Thrice Valiant

A cautionary tale on the hunting and demising of serpents.

    Once valiant is the warrior's foe,
    all steeped in gore from head to toe.
    Twice gallant is the monarch's mate,
    who guards his king until his fate.
    Thrice valiant is the greatest fame,
    for he must be a serpents bane!

    Adrift on a river of fantasy the little princess watched the falling of the stagnant water. Each tiny globe detached itself with infinite slowness from the roof of the keep and floated down.  From the empty plains of Boronor the dying dregs of the wind gathered each drop and sent it swinging in a wide arc. The dank air of the chamber set the drops spinning. After a while the water slapped onto the flagstones, forming a great wide circle encompassing the court. The once proud courtiers of Asiron stood imprisoned within the tortuous, damp circle, all racked with misery and despair.
    The princess Tabbatha sat demurely by the feet of her father. Ignoring the worst excesses of the court, whose rise in depravity had matched their decline in other aspects. Their debauched antics were of little overt interest to her. She smiled as expected, hid her curiosity and kept her sadness deep inside.
    "Garoth's come-ing," giggled the fool, leaping to his feet. He danced a maniacal little jig and waved his rowan cane at the princess, "yummy, yummy." he said , rubbing his stomach with fluttering fingers, racked with spasms.
    "Oh dear," proclaimed the queen, obliquely.
    "Hush mother !" Tabbatha murmured, not directly at the queen, but more into the open paranoia around her. A wailing started at the back of the room.
    "Yes dear," pined the queen, "but the dragon dear, you know his penchant for maidens."
    Tabbatha yawned.
    "I'm sure Rankindle would escort you to safety, Tabby dear." She continued, fluttering her wrinkled eyelashes into the gloom. On his queue a broad knight stepped forward from his group of toadies and waved his broadsword. All conversation stopped.
    "My Lord King! In anticipation of the dragon, I offer myself to the protection of the queen and princess." He paused for effect, "I will personally escort them to a place of safety." The queen giggled coyly.  
    The king struggled to focus on the knight, nevertheless impressed by his bravado.
    "Who speaks thus?" He stammered, grinning a toothless grin," ah, very well take them while we consider the problem the beast poses."
     Some little while later, as it happened, there was an argument at the gates of the inner walls.
    "My lord knight!" squealed Tabbatha, "I do not wish to dally upon the palace walls, tonight of all nights."
    "My lady," answered the knight, calmly, "how could I the most gallant and valiant knight of Asiron ever lead you into danger." She scowled. He continued. "I am Rankindle, scourge of the court, the greatest swordsman in the world. The beast would not dare affront thee in my presence."
    "Tabby dear..." oh how she hated that name, "I'm sure you will be perfectly safe. Do as you're told, there's a good girl." Said the queen. At her command two burly attendants flung open the door and the two of them bundled the princess out onto the wall. Ten feet away was the spiral stair leading to the deepest cellar. A thousand feet above the tallest tower, leathery wings folded into a dive. The dragon's long, sleek body slid downwards, talons flexed and honed sharp. A second later Garoth Khan-Isglin, dragon lord of the northern ice, grasped the princess in his wicked claws and flew away. In the downdraught Rankindle, who was following behind the princess at a safe distance, was flung into the moat with a sorry splash.
    "Oh dear," spluttered the queen and fainted dead away.
    "Woderick!," spluttered the knight as he surfaced, looking desperately for his henchman.  
    "Woderick," pleaded the knight. "I have a problem, it is a matter of honour."
    "I unnerstand sire," answered Woderick, solemnly drawing his knife.  


a-thrice-castle.jpg    "Oh my Lord King," wailed the bloodstained knight, raising a slashed sleeve towards the throne, "oh how I have failed you !" Rankindle wept copiously on the flagstones, which were already quite-damp-enough- thank-you.
    "Oh, never mind Rankindle," answered the king anciently. "You must have put up quite a fight."
    "Would I were dead sire," bemoaned Rankindle, tearing out his tight blonde curls quite convincingly.
    "Is the queen safe ?" asked the king, querulously.
    "Oh yes my lord, she is recovering."
    "Well, never mind. We know you for a brave man, Rankindle," cried the king leaping, rather shakily, to his feet. There was a roar from the council. Another knight stood forward,
    "Is he not the only man to have scaled the Haunted Mountain of Borean,"
    "Did he not swim the Lake of Silence and regain the sacred book of the Doroons for its rightful people," shouted a priest.
    "And is he not the slayer of three dragons previously..."
    "... and wears the scales as a necklace...?"
    "... and the Gorgon of Batyrix..."
    "So!" Cried the king, without the fetter of dignity. "You will rescue our daughter and receive her hand as a reward !" The court exploded into tumultuous acclaim.
    "Oh my king I cannot accept this task, I am disgraced, honour another..." pleaded Rankindle as he wept.
    "Rubbish," continued the king, curtly, "you leave in the morning."
    "Oh..." said Rankindle. Woderick, in the gallery, dropped his head into his hands.

