Chapter 1 - A Knotty Problem in the Woods
In one way, Princess Laura was just like all the other princesses you read about in fairy stories She liked pretty new dresses and shiny new shoes. But in most ways Princess Laura was very different to the silly princesses you read about in other stories.
When other princesses got a new pair of shiny black shoes with diamond encrusted gold buckles, they would probably spend all day indoors gazing at their reflection in the shoes and showing their maids how glittery they were.
Not Princess Laura. She didn't care about gold and diamonds. She thought the best way to test new shoes was to find a muddy puddle and splash right in. If her feet stayed dry the shoes had passed the first test. Her second test for new shoes was to run to the woods at the end of the palace gardens and climb a tree. If the shoes were comfortable and didn't fall off or fall apart they would join the pile of all her other shoes in the princess royal shoe rack. But no matter how hard her maid tried to clean and polish them afterwards, they would never be so shiny again.
Princesses in other stories like to stay inside combing their hair all day, looking in mirrors and kissing frogs. Princess Laura liked playing outside, going for long walks alone in the woods. By the end of the day her hair would be all tangled with leaves from climbing trees. Her pockets would be full of worms and soil for making worm custard or stuffed full of interesting beetles and dead butterflies which she liked to study at home in the palace. But she never kissed any frogs.
"Kissing frogs is silly" she said. She did once kiss a frog when she was four. That's how she knew those fairy tales about frogs turning into handsome princes were only make believe.
You may be surprised to learn that just like other princesses, Laura was scared of spiders. But only big ones. If she saw a spider in her bedroom then she ran out and called for the butler to come and catch it and put it out in the garden. It was no use calling the maid. She was scared of spiders too. If the butler couldn't catch it, then Laura wouldn't go to sleep in that room. Luckily, as a princess, she had lots of other bedrooms. She would only move back into the original bedroom if the butler could prove he had caught it, by showing it to her in a glass jar before throwing it out. But she insisted it had to be alive and healthy with all eight legs still attached. And it had to look like the spider she had seen. Once the butler had tried to trick her by showing her a substitute. She didn't agree with harming any living creatures and so became a vegetarian although she did eat fish.
One day when Laura was six, she was deep in the woods by an old pond where she was watching insects and squiggly things in the water. When she put her fingers in the water she liked to see how quickly they all swam away. She had cupped her hands together and scooped out some larvae to study more closely when she suddenly heard a loud crashing and thrashing of leaves and bushes like the sound of an animal being caught in a trap. She often rescued rabbits and deer from the hunters' snares. But this sounded bigger. Carefully putting the watery creatures back into the pond, she wiped her hands on her new dress and set off to investigate.
There definitely was a large creature trapped in a really thick and thorny clump of bushes. But the undergrowth was too tangled for Laura to see what it was without getting closer. She tried to creep quietly but her dress got caught and made a ripping sound.
"Whoops!" she thought. It had been new that morning.
Hush! The sound of the thrashing leaves stopped. Laura held her breath to keep utterly quiet, like she did when she was playing hide and seek and she was in the wardrobe with the seeker on the other side of the door. She waited, counting in her head. When she reached twenty, the struggling noises resumed, so she was able to start breathing again. There was a lot of scratching and hissing coming from the bushes but she still couldn't see clearly because it was a bit misty over there.
"Oh bother!" said a squeaky voice which came from the middle of the tangle. "Bother! Bother! Bother!" There was a whooshing sound and a great cloud of steam. Laura realised this wasn't a rabbit or a deer. They don't talk and they don't breathe steam. She thought it must be a traveller or someone having a picnic in the woods, boiling up some water for a cup of tea. She started moving again and was just about to call out and say "Hello!" when she saw a swishing tail with a spiky bit on the end. It wasn't a person at all. It was a dragon!
At that point she tripped over and rolled down the slope towards the mist.
"Who's there?" hissed the dragon.
Now you or I might be very scared at this point, but Laura wasn't scared of anything. She stood right up and could now see clearly that a baby dragon (as big as a horse) had got caught in a rope net which the royal hunters used to catch dangerous animals. The dragon had got three claws caught in a knot and was lying on its side. As it wriggled to try and get free, it was getting even more tied up and hot and bothered.
"My name is Princess Laura" said Laura, standing up to get a better look.
"Go away" said the dragon crossly."
"You look stuck" said Laura in a calm matter of fact voice. She hadn't seen a dragon before, except in books, and was quite interested to see more. It had three little green horns growing out the top of its head, pointy ears and a red spot on its nose. And it was breathing out steam not fire.
"I was stuck" replied the dragon "but I'll be free in a minute, and if you don't go away I'll fry you to a crisp and eat you for my lunch."
At this, the dragon scratched at the netting with its one remaining free claw, and then that got stuck too. It rolled over on its back and lashed at the ropes with its tail. Then that got tangled too.
"I don't think so" said Laura. "If you really could breathe fire you would have burned through the ropes by now and would be free. Instead, you breathing steam on the knots only makes them get wet and tighter."
The dragon thought she had made a good point there. He was now totally tied in a ball. But he still tried to look fierce and hissed some more steam. Then, from far away, came the sound of horns and hounds.
"It's the hunt" said Laura. "It sounds like they'll be here soon."
"They've been chasing me for hours" said the dragon. I managed to fly away from them, but this net was stuck to my foot, so I stopped for a bit to tear it off. But as you can see, I just made it worse. I can't fly now. I can't even stand up."
The hunt sounded closer now, and Laura could hear the sound of men shouting, mixed up with hounds barking. Laura knew what she had to do. She stepped right up to the dragon and held out her hand to show she was being friendly.
"I'm good at undoing knots" she said. "If you lie still I can set you free before the hunt gets here. But only if you promise not to bite my head off or fry me to a crisp. Do we have a deal?"
The dragon nodded and swished out the end of his tail to shake her hand. The dragon's tail felt scaly and warm. Laura wondered what it would be like to stroke the dragon's head. But if she didn't untie him quickly the dragon's head would be mounted on the wall of the palace.
Laura was good at knots. She often used to tie up the shoelaces of visitors who came to see the king. It would take hours to get them undone. Consequently, everyone in the palace avoided wearing lace up shoes, and instead the fashion was for buckles or slip on shoes.
Laura worked fast at untangling the dragon's feet. Suddenly a fierce dog came charging into the thicket. It growled and circled around them. The dragon started squirming again.
"Lie still" said Laura "or you'll get tied up again."
The dog started barking loudly to call the hunt closer, but it was still keeping its distance.
"Please hurry" said the dragon. "They'll be here soon."
