The king was cruel, both to his daughter and to her suitors. For he was not content for her to be wooed by gifts or by lineage. He devised a contest, a deadly contest, for all who wished to try and win the princess’s hand. She would one day be queen of a rich and prosperous realm by the sea. And the one who stood by her side would share in those riches and that prosperity.
Only princes were allowed to vie for the hand of the princess (and the king, out of amusement, allowed one or two princess’s to try for his daughter’s hand as well). No noble or commoner was allowed a chance, not for themselves anyway. But the princes were allowed to choose proxies. And many did, and not all did so out of cowardice, but by the commands of their sovereigns. The princes needed to live and carry on royal bloodlines. And while they were expected to risk their lives in battle, they were discouraged from doing so while courting.
The king did not mean to be cruel. He loved his daughter and wanted only to assure that the one who joined his life with hers was worthy of her. That this one could face the dangers and challenges of the contest either by his own strength and wit, or by being resourceful enough to find a proxy whose strength and wit could prevail. For the prince who wed his daughter would one day be king and would have to choose knights and warriors to defend the great kingdom-by-the-sea.
There was a chamber, deep within the ruins of the old castle, the castle that was inhabited by the kings and queens of an ancient age. An open hall led into the chamber and the one who entered would see that before him was a curved wall in which were set three doors. One of the doors led to a room that held a favor belonging to the princess. The suitor needed only to find that favor, bring it out, and present it to the king.
But behind the other two doors there was a deadly danger. There were only rumors of what those dangers could be. Beasts, machines of torment, thorny vines enchanted to choke, ghostly warriors that fought and fought and needed no rest. There were only rumors. If a suitor faced and defeated the danger he found behind a door, he would have the chance to choose another door, and another, until he found the princess. If he died, the next suitor would have his turn. The contest would be reset so that the next person would not be able to deduce where the princess’s favor lay simply by watching the one who went before. Many tried, using enchantments and devices of communication. But they failed.
The prince of the bog lands came to the great palace of the kingdom-by-the-sea. His lands were meager and seldom traveled. He admitted as much when he presented himself humbly before the king. The prince had brought a proxy. This proxy was the son of a wood-carver, and was himself a wood-carver, whose name, in accordance with his trade, was Carver.
The contests began in the morning and did not end until the sun set. There was a feast on the day the contest began, for which Carver had not been present. There was to be another, even grander feast on the day that the contest ended, the day that some brave prince or proxy came out of the chamber alive and holding the princess’s favor.
Though there was no feasting, the suitors and proxies–who were all called contestants–were well-tended. They had luxurious quarters in a manor close by the old castle. Attendants from the palace were sent to provide refreshment and encouragement to the contestants each day. Among them was one whom everyone believed was the princess.
There was no way for the contestants to be certain. The attendants said nothing on the matter. The contestants were not allowed within the palace or even the capitol. So they had never seen the princess. They had only descriptions of her from those among the people who had caught glimpses of her on her many visits to the capitol and the countryside. Even the few princes who braved the contest themselves had never met the princess.
She had poise and beauty. The other young women and men from the palace did as well, for they were chosen from youth for their beauty and trained from youth to be refined. But this one young woman, with skin like glazed earthenware, eyes as green as the sea beside her kingdom, and a smile both warm and imperious, must surely have been the princess. She spoke to all the contestants, filling their goblets with wine, their ears with bubbling laughter and words of comfort and solace.
When she came to speak with Carver, he was done with his meal, and was busying his mind and his hands with the carving of a turtle. She told him her name was Kaida. She offered him wine and he asked for water instead, for he was among those who might try the contest the next day, and though he did not think himself as strong and clever as many others in the chamber, he aimed to win.
“What is that you are carving?” the suspected princess asked.
“A token of thanks for my noble prince.”
Kaida raised a brow as she filled his water cup. “Not a very noble prince to send another to his doom in his stead.”
“Not so. I might win for him and then we’ll both by happy. But even if I die, I will die praising the prince. He is the most noble of all, for he has promised to take care of my mother and brother so long as they live, whether I triumph or fail. And he has promised to assure that those lives will be long indeed. He is a good man, and needed by our kingdom. If he fails here, he must return alive.”
“What of your mother? She must not know you are here. What good will her life be without you? How will she ever forgive herself knowing you sacrificed yourself for her?”