      Rankindle and Woderick rode north. They travelled the gentle orchards of the southern vales, skirting the plains of Boranor. They continued into the low mountains that separated the fashionable and unfashionable areas of the Kingdom of Asiron. Within a week they returned to the rugged, rolling lands of his ancestors. The blue shimmering lakes, verdant greens and persistent rain. Rankindle had been born nearby and had many acquaintances hereabouts, but he disguised himself adequately. Soon they reached the mountains proper, the majesty of the Avelier peaks that guarded the south from the ice and unearthly beasts, indigenous or imagined, that inhabited the northern tundra, fringed with snow and studded with leafless black trees like obelisks. Great swathes of black char scorched all of the surrounding forest in an awesome fresco of unleashed mayhem. Here and there a sorry tribe of beggars wandered, maimed or burned. The refugees pleaded for aid as they dogged the route north. Pointing the way, unwittingly, to the dragons palace.
    "This'll be the dragons work sire,"
    "Don't be silly Woderick, there's far too much of it." He gazed at his page with a dull hint of fear in his eyes," I say, you don't really think so do you ?"
    "Aye sir I'd say so,"
    "Oh I say. Then I'll wager the cads already eaten the princess, don't you think we'd best turn back ?"
    "No." said Woderick bluntly.
    "Why, pray ?" Demanded Rankindle in frustration.
    "Because, my lord, the king demands the dragons blood in vengeance,"
    "He didn't say that to me Woderick," said the knight haughtily.
    "Nay sire, but the queen said it to me, and since the king can never remember 'is commandments I'd say hers was the better account."
    "Oh dear," said the knight.
    "Besides," continued Woderick,"'e won't have eaten 'er yet,"
    "Why ever not !" retorted Rankindle, callously.
    "'cos he'll want an audience, an audience is always good when a dragon eats royalty 'cos it brings out the true solemnity of the occasion, not to mention the flavour."
    "Is that so ?" asked Rankindle, astonished.
    "Aye, my old mother told me," concluded Woderick, and they rode on.

a-thrice-horse.jpg      They crossed withering ravines and encountered bitter, bitter storms. In the night they imagined dragonly sniggerings in the mist, or through the trees. On the rare occasions that the moon could be seen, broad wings were silhouetted against it. At other times their path would be barred by still smouldering trees, or their horses would hop gingerly on still smoking earth. On one occasion, when their rations were running low, a whole pig, freshly roasted, dropped with a thud onto their campfire from the night sky. When finally they descended to the ragged northern plains the nights were uncomfortably longer. The sky alternately shone with stars, burned with strange flickering lights or filled with flurries of snow. The tough heather gave way to constant ice and the horses had to be abandoned. Rankindle and Woderick battled on against the spindrift on foot for the last hundred miles. Rankindle, anxious to demonstrate his bravado, found the going less than to his liking. Short, stocky Woderick, the countryman, found the journey as fraught as all the others he had experienced at his liege lords hands. But snow he had always hated most of all.
      Their final obstacle was the coast. Across the wicked, thrashing green ocean, flecked with floes of cruel ice, lay the Isle of Isglin, covered with sooty snow. This was the ancestral palace of the dragon king down through the ages. Both men shivered when those gruesome lampblack spires first retched into view but neither would confess to fear at that moment. Through the mist the corrupted granite had a sickening aspect, as though the rock was trying to climb into the sky away from the filth all around.
    "By the victories of the six armies !" bellowed Rankindle at the ocean thrashing the ominous cliff sides, hundreds of feet below. "All this way for nothing. None but a winged beast may cross." Rankindle sounded anything but disappointed.
    "Except by using the causeway." muttered Woderick.
    "What causeway ?"
    "The one that becomes exposed at high tide, which is most fortunate since the king would 'ave had us beheaded if we returned without the princess," Woderick was loosing something of his air of tolerance, standing on this cliff with the killing wind slicing through his ribs.
    "Oh ... thank god for that." exclaimed Rankindle, frustrated, "yet how do we descend this beastly cliff ?"
    "My lord did you not climb the Tower of Pamlion in order to bring the kings promise of aid to Queen Oquaneir, then leap from that very tower in order not to compromise the good lady when her husband, who would surely not have understood, 'append upon the stairs ?" Asked Woderick, a gleam in his eyes.
    "No Woderick, you climbed the tower and I don't need reminding of it now." Rankindle turned and looked his page in the eye, "as I'm sure you don't need reminding of why you were flung out of it ?"
    "But sire," flushed Woderick, "she but offered me a little favour for my trouble. I misunderstood her meaning is all."
    "Then shut up and climb down this cliff, I will follow." said Rankindle arrogantly,
    "as you wish my lord."
      Woderick searched the storm drenched clifftops where the salt in the wind turned the blizzard to mush. The path down was treacherous, the seaspray began to reach for his feet. The smooth cold stones rapidly froze the spray to the rocks. Desperately afraid of falling to the foot of the cliffs and thence to the water, Woderick took each step with childlike caution. When he reached the lip of the causeway the frosty tide was turning for him. All along the exposed edges ornate ice sculptures grew out of the spray, like a row of demon trees growing ever-so-fast to mark the way. Each blast of the sea against the granite road coated the growing blades. Now and again a mighty wave would reach out, like an unforgiving hand from the ocean, and destroy its handiwork. A crazy patchwork of ice walls and pinnacles was developing.