"That dog won't come closer on his own" said Laura. "They hunt in packs There all done!" And she carefully gathered up the heavy net and dragged it out of the way.
The dragon got to its feet and stretched out to full length, which was very long. The dog backed away with a whimper and lay down quietly, watching.
"Thank you" said the dragon.
The hunt was really close now, but they still didn't know which way to go. Hounds were barking excitedly but they didn't have a scent, because the dragon had been flying. The dog near to Laura and the dragon was keeping quiet now and trying to hide. A tied up dragon is one thing, but a dragon on the loose is quite another.
"There's a clearing not far that way " said Laura pointing. "If you head there you should be able to spread your wings and fly away before they catch up with you."
"Thank you again" purred the dragon. "If ever we meet again, I hope one day I can help you."
The dragon was carefully checking his claws, like a cat. But each claw was as long as a cat's body. He looked quite relaxed now, not in a hurry to dash off.
"Be quick" said Laura. "They'll be here soon."
"What's your real name?" asked the dragon, turning his head round from side to side to loosen his neck muscles.
"As I said before, Princess Laura of the Middle Kingdom, if you want to know in full."
"I thought you were just joking" said the dragon. "Alas, Princess Laura, I fear you have freed me in vain. For according to our dragon legends, I will be killed in your name."
What a strange idea thought Laura wondering what he was talking about.
"That must be another Princess Laura, not me. Or maybe your legend is wrong. Tell me, do dragons have names?"
The dragon blushed and coughed.
"Sorry, I didn't hear that" said Laura.
The dragon cleared his throat and looked embarrassed.
"My name is Smoky" he said. "That's because " he paused.
"I think I ca guess" said Laura. "You're called Smoky because you're only a baby dragon and can't breathe proper fire yet."
He nodded. Laura waved her arms urgently to shoo him away.
"Now hurry up and go."
"Goodbye Princess Laura" Smoky waved his tail with a flourish, and as he ran off, he gave a mighty roar and breathed out a jet of hot dragon flame which turned the nearby bushes into white hot ash and the ground underneath was glowing cinders. He would be more than a match now if the hunters were unlucky enough to catch up with him. But he didn't want to fight anyone.
"Goodbye Smoky" whispered Laura with a wave.
The dog yelped at the sight of the hot dragon breath and decided that chasing this particular dragon was not such a good idea any more. Instead it got up and sniffed carefully at the cinders. Then walking carefully around them it started padding nervously towards Laura keeping its head lowered and wagging its tail nervously. Although the dog was nearly as tall as she was, Laura wasn't scared. She patted her lap.
"Come here doggie. Good boy. Let's see if we can lead the others off in the wrong direction."
That's a good idea thought the dog and he raised his head and wagged his tail like a puppy. As she patted the dog's head, and it tried to lick her, Laura wondered if she would ever see the dragon again. She never spoke about it to anyone, and the dog kept quiet about it too.
When the hunters came she was walking the dog on a lead made from her silken belt.
"Has anyone lost a dog?" she asked looking as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. The lead hounds sniffed excitedly at her dog on the lead. They were going to tease it for being so soft, but they could smell the smoke of dragon breath on its fur and knew it had been up to something. So they stepped back and waited to see what would happen.
Just then Laura's father, the king, rode up on his charger. He jumped down and gave her a hug.
"Laura, it's very dangerous being in the woods today! We're chasing a wild dragon which came this way."
"Really? I didn't see any wild dragons" said Laura "but I did see this dog which looked like it was lost. Can I keep him as a pet?"
"Dragon hounds are fierce dogs, and don't make good pets" said the king. But the dragon hound started licking Laura's hand and wagging its tail. "We'll see about that later." He turned to his men. "We need to forget about hunting the dragon for now, and escort the princess safely home."
On the ride home Laura learned from the hunt master that her dog was called Fearless. She smiled. She had a new pet dog and had made friends with a dragon. All in all it had been a very good day.
That night, as Fearless slept at the foot of her bed Laura dreamed about Smoky and flying on his back as he breathed his fire to warm the cold mountain air. This was a dream she would have for many years.
"I wonder if I'll ever fly on a dragon in real life?" she used to ask herself. And that's something we shall find out in the next part of this story.
Chapter 2 - Being a Princess is Not Always a Fairy Tale
As the years went by, and Princess Laura became a teenager, you might say she became more like all the other princesses you read about in fairy stories She liked riding ponies, and she liked dancing at balls. But, unlike other princesses, she still dreamed of riding a dragon. And if the music or the people at the balls became too boring, she would go outside and climb up the drainpipe onto the palace roof, where she could watch the bats flying between the minarets.
When she was seventeen her father took her into his study for a "serious little chat."
"Laura, now you're seventeen, you'll have to think seriously about your future career," said the king.
"That's easy" said Laura. "I'd like to be a vet, or a zookeeper."
She often nursed injured birds back to health, and had even mended the broken leg of the king's favourite dragon hound. Instead of being put down, the injured hound had made a full recovery and had gone back to running with the hunt. Her own pet dragon hound, Fearless, had died a few years ago at the ripe old age of twelve, tucked up asleep in his own bed. Laura thought it would be nice working with animals all day long. But the king had different ideas.
"You know that's not possible. You're a princess, and so your career, is marriage. In the Middle Kingdom it's traditional for princesses to get married by the time they're eighteen."
"But I don't want to get married!" said the princess. "All the boys I've met are silly. All they ever talk about is sports and hunting. Why can't I become a vet first and marry later? Or not get married at all?"
"You've got eleven months" said the king. "If you don't find a suitable husband from one of our own noble families, then you'll have to choose from the eligible princes in the four countries which are our neighbours."
Eleven months sounds like a long time thought the princess. Maybe he'll forget about it by then.
The palace balls changed from being once a month, to once a week, and Laura got faster at shinning up the pipes to escape and study the bats. But the king didn't forget about it, and all too soon the months rolled by. In another four weeks she would be eighteen, she realised when the king once again called her into his study for another "serious little chat." Before he could say anything about her avoiding all the eligible young dukes at the last fifty balls Laura launched into the attack.
"If I marry a prince from one of our neighbouring countries, then eventually I will be a queen. That's right isn't it?"
"Yes Laura dear" said the king, wondering where this conversation was going.
"And if I'm Queen and decide to become a vet then no one can stop me?.."
"If your husband agrees " he nodded.
"And can I choose which prince I marry?"
"Yes, but you must now choose one of them, since none of our own local young bucks seem to have taken your fancy. And the foreign prince you choose must pass a test of manliness and courage to prove that he is worthy of marrying a princess of the Middle Kingdom.
"What's the test?" asked Laura.
