Prince Dimm kept his horse to a plodding pace. The woods’ sudden dark sliminess kept him on his guard. It was as though the trees defied any light to pass through their canopy. Their limbs twisted into shapes that created shadows like predatory beasts. Based on the stories surrounding the Castle Drear, any attempt to breach the walls resulted in disaster of the ghastliest sorts. Tales of flesh-eating creatures in the water and ravenous trolls along the road were the least of his concern. Especially if the dragon was real.
Planning this assault upon the haunted palace had taken three hours. Anything more than that, and his friends would have begun to name him craven. As it was, the two-hour mark had prompted relentless teasing about how he was too soft to make the attempt. “Soft as satin,” they had said. Now that the dense forest choked his courage, he wondered whether that mockery might have some basis in truth.
If I can come up with a witty tale of a daring quest, maybe they’ll back off. No. That won’t do. They wanted proof, didn’t they? Sighing, he slumped in his saddle, closing his eyes to the tree branches creeping down to snag him. Fear and an overactive imagination were enemies greater than the sum of their parts.
After twenty minutes of cautious riding, Dimm at last could see the chestnut brown fur of his horse, Scepter. The animal lifted its head and shook its mane as if relieved to see sunlight as well. Dimm encouraged the horse onward with a few clicks of the tongue. The pair emerged from the dark forest at a trot, free from the oppressive dread.
Well, that wasn’t as bad as I thought.
“You there! Stop!”
The voice came from Dimm’s right. His hand darted for his sword hilt at the sight of an eight-foot-tall creature with pale, green scaly skin and reptilian snout. It carried itself like a man on two legs, but those shining, gold eyes were as inhuman as anything Dimm had ever seen. Unsure what monster this might be, the prince could say little beyond, “St-stay back!”
“State your business and be quick about it!” A forked tongue darted out from the creature’s mouth.
“N-nothing. I’m not on any particular business.”
The creature’s neck curved to form an “S.” Its head flattened. “You are trespassing little lordling. Go back whence you came and never return.”
“I – I can’t do that. You see, my friends dared me to – to—”
Hissing, the giant reptile bared fangs dripping with venom. “You came to mock us! Thought you’d just sneak up on an unsuspecting Snathan and take his head back for a trophy? I assure you, this will not stand.”
The young prince felt his horse rearing up. Scepter pawed the air with both forelegs and screeched. Dimm lost hold of the reins and fell from his saddle. The ground bruised his royal posterior. He called out for Scepter to stay, but the horse sprinted away, vocalizing its fear until the steed returned home. Abandoned, Dimm watched the Snathan highwayman stomp closer.
“No. That’s not what happened. I didn’t even know what a Snathan is until now!”
The monstrous warrior unsheathed a curved blade crusted over with dried blood. “Do not insult my intelligence, lordling. What else would you find out here?”
Dimm crab-crawled away. “A – a – a princess!” That stopped the creature in its tracks. “My friends. They told me about an evil witch who placed a sleeping curse on a princess years ago. She’s supposed to be guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, and my friends dared me to—”
The reptilian head turned ninety degrees as if trying to measure the prince from another perspective. “What were you supposed to do? Slay the dragon? Wake her with true love’s kiss?”
Dimm nodded. He mouthed an affirmative, but his voice abandoned him. His arms lost the strength to keep edging away, so he collapsed back onto his sore rear.
Its lower jaw unhinging, the Snathan’s mouth opened wide enough for Prince Dimm to see down the monster’s dark throat. But instead of an attack, the creature unleashed a torrent of laughter. Venom splattered the grass, withering the plants on contact. It took the giant a full two minutes before it could regain a modicum of control, but the prince dared not move a muscle. The warrior still held that cruel blade at the ready.