    Woderick realised, suddenly, that the wind was blowing hard across the causeway. Eventually, he mused, some of them would grow right across the rocky road building a kind of natural maze at best and possibly blocking the path completely. Woderick, however, had to wait. Staring in fascination at the frigid ballet he settled down in a hollow to wait for his master. Exposed and afraid he urged his master downwards, to speed their quest and be out of this evil place.
    In the distance the sculpted spires shattered the pastels of the sky. Shaped by the fires of countless dragons aeons ago the soot black walls soaked up the morning like hideous sponges. At last there was a stirring to his right. Rankindle 'descended' the last few feet of the cliff in a squealing, slithering heap.
    "Ah, there you are," hailed the Knight, "how lazy and unfit you are Woderick, 'tis a good job you are not a knight," Woderick stared at the knight in amazement, trying to hide his pain.
    "That's on account of my lowly birth sire," he answered, archly.
    "Well yes Woderick, but I have been taking time to survey the palace from the cliff whilst you ran down here to hide behind that rock,"
    "The mist has barely been cleared this half hour sir. It was difficult to make out details," said Woderick, forgetting his tact.
    "The trained eye discerns several things, Woderick," said Rankindle impatiently. Woderick discerned Rankindle's inability to stop shaking.
    "Then you have a plan sire ?"
    "Aye, Woderick, I have discerned the location of the princess." Woderick looked up at his master with sudden and genuine surprise.
    "I see you doubt my skills of reasoning," said the knight grandly. "well she is in one of those towers in the castle, impressed ?"
    "Your skill leaves me 'umble sire, which one exactly ?"
    "Ah well, I'll let you work that one out. Then you may tell me your answer and I shall tell you where you have gone wrong my man." Woderick began to crack.
    "What about the tall one which has the light in the topmost window ?" the light was low but just visible in the morning light.
    "Oh, well er' yes well done, excellent, you are learning," enthused Rankindle, searching the castle with puzzled eyes.
     In a great marble clad room atop one of the fearful towers the princess stirred. Silently she slid from her bed of silk and furs. Crossing glumly to one of the many windows she peered towards the coast. Surely rescue could not be far away now ? At least she was snug in her warm apartment, if rescue was coming she could afford to wait. A huge new fire blazed handsomely in the hearth. Next door  The Attendant was preparing her bath. He was a poor, ugly creature, dark and hairy like an ape, but with intelligent yellow eyes that could pierce like stilletos. There was deep sadness in those eyes to which Tabbatha could not help but succumb. She treated him like a teddy bear. He never showed her any malice, even when she tried to escape, but neither did he ever leave her side except to answer the call of the dragon.
    When her bath was prepared he helped her into the milky liquid. The curious mixture was infused with milk and honey. The smell was inviting, and the texture was wonderful. The princess allowed herself to slip under the surface and float free. The fluid slipped over the deep blue eyes and into her long tawny hair. Her every pore drank the liquid. An hour later the attendant lifted her from the pool onto a marble slab padded with velvet. There he massaged her with spirits and delicate, scented oils while her morning stiffness faded away. Each day he brought her a new garment. The attendant indulged her every whim, except of course to leave. He brought her watercolours and fine vellum, books to read or rare and delicate musical instruments to surprise her. Her talents were deeply rooted in the once imperial history of her nation, the finest artists and musicians in the world had been retained to train her, yet the Attendant could better them all. But he only taught her when she wanted to be taught. Each painting she made disappeared before it was dry to be hung amongst the ancient tapestries of the palace, amongst the dragons pillage. She spent many hours amongst the golden treasuries, sorting through the hills of immeasurable wealth that were deemed unfit for display. Here piled high in one great chamber, were works from every corner of the world. More gold, in tributes and loot, was discarded here than had ever graced the coffers of her fathers kingdom, even at the very pinnacles of its power.
    The life here was gentle, for now. She had become quite immune to the horrifying aspect of the palace. When the sun saw fit to shine, the views from her windows varied from the inspiring to the truly awesome. The harsh coastline swept away arrogantly as though this were the king of coasts. The palace itself was imposing, dark and moody; which often suited her own mood. Despite its perverse attractions, the castle was still a prison and she could find no escape. The tower walls were as smooth as glass, moulded from obsidian millenia before. There were no stairs that ran from the bottom to the top of the tower. Everything that came in or went out used the cavernous landing stage halfway up the tower.The door to the tower was bolted tight against the cold, for now.
    She decided to climb the great pile of gold. When she got half way up she slipped, creating a mini-landslide. Wealth trickled down in rivulets to the bottom of the heap. When she picked herself up and looked down and saw what was at her feet she screamed and fainted. Out of the fog behind her eyes, she saw the attendant re-bury the skeleton in its rich grave.
    "He rescue his lady," explained the attendant, struggling to form the words. "But Lord Garoth eat him and leave him here." He pointed upwards to a gallery high up on the wall. "Dining room," he said. Tabbatha wondered how many more hapless heroes were buried in the gold.
    "And the lady ?" enquired the princess nervously.
    "Eat too," explained the Attendant, "Is Lord Garoth's game." He shrugged his shoulders. The princess skittered down the slope and ran back to her room. There she fell sobbing on her bed, alone with her fears.
