once upon a time, there was a strong, handsome, noble prince who loved a girl. she was not a princess. she wasn’t what you’d call pretty. she wasn’t even particularly nice. okay, she was just plain mean. she was also perpetually dirty and more than a little ill-behaved.
but he loved her anyway, for some inexplicable reason.
he couldn’t make her his princess in that condition, though. she was so awful in the eyes of most people, in fact, that she wouldn’t even be allowed into the palace.
yes, she was that bad. when he called her name, she ran away. when he sang to her, she plugged her ears and ran around in a circle screaming. when he asked her to a royal ball, she went around flirting with every man she met. she was disreputable, disrespectful, disheveled and disgusting … and, people said, definitely not the type of girl fit for a royal castle.
so he went after her instead. but he didn’t go with fanfare of trumpets or banners unfurled. he didn’t ride on a litter carried by twenty silk-swathed servants, or even ride a shining white war horse. he could have, but he left them behind.
did i mention this girl was actually a rather nasty person? her whole village hated her.
he left behind his dazzling armour, his shield — his sword, even. he left behind his golden crown and his beautiful clothes. he went barefoot, bareheaded, dressed in peasant’s itchy, worn-out robes. he certainly didn’t look like a prince gone a-wooing. none of the farmers or shepherds or townspeople he passed on his way to the girl’s village had any clue who he was. in their eyes, he was just another lowly serf. like them.
well, this girl lived quite a far distance off, and he had to climb mountains, cross rivers and slog through swamps in order to get there. when at last he arrived, the whole village was in an uproar. people were running about, yelling and shrieking and generally causing a racket.
“what’s wrong?” the prince called to a villager racing by him.
“the dragon!” the man called over his shoulder.
oh yes. did i mention the dragon? every good story needs one.
this village had been plagued by a dragon for as long as anyone could remember. he’d swoop down every once in a while and carry off a few sheep or a cow or something, then buzz the houses and torch half of them with his fiery breath. occasionally, however, he got in the mood for something sweeter and would threaten the villagers with death and total destruction if they didn’t pacify him with a girl to eat instead.
eating girls. i don’t quite get it, but it’s something dragons do.
anyway — such was the case the day the prince came to town, and such had been the cause of the uproar he witnessed. and, as it turns out, the villagers had sent the very girl he loved off to be the dragon’s lunch. everyone was glad the danger was averted, but it was hard to tell whether they were more glad to be rid of the dragon or the girl herself.
the prince was not dissuaded by this new challenge. he’d traveled so far to win her heart that he wasn’t about to give her up now, let alone to the dragon. so he took off after her again, without pausing for food or rest or weaponry. he tracked the wily beast to its lair and got there just in the nick of time, for the dragon was about to tuck in to his meal.
don’t worry, she wasn’t dead yet — dragons can be rather cruel that way and prefer to eat their victims alive. and that she was when the prince arrived, although she was cowering in a corner of the cave, wailing and blubbering and begging the dragon not to eat her. the air was tinged with the scent of singed hair and hysteria.
“don’t eat me! pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease don’t eat me,” she shrieked. terror and a little burn from the dragon’s breath made her a sight more gruesome than usual.
“oh shut up, you little idiot,” the dragon snarled. “do you really think that’s going to help any? i am immune to your pleading. in fact, you are so annoying that the sooner i eat you, the better. not that i expect you to taste all that great, now that i think about it. i was too soft-hearted with the villagers this time when i agreed to take you off their hands. bet they were glad to be rid of you, weren’t they?”
he chuckled, but not in a nice way — not even for a dragon.
“they wanted an excuse to distance themselves from your disgrace. and now they’ve got it.”
he wrapped his tail around her leg and dragged her, struggling and scratching, nearer to him.
“that’ll teach you.”
he swung her up in the air again and dangled her in front of his face. he snorted, and puffs of steam came out of his nostrils and burnt her. she screamed.
“put her down, villain!” the prince shouted from the mouth of the cave.
“eh?” the dragon, in his surprise, did as the prince had ordered, and dropped the girl on the ground. she lay there without moving.
“eh?” the dragon said again. “what do you want?”
“you have there the woman i love,” said the prince, looking the dragon straight in the eyes. “let her go.”