"It comes from our tales of legend" said the king. "Whomsoever shall face the fire breathing dragon alone and live, shall choose the hand of the princess of the Middle Kingdom."
"What does that mean in English?" said Laura.
"The royal suitor must go into the mountains and find a fire-breathing dragon. He must slay it in single combat and bring its head and claws back to the palace to prove his deed."
I knew there was a catch in being a princess - thought Laura with dread - and she remembered the parting words that Smoky, the dragon, had said to her all those many years before. "Alas, Princess Laura, I fear you have freed me in vain. For according to our dragon legends, I will be killed in your name."
"I don't want anyone to kill any dragons!" said the princess in her little girl being very cross voice. Usually that meant she got her own way. But it didn't work this time.
"Don't be silly" said the king. "I've sent out the invitations already. The first prince should be arriving in a few days."
That night Princess Laura didn't have her usual enjoyable dream of flying on the dragon's back. Instead she had a nightmare. A big ugly looking warrior prince was bringing her a present.
"This is for you dear princess" sneered the prince in her dreams as he heaved along a heavy sack. Out rolled a dragon's head with three green horns and a red spot on his nose.
"Smoky!" screamed the princess with horror. But when the dragon head saw her it smiled and winked. That made her feel a bit better. But then the nightmare started again. When she woke up she was very tired and she wondered - what does it mean? She hoped that Smoky had flown away but the nightmare kept coming back every night. The days passed all too quickly and then it was too late to wonder any more. The day of the meeting with the first foreign prince had arrived.
Chapter 3 - A Suitor a Day Keeps Decisions at Bay
It was Monday, and messengers had come to say that the first of the suitors would be arriving at tea-time.
"Who is it?" asked Laura as the maid was brushing out the knots in her hair and trying to make her look more like a real princess.
"The groom in the stables told me it was Prince Longbeard from the Bigitchy tribe" said the maid who knew everything.
"Does he come from the desert in the east?" said Laura who always forgot her geography.
"No milady" said the maid. "You're thinking of the kingdom of Arasilka. That's the country to the east of our Middle Kingdom. A messenger pigeon said Prince Harem from Arasilka will be arriving tomorrow. No, Prince Longbeard, whom you are seeing today, comes from the great forests in the north."
"Oh well, north, south, east or west, it's all the same to me" said Laura. "I don't want to marry any of them."
But she looked in the mirror and checked her nails anyway.
"Do I look alright?" she asked.
The was a gentle tap on the door. The maid went to see who it was. It was the royal chamberlain.
"Five minutes" he whispered, consulting his pocket watch for emphasis. "Is she presentable yet?"
The maid, being a true and loyal servant, didn't say - "I can't perform miracles! She's still wearing a torn dress and muddy shoes and it's taken me two hours to wash and comb her ladyship's hair. I need five hours - not five minutes!"
Instead what the maid actually did say, with a sweet smile and a polite curtsey was "She'll be ready in ten minutes" Then she slammed the door shut, raced back to the princess and did the fastest makeover in princess makeup history.
She couldn't find a pair of new shiny shoes - so the princess had to wear a blue one on her left foot and a black one on her right.
"We'll just have to pretend it's a new fashion milady" said the maid.
Knock knock! Louder than before. The chamberlain was back.
"It's your turn now" said the maid, who was nearly out of breath from dashing around. "Just don't walk past any puddles on the way."
As the chamberlain bowed to the princess he noticed that her shiny shoes were not a matching pair. He raised his eyebrows but stayed bowed down a few seconds longer than usual while thinking what to say. The princess beat him to it, as he straightened up.
"It's a new fashion" she said, smiling sweetly.
"Aha!" said the chamberlain mightily relieved he hadn't made a fool of himself. He would have to tell his wife about this. She liked to be trendy. He took the princess's arm and escorted her to the royal reception room.
"The king thought you should meet the prince quietly without a lot of people about. That way you can get to know each other better. We'll have a ball in his honour tonight."
As the doors to the royal reception room swung open to admit them, Princess Laura got a big surprise. There was a huge gorilla sitting on a chaise apparently grooming itself. The gorilla hadn't seen them yet. It seemed to be very interested in catching fleas and squashing them between its teeth.
"Quick!" she whispered to the chamberlain. "Call the zookeeper at once! One of his gorillas has escaped and is sitting in this very room."
The gorilla stood up and turned to face them.
"Don't worry" whispered Laura. "If we back away slowly it won't think we're a threat and it'll leave us alone."
Instead of backing away quietly, the chamberlain coughed loudly and said "Princess Laura, may I present to you Prince Longbeard from the Bigitchy tribe. Prince Longbeard, may I present to you Princess Laura, heiress to the Middle Kingdom. Now I'll leave you two young people alone for a few minutes to get to know each other while I get some tea and biscuits."
"Better get some bananas too" whispered Laura to his back as he departed.
When the gorilla got closer to kiss her hand, Laura was disappointed to see that, in fact, it was not a great ape at all, but a very hairy man with hairy arms, hairy legs and a very long beard.
"This gorilla is delighted to meet such an enchanting princess" said the ape-man prince in perfect English.
"I'm a bit short sighted" Laura said, blushing with embarrassment. "And I forgot to put in my contact lenses."
Actually Laura had perfect 20:20 vision and could spot a death watch beetle at a hundred paces. But the prince didn't know that.
"A natural mistake" he said. "In my country, in the great northern forests, the skin of a gorilla is highly valued. My own jacket and shorts are made from gorilla fur. Feel how smooth it is. And in the Bigitchy tribe we value hairiness. We think it most manly for men to never cut their hair or beards from birth to death."
"Doesn't it get a bit long?" said Laura, who was trying to see where the beard ended and where the gorilla suit began.
"Yes, we wrap it round our bodies for warmth" said the prince. "Excuse me." And he started scratching himself again. The scratching went on for about a minute. This was just like watching an animal in the woods. Laura was fascinated.
"Is there anything you would like to know about my country?" asked the prince at last, when he had caught and squashed a couple more fleas.
"Do you have hairdressers?" said Laura. Who liked having her hair done, even though the effect didn't last long.
"Hairdressers! That's a good joke" said the prince. "Now I see you have a good sense of humour. How my father, the king of the Bigitchies, will laugh when I tell him you thought I was a gorilla and asked me about hairdressers. No, we don't have hairdressers, but we do have flea-catchers. Naturally, as a princess, you would have your very own."
There was a knock at the door and a servant came in with a huge tray on which were arrayed a pot of tea, a jug of coffee, lots of biscuits and an assortment of cream cakes. As the servant laid the table the chamberlain came in and whispered to Laura.