    Quite suddenly a huge bell tolled, and tolled again, and another three times it rang. Tabbatha felt fear clutch her abdomen, Garoth was home. The attendant, who had discreetly left the princess to her weeping, scuttled out to do his master's bidding. When he returned his mood had altered slightly. He pointed briskly to the causeway. Tabbatha's heart threw a funny little twist as she ran to the window. It stopped in its tracks and sank without a trace when she saw the two figures clawing their way over the wispy ice on the causeway. Rankindle's outrageous curls were quite distinctive even from this distance, despite their dishevelled appearance. Her fool of a father had offered him her hand for certain. The thought of a life of wedlock to Rankindle  filed her with utter, utter dread. The attendant began to prepare another bath. The scent of tarragon and fine brandy filled the room.
    "Must be nice for noble lord," he kept murmuring, over and over. His impatience eventually got the better of her .Uncomplaining she slipped off her gown and slid, rapturously, into the fragrant pool. She wondered wether the noble lord in question was Garoth or Rankindle.
    "How do we climb these walls Woderick ?" asked Rankindle,
    "Why not fight the dragon here ?" Quizzed Woderick,
    "Gad, where's your sense of chivalry, your adventure, man ? Come on, up the walls you go !"
    Woderick groaned.
    The first part was easy enough. Frozen spray shrouded the bottom of the tower and he created footholes thricecoast.jpgwith his toes. There was a window, half way up the tower through which Woderick managed to throw a grapple at the third attempt. The ornate, leaded light imploded noisily. Woderick shook his head in resignation and began to climb the slippery rope, anxiously bracing his feet against the smooth, bare, rock of the tower. The climb was difficult but at last he reached the window, the next part would be worse if there were no stairs in this room. There were not. He hauled another length of rope and all their equipment into the room, secured a rope ladder for Rankindle and started the next phase of the climb. The angle to find the next window was difficult. It was a long way and noon had passed when the grapple finally found a hold. By this time Rankindle was pacing up and down in the empty room. The cold was vicious, even though it was the warmest part of the day. Woderick became despondent as he started his third climb. The wind was stronger and the tower was definitely not willing to be climbed. The rope ladder was too short this time and the chamber made him nervous, it was easily big enough for a dragon to sneak into and remnants of age-old dinners were spread around. Reluctantly Woderick rigged a pulley and began to haul his master up the tower.
    The last climb was the worst. The rope snaked easily over the roof of the tower, but the light was beginning to falter and the altitude was dizzying. Rankindle helped little, continually bellowing at Woderick to keep climbing when he slipped or became tired. Rankindle was distinctly uneasy in his haunted chamber. Rankindle had started to climb the rope, anxious to be on his way. This set the rope swinging and Woderick almost fell. When he looked down Rankindle was clinging to the rope, yards below, eyes clamped shut and bolted and hanging on for grim life. With Rankindle shaking one end of the rope and the wind tugging at the other, Woderick came at last to the topmost window. Gingerly he peeped inside, taking care not to be seen. He saw a room filled to the brim with old bones, completely bereft of princesses, live ones at least. They had climbed the wrong tower. Through the window on the other side he could just make out a light on the next spire along.
    Woderick swore.
    Reluctantly he climbed to the roof and hauled Rankindle up to join him. Bravely, Rankindle tried and failed to open his eyes at the window. Instead he started babbling at the bones.
    "My darling, you are saved . . . "
    "Wrong tower!" shouted Woderick from the roof. The knights eyes burst open. The sight that met his eyes set him wobbling on the rope. Woderick half hoped, rather uncharitably, that he might fall off. Instead he slipped a few feet, but in the process he looked down to the sea. By the time Woderick pulled him to the roof he was a wreck. It was full night now and only the lights in the windows and the limpid moon gave any light.
      Tabbatha stared in disbelief. Flinging the window wide open, so that the icy night tugged at her flimsy dress, she wound up her voice to its shrillest.
    "Oh Rankindle!" she squealed, "You great warthog's daughter, how could you be so stupid ?" Recomposed, the knight shrugged his shoulders and pointed at Woderick. The attendant had already picked the princess up, bodily, and carried her away from the window. She struggled wildly,
    "Come Lady, time eat," he said,
    "I'm not hungry," she snapped.
    "No, Lord Garoth eat," he replied gently. She screamed.  
    "By my ladies roasted toes !" Exploded Rankindle, atop his tower, "what beast of hell is this that dares ravage a princess of Asiron ? Woderick, do something !" his anguish was pitiful.
    "Anything Sire ?"
    "Anything." Woderick threw the grapple towards to roof of the next tower with an epic fling. It held, astonishingly. The other tower was slightly higher, and Woderick began to play out a length of rope, counting on his fingers as he went. In the lower windows of the other tower ominous flames began to flicker. The knight looked at his henchman in astonished silence, until he realised the plan.
    "Oh no Woderick, not that." Rankindle whimpered
    "Then stay here,"
    "If we miss,"
    "I apologise in advance,"
    "Ooooh!" Rankindle, shutting his eyes so hard he could see stars, grabbed his page's waist.