“She will mourn me, true. For she is a worthy woman and the sweetest of mothers. But she has another son. He will comfort her. And when he marries and has children of his own, they will fill her heart with so much happiness, that memories of me will turn from bitter to sweet.”
Kaida placed a cake before him. It was a simple cake, not like the cakes on the platter on the banquet table. Those cakes were adorned with towers of cream and ribbons of confection.
Carver had seen her give the other contestants the same simple cake. A flat yellow cake with a candied cherry pressed in the center.
“My thanks, but what is this for?” Carver asked, tucking the cake away into the pack he would take with him.
“Why, for the moment of your victory.”
“But you have given them to all the contestants and suitors. We cannot all win.”
At this, Kaida sighed, and though she smiled, behind her sea-green eyes, he saw a great and vast sadness.
The next morning, Carver waited before the chamber leading into the room of contest. The first time a contestant came running out, waving a brightly colored woman’s kerchief, claiming he had the princess’s favor, everyone who waited without gave a half-hearted cheer. Carver felt both relieved and dejected, for his prince’s promise would not be fulfilled if Carver never entered the contest.
But the king stood stern. He shook his head. The favor was false. The contestant was a cheat. One of those who waited with Carver to go next told him that it had happened many a time before. Contestants guessed at what the favor might be and simply waited in the chamber, far away from the dangerous doors, until it seemed an adequate time to come out. No one else accompanied them inside, so it was a ruse than might have worked if someone guessed the right favor.
“Some say the king won’t let his daughter go,” the contestant whispered to Carver. “Even if one of us finds and brings out the favor. Some say the game is a trick, to destroy his enemies and rivals.”
“But if that were true, why would he allow proxies?” Carver asked. “Why not force all the princes to do the contest themselves?”
The contestant shrugged.
One other returned with a pair of glittering glass charms and claimed it was the princess’s favor. The king shook his head. Soon it was the turn of the man who sat beside Carver. When he did not return within the appointed time, it was Carver’s turn to face the contest.
He walked down the long corridor into a chamber brightly lit with only two torches. They must have been enchanted flames to make the chamber so bright. Carver saw before him three doors. All were painted black.
Carver was adorned in light armor and supplied with protective charms and some weapons that he had been taught briefly how to wield by the bog-prince himself. The only part of the armor he left behind was the helm, for he could not see with it on, and if one of the dangers was an army, he wouldn’t survive in any case.
He walked first toward the center door, for no particular reason. He took a breath, opened the door only to find darkness behind it, and plunged in.
On the other side of the door was a lovely meadow filled with white and yellow daisies. Carver drew his sword and held it aloft as he started down the path onto which he had stepped. There was no danger in sight. His heart tried to fill with hope that he was on the path to the princess’s favor, but he wouldn’t let it. He might face danger yet.
And just as he thought so, someone appeared from behind a poplar tree that stood beside the path. That someone just happened to be the most beautiful woman that Carver had ever seen. There were women in his village whose beauty rivaled the blushing roses that grew in the mayor’s garden. The princess-attendant, Kaida, was as beautiful as the sea beside her kingdom. And the most beautiful woman he had seen till that moment was a traveling bard whose hair was made of strands of silver.
But the woman who came from the poplar tree outshone them all. Her skin and hair were golden and without flaw. Her eyes glittered as glittered the golden bands around her bare arms. Her white silken dressed flowed over her form like freshly poured cream. She beamed at Carver and he beamed in return.
“Greetings, friend,” she said, and her voice was rich and warm. “You are newly traveled here.”
“Yes,” Carver said, sheathing his sword lest he frighten her. “I must continue on my path.”
“Maybe I come with you?”
She began to walk beside him. Carver could not help but to glance at her from time to time, but then he remembered the wooden turtle in his satchel, a reminder of his task.
“Where are you going?” the woman asked. And Carver suddenly realized that they had not given each other their names. Perhaps it was not the custom in that realm. “Perhaps I can guide you.”
“I do not know. But I believe I must follow this path.”
She began to sing then, and the song was a sweet one. Carver’s heart unfolded like the wings of a sleeping dove. The path curved sharply and he almost missed it, so lost was he in the song. He snapped to attention and placed his hand on his sword.
“You will come to no harm here, friend,” the beautiful woman said.
They came upon a hill and beyond it was a cottage.
“That is my home. Come and rest there a while. I will prepare refreshments for you and a pallet so you may sleep a while before you continue on.”
