Author: Chris Cook
Once upon a time, in a faraway land...
...there lived a princess named Tara. For the first decade or so of her life, nothing truly remarkable happened - she was a quiet, thoughtful child who spent most of her time in the library, or exercising in the castle's private grounds. The Queen was proud of her daughter's intellect and compassionate nature, and the King, who wasn't unkind but tended to regard offspring as a requirement of rank, something like having a large castle and being proficient at jousting, was quite content to bestow on the young Princess whatever she asked for, and was overall satisfied that she was getting on with being a Princess, whatever that entailed, and not getting in the way of the smooth operation of the kingdom.
However, when Princess Tara reached her teenage years, it began to dawn on those around her that the shy young girl was going to turn into a stunning young woman. Suddenly the nobility of every nearby kingdom, and some from quite far away, were making state visits, to discuss treaties that didn't need discussion, arrange matters that didn't need arranging, and keep up diplomatic relations which had been quite diplomatic enough already. And of course, the various nobles brought their teenage sons with them, and while they alternately bored and annoyed the King, their sons would spend time with Princess Tara...
That they had their eyes on the day when Tara became of marriageable age, and were hoping to get their bids for her hand in early, wasn't lost on the King, who hadn't remained King simply because his father was likewise. As far as he could see, no good could come of the young noble sons' attempts to court Tara - whomever she seemed to favour, the others would feel rejected, and the last thing the King wanted was for several of his peers to have resentful sons complaining about his daughter. The Queen, who was rather less mystified by the ways of young girls, and rather more cynical about the quality of the noble sons, suspected Tara would favour none of them, which would end with all of them being resentful.
So the King, being something of a traditionalist, declared that Princess Tara would leave the royal castle, and take up residence in a far-off tower, beyond a vast desert, a treacherous swamp, a haunted forest, rugged mountains, and as a final measure to discourage unwelcome visitors, a fire-breathing dragon. Dragon-guarded towers having some precedent in these long-ago times, it was fairly certain that Tara would reach marriageable age by the time anyone managed to reach her, and that anyone who could overcome the various obstacles would at least have proved himself to value her hand in marriage more than, say, not having to cross deserts, swamps, haunted forests, et cetera, which ruled out most of the noble (and pampered) sons the Queen was most cynical about.
So, having bid his daughter goodbye and seen her sent off, escorted by a contingent of royal knights, and having issued instructions to the royal wizard to find a likely-looking dragon that could be counted on to protect Tara rather than eat her, the King considered the matter of Tara's marriage well settled, and returned to running his kingdom.
And so, several years later, we come to a hero. Not a hero in the usual sense of being the character the story is about, and who will embody the virtues it espouses - as will be seen shortly, he's an idiot and won't be around for more than another page or so. More a hero in what may be called the fairy tale layman's sense of the word - a man in armour with a weapon of some kind, and a habit of attacking rare magical animals.
The desert proved to be of little difficulty, for this hero has crossed deserts before, and knows all about oases and using a reliable compass, and especially about keeping his shining armour in a sack and wearing light, breezy robes instead. The swamp was somewhat more difficult, owing to its tendency to swallow carts, which cost him among other provisions his large silver mirror, explaining the somewhat dubious job he's done of shaving lately. The haunted forest was not so bad, owing to his lack of imagination, which put the ghosts and spectres (who, beyond making odd noises and causing weird chills, were fairly well-meaning departed souls) at something of a disadvantage. The mountains, he had to admit, were a pain in the backside, often literally as winding paths proved to be less stable than they appeared, and he had to re-climb several sections after making a rather uncomfortable descent, while his horse waited above and, he suspected, sniggered. And now, the hero has reached the hidden tower of Princess Tara, resplendent in his shining armour, shield in hand, sword in scabbard, the plumes on his helmet bright in the morning light, and with his silken standard ready to unfurl at the first suspicion that someone was looking at him and needed to be reminded of how heroic he was.
'Desert, swamp, forest, mountains... piece of cake.'