      Tabbatha was struggling, panicked, by the flames before her. The attendants manner remained unchanged, but there was new menace in the air.
    "No struggle, no bruises," pleaded the Attendant, carrying towards another bath. Vindictively she battered herself until it hurt.
    "I'll give you bruises!" She spat, "and what the hell do I need another bath for ? am I not already clean enough to be eaten."
    "No bath, this marinade Lady." explained the attendant. She let forth a roar that set the dragon chuckling as he started up the massive staircase. Tabbatha rained blows upon the apes head. Behind was a great table laid with a barrel of wine and great golden plates and bowls as big as a man.
    "You might at least slay me first," pleaded Tabbatha as the attendant tied her to a great spit.
    "No worry, Lord Garoth like princess very rare. You pink and tender, not cook too much."
    "Oh wonderful," she cried.
    "He like struggle too, you struggle plenty yes ?"
    "Just you wait and see," bellowed the princess, uttering a series of most un-virginal expletives and punching The Attendant on the muzzle.
    "No lady, me eat too."
    "What," she stammered, "you . . . I hope you choke !"
    "No, no, me canape,"
    "Oh," she said, abashed, "does he like you rare ?"
    "Me no know, never been eat before. Ape string and tough, I think he roast." He strapped the spit over the fire and the flames lapped at her, making her sodden gown fizz angrily. There was a tremendous explosion and glass flew everywhere. To his and everyone else's amazement Rankindle landed gallantly on his feet in the middle of the room. Woderick was nowhere to be seen.
    "Oh Rankindle, you're so brave," cried the shocked princess. Woderick, face bloody and distinctly shaken, slid down from above the above the window. Sincerely regretting his slight miscalculation and the fact that Rankindle had slipped to his ankles, stretching him rigid for the impact against the wall. His attitude was disintegrating with his face. He harumphed indignantly.
    "My lady, what foulness is this," roared the knight, "I will save you from this foul beast and his despicable affectations." He continued in a similar vein, feeling that the occasion deserved a speech, whilst the princess smouldered and the Attendant picked up a club.
    "Shut up and get me off here," the princess pleaded. The knight hacked ineffectually at the bindings. Too late he noticed the Attendant. Rankindle parried but was bowled over. The combatants chased each other noisily around the room. The bewildered Woderick hauled the singed princess off the spit and started to untie her.
    "Never mind her," wailed the knight, "help me !", Woderick carried on regardless. When she was finally free, he went to his master's aid. The Attendant chattering to himself, bemoaned his fate, as he succumbed to the attack. Finally subdued, he watched Rankindle hand Woderick his sword.
    "Oh you do it, you know I hate the sight of blood." Reluctantly, Woderick aimed to run the ape through.
    "No!" shouted the princess, "he meant no harm." Gently, she tried to help him up. He showed no sign of struggling, but the heavy tread on the stairs and the turning of the key in the lock signalled a more formidable presence.
    "Rankindle my sweet," said the princess, "I have an idea," bravely she added," it must be done,"
    "What ?" Pleaded Rankindle,
    "The beast will not eat me if I am not a maiden, deflower me sire..."
    "Good lord, " exclaimed Rankindle, "absolutely splendid idea !"
    "Quickly," she pleaded,
    "Of course my love," answered the knight, standing tall, "Woderick, unmaiden the princess."
    "What ?" said one.
    "What !" said the other.
    "My lord," said Tabbatha curtly, "I fear you are unmanned,"
    "Ah ummmm," strangled the knight.
    "Then there are things that you dare not face," said Tabbatha," deflower me or kill the dragon.
    "It's been done," said an deep, rich voice the with the power of an angry ocean. The door flew open the rest of the way and a fetid gust of methane and feral odours signalled the arrival of the serpent.
    "Oh Tabby," wailed the knight.


    "I am not a cat," squealed the enraged princess. The dragon unfolded his thin, elegant wings into the room. His baleful midnight blue eyes with their minuscule pupils fixed the princess lasciviously.


    "As I was saying," for all its menace the dragons voice was refined and regal, "it has been done. I am after all a very modern dragon. I must confess that knights who get this far are usually less gallant." His great scales were the size of a mans head. He continued to address Rankindle.
    "Well met, flower of Asiron, your fame precedes you." This flattery seemed to quell some of the knights shaking. The dragon was thirty feet long from the tip of his snout to the end of his forked tail, which he wrapped around the table as he sat down.
    "Excuse my manners but I am rather hungry."he said, picking up the barrel, which looked like a mug in his talons. He took a swig and then tapped the prostrate attendant with a wingtip.
    "Since they tied you up, I'll start with you." Suddenly the room seemed perfectly proportioned. The attendant in the dragons claws looked rather like a drumstick.
    "Oh no" wailed the princess,
    "Afraid so," apologised the Dragon," you don't know what its like keeping a body in size this shape," Rankindle, with the kind of resolve that comes of the fusion of cowardice, an indecisive nature and a hopeless situation, pointed his sword at the door and tried desperately to force out the words he wished to say. The dragon blew it shut with a crash...
    "The Door !," Bellowed Rankindle at last.