"How's it going?"
Prince Longbeard was picking through the cakes and biscuits, sniffing them carefully and then putting them back. But he couldn't seem to find anything he liked.
"Do you have any bananas?" he asked politely. Laura gave the chamberlain a look which meant - I told you so - and the servant was despatched to get a bunch.
For the next fifteen minutes Laura had an amusing time as Prince Longbeard demonstrated his various manly skills like standing on his head, climbing up the curtains and swinging from the chandelier. She cheered and clapped loudly when it broke and fell on his head.
"Can you do that trick again?" she said. But the chamberlain was not amused.
That night Laura didn't go to the ball. Instead she climbed onto the palace roof to watch the bats.
"He's not my type. Tell him I've got a headache" Laura had said to her father.
"Well, not to worry. You've got three more to choose from" said the king. "I think you'll find tomorrow's suitor is quite different. Not like an ape at all."
"I hope our dogs don't catch fleas" said Laura, still thinking about Prince Longbeard.
"That's a good point" said the king suddenly feeling a bit itchy. "We'd better ask the servants to get some flea spray in case Prince Longbeard leaves anything behind.
"He was quite funny" sighed Princess Laura. "I wonder what the next one will be like?"
When she went to bed, her maid asked what she would like for breakfast.
"Crispy toffee fried banana" said Laura.
Chapter 4 - A Right Royal Omelette Takes a Dozen
The next day, Tuesday, at about tea time the chamberlain came to knock on Princess Laura's door.
"What!" said the maid rudely, with hair pins in her mouth, a comb in her right hand and a hair brush in her left.
"Five minutes" he said pointing to his pocket watch.
"You've got odd shoes on" said the maid. "You might need to go back and get changed yourself."
"It's the latest fashion" said the chamberlain with a knowing wink.
"I haven't got time to stand here talking about fashion. I've still got cobwebs to brush out of Her Ladyship's hair from crawling around in the attic last night."
She slammed the door and raced back to do the second fastest makeover in princess makeup history. The princess was pushed out the door by the breathless chambermaid.
"Over to you" she said. "I'm going to put my feet up and have a cup of tea."
The chamberlain bowed. Nearly a minute later Laura wondered if his back was stuck.
"Have you noticed anything?" he asked, bowing still lower. She was about to say - your back is stuck and your eye is twitching - when she noticed the odd pair of shoes.
"Very stylish" she said.
If starting a new fashion was so easy she might try something else tomorrow. As they walked through the palace she noticed that servants were going around spraying the air with perfume.
"What's that smell?" she asked.
"Rose petal perfume" replied the chamberlain.
"No, not the nice smell, the horrible smell underneath."
"Flea spray Your Majesty. The servants have been spraying the palace all morning with flea spray, and then with perfume to cover the smell up. We don't want Prince Harem to get the wrong impression."
"Humpf!" said Laura. "You were all quite happy for me to marry that fleabag yesterday."
"A most regrettable error Your Majesty. Prince Harem is quite different as you will see."
The door swung open to a different reception room. Laura couldn't see a prince. What she could see was a shiny pink egg poking out the back of an armchair.
"Quick!" she whispered to the chamberlain. "Call the guard. A giant monster has been in this room and laid an egg. We could all be in danger."
The egg rose a few inches in the air and hovered with a crackling sound.
"Get ready to run" said Laura. "The egg can fly. If it comes near us I'll whack it into an omelette with my shoe."
Instead of running away, the chamberlain gave an embarrassed cough.
"Aherm... Princess Laura may I present to you Prince Harem from the kingdom of Arasilka. Prince Harem, may I present to you Princess Laura, heiress to the Middle Kingdom."
Then a man who looked remarkably like Humpty Dumpty, but dressed in a smart Italian suit came out from behind the armchair. He was carefully folding a pink newspaper, called Le Gastronomique, which he must have been reading when they came in. He didn't have much of a neck, so when he bowed, his whole body wobbled. He was very short and Laura was dazzled by the light bouncing off his bald head. He stood on tiptoe to kiss her hand.
"I am shocked to see that the stories of your beauty were so untrue" said the prince. Laura didn't know where this was going, but it didn't sound like a good start.
"They said you were beautiful. But they lied... " Laura was stunned and thought that maybe her first idea about hitting him on the head with her shoe was the right one after all. But he was still speaking.
"...They should have said that words alone cannot describe the wonder of your royal loveliness."
That's better. Laura thought that sounded a bit smarmy, but like all princesses she was not immune to a bit of flattery. He went on to say that she was lovelier than any flower, looked sweeter than sugar and more dazzling than the sun on a polished mirror. This buttering up worked like a charm on Laura, and after a few more minutes of this kind of nonsense she completely changed her opinion and decided she quite liked him. She found herself imagining what he would look like if he wore platform shoes, went on a diet and wore a hat all the time. He would look a lot better.
"Tell me about your country Prince Harem" she said when he had run out of things to compare her to.
"Arasilka is the cradle of luxurious living" said the prince. "All the best things in life started there. Our palaces are made from the finest marble. Even the kennels for our dogs are made from marble and have air conditioning. Everyone is well dressed and the lowliest servants wear clothes made from the finest silk. Our fruits taste as sweet as honey and our ice cream is famous all over the world for its creaminess and melt in the mouth flavours. Our gardens are lush with flowers and tinkle all day with the sound of a thousand gushing fountains.
As a princess in Arasilka you would be able to spend all your time sitting in the palace gardens doing nothing but eating ice cream and chocolate and listening to music and chatting with my other wives."
"Excuse me" said Laura, who suddenly woke up from a vision of sitting about all day eating ice cream and chocolate. "Did you say something about other wives?"
"Yes" said the prince straightening up with pride. "Eleven wives so far. You would be number twelve. In my country it is considered manly to have many wives. Three or four is the usual number, but as heir to the throne I am expected to have a round dozen."
Gone! - the picture of a thin Prince Harem wearing a hat and standing tall on platform shoes.
"Let me get this straight. You want mois to make up a round dozen wives?" said Laura, who was now thinking that her first impression of Humpty Dumpty having a head like a fat pink egg was right after all. "I'm terribly sorry but I don't think my father will agree to that at all."
"But he knows all about it" said the prince. "He said he would be most agreeable. Being chosen as the twelfth wife is considered to be a great honour."
Laura was fuming. The idea of marrying into a family of omelettes did not appeal to her at all. But she had an idea.
"And when you were discussing my marriage plans with my father the king, did he by any chance tell you of our own quaint customs here in the Middle Kingdom?"