“You’re telling me that your friends wanted someone like you to take on a dragon and kiss a princess you never met for no other reason than assuaging boredom?” The Snathan held its side as if to prevent it from splitting, suffering through a relapse of the giggles. “Your friends are, without a doubt, the absolute worst! To think a scrawny twerp like you could face off against a wolf cub, let alone a dragon, it’s like they wanted to see you as a skeleton.”
Dimm glanced down at his body, knowing what he would find. He always seemed a bit behind other boys his age. Where most of his friends could scale a castle wall without trouble, Dimm spent most of his energy before reaching the quarter-height. The sword master frowned whenever Dimm took to the practice field, most often commenting that the prince needed to hold his weapon steadier. Too much of what his peers wanted to do required more upper body strength than Dimm could muster no matter how hard he tried.
“Are you going to kill me, then?” Dimm gulped. “Will you roast me on a spit or fry me in oil?”
The Snathan sheathed its blade and stepped closer. Now in more direct sunlight, Dimm noted how the warrior’s scales glistened like emeralds. Its golden eyes blinked with vertical lids. “Kill a defenseless shrimp like you? Wouldn’t be worth the trouble. My duty is to scare off any who would intrude into our lands.”
“But they say no one has ever come back from the Castle Drear alive!” As he listened to his words, Prince Dimm wondered if he should be pointing out such facts. I sound like I have a death wish.
“True. None come back alive. But none ever made it there in the first place either. Humans who see me or one of my brothers or sisters in the field tend to flee without hesitating. From the smell of them, they usually soil their undergarments too. You were the first to try arguing with me, little lordling.” The creature’s voice sounded almost impressed.
Astonished at this revelation, Prince Dimm let his lower jaw hang open. His mother would have warned him that flies would take refuge in his mouth if he did not close it soon.
“This princess you were supposed to kiss,” the Snathan said, “what do your friends say of her? Other than her ‘dragon sentry,’ I mean.”
Prince Dimm searched his mind for details, but the dragon had been the one thing his friends had gone on about at length. “She’s supposed to have a copper head. I guess that means she has red hair or something. Or does that mean she’s sunburnt? I couldn’t say.”
For a time, the Snathan did not respond. Aside from tasting the air every so often, it appeared lifeless. In a sudden, swift movement, it spun around and retreated several paces. It paused, turned its head like an owl, and urged Prince Dimm to follow. “I know where she is.”
“No. The seven-headed woman who invented croquet. Of course I mean the princess!”
Prince Dimm could not decide what to do at first, but the prospect of returning home without succeeding recalled all those insults to mind. I am not soft as satin.
Both prince and Snathan trudged on in silence as a golden sheen of sunlight bathed the grassy fields leading up to the Castle Drear. Three conical turrets poked at the clouds like spearheads. As the pair approached, Prince Dimm noticed how the path sloped up toward a wall. A lowered drawbridge covered a small section of moat. The closer his vantage point, the better he could ascertain the structure’s need for repair. Weathered stone cracked from top to bottom, indicating a storied past inconceivable to Dimm. Until now, he had never seen anything older than a century, living or inanimate. Warring kingdoms did not permit much to stand any longer than that.
The Snathan crossed over the drawbridge. Trailing behind, Dimm frowned at the swampy moat, wondering what dangerous beasts might infest those murky waters. Long, shadowy figures swam below the surface, making Dimm’s skin crawl. Looking up from that gulp-inducing horror show, he watched the Snathan guard’s tail disappearing into the castle. He jogged to catch up and stumbled into its side. He fell back as the guard bared its venom-dripping fangs at the prince.
“This is no place for play, lordling. If it is games you seek, turn back now.”
“N-no. I am here to rescue the princess.” Dimm swallowed the lump in his throat. “I have to complete the task or—”
The Snathan hissed, blinking its vertical eyelids. The reptilian creature swiveled about and slithered up a spiral staircase, its scaly toes scratching against each step. Dimm followed at a distance, a wary hand on his sword hilt. His mind kept wondering where the dreaded dragon from his friends’ tales might be or whether his guide might lead him into a trap. But why would this Snathan go to all that trouble? I’m at its mercy. He’d tear me apart without a struggle.