    "Going somewhere ?" Enquired the dragon gently. "Sit for a while, I hate interruptions while I eat." He roasted the poor attendant with an incandescent blast from his nostrils, munching slowly when he had blown out the flames.
    "Oh my," stuttered the knight, "we are in a pickle."
    "Well kill him !" Spat Tabbatha, "that's why you're here isn't it ?"
    "Well no actually, I thought we could get by without the rough stuff," he fawned. The princess wasn't impressed.
    "You've already killed three dragons haven't you. Surely one more isn't a problem ?" Woderick cleared his throat, indicating the tiny scales Rankindle wore as trophies around his neck, Garoth's were the size of paving slabs. "I say, aren't they rather small ?" she queried.
    "They were young'uns my lady," whispered Woderick, "but no one at court knows the difference."
    "I never claimed they were full grown," said Rankindle defensively. The dragon raised a gnarled eyebrow, but carried on picking at the attendant, a sight they were all trying desperately to avoid.
    "What about the other quests you went on Rankindle ?" enquired the princess casually. "Did you scale the haunted mountain ?"
    "Well not exactly, Woderick did didn't you Woderick,"
    "My achievements are your achievements sire," answered Woderick defferently. "I am pledged to your service." The princess was amazed,
    "and what about the Book of the Doroons," she asked,
    "actually," said Rankindle somewhat embarrassed, "an old fool sold it to me at a market. The rest was a trifle romantic I'll grant you, one has to keep up appearances, but I did bring it back." The knight concluded enthusiastically.
    "and the gorgon,"
    "drunk," interrupted the dragon, "she was blind drunk." He stared thoughtfully at Rankindle, then at his necklace of scales," and we'll have to have a chat about the demise of my little nieces, " it added menacingly, "I believe you may be able to shed some light on that, doesn't suit ones ideals of gallantry old chap, murdering those so newly hatched." He tossed the gleaming skeleton off the gallery into the treasury.
    "Well actually..." squeaked Rankindle in desperation,
    "I suppose this specimen did that too ?"
    "Yes," said Woderick loyally, even though, in this case, it was not exactly true.
    "Well aren't you sorry ?" enquired the dragon in his most gentlemanly voice.
    "No, one of your lot ate my old mother," stated Woderick, bluntly.
    "'one of our lot' ?" said the dragon in an offended voice, "really. When exactly was this ?"
    "'bout fifteen years ago..."
    "and did she live on Ramboran bay ?"
    "Yes I can see the resemblance. I'm so terribly sorry old chap, but then its a cruel world, and one has to eat." He took another swig of wine, Woderick started to utter little strangling noises
    "you're a little underdone dear," he said poking the princess with one of his wingtips. A flame flickered into life in his throat. Rankindle squealed and dived behind a low marble partition. The princess barely dodged the huge welter of fire that the dragon vomited her way.
    "Don't be awkward dear," coed the dragon, "you know that you want to," the princess harumphed indignantly. Woderick leapt to his feet and grabbed the spit pole. With the released fury of years he brought it down onto one of the dragons talons. Garoth jumped at the sudden pain and fired a jet of lizard-napalm at Woderick.
    "Rankindle," hissed the princess, "fight you coward,"
    "I'm scared," blubbered Rankindle.
    "Then give me your sword," she dodged another belt of flame which covered half the wall in soot. To the utter disbelief of all the combatants the heavy iron blade slid across the floor towards the princess.
    "Oh lord," said the dragon sadly, "knights today aren't what they were, I so look forward to a good fight and what happens ?"
    "Men," breathed the princess,
    "I hope you don't mean me," said the dragon, slyly. Woderick was a sorry sight, his leather singlet was scorched and his beard was a waxen mass, still smouldering. He looked none to pleased with the way things were going. The princess dodged and slashed at the dragon with the absurd broadsword whilst Woderick manouevered then, bravely, ran up the dragons back and hit it squarely between the eyes with the spit. The dragon bucked, throwing Woderick, still swinging his spit, onto his tail. Garoth dispatched him to the treasury with a deft flick. Woderick, who was by no temporal definition a rich man, the fall from almost certain death onto the top of the pile of treasure was too much. He lay face down in the treasure, spellbound by the gold. Happiness, utter happiness.
    The dragon smiled and turned to the princess. She hacked at his tongue with a becoming lack of skill.
    "I'm going to fry you," he teased,
    "You'll spoil your dinner," she retorted,
    "True." answered the dragon, "but you have very nearly spoiled my appetite, now I will heat the floor until it glows and griddle you upon it, perhaps sauteeing you with this wormy knights blood for butter."
    "Pah," she spat. With a superhuman effort she slashed and clipped a wing. The dragon, stung, began to loose patience.
    "Ouch," he said, ducking the next blow. "Why is there always such a fuss ?" She took yet another swing, tiring now. This time Tabbatha overbalanced and fell in a heap. Garoth laughed. By now it was evident that the dragon was no longer concerned with cooking his prey. She tried to run away. Grabbing her in a horny talon, inexorably he dragged her towards his mouth. Tabbatha almost struggled free. The dragon corrected, allowing her to grab the sword again which she rammed into the dragons armoured tongue. He bellowed in anger, a-thrice-barrel.jpgspitting venomous balls of fire around the room. Tabbatha, wriggling free at last, swiped at a foot. The dragon parried with a talon, swipe again, another parry. She ran around under his great belly, stabbing at the scales with all the force she could muster, but she only hurt her wrists. The dragon sat down suddenly, trapping her squealing. He leered at her, tusks gleaming. Helpless she rammed the sword between two scales.