"He did say something about having to kill some sort of lizard" said the prince. "But he wasn't very specific on that point. I assume it's cooked in garlic and is served up as a delicacy at the wedding feats. I'm sure I can manage that." He waved his hand as if poking a sword into a little lizard on the ground.
"Did he neglect to mention that the lizard has to be a fire-eating dragon?" said Laura.
"Is that a self basting sort of lizard?" asked the prince thinking about roast turkey. "When he said dragon - I thought he meant a special sort of lizard. In my country the average lizard is about six inches long."
"I think you'll find he did mean dragon " said Laura "not lizard."
"We don't have any dragons in my country" said the prince. "I thought they just occurred in fairy tales."
"Oh - our dragons are real enough" said Laura warming to her subject. "And they get quite big before they can breathe fire."
"How big?" asked the prince holding his hands about a foot apart. "This big?"
"This big?" - A foot and a half.
The prince stretched out his arms as wide as they would go.
"Bigger than that" said Laura. "Bigger than this room, in fact."
"Gulp" said the prince. "I didn't know that." He started counting out names on his fingers. "Anna, Bertha, Catherine, Diana, Elizabeth, Francis, Geraldine, Hilda, Irene, Jane, Louise One, Louise Two ... I'm so sorry. It seems I've made a terrible mistake. I already do have twelve wives and don't need any more. I'd better be going back home to see how they are. Goodbye." And with that he waved and dashed away.
Laura had another serious little chat with her father after supper.
"You didn't tell him properly about the dragons" she said.
"I told him about the legend" said the king. "But I didn't want to scare him off. You're running out of options Dear."
"Did you know he's already got lots of wives?" asked Laura.
"Yes, but that means he's had plenty of practise at being a good husband. In their country that's the way things work."
"Well I hope the next suitor is an eligible bachelor at least, and doesn't look like a soft boiled egg."
"Oh yes" said the king. "Prince Camembert from Piedvert will be arriving tomorrow. He's definitely single and I've been told he's tall and thin and fights crocodiles with his bare hands. I think you'll find him a most worthy suitor."
"We'll see" said Laura. "Piedvert, that's to the West isn't it?"
"Close Dear. The South actually."
Laura kissed her father goodnight and went onto the palace rood to look at the bats. Later that night...
"What would you like for breakfast Milady?" asked the maid tucking her up in bed. Princess Laura thought carefully before replying.
"Fried egg on toast" she said with a smile.
Chapter 5 - A Nice Pair of Princes
The next day, Princess Laura didn't wear any shoes at all.
"It's a new fashion" she told the chamberlain who seemed quite pleased.
"I'm sure Prince Camembert will be flattered to see you adopting the fashion of his own country. They don't wear any shoes in the Piedvert."
"They don't wash their feet either" said Laura to her maid later. "Why didn't you tell me that Piedvert means Green Feet in English? When I went into the reception room I thought a rat had died. His feet smelt revolting."
"I think Prince Harry from Albion will be quite different" said the maid. "The stories about him say he is tall, handsome, well dressed and fearless."
"Let's hope he doesn't smell like a gone off cheese, look like an ape or wobble like a soft boiled egg" said Laura.
"What would you like for breakfast tomorrow Milady?" asked the maid laughing.
"Welsh rarebit" said Laura.
I think I detect a toasted suitor theme here - thought the maid. But she kept that thought to herself.
The next morning was another bad shoe day.
"I'm not going to wear no-shoes because I did that yesterday" said Laura. "And I'm not going to wear different coloured shoes because I did that the day before. So I think I'll have two shiny shoes in a matching pair please."
An hour had gone by since the last urgent knocking on the door.
"She'll be ready when she's ready!" Shouted the maid to the chamberlain through the key hole. "And that's that."
She bolted the door and ignored all further knocks. She was in such a tizzy that she didn't even see the stream of notes which were being slipped under the door. In the end the notes stopped and the knocking stopped too. It's not so easy dressing a princess four days in a row to see four different princess who all want to marry her. You might think it would be easy. But a princess can't wear the same things twice for such important occasions. It's hard work being a princess, and it's hard work being her maid.
For example... The new black shoes were polished and shiny. But they weren't comfortable.
"My feet will hurt" whined the princess. "And I'll get grumpy and he won't like me."
The blue shoes were comfy but...
"They only go with my jeans" said Laura. "And the king said I can't wear jeans to state functions."
"How about pink?" asked the maid. "You've got lots of pink dresses and dozens of pink shoes."
"That's a good idea" said Laura. "We haven't had pink for a while."
But the problem was that all her pink shoes were scuffed.
"I need to get some pink shoe polish " said the maid. "Can you try and choose a dress while I nip out and get some?"
"I'll try" said Laura. "But it's sometimes very difficult being a princess when you've got to get dressed all by yourself."
It's sometimes very difficult being a maid - thought the maid. But she didn't say that. Instead she said "Lock the door behind me when I've gone and ignore all knocking - and notes" she added seeing the little pile for the first time. She scrunched them up and tossed them into the bin without reading them. "The chamberlain will try to rush you, and you're nowhere near ready yet. He will just have to wait."
"How will I know when it's you coming back?" asked Laura.
"I'll kick the door really hard" said the maid. "The chamberlain wouldn't do that. He's more of a - lots of rat-tat-tats and notes-under-the-door - type of person. Maids have to be more direct otherwise no one pays any attention to what they say."
Laura tried to choose a dress but she was used to having her maid around to pick them out for her. So she decided to wait.
The knocking on the door had started again. But she ignored it. Then some more notes came under the door - but she ignored them too. Laura just thought she might try on a dress by herself when there was a flipping great crash on the door which nearly made it burst off its hinges.
That must be the maid - at last - thought Laura. And she went to open it. But it wasn't the maid. It was the king.
"I told you that would work" said the king to the chamberlain as the door opened a crack. But he wasn't annoyed as you might expect. he was smiling.
"Did you get our notes?"
"Notes? What notes?" said Laura. "I was too busy getting dressed to read any notes." She was still in her dressing gown, but sometimes it takes a real princess hours to get even that far.
"So I can see. Very pretty" said the king, who really didn't know the difference between a dressing gown and a ball gown. "We were just wondering, if you had any idea... any idea how much longer you might be? So I can tell Prince Harry. I imagine he has probably finished reading the paper by now and done the crossword and counted all the window panes and measured out the length and breadth of the reception room and tried out all the chairs. If he falls asleep we might have to send in some more coffee and biscuits."
That might be a good way to find out if he snores - thought Laura - but what she actually said was - "I'm just waiting for the maid to come back with some shoe polish and then I'll be ready in two ticks."
Just then the maid came back and curtseyed to the king.