Carver was not tired. And he was set only a certain amount of time to complete his task, though he did not know what would happen if time ran out and he was still alive. The woman seemed to be right. There were no dangers. He wondered if she was a guide meant to bring him to the princess’s favor.
“You are kind, but I must continue on,” Carver said.
She took his arm then and placed her soft hand upon his rough cheek. “No sleep then, only refreshment. I can give you cool waters to rival the warm and stale stuff in your skins.” She tugged gently upon his arm. Carver felt a stirring of passion.
“I have cakes and I have stew. Whatever your heart desires, I can bring to you.” Again she began to sing and her song was full of promise, the promise of pleasure and leisure.
He thought of cool water from the cottage’s well. He thought of doffing his armor and feeling the soft touch of the most beautiful woman. He thought of cakes and the thought of cakes reminded him of the cake he had been given by Kaida. And the thought of Kaida reminded him of the contest.
Once again, Carver snapped to attention. He had been drifting, his thoughts and his feet, drifting toward the cottage, toward the golden-haired beauty. In the distance, his path continued on and on. He could not see its end.
He was in a contest. He had not passed through the door to face pleasures or take rest. He gently and with great reluctance broke from the beautiful woman’s grasp. And he remembered that if he were a prince and not a proxy, it would the princess’s hand, and not just her favor, that he sought to earn. He would do her great injustice if he succumbed to the charms of another.
He saw that the sun was rising farther into the sky. He had only till sunset to complete the contest. He began to stride along the road.
“You must stay!” the woman cried. But Carver did not turn back.
“If you will not stay, then you must die!”
Carver heard a frightening wail then, like the screaming of a storm in torment. He dashed ahead and glanced behind only to see a creature both terrible and magnificent. It was a great cat twice as big as he was, with golden fur and golden eyes, and its claw were made of glass. It bounded toward him.
Carver looked ahead, for any shelter, for he could never outrun such a creature.
Something appeared before him on the path.
A door. It opened as he approached.
Carver tumbled through the door, and as he did, it closed and vanished leaving only a smooth stone wall. And the two remaining doors.
He waited a while to catch his breath and hoped that the vanishing of the door meant that he had passed one challenge.
He took a drink of warm water from his skins and passed through another door.
Now that he knew the dangers he faced might not be harm to his person but a test of his mind or heart or spirit, Carver was ready. He still drew his sword as he found himself on another path, on a rainy afternoon, just outside of a town.
By the road came begging an old man. He propped himself up with a crutch beneath his right arm and dragged his right foot underneath. He held aloft a cup that jingled with a few coins. Carver dropped a few of the gold coins the prince had given him into the old man’s cup as he passed on into the village. The old man thanked him, but not a moment later, came shuffling up beside him, thanking him again for the generous gift, and offering his services.
“I only need know where this path leads, if you should happen to know.”
“It passes straight through the town.”
Carver thanked the old man and continued on his way. He was made to sheath his sword by the guards who stood watch over the town, for it was the rule that only those who protected the town could wield their weapons. As Carver made his way, he encountered a woman selling flowers. Her cloak was tattered and dirtied. She had with her a babe in one arm, and a frail-looking boy clinging to her graying skirts. She had on her wrist a fine gold bracelet, the only finery she seemed to have. And though Carver wondered why she did not sell it to feed herself and her children, he also guessed the trinket must be a memento that meant more to her than the money it would earn. Out of sympathy, he bought some flowers with a few more gold coins.
Again and again, did Carver encounter folk on the road of the rain-soaked town who seemed in need of his charity. And as they did not slow him much or entice him away from the path, he was glad to give. He had never had great wealth. But he always hoped that if he ever did, he would share it with his fellow folk.
When he was halfway through the town, he began to have a strange feeling that he should have reached the end of town. He could not see the sun past the rain clouds and feared he might have run out of time.
He began to walk faster and soon encountered a woman who looked familiar. She was the flower-seller. The frail-looking boy and the babe were nowhere to be seen. But the woman was no longer adorned in rags. She had a rich velvet robe and fine dress. She did not note him, but passed by him, calling out to a group of revelers in a nearby tavern.
Others too, he saw, to whom he had given his coin for good cause. Some were wise and careful with their coin. Carver saw the frail-looking boy through the window of an inn being fed soup, and the babe was in the arms of a kindly looking woman who fed him milk from a tiny cup. But others, many others, were wasteful. Carver saw a debtor who feared for his life gambling away his coin in an alley-way game of dice. A woman who begged for coin to repair her schoolhouse, slipped the coins into her own purse as she turned from him.