The hero skirted the edge of the crystal-clear lake that had formed in the small mountain valley, clambered with some difficulty over the rocks near the waterfall, and approached the tower itself, which rose out of a small fortress carved from the very mountain rock itself. Planting his standard in the wild grass and lowering himself carefully to one knee, he looked up at the distant balcony at the top of the tower, and declared himself:
"My lady Tara! I am Sir Angel Angelus, Knight of the Realm of Broodington, Paladin of the Order of Aurelius, who hath conquered the fabled Great Labyrinth, faced the riddle of the deadly Sphinx, travelled from the far ends of the earth to the... other far ends," he winced slightly, and made a mental note to rewrite that part of his declaration later, "and performed such deeds as are recorded in saga and legend! I have crossed the vast, trackless desert, navigated the treacherous swamp, braved the terrors of the haunted forest, and climbed the sheer cliffs of yonder mountains, so that I may hereby claim your hand in marriage!"
He waited a moment, regaining his breath, and eventually frowned and wondered if he'd come to the wrong tower. Before he could get up though, the doors to the distant balcony swung open and a figure appeared, blonde hair gleaming in the sunlight.
"What?" drifted down to him. He huffed a sigh and started again, louder.
"I said, I am Sir Angel-"
He was interrupted by a dangerous rumble from the nearest of the many caves that dotted the valley's edge, the kind of rumble that suggests it could become a roar at any moment, and that whoever has causes the roarer to roar will regret it. There followed slow thuds, footfalls if the feet were very large indeed, and various sounds of rocks being dislodged and scattering away that indicated something of considerable size nearing the mouth of the cave.
'Oh, drat. Dragon. Knew I forgot something...'
Sir Angel Angelus got to his feet and drew his sword, warily approaching the cave.
"I warn you, foul beast," he proclaimed, only slightly nervously, "I have faced and slain such ferocious beasts as the Minotaur of the Labyrinth, the dread Gorgon of the Forgotten Wastelands, the Unnamed Terror of the Black Marshes, and the Great Wyrm of the Granite Mountain!"
A modulation in the rumbling suggested, worryingly, chuckling.
"How big were they, then?" a deep, imperious voice echoed out of the cave.
"The Great Wyrm measured the length of five men, yet it fell to my blade!" Sir Angel shouted. "And the Unnamed Terror was... well, mostly tentacles, and I didn't find all the bits afterwards ..." He paused, realising that he had lost his heroic edge, and finished with "diabolical field!" for good measure.
"Impressive," the voice said casually. "Alright then..."
To say the dragon, when it emerged from its cave, was big would be leaving the word 'huge' disgruntled at having been ignored. Its vaguely serpentine body, supported by two well-muscled and extremely well-clawed legs, rose above Sir Angel like a thunderstorm over a copper rod, and when it unfurled its wings the hero found himself at the centre of a localised eclipse of the sun. He looked up into a draconian face covered in scarlet scales, and found two deep emerald eyes regarding him much like a person might regard an ant that is approaching their picnic lunch.
"Um," Angel said, waving his sword vaguely. "Have at thee?"
"Okay," the dragon said, and let fly a precisely-aimed jet of flame that vaporised the hero's sword, reduced his standard to scattered ash, removed the plumes from his helmet, and, indirectly, undid the patient toilet-training work of his nanny all those years ago.
With thunderous footsteps the dragon walked over to the tower, and stood up on its hind legs, bringing its head level with the balcony, where Princess Tara was watching Sir Angel's rapid retreat with mild interest.
"He can move pretty fast, with all that armour on him," the dragon commented.
"Mm," Tara agreed. "He dropped his shield on the flowerbed, too."
"Sorry," the dragon said sheepishly, or as sheepishly as a ten-storey-tall dragon can. "Should've lured him further off to the left before I did the old," she puffed a gust of flame into the air, away from the tower, "trick."
"It's alright," Tara smiled, reaching out to run her hand along the top of the dragon's face, so far as she could reach. "Him and his marriage claim are out of our hair, that's the important thing."
"Aw, well, that's what I'm here for," the dragon said, ducking its head so that Tara could scratch behind the streamlined scales that fanned out on either side of its forehead. It enjoyed the attention for a moment, then leant back, beat its wings to get airborne, and with a sound somewhat like a huge cloak being unfurled in reverse, shrunk into a much smaller, more human form - two arms, two legs, no wings, five-and-a-bit feet tall rather than ten stories, but still covered in iridescent scales, bright scarlet on her forehead, fading down her back to the deep, shadowy crimson of her body.
Her former shape's wing-beat put her just above the balcony rail, and she landed sitting on it, with barely a bump. Tara, who by all appearances was quite accustomed to her giant dragon turning into a regular-sized dragon-woman, leaned on the rail next to her, and hugged her.
"Thanks, Willow," she said, "you're my hero."