"Two ticks it is then" said the chamberlain checking his pocket watch ostentatiously.
"Oh take as long as you like Dear" said the king. "I'm sure that Prince Harry will be very happy to wait." And he started humming to himself.
"Blimey the king's in a good mood" said Laura to her maid when they were both back inside.
"I told you not to open the door until I kicked it" said the maid.
"They gave it a mighty thwack" said Laura. "I thought it was you, but it turned out to be my dad. As you saw, he's not in the least bit annoyed. Quite jolly, in fact."
"There's a reason for that" said the maid while busily brushing pink polish onto a row of shoes. "I was talking to the storeman who told me that some people have been placing bets on who you will marry. He said that the king's butler told him that the king had deliberately arranged things so you would see the most suitable suitor last of all. As there aren't any more after Prince Harry, and you do have to marry one of them, that makes him the king's favourite. Everyone seems very sure about that."
"Are they?" said Laura, who wasn't feeling so sure herself about the pink any more, as the maid lined up two rows of freshly shined shoes.
"Do we have any other colours apart from pink?" she asked.
The maid, who was quite out of breath with all the polishing and dashing around had had enough. She pointed the brush at the princess like a gun.
"I can make your face match the shoes Milady - whatever colour they are."
"Aha! Perhaps we'll stick with the pink then after all" said Laura taking her point. "As my face is already pink you won't need to brush it. Now can you help me decide which dress..."
"This one!" said the maid, pointing at the nearest one without looking.
"Are you sure?" asked Laura. The maid didn't reply straight away but stirred the brush slowly in the polish while looking at Laura's face in a funny kind of way. Laura took the hint.
"Just the dress I had in mind. Well, give me a hand, I'd better get it on quickly. Can't keep the prince waiting."
She's all yours" said the maid a few minutes later as she pushed Laura out of the door and slammed it shut.
"What's the matter with your maid?" asked the king. "She seems in a bit of a huff."
"It's a maid thing" said Laura. "She loves chocolate but she's on a diet. It makes her go a bit ratty sometimes."
"Hm" said the king. "Well, never mind. You look lovely. Why don't you take my arm and I'll escort you to see Prince Harry." He raised his eyebrows at the chamberlain who rushed off ahead to make sure that the prince wouldn't be snoring fast asleep when they arrived.
Prince Harry had been waiting for hours, but it seemed like days. He had kept himself awake by counting and measuring things. For example... There were precisely three hundred and sixty five panes of glass in the reception room including the window, picture frames and mirrors. And the room was eighty paces long by eighty four paces wide, nearly square. The ceiling was more tricky, but by placing a chair on the table and then standing on the chair and reaching up with a poker, the prince had managed to measure that too. Then he really started getting bored.
Prince Harry didn't do crosswords (which would have helped pass the time) but he did make paper planes out of the newspapers and magazines and he had tested out various designs to see which flew the best. When the chamberlain arrived the floor was covered with planes and torn up pieces of paper. He looked down at the floor. Then he looked up at the prince, who stared straight back at him and then suddenly realised what was going on. They both heard Princess Laura coming down the corridor. And they both thought - this mess would not create a good impression.
The chamberlain looked at the fireplace. The prince followed his gaze and nodded. Then without either of them saying a word they both scrunched up the mess as fast as they could and threw the paper balls onto the fire.
"It's very hot in here" said the king when he came in the door. "That fire is roaring. Are you comfortable Prince Harry?"
"I've just come from a safari in the jungle your majesty" said the prince. "So I got used to a warmer climate."
"Shall we send for some more logs?" said the king. "We've got stacks of them. You don't need to burn paper."
"I wonder how those planes got up there?" asked Laura pointing up at the chandelier where three paper planes were stuck at odd angles.
"They've been flying in through the window" said Prince Harry quickly thinking of an explanation. "It's been quite useful really because I've been gathering them up and burning them."
"Hm" said the king, "how very odd."
"There were some children playing noisily outside" said the chamberlain, backing up the prince's story "but I told them to go away."
"That explains it" said the king. But Laura looked at the prince and guessed that he had made the paper planes himself.
She was relieved to see that he was tall, dark and handsome. He didn't look like an ape. And he didn't look like Humpty Dumpty. And the room didn't smell of cheesy feet. So far, so good. The paper planes didn't worry her a bit. If they got on, they could have a contest later to see who made the best ones. Laura had a special way of folding the paper that made them fly a really long way.
The chamberlain made the necessary introductions then he and the king left Prince Harry and Princess Laura alone together to talk.
"Tell me about your country" said Laura.
"Not much to tell really. It's quite nice. Got trees, grass, rivers, hills - that sort of thing. Spend most of my time abroad really... travelling. I love moving around. Can't bear to stay in the same place too long. Gets boring."
"What about your wife?" asked Laura.
"I don't have a wife" said the Prince. "That's why I'm courting you. And making an ass of myself."
Laura thought it was a point in his favour that he didn't have any other wives. But what she said was - "No, I mean, what would happen to your wife if you got married, and you were gadding about?"
"I rather hope she would come along with me. It wouldn't be much fun for her sitting alone at home. Not much fun for me either. I need to marry someone who's not afraid to trample around in the jungle and won't run away the first time she sees a wild animal."
That sounds good - thought Laura. "What about baths? In your country do people wash a lot? With Soap? How do they manage when they're deep in the jungle for instance?"
She was following a line of questioning which I'm sure that you, Dear Reader, understand quite clearly. But it left the prince a bit flummoxed.
"I'm not sure I understand" he said. "If you mean - do I have baths when I'm at home? - The answer is - yes. Every day. Bath or shower. Sometimes twice a day if I've fallen into something a bit icky. And when travelling about in wild places, I always take my trusty, and now a little rusty, portable travelling shower. Does that answer your question?"
"Most satisfactorily" said Laura.
"Any other questions?"
"You aren't related to eggs or omelettes by any chance?" It came out before she could stop herself.
"Eggs?" asked the prince mystified.
"Sorry. I meant do you like eggs? To eat, I mean, not to marry. Look just forget I said that. I was thinking of something unusual that happened at breakfast. I was about to eat an egg when a baby crocodile hatched out." Laura realised this sounded ridiculous, but she was going to stick with it.
"Did you eat it?" asked the prince in all seriousness.
"No. It ran away."
"Be careful. It might come back when it's grown up."
"Good point. I'll warn the cooks and waiters to keep a lookout."
"Any other questions?" asked the prince. He was smiling now. Laura thought he had a nice smile and that as princes went, she could do a lot worse. It might be fun being married to him. She shook her head in reply to his question. She couldn't think of anything else she needed to know. She started thinking of bridesmaids and dresses. But she thought she should say something.
""Er, I just wondered if you've got any hobbies? I mean what do you do to pass the time when you're travelling round the world to all these exotic places?" It was a rhetorical question. She wasn't expecting a reply.
"I shoot things" he said.
"What!" said Laura, who meant to say - pardon? "Do you mean shooting as in shooting targets, clay pigeons, that sort of thing?"
"I don't shoot pigeons" said the prince. Laura breathed a sigh of relief. "That would be boring. Lions and tigers and bears are more my thing. I've shot about fifty elephants, sixty rhinos and thousands of deer, foxes, wolves, rabbits, pheasants, squirrels, ducks and smaller things. That's why I have to keep gadding about. I just run out of things to shoot. When the game's all shot out I up sticks and move on."
"What do you do with lions and tigers and bears after you shoot them? I mean, do you eat them?" One part of Laura was still clutching onto the idea of bridesmaids.
"I eat the smaller game, like pheasants. With the bigger ones I chop their heads off and stick them on the wall of the palace when I get home. They also make nice rugs. Got a lovely tiger skin carpet running up the main stairs and I've nearly finished making a black panda carpet for the dining room. But it's getting a bit hard because pandas are getting extinct. So I thought I might shoot some polar bears and use them to make a bit of a chequered pattern. I must say I'm really looking forward to bagging this dragon of yours. I've never shot a dragon before. I think I'll stick his head in my bedroom. It was one of the things which really helped me make my mind up about coming here. I need a wife too. Obviously. But I don't want a soppy princess who sits at home combing her hair and polishing her nails and looking in the mirror all day long. Just think! You and I can shoot twice as fast as I can on my own. What a fantastic partnership that would be. Let's agree to tie the knot. Then we can get out and do a bit of shooting before lunch. I noticed some horses just running about. Perhaps we can shoot them just for practise. What do you say? Will you marry me?"
"Good heavens! Is that the time? So sorry. I have to dash. I think it's time for my nail polishing lesson. It could take hours or even days, so I might not see you at lunch (or ever again). I'll send you a note." And with that she dashed off.
Hm - thought the prince, after she had gone. I wonder if it was something I said.
"You are not going to believe this!" said Laura to her maid. "That man is an ecological menace. There won't be any wild creatures left if he goes on at this rate."
"I suppose when that happens he'll have to start shooting princesses and sticking their heads on the wall" said the maid cheerily.
"Don't joke about it " said Laura. "Before that happens I could suggest a few big headed maids who would be a lot easier to shoot on account of the fact they move so slowly most of the time."
"Ooh!" said the maid. "He did get up your nose." She helped Laura get out of her dress.
"So what are we going to wear now? Jeans? T-shirt?"
"Do we have any bullet proof vests?" asked Laura.
"Not in the wardrobe" said the maid. "But I'm sure I can get one"
"Get two" said Laura. One for me and one for you. I won't feel safe till he's gone."
"So - which one of them are you going to marry?"
"None of them. I think all the suitors have been completely unsuitable, and I shall tell the king that when I see him tonight."
"He won't like it" said the maid. And she was right.
"My dearest Laura" said the king. (He only said "dearest" when he was really annoyed.) "Let me get this straight. You have been presented with the finest specimens of manhood which our country and all its neighbours have to offer - and you say you're going to reject all of them? Isn't that being a teensy, weensy bit picky?"
Laura stayed mute. The king sighed. But then he had an idea.
"Let's look at this from the logical point of view. Who, of all the princes, would you say you liked the least? Perhaps if we can eliminate the least suitable ones first, then those who remain, are by definition the most suitable candidates."
"I don't know about that" said Laura. "But as far as the bottom of the list goes Prince Harry is a monster. He should be locked up for shooting all those poor innocent animals. But then again... Prince Harem was unsuitable because he already had lots of wives. But then again... I couldn't bear to live in the same house as someone whose feet smelt so stinky as Prince Camembert. But then again... Prince Longbeard did have a suit made out of gorilla skin. Although compared to killing thousands of animals to decorate walls and make carpets, killing just one or two gorillas doesn't seem so bad. Prince Longbeard was funny, but it would be so itchy... No. I'm sorry. I can't even decide who I like the least. I meant it when I said all these suitors are completely unsuitable. I'm not going to marry any of them."
The king had a brainwave.
"It's that dragon thing isn't it? You don't like the idea of your suitor killing a dragon before he marries you. Go on, admit it."
"It's true" said Laura "I think it's a horrible idea. But that's only part of it."
"Killing the dragon is traditional" said the king. "I hunt dragons all the time."
"Yes but they always escape before you catch them" said Laura. "So it's not really the same. Shooing away isn't the same as shooting."
"That settles it!" said the king. "Our legend says - whomsoever shall face the fire breathing dragon and live shall choose your hand. Tomorrow afternoon dearest Laura, I'm going to take the hunt out, find and kill a dragon. Not just shoo it away as you call it. I will cut off its head and bring it back in a sack to prove it."
Laura thought back to her nightmare about Smoky. The king went on. "Then I will decide who you will marry. I think Prince Harem may still be willing to marry you since you haven't said anything rude to upset him. Maybe his other wives will teach you how a princess should behave."
"But -" said Laura.
"No buts!" said the king. "My decision on this is final. I don't want to discuss it any more."
But Laura did want to discuss it more, even if the only person she could discuss it with was her maid.
"Looks like it's settled then" said the maid rather unhelpfully. "I suppose, as your maid, I can come with you and help you eat ice cream and chocolate all day. It would be hard work managing all that on your own."
"Thanks very much" said Laura "but I'm not marrying anyone."
"Excuse me for sounding stupid - I'm only the simple maid and you're the clever princess - but it seems to me that once the king's decided who you're going to marry then that's it."
"Not if I'm not here."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know. Well I do know where I'm going first. I'm going to ride to those hills where they always start the silly dragon hunts and warn the dragons that the hunt tomorrow will be for real, to the death, and they should fly away."
"Sounds more likely it could be your death - not theirs" said the maid. "You must be mad to think of going on your own to talk to wild dragons."
"I may be mad, but I wasn't planning on being alone."
"Oh yes? And who's going to be stupid enough to go with you?"
"I was hoping - You" said Laura. "I'll need a maid wherever it is I'm going. Look it's not as dangerous as it sounds - at least - not for me."
And Laura told her maid the story of how she freed Smoky the dragon when she was a young girl.
"Are you sure it wasn't one of your dreams?" said the maid.
""Fearless was real enough."
"That smelly old dog?"
"That smelly old dog used to be a fearless dragon hound when he was young."