Higher they climbed, the air growing warmer and more acrid. The scent of burning mold made Dimm pinch his nose, but that invasive stench still caused a lurch in his stomach. Reminding himself of how close he had come, he convinced himself to go on. The stair’s stones heated his feet as if he were walking through a blacksmith’s bellows. After ascending what seemed an everlasting spiral, the two came upon a landing. An archway of glowing red stones framed a room Dimm hesitated to enter. Wiping a sheen of sweat away, he wondered how much hotter it could get.
“You have a visitor, princess.” The Snathan guard folded itself into a bow. It stepped out of Dimm’s way, gesturing to the prince with an extended limb.
“Hello?” Prince Dimm tiptoed up the last of the stairs. I thought she was under a sleeping curse. He placed a hand on the archway for the briefest of moments before snatching it away. The flesh of his hand smelled charred. “I’ve come to rescue you from the dragon.”
A cloud of smoke floated through the room, choking the prince. Once it cleared, Dimm’s eyes took in a massive, scaly creature. Even seated on a throne, the beast’s head came close to scraping the ceiling. The dragon’s mouth formed a wide, toothy grin. A diamond tiara topped her coppery head as twin plumes of smoke billowed from her nostrils. Dimm staggered back a step, stunned into silence.
“Are you the prince who’s come to rescue me from this curse?” The dragon’s roaring voice thundered for miles around. “You don’t look like much.”
Gulping, Dimm knelt before the dragon princess. “My apologies. I was not prepared for – no stories I’ve heard led me to believe you’d be so gorgeous.”
The sound of her laughter would have smashed windows if the Castle Drear had any. “Gorgeous? That’s a new one. Well, you’ve come all this way. I suppose you’ll want to kiss me now and vanquish my curse. Then you can go your way and have minstrels sing songs of your daring.”
Dimm shuddered. That had been the intent all along, but something in the dragon’s voice warned against admitting such plans. “Forgive me if I offend, majesty. I don’t even know your name. Would you deign to tell me?”
“I am Iliana. Princess of the Snathans.”
Dimm’s face lit up with an indomitable smile. “Princess Iliana, your name is fitting for one as bright as you. The very sound of it lifts me up like a—”
“Sure. Right.” The dragon lifted a clawed hand to her face and scratched at her muzzle. “So are you going to kiss me now, or do you want to keep flattering me? I’ve only waited my whole life to have this curse lifted.”
Confused, the young prince’s smile reversed course. “Would you not prefer getting to know each other first?”
“Seriously?” The Snathan guard sprang forward. “You were all set to break the curse thinking she’d be sleeping! And now you want to slow things down when the woman is willing and ready? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“N-nothing. Nothing at all. I mean, I just thought—”
“Do you want to end my curse or not?” Princess Iliana’s suffocating fumes burned away the breathable air.
Coughing, Dimm nodded, imagining how even more magnificent Iliana would appear once he proved the depths of his love. The dragon princess lowered a clawed hand for the young prince to step onto. Standing in the center of the palm, he rose to her mouth. The two shared a kiss. Change occurred in seconds. Princess Iliana’s gargantuan bulk transformed into that of an old woman, stooped and frail. Dimm, meanwhile, dissolved into a pile of flaming ash.
“Poor dumb boy.” The princess shook her head. “Bring me a mirror.”
“Poor dumb boy.” The princess shook her head. “Bring me a mirror!”
The Snathan delivered a looking glass into her shriveled hand. She examined the wrinkles and scant white hair. Slamming the instrument against the floor, she screamed. Once she recomposed herself, she shook her head and clicked her tongue at herself. “Another spell to expunge from my grimoire. There’s got to be some way to stave off my eternal sleep. It just isn’t true love’s kiss.”