He kept to the path and vowed to give no more, for he could not judge the honest from the dishonest. But soon, as the skies darkened and the streets emptied, he was approached by three cutthroats who demanded that he give them his coin or his life. Carver cared more for his life than his coin. But when he untied his money pouch from his belt, he found that it was empty.
Before the cutthroats could kill him, Carver held out his hands and entreated them to take his armor.
“It was given to me by a prince and will fetch a great price for you,” he said.
But the cutthroats wanted nothing to do with armor. One couldn’t disappear into the dark alleys of a town with a full suit of armor. Carver had no choice but to unsheathe his sword and ready himself to use it.
But as he did, he heard a cry behind himself and the cutthroats dispersed.
“Stay where you are villain!” a voice cried. Carver began to run. For it was surely the town guard, and they meant to jail him for unsheathing his sword.
“This way, sir!”
Carver looked ahead. He saw with panic that the road split in two. On one side stood the old man, the first one to whom he had given coin. The man still looked the same. He had no finery. No golden crutch. No rich coat. He waved Carver toward himself, though there didn’t seem to be any shelter. Carver decided to trust the old man. When the split in the road came, he ran toward the man, who stepped aside from the road, just as a door appeared.
Carver dashed toward the door.
“Don’t worry, sir,” the old man said. “I will use the wealth you gave me to restore honesty to this town.”
Carver tumbled through the door, and as he did, it closed and vanished leaving only a smooth stone wall. And the one remaining door.
Dripping and soaked from the rain, Carver wanted to doff his armor. For he had survived the dangers, and the last door awaited with the prize behind it. He caught his breath once more.
Once more he took a drink of water from his skins. He found the cake that Kaida had placed in his satchel. He was hungry, but he would not celebrate victory until he had attained it, until he had delivered the princess’s favor to the king, until the king nodded to acknowledge that the favor was true. Now Carver would know if the king was honest or not.
He passed through the last door.
There was a rocky cliff on the other side, beyond which he could hear the crashing of waves. He recognized the sky, for he had been staring up at it for many weeks while he waited for his turn at the contest. He was on the cliff that overlooked the sea and the kingdom beneath.
From behind an outcropping of stone, stepped a woman, a woman he recognized well.
Kaida. She wore a gown of black velvet and a diadem of gems that glittered green, blue, and grey. The colors of the sea.
Kaida gave a nod, but her brow was creased in worry, and she did not smile.
“I have faced the dangers. The contest is finished.”
Kaida slowly shook her head. “It is not,” she said. “Not yet.”
As she spoke, she began to transform. She grew taller first, and wider. She raised her arms and they began to flatten. Her fingers grew long and black and webbed. Her face grew long. Her neck grew long. Her hair fell out. Scales, black scales, formed along her skin. Green eyes turned yellow.
Carver stepped back, for before his eyes was no princess, but a great black dragon. She raised her head to the sky and roared, and her roar was like the crashing of the waves. She lowered her head and glared at Carver. He felt his legs turn leaden. She opened her mouth. Carver dove behind a rock as a spout of flame struck the spot where he had been standing.
Even if Carver had been a knight, he could never defeat such a creature with might alone. He had only one chance. If not might, then wit. He would try his wits.
“What is your name, great dragon, that I may praise it?” Some stories said that if a wicked creature gave the hero its name, the hero could say it and gain power over the creature.
He was answered with a roar. The dragon climbed the outcropping of rock above Carver and gazed down at him. Carver shuffled along the edge of the rock, trying to stay out of reach of her claws and her fire. But there were no caves. There was nowhere to hide. The dragon opened her mouth again.
“Is it Kaida?” Carver said. “Your name?”
The dragon closed her mouth and peered at him.
“You were a woman just a moment ago. Can you transform back?”
The dragon roared and her roar cracked the sharp stone outcropping above Carver’s head. If she did not claw him or burn him, she would bury him to death.
He stepped out from the shadow of the rock and faced the dragon. He had no recourse but to die or to win her pity, for that was all that could protect him. To win her pity, or her favor.
“That’s it,” he said. “The princess’s favor. That’s what the king meant. I must win your favor. The dragon’s favor. What do you wish for, great dragon Kaida?”
