The Dragon and the Flutes (Throwback Thursday)

 

Here we are at Throwback Thursday again. This time I’m sharing a short story I wrote about six-and-a-half years ago.

***

The Dragon and the Flutes

Once upon a time on the edge of a great forest there was a kingdom. This kingdom was neither large nor small; in fact it was very ordinary. It was sort of kingdom that dragons liked, for it was usually well-stocked with princesses and was near to caves in which they could be hidden. Everyone for miles around whispered that the floors of these caves were littered with the bones of dead heroes and princes, but none of them had ever come back to confirm this.

Now the castle stood on a high cliff overlooking the Village of Doone, and in this castle lived the king. His hair and beard were red, and rings encrusted his fingers. The rest of him was red too, because he had rather a hot temper. The king had two daughters, one just a year older than the other, and they were the sort that got carried off by dragons. Their hair was red like copper with the sun on it and their eyes rivaled the emeralds in their father’s rings. They were tall and slender and went about in beautiful gowns with their lily white hands peeping out from the sleeves and lily white feet just showing under their hems. They did all the things princesses do, such as look beautiful and attract the attention of handsome young princes, and learn the affairs of state, and other often boring occupations.

Then there was Will, who was only eight years old, which is a very hard age to be when your sisters are growing up and beginning to forget you. Will was a skinny boy who was probably going to be tall when he grew up but hadn’t gotten there yet. His hair was red just like his father’s and sisters’ and was very straight, just as his back was straight and his limbs were long. He hated all the things his sisters did, though he couldn’t quite say why, and he hated the princes who wanted to marry them even more. Will wanted to fight. He wanted to go away and do great and marvelous things and come back and say “HA!” loudly so everyone in the castle could hear him. And then perhaps he would box the princes to top it all off.

But unfortunately, he couldn’t. He had to stay right where he was (which at the moment happened to be his room where he had been locked in as punishment) and, after all, he was only eight.

Now it happened that one day his sisters (whose names were Cassandra and Alexa, respectively) has reached the ravishing and beautiful ages of sixteen and fifteen, and their father King Grisigon made a decision.

“Girls,” he boomed, flinging the door open as they approached his study one unpleasantly bright afternoon, “it is TIME!”

“Time for what, father?” Cassandra quavered.

“Time—for you to be gone! It is high time you went out and got rescued by some young fellow and got married.”

“Both of us, father?” said Alexa, tugging gently on his sleeve.

“Yes, both of you!” harrumphed King Grisigon, folding his kingly arms over his kingly chest. “You will both go into the forest!”

“But—but father,” the princesses stammered, turning pale all the way down to their tiny feet, “there are dragons in the forest! If we go—“

“Precisely!” pronounced the king. “You will both get captured by a dragon, who will take you away to his lair, whence a couple of solid young princes will rescue you, slaying the dragon and marrying you as quickly as possible.”

The two princesses stood silent and still as stone, because this is what often happens when one is confronted by extremely bad news.

King Grisigon continued: “You will both leave tomorrow for the forest. And you had better have very good luck! Good bye. I will see you both later.” So he sent Princess Cassandra and Princess Alexa away. And that was that.

Now Will had been hiding behind the door and had heard every word. He scowled darkly and thought of a plan.

The next day his two sisters, whose faces glowed red with weeping, left the castle on horseback amidst the deepest gloom and foreboding. A number of young fellows milled about in the courtyard mournfully looking after them, as did the rest of the castle people (for they knew what was likely as not going to befall the two princesses). Will sat by himself on top of the wall and kicked his feet and wished he could drop stones on all the people’s heads. There would be no need for silly princes. He was going to save his sisters himself.

But unfortunately, this did not work as soon as he had hoped. He was only eight years old, after all.

~

The years passed, as years usually do when left to themselves. The king grew older, as kings do. And Will grew older, as everyone thought he would. He learned to fight and wield a sword and all sorts of useful things. One day he found suddenly that he was seventeen. It had been nine years since his father King Grisigon had sent Cassandra and Alexa away, which is an extremely long time to wait when one is the prisoner of a dragon. What happened was this:

The two princesses indeed ran straight into the claws of a dragon and were immediately whisked off to the nearest convenient lair, as usually happened in those parts. But the dragon, who had a taste for good food, discovered that Cassandra and Alexa could cook and set them to doing just that. So the two princesses lived in the cave and cooked, and the dragon prowled around and ate when he wasn’t killing things or sleeping. As for the suitors and other chaps, they took one look at the poor princesses in their less-than-royal clothing (though their faces were still as lovely as could be, if not more so) and at the dragon and especially at his claws and teeth, and whisked right around and galloped off.

