The spot that Princess Trudy and her old man had chosen, after some negotiation with the dragon, was far from the Royal Palace (where there was known to be quite a bit of combustible material) and also well away from the more picturesque and visited parts of the kingdom, because the King understood only too well that the sacrificing of virgin princesses wasn’t good press for a tourist-based economy. The hill with the single mighty oak at the top overlooked a no-account peasant village - one of several the King had ransacked without success looking for a suitable country maiden to satisfy the dragon’s specialised homivorous tastes. The trouble was, these peasant girls were all offering special services to the tourists in the rustic hostelries, and virginity-wise none of them was going to fool a dragon for five seconds. Also in the aforementioned tourist based economy that wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted to subject to too much scrutiny.
So in desperation the grief-stricken old ruler was left with no alternative but to offer his only daughter to save his kingdom from being laid waste by this last remaining fire-breathing dragon. It had been a terrible decision, but now that it was made he consoled himself by recalling the way Princess Trudy had changed since becoming a teenager. As a salve to his conscience, and at Trudy’s suggestion, he had put up a few notices to the effect that if any brave knight should be able to slay the dragon and rescue the princess, he was welcome to her, together with half the kingdom, by way of a sugaring on the pill. Can’t say fairer than that, he mused, as he watched the soldiers strap the oddly compliant junior royal to the trunk of the tree before trotting their horses back to the yellow police cordon tapes. Behind the cordon, at the feet of the mounted king, a few lowly serfs looked on in hushed disbelief. “I thought it had to be a virgin,” one of them whispered through his teeth.
“Something to say, excrement?”
“No, Sire! God bless you, Sire!”
It wasn’t good for ones subjects, he reflected, all this contact with the outside world. Progress. That’s what they called it. Open Monarchy. Maybe he was becoming old-fashioned. Maybe it was time for a change in his style of kingship. Somehow the foul-smelling masses didn’t seem to love him the way they used to. He began mentally composing a speech that he would make from the Palace balcony as soon as he got back from this event. Difficult not to think of it as a royal barbecue.
A great whoop of amazement went up from the odoriferous onlookers. A half-discernable object like a gigantic bat had flitted for a moment across the searing face of the noonday sun. As they watched it performed another sun-passage, followed by a swoop at high speed over the top of the oak tree. The peasants cheered in ill-considered delight.
“I can still strap one of you to that Goddamned tree!” the King rebuked them furiously. Despite their confidence that they did not meet the dragon’s requirements several of the female onlookers paled noticeably and urged their men folk to display a little more tact.
On its second dramatic swoop, after performing a slow roll at rooftop height, the dragon nonchalantly shot a single blinding plume of white hot breath towards the tree, setting its higher branches alight. Unwisely, the peasants again applauded. The King was about to launch into another blood-curdling tirade when all were distracted by the sound of charging hoof beats. From the other side of the hill, a lone mounted figure appeared, longsword unsheathed, battle lance at the ready. A barely audible groan of disappointment went up from the crowd. The newcomer brought his charger to a halt at the feet of the princess and dismounted gracefully if a little anxiously. Unfortunately he was a bit too far away for anybody to make out the conversation that ensued.
oo O oo
“What the f*** do you think you’re doing with that sword?”
“Releasing you from your bonds, your royal highness.”
“Sod off, you interfering retard. You’re not Sir Kevin Dandiprat. Who asked you to stick your sword in?”
“Your noble father the King, Royal Highness, when he and his soldiers did that bit of fly-posting the other night.”
“That didn’t mean you, you brainless turd... And get your hand off my arm. No handling the goods before purchase.”
“Now you look here, you spoiled foul-mouthed little brat, I intend to rescue you and I intend to marry you, as advertised, and I intend to get half your father’s kingdom, and if you don’t like it you can kiss my ass, you ungrateful...”
His train of thought was interrupted by the re-arrival of the dragon, swooping lower than ever, causing his horse to bolt, and leaving a long swath of black singed grass just in front of where the princess was lashed to the rapidly combusting tree.
After an initial agile sidestep towards the shelter of the tree the knight pulled himself up to his full height and intoned in a slightly shaky voice: “Have no fear, Princess. I am none other than the world renowned Sir Eustace Curdylion, slayer of dragons and protector of maidens, by appointment to all the royal courts of Europe. Available as an after dinner speaker by arrangement with my agent.” The dragon, which was becoming bolder by the minute, initiated another low flypast. Sir Eustace executed another rapid and skilful sidestep behind the shelter of the tree and the princess, but peeking out at just the right moment he managed to fling his sword into the air just ahead of the approaching mythical reptile and scored a direct hit to the base of its right wing. The animal squealed and immediately went into an emergency landing procedure, banking steeply to the right while applying full flap to lower its stalling speed and attempting to utilize outstretched legs and exaggerated angle of attack as improvised air brakes. The manoeuvre met with limited success due to lack of altitude and the stricken creature contacted the ground at a speed well beyond its design landing parameters and somersaulted several times before coming to rest in a semi conscious condition at the bottom of the hill on the side that was out of view of the King and the shocked onlookers.