Carver had heard that dragons were clever and could speak, that most were educated. But this dragon only roared. He tried to lock gazes with her, hoping she would recognize him. It was well known that the contest brought much misery to the princess for whom it was held. But the transformation of body seemed also to affect her mind, her memory. Her terrible eyes, yellow with dark red pupils in the center, showed no familiarity for him.
But they were familiar to him. They reminded him of the cake that Kaida had given him for the moment of his victory.
He found the cake in his satchel and set it on the ground.
“Do you remember that you gave this to me?” he asked, desperate for her to remember, for he had no other tokens he could present.
Before he could blink, the dragon lowered her head, opened her mouth, let down her long and coiling tongue, and licked up the cake.
Carver felt a moment of terror as the dragon dropped from the rock above him to the ground before him, raised her head and her wings, and gave a great cry. As she cried, she began to shrink. She began to transform. She transformed so quickly that a great black scale snapped loose from her breast and was flung to the ground.
The princess was as she had been when first he passed through the door. She was Kaida again. She laughed, ran to Carver, and threw her arms around him. He recoiled in fear that she would transform again.
The princess pulled away from her embrace. She beamed at him. “You have done it. I am free.”
“And I am…victorious,” Carver said.
“It is a cruel trick your father plays, to have the contestants believe there are only two dangers.” Carver knew he should not speak to a princess so, but after surviving the dangers he had just faced, he allowed himself the liberty. As did the princess.
“Yes, my father loves his kingdom and he loves me. But his love is a cruel love.”
“Did he transform you into a dragon?”
“When I was born, I was blessed and cursed with the power to protect my kingdom. I could transform into a dragon whose claws could kill with a swipe, whose gaze could transform living beings into un-living stone, whose fire could burn or heal. The blessing was the power. The curse was that I had no control over that power. Many years I spent learning how I might break the curse. At last I found the spell, but it would only work if given to me by the hand of a friend.” The princess sighed. “But I had no friends. My father saw to that. I hope that once I was married, I might ask my prince to break the curse, for surely my husband should be my friend. But then my father devised this contest.”
The princess looked down in shame. “I have killed many. I would have killed you.”
Carver feared then that his victory was short-won. “Will the king put me to death, for knowing this secret?”
The princess looked up at him. “The king would be all-to-willing to let all the realms know that the queen who ruled after him was a dragon, even crueler than he. But the one who cursed the princess swore the king to secrecy, and bound his tongue with enchantment.”
“But we have broken the curse. You are no longer a dragon.”
“But I am. I have always been and will always be a dragon. But now that you have broken the curse, I will have reason when I am a dragon, reason and compassion.”
Beside the princess, a door appeared.
“You will pass through with me?” Carver asked.
The princess stepped forth and bent down to pick something from the ground. It was the dragon scale that had fallen from her breast. It was the size of Carver’s hand, hard as stone, sharp as glass, and glittering like the stars in the deepness of night.
“No,” Kaida said. “But present this to my father.”
Carver passed through the door, and as he did, it closed and vanished leaving only a smooth stone wall. And no remaining doors.
I would have liked to eat that cake, Carver thought, and smiled at his foolish thought.
He walked back down the corridor from whence he came and out into courtyard of the old castle. The sun was just setting. The king was not present. He was in his tent. None made a fuss about Carver, for they all believed him to be a cheater, though they gave his dragon scale favor a few curious glances.
The king was entertaining in his tents when Carver was presented before him. Even before Carver bowed, the king rose and stepped toward him, for he saw what Carver held in his hand.
“You have passed the tests,” the king said, nodding.
So shocked were the assembled guests that they did not cheer or applaud.
“You have faced and resisted temptation, trickery, and terror.” The king gestured at Carver to rise. “And you have triumphed.”
Among the assembled guests was the bog-prince. He came forth. Carver passed the dragon scale on to the prince and stepped aside. Only then did a great cheer and hubbub pass through the tent. And even the king smiled.
The princess married the bog-prince. He was kind and gentle, and would be a far better king than her father. The prince and princess swore friendship with Carver. Only the prince and his proxy knew her secret. They offered Carver whatever reward his heart desired, beyond the sum that the prince had granted to care for Carver’s family. Carver asked for only one thing. His mother was sick with an illness that could not be cured. The princess said that her dragon-fire could heal. But the curse still cast a shadow of cruelty over the princess, for her fire could only heal as many as she had killed.
She breathed dragon-fire onto Carver’s mother and healed her. And so began the true blessing of the next queen’s reign, for with the help of those who loved her, she could and would turn cruelty into kindness.
Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel