over.

Dragons usually sleep. When they sleep, their metabolism shuts down to almost nothing. I did not want to sleep on my horde, lest I wake and find the dragon self had conquered me. I stayed awake, flew a lot, and, as a result, became hungry.

A dragon eats a lot, as you might imagine. Fortunately, the area abounded in deer, wild donkey, mountain goats, and wild pigs. I did not want to eat the cattle of the few villagers who lived on and around the mountain. I hunted away from them so they would not see me flying and abandon their settlements in fear. One day, thought, heading for a thicket where I knew I could find a wild boar, I smelled something that made my whole being turned dragon.

A sweet, ravishing scent filled my nostrils. It came through my nose and filled my whole being. It was like the fragrance of roses, of heaven, of endless delight. I swooped toward it, flying low, keeping quiet, and then reared into the air and shot toward the ground and my target.

I killed her with a swipe of my tail. I don’t even think she saw or heard me. I fell on her and devoured her. I had never tasted anything as sweet, as exhilarating, as delightful in my entire life. I ate every morsel of her. I licked her blood from the grass. I sniffed the air to see if any other of her kind were near. Smelling nothing, I returned to my lair, my human mind returning. Naturally, I wanted to know why I had been so overwhelmed with hunger and why I had a killed human (and a woman) despite my resolution never to do so.

I found, drawing on my dragon self for knowledge, the reason: the woman had been a virgin.

This is something dragons cannot resist. My human self had disappeared when I caught her scent. I later found out she was neither a priestess nor a midwife (the two callings in our kingdom that require a girl to remain a virgin) but a woman who simply had put off marriage and had not chosen to have lovers. I feel remorse to this day for what I did, but I can plead that on that one occasion alone my dragon self completely took me over.


IV

Once I had firmly established my human self as dominant, I began my mission. In all my horrible glory, I flew over the Wood of Ulrich and then descend on Rimauld’s kingdom. I began to burn and destroy.

I only destroyed the estates of those who were his close allies. Some innocent people died, no doubt—wives and children, sadly, and servants. But it had to be done. I burned their houses and barns, incinerated their fields and gardens, and feasted on their cattle and sheep. Once I flew over a column of horsemen bearing the royal standard and saw, to my delight, Feste the fool sitting on a white donkey. The donkey bolted and threw him. The riders scattered. He began to run across a meadow, hoping to find safety in a near-by lake. I flew at leisure and, as he neared the water, breathed out and scorched him. I could have turned him to ash, but I burned him so he would die slowly and in agony—the little man who had caused so many to die or go to prison, and who had for his own advancement caused my agony and Matilda’s imprisonment.

I had to act fast, though. The King, who was no ninny, might perceive what had happened and use Matilda as a bargaining chip. I had a plan I hoped would work. It had some weaknesses, but I could not think of anything else to do.

One night when the moon was down, I flew low over the land. The royal castle loomed up before me. I glided toward it as silently as I could. In my mouth I held a golden cup from my horde.

The frustrating thing about being a dragon is that you have almost no fine motor skills. You can lunge and lurch and fly and dive, but your hands are unless for holding things. I put the cup in my mouth. Careful not to crush or melt it, I flew to the tower where I was certain he had imprisoned Matilda—the Maiden’s Tower, where women prisoners were keep—and where women who were to be burned spent their last wretched night on earth. A light shone through the single window at the top.

I slowed as much as I could and floated toward the tower. If I hit it too hard, I might topple it. I used my wings to slow my descent and managed to come to a stop without even shaking the pinnacle. My claws gripped the granite stones. I had safely executed the landing.

I held on, inching my way up to the barred window where I saw the light and, with great deliberation, threw the cup (which was small enough to fit between the bars) into the room. As I did I caught a glimpse of her sleeping, hair untied (it had mostly grown back by now), as beautiful as the stars shining on the sea. The cup clattered, she started, and I rose into the night.

I let out a column of flame and bellowed. Below, on the battlements, the soldiers on watch scurried like ants. I heard trumpets and the alarm bell ring. Soon bolts and arrows from longbows whizzed past me. I continued to hover. Torches and bonfires illumined the castle. Soldiers rushed to their assigned defensive posts. Some of the missiles hit me and bounced off. I had to be careful, though. Like all dragons, I had a soft belly and chest. Even a well-placed arrow could kill me if it hit just the right place on my underside. And I knew the castle had catapults and, worse, ballista.

In fact, I saw a crew of archers aiming one my way. They pulled it back and let fly. Having seen them and calculated the trajectory of the arrow, I dodged it easily. But I could not dodge several of them, and a moment the others would begin to shoot at me. I flew down toward them. I could have burned them or swept them from the battlements with my tail, but I did not want to kill anyone. They fled. I spit some fire on the ballista and set it ablaze. Bolts and arrows were striking me like hail by now. Rolling into a ball, I hovered for a moment and then shot straight up, into the air, out of range of their weapons, and out of danger.


V

I had put the cup in Matilda’s room, hoping the King would find it and think the presence of a dragon in his kingdom was due to her theft she had somehow pulled off when she came near the cave the day they threw me in it. A dragon can only be quieted if the stolen item is returned, and the person who took it must return it. That would prevent him from killing her.

My plan worked. Matilda could not hide the cup. That I had not burned the King’s castle told him I wanted it back. Rimauld did not think I still possessed a human mind. He thought I was all dragon. He needed to return the cup. In doing so, he could also get revenge on the woman who, he thought, had caused his allies and supporters such misery.

One day I smelled humans approaching my lair. I flew out and saw a convoy: troops, wagons pulling catapults and ballista, two or three covered wagons, columns of troops with longbows, all toiling up the side of the mountain. I flew down and sat on my haunches in the middle of the road, blocking their way.

I folded my wings over my underbelly. Soldiers, eyes filled with fear, ran toward me and formed a double line, bows at ready. It would have been easy to turn them into bits of ash with my fire, but I did not want to kill anyone. At last I heard the King’s voice.

“Dragon, I have something for you,” he said.

The line of soldiers parted and two of Rimauld’s bodyguard shoved a woman in a gold dress forward so hard she fell and rolled to the ground.

Matilda.

I gazed down at her. She had the cup clutched to her chest. In a flash, I realized what Rimauld had planned to do. I threw my head back and laughed (a dragon’s laugh is terrifying) then breathed a mist of fire over the soldiers—just enough to sting them a little. A barrage of arrows hit against my wings and bounced off. I drew my head back as if it let yet another blast of fire out. The soldiers broke rank and ran, leaving the King and Gaspar the Sorcerer alone to face me.

I wasted no time. I seized Rimauld and squeezed him until his guts spilled out. Matilda lay on the ground, her eyes fearful (she thought I had turned completely dragon), but I sensed some recognition in her gaze. She realized the dragon had not taken me over.

I turned toward Gaspar. He held up one hand.

“Wait. If you want to return to being human, I can do that. Just listen to me. I have a potent to give you that will restore you to your human form.”

I did not trust him. He might mean to poison me. I glanced over at Matilda. She nodded. Her look was a plea. Indecision and mistrust filled me and warred in my heart. But if I could not trust Gaspar, I could trust Matilda. I lowered my head, coming to within a foot of him.

Trembling, he hefted a small barrel on his shoulder. He put his hands on it, said some words in a strange language, and poured the potent into my mouth. Sleep came over me like a black flood—a black flood without the moon or stars.


VI

I woke up in bed. Matilda sat beside the bed in a chair. When I opened my eyes she smiled and bent down to embrace me. I was thirsty and asked for water. She sent a servant girl to get me a drink. I drained an entire pitcher. I had just finished when Arveragus, the leader of the conspiracy, came in. He asked how I was.

“Groggy,” I said.

“Gaspar gave you a sleeping potent. He’s one of us, though you did not know that. If a dragon sleeps anywhere but on his horde of gold, he dies. For you, dying as a dragon meant returning to your human form.”

I glanced at Matilda. Her hair looked lovely now, long and blonde, past her shoulders again.

“The King wanted to return the cup. But he knew that dragon can’t resist maidens. He planned to launch an attack on you while you devoured Matilda. And he could have succeeded in killing you. You would have been so enraptured with eating her flesh that his soldiers—and he had put his best archers in the front—would have had a chance to hit you where you were vulnerable. He planned to get rid of you both in one strike; and then, of course, he could get the treasure in the cave as well. Only he left out one important factor.”

He smiled slyly, turned, and left. Matilda kissed me. Arveragus was right. Rimauld had miscalculated. The factor he had overlooked was love.

I had done more than merely kiss Matilda.

Rimauld had not known the whole story.

Arveragus became king. I married Matilda. We have children now. Since, technically, the horde is still mine, no curse exists. The possessor of a horde can do with it as he wishes. Of course, dragons never want to give any of it up, but I don’t care about it at all. Arveragus uses the riches from the cave to strengthen our kingdom, providing financial assistance to farmers and villagers who are in need or want money for new projects. And I kept enough for Matilda and me to live comfortably for the rest of our lives. Our children are strong and proud.

After all, how many children can boast that their father was once a dragon?


David W. Landrum's supernatural fiction has appeared in such journals as Ensorcelled, The Monsters Next Door, New Myths, and many others.