You can listen to me read this story on R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast. The story prompt was a dramatic photo of an erupting volcano.
I kind of knew I wanted to write a story about a dragon to go with that volcano. Volcanoes and dragons just go together, right? What I ended up with was something slightly stranger than what I was first imagining, but then that’s the way it goes with a lot of stories…
The Prince and the Dragon
From the shore, Prince Teffen looks up at the fiery, smoke-crowned mountain he must climb, sees the winding road he must follow, but finds no sign of the dragon he must defeat. He feels the weight of his spear and sword and armour – the finest steel, engraved with gold, set with gems, all to aid him in his quest.
Behind him, the royal ship sails away, fearing the fury of the mountain and the dragon.
“Best get moving, m’lord,” the woman beside him says, a smile cracking through her wrinkled, brown-skinned face. She met him on the beach, said she is to be his guide, so he follows her.
“How far to the Dragon’s Rift?” he asks.
“Day’s hike and a bit, m’lord,” the woman answers, her back bent as she shuffles up the path ahead of him.
They walk in silence after that. The mountain is steep, the air heavy with fumes, the sun pale behind the clouds belched forth from the burning summit. Prince Teffen sweats in his armour, struggles with his weapons. He misses Donnell, his squire, but the boy would not step off the boat once he saw the mountain.
When they stop for the night, Teffen is exhausted – mouth parched, lips cracked, feet blistered. Beneath him, the mountain stirs and rumbles. Above, dry lightning rips the darkness asunder.
“Are we nearly there?” he asks and sips the water the woman offers, even though it smells of sulphur.
“Nearly.” She looks at him, her face not unkindly in the firelight spilling from the distant lava flow. “What did they tell you of this place, at the palace?”
“They told me I had to save the kingdom. And I will.”
Teffen thinks of the yellow-stained clouds blocking out the sun all over the kingdom this past year, every sunrise and sunset like a burning pyre. He thinks of failed harvests, people starving. He thinks of the youth who came to court, bearing an old parchment with the royal seal.
That day, Teffen stood beside Father’s throne. Father did not read the parchment, only bowed his head as if he already knew what it said.
“The mountain burns,” the youth said, voice trembling, “and the dragon…”
“I know the pact.” Father’s words shuddered through the halls. “But it was signed long ago, in my great grandfather’s time. I hoped it would pass my firstborn by as it passed me by, as it passed my father by.”
Teffen did not listen beyond that. He understood. There was a mountain and a dragon. There was a quest. It was always thus for princes in the tales.
Teffen tries to sleep, but he’s still thinking of the grief in Father’s eyes that day. He felt the sting of Father’s pain, and yet, he felt…elated.
Hasn’t he always secretly hoped for this? Isn’t that why he spent all his days practicing his skills in jousts and hunts? Hasn’t he always coveted a quest to take him away from the dusty court and insipid courtiers, from pointless banquets and unwanted marriage proposals? A quest to save the kingdom.
Teffen sleeps, uneasy. When he wakes, the mountain is wrapped in vapours and heat, and he can barely draw breath. The woman peers down at him in the murk, eyes limned with fire.
He can barely stand, barely see. Underneath his feet the mountain seems to buck and tilt, the wind so hot it sizzles on his skin.
“My weapons…” He gropes for his sword, his armour, but everything is lost in swirling smoke. “How can I fight the dragon without…”
“Hush, m’lord.” Teffen stumbles to his feet and the woman lifts him up, almost carries him, her bent shape the only solid form in this inferno.
While they walk, the woman speaks, voice low and soothing. She tells Teffen a story. It’s a story about a mountain that wakes every century or so, spewing fire, a fire that can only be quelled by a dragon. It’s a story about a hero, saving the kingdom, but it’s not the story Prince Teffen thought he knew.
Teffen’s vision warps. He sees a pile of rusted steel beside the path, an ancient helm with the royal crest. Sword, spear, hauberk, once gilt and oiled. Now, rusted and decayed. All of it soon swallowed by the haze. Further on, they pass a rocky outcropping that looks so much like a sleeping dragon that he recoils, but it doesn’t move and its folded wings are covered in ash like the rest of the world.
Finally, they stop.
“The Dragon’s Rift,” the woman says. “You must go inside, like your great grandfather did. You came here, like he did, to do what needs to be done. To become what you need to become.”
Teffen is on his knees. His body burns, his thoughts flicker like flames. Looking down at himself, he sees that he is naked. His clothes have burned away, his skin blisters and peels, revealing another skin underneath, and in the furious roar of molten rock, in the crack of lightning above, the mountain speaks to him.
It speaks of vast depths beneath the earth. It speaks of flight beneath the stars. It speaks of magic and flames.
It speaks of a dragon.
It speaks his name.
Then, the mountain opens – a crack, a door, a rift, and inside, the fire.
“I’ll burn,” he whispers, and does not recognize his own voice anymore.
The old woman shakes her head.
“No, m’lord. Nothing will ever burn you again.”
Teffen crawls inside, his belly on the ground, his new skin revealed in all its glory, the length of his body slithering through the burning rock, and it seems to him as he moves into the fire, as he touches it without pain, that the mountain stills and settles, rumbling its assent.
© Maria Haskins 2018.
The artwork for this story was made by me, using Canva, and an illustration from 1910 – “Fairy tale prince and dragon”, by Warwick Goble.