The day came when Will was ready. It was his eighteenth birthday. King Grisigon called his son into the royal chamber and sat him down.

“Will, m’boy,” he said in a somewhat hollow voice. “I haven’t heard a squeak from your sisters. But you are eighteen now, and are fully a man. So, off you go.”

And that was that. Will left the castle a day or two later, on a steed nearly as dark as midnight, with a great sword at his side and a dagger at his left hip, and a lot of food in case he got hungry, which was likely to happen.

It would be quite dull to narrate all that happened to Will, as it was mostly long boring days riding and long boring nights not being able to sleep, and hunger when he couldn’t find food (which happened sooner than he thought it would) and various predictable but unpleasant things.

This took a few months, but just when Will was beginning to think everything was hopeless, it suddenly wasn’t anymore. One day in early autumn he rode through a village on his horse who plodded along very dejectedly. Will had not heard anything or seen anything of his sisters since he set out, and he felt rather foolish. It didn’t help that most of the villagers stared at him. He stopped beside a fountain in the middle of the square, dismounted, and tied his horse’s reins to a post. In a few minutes his face was dripping and felt much better, but the rest of him didn’t. Will plunked himself down on the stone seat, and buried his head in his hands.

“You there. Are you the one looking for the two princesses?”

Will jumped and nearly fell into the fountain. Fortunately he recovered himself (though not without getting a bit wet) and looked around.

A cloak stood beside him. Or rather, a man’s shape in a cloak and hood. He couldn’t see the face at all, and the hands were covered in black gloves. This was disconcerting. But the man (or at least, what seemed like a man) asked again, “Are you the one?”

Will, still thoroughly startled, said he was.

The man drew from under his cloak a strange thing. It was a flute with two reeds. He thrust it into Will’s hands. “Then take this. You will need it. It will lead you to them.”

Will suddenly came to his senses. “What, they’re alive? And they’re not rescued? Good grief! How can that be?”

“No princes ever came,” said the man quietly. Will thought he could see the man’s eyes burn.

“But who are you?” Will demanded. “I’ve told you who I am. It’s only fair that you tell me who you are.”

“You can do without knowing that,” the man replied. “But I will tell you this: it is by the dragon’s magic that I am no longer what I used to be.” He pulled off one of his gloves, and showed Will his hand. It was horribly disfigured and grey, like the hand of an extremely old man who ought to be dead. Then quick as wink he slipped the glove back on and tramped off.

“Wait!” Will yelled after him. “How did you know—“

“I will see you again!” the cloaked man called back.

It was the strangest thing that had happened to Will in his life. His horse gazed  raptly at him, looking as dumbfounded as he felt.

~

He tested the flute as soon as he had left the village and returned to the woods. Pulling up short by a great oak tree, he held the flute to his lips. He had never played before, but at once a low sad note flowed from the double end of the flute. In the deep of the woods it echoed as if he stood on a mountain-top. Will perched spellbound, and as he listened to the note dying in the distance, an answering one came from far away. He knew exactly what it was without thinking.

“It’s true!” he shouted, and the horse reared enthusiastically.

Will picked himself up from the ground and, not bothering to brush off the dirt, flung himself in the saddle and galloped off in the direction of the answering note.

He soon arrived at the edge of the mountains and began to guide his horse over rocky places. Everything looked grey and gloomy. He blew the flute again, and this time a rippling thread of notes trickled from the double end. The answering notes came louder and closer.

He couldn’t keep riding, that was quite obvious. “Sorry, old chap,” he whispered to the horse, dismounting and fastening the bridle to a tree. “I swear I’ll come back for you. But I have to leave you here.”

The horse gave him the deepest of reproachful looks, and twitched his long ears disgustedly.

Will buckled on his sword and dagger and secured his shield on his back. “Won’t be long,” he announced, trying to be cheerful, and set off into the mountains.

There were scorch marks here and there on the cliff sides. He knew what that meant, and tried not to shudder. He had never met a dragon before.

Will climbed higher and higher, and the rocks got darker and more desolate, and the sun hid his face until the sky was as grey and gloomy as everything else. He had no idea where his sisters were, but playing the flute now would let any dragons know he was there. It was quite a predicament. But there was only one thing for it: clinging to the rock, he put his flute to his lips and blew.

The third time the music sounded even sweeter and softer than before and sent an unwelcome shiver down his back. But the reply sounded just above his head.

Will scrambled up the cliff face, his heart thudding away merrily in his chest. Hand over hand he went, sweating and panting, until he reached what looked like an opening in the rock. (Unfortunately he saw that what people said about scattered bones was true). And at the opening stood—

“Alexa!”

His sister leaned sadly against the wall, with a flute identical to his own in her hand. Her gaze alighted on her brother’s head, which had just popped over the edge of the rock. She stood silent and still as stone and didn’t make a peep, though her eyes were gigantic.

Will pulled himself over the edge of the rock. His sister tumbled into his arms, and then he pulled away to look at her closely.

“It must be you, Will,” said Alexa in a very small voice. “It couldn’t be anybody else.”

“You’re right,” said Will happily. “Cassandra–”

Cassandra came flying out and stopped dead. “Will!”

“We are saved!” Alexa exclaimed.

“No, not yet,” Cassandra replied. Her arms wrapped tight around her brother. “Don’t you remember? The dragon said he would wait ten years for us to be rescued, and if no one came we would be his forever. The ten years are up tomorrow!”

Will almost collapsed under the weight of his sisters, his aching limbs, and this dreadful news. He had almost been too late.

“How did you find us?” Alexa begged.

He held up the flute.

Alexa gasped. “Where did you get that?”

“A strange man in a cloak and hood gave it to me,” said Will. “He said the dragon I was going to fight had made him the way he was, and he showed me his hand.”

“It can’t be,” Cassandra cried. “Him? But he’s–”

At that moment a great swish of wings whipped the air and an enormous dark shadow fell over them. “The dragon!” breathed the two princesses. They bolted from the entrance of the cave, and then Will found himself facing the last person he expected to see.

It was the strange man in the cloak with the deformed hand. “How–” stammered Will, his head swimming.

“I told you I would see you again,” said the man. “I am the dragon’s servant.”

“But why–” Will’s brain seemed to be all in knots.

“Look out!”

Alexa screamed, for the dragon had just come in, snorting and steaming and smoking. And she saw that it was about to kill someone if he wasn’t paying attention.

Will leapt up. He snatched his shield from his back and drew his sword. Alexa and Cassandra huddled against the wall, which isn’t a particularly safe place to be when there is a dragon in the room. The cloaked man stood close to them, his eyes gleaming under his dark hood.

“Let them go!” Will shouted.

The dragon spat a small flame of fire at him. “What, and lose my cooks?” it snorted, in a voice that sounded uncannily like a mountain learning to talk. “What a silly idea! Never! I have to eat, you know!” It raised a gigantic paw, preparing to fling some nasty spell at him.

“I know!” said Will, and raised his shield a little higher. His brain still felt stopped up, and he couldn’t think of what to do next.

Then all at once he had an idea. “But what do you want to eat that sort of food for, anyway?” he shouted, trying to be scornful. “Real dragons don’t do that!”

“What?” The dragon stopped snorting flame at him and looked rather struck.

This was encouraging. “If you were a true dragon, you wouldn’t eat what they cook”—pointing at his sisters, who shrank farther against the wall—“you would only eat raw stuff! I can’t imagine what other dragons would think if they found out!”

The dragon started and looked like his pride had been terribly hurt, which was exactly what Will wanted. “Is that so?” it demanded anxiously. “What can I do about it?”

“Well,” said Will slowly, his heart pounding like elephants running away from a flight of dragons. “You could fight me and let me kill you, and then everyone would see that you were a true dragon and not think anything of your eating habits!”

The beast thought this was a brilliant idea. So it picked him up, dropped him on its back, and flew out of the cave onto the rocks.