    "Ohh that tickles," giggled the dragon. Its head was swivelled around at a crazy angle to face hers. Suddenly she realised that he could not reach to bite her, nor could he incinerate her without scorching himself. She hurled the sword with all her might. The dragon flinched and the blade nicked an eyelid. Streams of smoking blood oozed from the wound. Garoth, at last, lost his composure. He wriggled around, clutched her firmly in his claws and tossed her whole into his mouth. She screamed in horror. Desperate, she forced herself inside to avoid the jaws which snapped shut with a final thud. She kicked. The air inside the dragons mouth was fetid with methane and gore. Desperately she kicked again and hit the spot. The dragon retched, violently. The princess was spewed across the floor on a sled of slime and slithered to a halt against the wall. She was smothered from head to foot in rancid dragon spittle. Savouring her life, which she had though forfeit, she searched for a means of escape.
    "I do love a meal that fights," grated the dragon, unconvincingly, rubbing his raw eye. He lunged over the great table, his vast weight turning it on one side. The princess slipped away, using her greater agility, as the dragon crashed into the wall that sheltered Rankindle. He lunged again, grasping the princess for a third time, in both talons this time. Gently he sampled her with his wounded tongue. The rough skin raked her like granite. Slowly he twisted her around like a sandwich from which he was selecting the first mouthful, almost breaking her back in the process. Suddenly there was a loud crack and Garoth bellowed again in an effervescent rage. She dropped from his grip to sprawl on the marble. Wearily, she looked up, trying to clear her head. The dragon was slashing at Woderick with his tail, but Woderick had a long silver pike embedded in the dragons back and he refused to be shaken free. The pike was only part way into the hide, but it was deep enough to hurt. The beast snapped at Woderick's legs, arching his great head. Tabbatha ran to the half upturned table, carrying a great golden saucer. She hurled it like a frisbee at the dragons head and while it was dazed she toppled the half empty barrel over his snout. He roared and thrashed its head as wine ran all over his face. Woderick started to club the dragon again. This time he used the heavy silver pike staff. He struck at random until he found a weakspot.
    Garoth stiffened.
    Woderick clubbed again at the dragons loins until it opened its mouth and spat a great raging fire that set molten rock dripping from the ceiling. The fittings of the room began to burn, smoke and soot drifted around the ceiling. Tabbatha bravely shoved the empty barrel over the dragons snout. He snapped his mouth open but the coopering held. Tabbatha heaved at the upturned table. Some last strength graced her tired body and the huge marble slab tottered onto the dragons wing, trapping him. Woderick leapt to the other, struggling to hold it down.
    "The Pike !" he shouted, she picked up the pole. The dragon struggled to free itself but could not. The fragile wings bent and tore but still he could not get free. He thrashed his head and his talons but to no avail. The dragons head flailed uselessly with the barrel stuck fast. Its struggling became frantic, crashing its tail against the marble table time and time again to try and free itself. At last the princess found her mark and stabbed the pike into the beasts flesh. Alas her strength failed her and it penetrated to the end of the blade but would go no further. She could not reach the creatures heart. All at once the princess was aware of a confident, masculine presence by her side. A firm hand grasped her shoulder.
    "Allow me my lady," said Rankindle huskily.
    "Thahthhh!" Spat the dragon through its wooden pudding. Rankindle released the golden shaft. The knight, resplendent in his new found bravado, gave the pike a heave. The pike would go no further.
    "Allow me , my lord," said Woderick, his place taken by the princess. With his sword he lopped the shaft off the pike at its weakest point. Picking up the club he started to hammer at the cut end. Slowly the pike head began to sink into the tough flesh.
     The ancient dragon wept great tears of grief. There was a pleading in its cries.
    "Oh shut up and accept it like a man !" said Rankindle. Little lakes of salty water formed around Garoth's eyes. Woderick's hammering was almost done. When the blade reached the serpents enormous heart it gave one final breath of explosive flame which set the room truly ablaze. Rich smoking blood, as dark as blackberry juice, fountained around the room, thick as cream. The air was filled with the smell of singed metal and flesh, the sounds of the dragons agonized death throes shook the floor flagging out of its mortar and the light of burning spread all around the room. The smoke was low. Its red black glow slowly obscuring the dragon in dignity as it breathed its solemn last. It began to consume itself in a pyre that would last for hours. Tabbatha pulled the exhausted Woderick behind her as she headed for the door.
    "Wait for me !" shouted the exultant Rankindle as he followed the clattering footsteps as best he could in the cloying darkness. The princesses chambers were also filled with smoke. The knight slammed the door shut behind him, almost loosing sight of his fellows as he entered.
    "To the roof!" he shouted, confidently, but they had already left.