“you have to be joking,” the dragon said. “no one loves her. look at her! she’s disgusting. the only one who wants her is me, and that’s just to eat. i wouldn’t dream of keeping her around for company. ”
the girl, who had recovered somewhat from the drop to the floor, winced at the words. she recognized the prince’s voice, but was too ashamed, even then, to look at him.
“so it’s dinner you’re after?” he asked. “then eat me instead.”
“i beg your pardon?” even dragons can be polite when they’re sufficiently shocked.
“eat me instead of her. i’m well-nourished. i’m healthy, strong — i grew up with the best of everything. i’d give it all up and die gladly if that meant she would live.”
“you’re serious?” asked the dragon.
“absolutely serious,” the prince replied.
“huh. well, then — i accept! your life for hers,” the dragon said.
“just a moment,” the prince said. he walked over to where the girl sat huddled on the ground. he crouched down, reached out a hand and touched her cheek, but she wouldn’t look at him.
“i love you,” he said simply. “i have always loved you, and i will always love you, no matter what has happened or what will happen. remember that.”
he straightened up and walked back over to the dragon. “i’m ready,” he said.
“then so am i,” said the dragon.
the girl didn’t watch, but she felt the heat and heard the crack and sizzle of the flames as the dragon let his fire loose on the prince. he never begged for mercy the way she had, or even made a sound. all she could hear was the dragon flaming and chewing and crunching the bones down. she thought she was going to be sick.
finally the dragon was finished. he let our a hiccup, then sighed contentedly and chuckled to himself.
“and now, my pretty little one,” he mocked, sidling over to her, “what’s to keep me from eating you, too?”
he hiccuped again, and smiled at her in a sickly way.
“but you promised!” she said, backing toward the wall. “you promised him you’d let me live!”
“ah, but what’s a promise to a dead man?” the dragon said, and hiccuped again. “he was a fool to love you in the the first place. then he was more of a fool not to realize he couldn’t stop me from eating you once he was dead.
“besides,” the dragon continued, after a third hiccup, “i don’t think the village will be wanting you — wait, what the blazes?”
she looked up at the dragon, who was preoccupied with a stream of smoke that seemed to be issuing from his belly.
“what is going on here —- aaugh! that hurts!”
for the dragon himself was on fire, not alight from his own flame, but being burned from the inside out. smoke billowed forth from him stomach as the fire burned a hole through his scales and opened the cavity of his body. the cave was filled with the smell of sulfur and coals and burning flesh.
“aaaaeeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” the dragon shrieked as he burned. he beat at himself desperately with his wings to try to extinguish the flames, but they also caught fire. soon he was totally engulfed, and the air was so thick with smoke that the girl couldn’t see anything. overcome by the fumes and the smoke and the heat, she passed out.
it was light when she awoke, but the pale, cold light of morning rather than the golden glow of afternoon. the blackened carcass of the dragon lay near the entrance of the cave, still smoldering a bit around the edges. she sat up and rubbed her eyes, then did a double-take — was that a shadow she’d seen near the cave’s mouth? she got up and crept cautiously closer. the dragon’s body reeked, and she covered her nose as she tiptoed carefully around. wait, there the shadow was again! there was nothing else in the cave itself, so she peered outside.
and there stood the prince.
stood, mind you. in one piece, whole, seemingly unharmed — alive. how could that be?
“i’ve been waiting for you,” he said, walking to meet her.
“but, but … how?” she stammered.
“come.” he took her hand and led her out of the cave. “come out into the light.”
“how are you standing here?” she asked, finally able to put her words together in a coherent sentence. “the dragon ate, you, didn’t he?”
“yes, he did,” the prince said, smiling at her.
“then aren’t you dead?”
“i was,” he said, shrugging a little.
“but — how are you alive now?” she asked, really quite bewildered.
“i told you i had always loved you, and would always love you, no matter what had happened or would happen — remember?”
“well. i always keep my promises,” he said. “there wasn’t anything big enough or evil enough or strong enough — not even death — to keep me from loving you.”
“but why? i’ve never done anything to deserve your love. and i’ve done everything to deserve your hate. i was all those things the dragon said about me. i deserved to die.”
“i love you because i chose to love you,” he said gently. “you don’t have to earn it. you just have to accept it. and nothing anyone could do will ever change my love. it’s impossible.”
she was crying now and didn’t know why. he reached down and brushed the tears off her cheeks.
“i love you,” he whispered. “what are you going to do about it?”
the look in his eyes was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
all good stories end with a happily ever-after. the best part about this one is it’s true.