There a tremendous battle commenced, or at least what looked like one. Will slashed and cut and dodged streams of fire under his shield, and the dragon hissed and clawed and whipped his tail around. Rocks were stirred up and small bushes uprooted, and Will got a little bloody, but just a little. By and by his shield grew warm, which was uncomfortable, and the dragon got bored. Suddenly the beast roared “NOW!”

He leapt across the rocks, his sword ready, and swift as lightning he plunged the blade deep into the beast’s neck.

There was a tremendous roar, a mighty burst of fire from the dragon’s mouth, a thrashing of its tail, and then—

Will gasped, the dripping sword clenched tight in his hand. The great beast lay sprawled around the base of the cliff, smoke rising from its nostrils.

“Yahoooooo!” he cried, sending echoes bouncing all around him. He scrambled up the cliff face and rushed for the inner cave.

Cassandra and Alexa still stood against the wall. The man in the dark cloak had one arm around them.

“Is it dead?” Alexa whispered.

“Are we free?” Cassandra cried.

“Completely, entirely, and absolutely!” he announced, replying to both at once. There was a lot of hugging.

“Oh, wait a minute,” said Cassandra suddenly. “I’ve just thought of something. How do we get down from here?”

“Easily,” said the man.

Then he threw off his cloak

As it dropped into a wrinkled heap, there stood before them a young man with dark hair and a small beard. His eyes flashed a brown so deep it looked almost red.

“But you–” Cassandra began, when she had recovered a bit of voice, “but where—but the flutes, and Will…?”

“When the dragon cursed me,” he said with a small grin, “it accidentally gave me some of its magic. That was how. He was always rather a careless beast. So all I have to do is create a ladder, and we can all climb down safely.”

“But who are you anyway?” Will demanded.

The young man turned to the princesses. “I was the first one who came to save you,” he answered at last. “I was only a dish boy then, so of course I didn’t matter. So I sneaked out by myself and came to rescue you when no one saw me. Only when I got here the dragon forced me to cook for him, and I burned it. The dragon got so angry it cursed me and turned me into something hideous. I was so ashamed that I never showed myself again, except when I wore that cloak. My name’s Tobin.”

“But why would you do all this when you were already under the dragon’s spell?” Will asked.

The young man smiled even wider. “Well, no one else came, and the ten years were almost over. I had to do something. And because I love your sister.”

Will was quite taken aback. So were the two princesses.

“Which one?” said Will.

The former dishboy turned to Alexa and took her little white hand in his own. “This one. After spending hours in limited company, one can really get to know someone.”

“Oh!” said Alexa, and slid her other hand into his.

So Tobin made a ladder out of magic, and the four of them climbed right down the cliff out of the cave and past the still steaming dragon and away from the mountains. Then came the problem of there being only one horse among them, so Tobin conjured up three other horses from the dragon’s left over magic and they all rode back to the castle that overlooked the uninteresting village of Doone.

Tobin presented himself before King Grisigon directly and explained in plain terms that he loved the king’s younger daughter and wanted to marry her. King Grisigon was incredulous but he was so glad his princesses and son were back that he agreed.

Tobin and Alexa married as soon as they could, and there was a great feast afterward. And Cassandra, who was so used to cooking by now, begged to be allowed to help, and did. So many of the guests commented on the wonderful food that she had to tell them, and instead of looking aghast and whispering to each other, they suggested she set up a cooking school for royal offspring. She thought this a really excellent idea and set about it immediately, and in the course of years she taught so many princesses to cook that dragons no longer had fun kidnapping them and the horrible practice went out of fashion.

As for Will, he became the champion of the land, as he could not be the king. One day, in the course of another dragon-battle (before they stopped being a nuisance) he got seriously wounded, and barely managed to make it to a nearby inn. The person who patched him up happened to be Bess, the innkeeper’s daughter, who had long black hair and whose real name was Elizabeth. Naturally Will married her, and they were very happy. And Tobin and Alexa became king and queen after Grisigon’s death and ruled the kingdom for a great many years.

As for the two flutes, the king and his queen kept one, and Will and Bess kept the other, and every so often until they died the sounds of two calling flutes would echo across the kingdom.

THE END

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