    In the glorious, fresh, icy air they rested. It was dark and icy. The only heat came from the glow of the pyre below. An eerie light, sad and regal, white and gold with the odd coruscating crimson flash seeped from the windows below. After a while a wild realisation struck Rankindle. He leapt to his feet and tried to draw his sword, but he had left it behind. He raised his fist instead.
    "Hail Rankindle, Slayer of the Dragon King !" he announced to no one in particular. The gulls awoke with a squawk. "Heir of Asiron !" he added with gleeful good humour. "I claim Tabbatha, princess of Boranor as my bride,"
    "Pah," spat the bewildered princess.
    "But I am the dragonslayer," wailed Rankindle, somehow confused.
    "No," answered the princess coldly, "Woderick and I slew the dragon."
    "I am in my masters service my lady," said Woderick apologetically, "So he slew the dragon by deed of my debentures." The queen eyed the loyal servant with a withering stare.
    "Enough babble my beloved, and no complaints Woderick or you'll be serving in a tavern again." Woderick nodded in supplication. "We must get away from this tower." The knight stated, looking at Woderick for inspiration.
    "If I may suggest," said Woderick, tiredly, "we should return to the topmost room and descend the outside of the tower. There are no stairs that go down on the inside, and besides, they'll be filled with smoke for days, lower down."
    "Exactly my own thoughts," lied Rankindle, predictably. "Shall we go," He opened the door to be smothered in a pall of thick, grey, smoke.
    "Would it not be better to wait until morning ?" enquired Tabbatha,
    "Of course my dear," coughed the knight, "anything for your comfort." The poor princess seethed.
      The morning dawned cold but clear. The dragon was still burning but the smoke had cleared from the sealed room beneath the roof. Smoke from lower in the castle trailed away across the sea in the breeze. The bright waves danced against the cliffs as though free of some endless torture. Birds circled in the chill air and far below they waddled on the causeway which was once again appearing out of the tide. Woderick woke the princess and the knight. Keen to be away before the tide turned back again.
    The princess's beautiful room was coated with soot and rime. She looked sadly around as Woderick a-thrice-coast.jpgsecured a rope out of a window. Suddenly he was gone, rappelling down the tower as fast as he could go.
    "Egad," cried Rankindle, "he might have lowered me first," the princess spluttered into hysterical, cynical laughter. After a while Tabbatha peeped out of the window. Woderick had reached the bottom-most window and began to beckon the princess down. Terrified Tabbatha tied some cloth around her delicate hands, wrapped more cloth around the rope and began to slide. Looking up she saw a horrified Rankindle watching her descent. Looking down she saw only the ocean, nauseatingly far away. She was loosing control of her descent, going to fast and burning her hands. She couldn't grip the slippery stone with her feet, so she moved faster all the time until she reached the end of the rope. In abject terror she plunged into Woderick's outstretched hands. He barely managed to hold on to her, wheezing. He pulled her into a vast room filled with old bones.
    "Should we secure the rope for Rankindle ?" She asked when she had her breath back,
    "Indeed." Woderick replied. They tied the rope and beckoned the knight down. "I'll catch him my lady, don't you fret," said Woderick. "Perhaps you might find the stairs, I believe there were some to this level in this tower." She hunted for the stairs and struggled with the great door for what seemed like an age before it opened, but when she returned to Woderick's side, there was still no sign of Rankindle. He was still staring down the tower at them, a look of horror on his face. They beckoned him again. Mindless with terror and tiredness the knight mistook their signal and threw the rope down. They stared in glum horror as the rope snaked away down the tower.
    "How could anyone be so stupid," exploded the princess,
    "Takes practice, miss. That's torn it I reckon,"
    "Serves him right," said the princess coldly. "can you throw the rope back up ?.." Woderick smiled, looking up.
    "I wish I could M'lady, I really wish I could but I don't know why,"
    "we could send someone to get him in a few years perhaps ?"
    "Best be before the dragons elect a new king, which will take a good ten years, I'd say My Lady," Woderick stopped himself, "'We', my Lady ?"
    "You've won my hand Woderick, it will be nice to have a husband as obedient as you." Woderick was shocked, but she simply smiled. "Oh you rescued me, slayed the dragon, so you may marry me so long as you promise to do as I say when you are king."
    "But what about my indentures ?" enquired Woderick sadly.
    "Oh silly man," she said, and kissed him on the forehead. "I only wish I had held on to some of Garoth's treasure. That would put my fathers coffers to rights,"
    "Well you'd better have this then," said Woderick, opening his pack. It was stuffed to the brim with coin and rare jewels.
    "Oh you are clever," said the princess,
    "I wouldn't be a good king though," he replied, a hint of fear in his voice.
    "Don't you feel it is your right to be king and rule everyone with a rod of iron, demand huge taxes and wench all the time ?" she asked Coyly,
    "That's what I mean, I don't think I'm up to all that my Lady... "
    "Then you will be a pleasant change, oh, and call me Tabbatha."
    "Taabather." Said Woderick, unconvinced.
    "It has a ring to it," smiled the princess, "You will be a good King, King Wod the First."
    "I hate being called Wod,"
    They both laughed and headed for the stairs, arm in arm, pausing only to wave at poor distraught Rankindle in his sooty room and lived happily ever after, which is more than can be said for Rankindle, buta-thrice-seascape.jpg that is another story.