“You great brainless oaf!” the Princess exploded, “what did you do that for?” As she spoke a large burning branch fell from the inferno above her and landed a few paces from her feet. “Get me out of these straps, you air-head!”
“Perhaps her royal highness would like to say please?”
As soon as she was free the Princess started to run down the hill towards the stricken dragon, the confused knight at her heels. “Ivor! Ivor!” she cried, “Are you all right?”
The dragon stirred and lifted its mighty head into the air atop an undulating snake-like scaly neck. It looked down at them contemptuously. “All right? All right indeed?” it scoffed in a lilting Welsh accent, “Is that the way you treat the world’s last surviving fully operational Equity registered dragon? Is that what you call a little bit of play-acting for the crowd? Look you, we had a deal, F'annwylyd, and that wasn’t part of it. I don’t have to do this kind of thing, you know. I can earn more for one shoot in the ‘States than for six of these virgin-eating gigs. I have contacts. Next time you want a unicorn or a fairy princess or an ogre, you can forget it because you have just lost your credibility within the mythical realm. I’m a professional and I work to the script you give me. Unagreed stunts like that are outside of the pale altogether. I’m going to need a lot extra, look you, for distress and unpleasantness, and if I’ve lost any scales, we’re into a whole different ball park, and that’s no mistake.”
“Ivor, I can’t apologise enough. This half-witted ugly old dinosaur of a dragon-slayer just stuck his oar in without a by-your-leave...”
“Ugly old dinosaur! Who was it cut those straps when you were about to be roasted alive...?”
“What do you mean ‘ugly old dinosaur’?” the dragon interrupted indignantly, “some of my very best friends were dinosaurs, before they ran into that rough patch.”
“Sorry Ivor. We’ve all had a hard day. It’s just that he’s messed everything up. It was supposed to be Sir Kevin Dandiprat. I don’t know why he isn’t here, I don’t understand it.”
“I think I’m beginning to understand it,” Sir Eustace put in with a glint in his eye, “is he a sort of girlish blond-haired poncy chinless aristocratic type with designer armour and a carbon fibre lance that he doesn’t know what to do with?”
“How dare you, he’s very sweet. All the girls think he’s gorgeous. He and I have had a thing going for months.”
“Thought so. Wouldn’t give way to me at the bridge. Knocked him into the river ass over tit. So that’s what it was all about. You set up this little pantomime so your dad would let you marry him and give you half the kingdom. Neat. Nasty. Glad you’re not a daughter of mine.”
The dragon, whose head was some forty feet in the air, announced that he could see the aforementioned Dandiprat legging it towards them across the fields in dripping wet armour and without horse or weapons. He arrived panting and opened his arms to embrace the still irate princess. “Don’t you get river-slime on me, you useless prick. Where were you when I needed you?”
“Kevin,” the older knight enquired thoughtfully, “do you really want to marry this... person?”
“She’s the King’s daughter.”
“Think carefully. You’re a bit of a twat but I wouldn’t really wish that fate on you.”
The Princess’ eyes widened with fury.
“Tell you what then,” Sir Eustace continued. ”Let’s make a deal. You get Trudy, I get the real estate. I think her old man will buy it. What do you say?”
Sir Kevin stared at Princess Trudy in shocked silence. “But... where would we live,” he said at last in a quavering high-pitched voice, “what would we live on? Who would pay the bills? What would we have for an income.... We might have to...” he winced involuntarily as he pronounced the word “work!”
“Oh I see it all now. A fine romantic soul you are. So that’s all I mean to you! Well, I’m going to give you a bit of my mind, Kevin, you good-for-nothing under-endowed...”
As she warmed to her theme the dragon pulled himself ponderously on to his feet, removed Sir Eustace’s sword from below his wing like pulling out a mildly irritating thorn, and started to stroll slowly back down the hill. He had really had quite enough of that particular royal princess for one day. Sir Eustace walked by his side and struck up a conversation.
“You know, we would make quite a double act, wouldn’t we? I mean, let me level with you, you’re the first dragon I’ve ever even seen let alone killed. That was just a lucky shot. If you and I were to team up, I wouldn’t have to go around telling tall tales any more. We could work out a routine. Clean up. What do you say?”
“Sorry,” the dragon replied absently, “I was miles away. Do you think, in the circumstances, it would be ethical for me to go back and eat Princess Trudy?”
“Are you serious Ivor? Can you imagine what she would taste like?”