"I suppose that makes your story true then" said the maid.
"Are you coming then?"
"Well I suppose a maid without a princess is almost as useless as a princess without a maid. But we have to plan this thing properly. What are we going to use for money on our travels for instance? Have you thought of that?"
"If I take my jewels - we could sell some as we went along."
"Now you're talking sense. One of those itsie, bitsie stones on your necklace is probably worth more than most honest people earn in a year."
"I didn't know that" said Laura.
"That's why you need me. I suppose I should go and pack."
"Just one change of clothes" said Laura. "We have to travel light. If we need more we'll find some shops and buy new clothes as we go along."
"That sounds like fun. I suppose I shall have to set the alarm clock early?"
"To get a head start - we need to be out of the palace by four o'clock at the latest."
"You mean - four o'clock in the morning - don't you?"
"I knew there was a catch. What do we say to the guards at the gate?"
"They're used to seeing me going out at odd times" said Laura.
"But not with your maid."
"We'll say I'm picking magic mushrooms for the wedding feast, and you have to carry them."
""You're scary" said the maid seriously impressed by Laura's ability to make things up on the spot.
"So are you sometimes" said Laura. "We make a good team."
Chapter 6 - Keep Out! Dragons About!
And so it was that Laura and her maid found themselves on horseback the next afternoon, aching and tired, meandering through the valleys of the misty dragon hills.
"I don't like the look of these scorched trees" said the maid.
"I don't think dragons can write" said Laura. "So it's their way of making a sign which says - Keep Out!"
"Does that mean - Keep Out! - to other dragons?"
"No. It means - Keep Out! - to people like us, and especially - Keep Out! - if you're hunting dragons."
"I was hoping the trees and grass got burnt from a barbeque which spread out of control" said the maid.
"You didn't really believe that did you?"
"No, but I was much happier with that picture."
"If it stops you worrying - then try pretending that the burnt trees and grass are just a dragon barbeque which spread out of control."
"What do dragons eat?" asked the maid. But Laura didn't answer.
Although it had been sunny when they first rode into the valley, it was now getting misty. It was impossible to see more than a few yards ahead and the air smelled like an old damp fire.
"It's surprising the hunt ever slays any dragons" said the maid after a long silence. "In this mist the only thing we're likely to catch is a cold."
"Dragon hounds can pick up the scent of a dragon from miles away. The hunters usually sneak up on them when they're asleep, and try to stab them before they wake up."
"Doesn't sound very sporting to me" said the maid.
"It's not. But it works both ways because the dragons can smell the hunt too and hear the barking when it gets close, or so my father tells me. When the dragons wake up all hell breaks loose. Sometimes a few hounds and hunstmen get fried to a crisp, but usually the dragons get away. Then the hunt chases the smallest one for a day or so. Then they all give up and come home."
"The way I've heard it said, the hunt actually does kill quite a lot of dragons and the dogs stay quiet as a mouse until the dragons wake up and the chasing starts. Maybe your father was giving you a watered down version of what happens because he knows you don't approve of hunting."
"I hadn't thought of that" said Laura. "In that case we could be in big trouble because we don't have any dogs with us. So a really giant dragon could be standing right behind us and we wouldn't know."
I wish you hadn't said that" said the maid. "Because now I'm too scared to turn around and look."
"Don't be silly" said Laura. "If there really was a giant dragon standing in the mist behind us the horses would smell it and run away."
"Doesn't the wind direction have something to do with it?" asked the maid. "I can feel a slight breeze blowing on my face. Isn't that the wrong way for the horses to smell something behind?"
"That's because we're riding. If we stop the breeze will stop. Let's try it."
So they stopped the horses. There was still a gentle breeze on their faces.
"We're still high up on these horses" said the maid. "Let's dismount, without looking backwards, and see what it's like just standing on our own feet."
They both dismounted. The breeze had picked up a bit. Nice cool air was coming from ahead.
"You know it's silly in all this mist" said Laura "but my back feels warm as if the sun was shining on it."
"So does mine" said the maid. "Maybe its sunny behind us. But I'm not turning around to check."
"Neither am I" said Laura.
"Maybe we should turn the horses around and let them have a look. That wouldn't count as peeking would it?"
"Now you're being really silly" said Laura. "There's nothing sneaking up behind us. I'm just going to take my cloak off because my back is really warm. Then I'm going to turn round really slowly and see nothing behind us at all. When I've done that - you can do the same - and we can both stop scaring ourselves."
Laura took off her cloak and turned around. The maid waited. It was misty and quiet. She was still looking straight ahead. Laura had been quiet for a few seconds now. Why didn't she say something?
"Have you seen nothing yet?" the maid whispered.
"No!" Laura whispered back.
The maid turned around and screamed.
The horses bolted.
The maid fainted.
The giant dragon winked.
It was Smoky. No longer a baby dragon he was as big as a small hill. And he had found them.
"Hello Princess Laura" he said in a deep booming voice, quite unlike the squeaky voice Laura remembered from her childhood. "I was expecting someone to come this way but I didn't think it would be you."
"Hello Smoky" said Laura "I came to tell you the hunt is coming. They want to kill a dragon."
"There aren't any other dragons left" said Smoky. "I'm the last one. The rest were killed by the hunt. I knew this day would come. I heard about the royal marriage and knew it wouldn't be long before someone came to kill me."
"That stupid legend" said Laura.
"I can't fight you" said Smoky. "You saved my life when I was young. If it was anyone else I would have turned them into a crisp by now. But I recognised your scent."
He peered down at the maid.
"Is this your slave?"
The maid woke up.
"I had a terrible nightmare. You won't believe what I just dreamt."
She was about to start screaming again when Laura slapped her hand over her mouth.
"Mmm" said the maid.
"Yes it's a real dragon" said Laura. "But he's not going to eat us. It's Smoky. He's just grown a bit since I last saw him. I'm going to take my hand off your mouth but don't scream. You nearly made me deaf. And it scared the horses. Understand?"
"Mmm" the maid nodded and then said "The next time I ask if you've seen nothing yet? Just give me a little hint. A dragon is not nothing. Er hello Mr. Dragon, Your Lordship. I'm with her. It's her fault. I didn't want to come. If I see a - Keep Out! sign I usually keep out. But I'm her maid. She's hopeless at getting dressed by herself, so where she goes I go. Sorry if I hurt your ears with my screaming Your Royal Hotness. Gosh it is warm here. Do dragons have maids? To help I mean. Not to eat. No. Waiters help you eat. And might be nice to eat for all I know. But not maids. We're bony and tasteless. No taste at all."
"Shut up!" said Laura. "You're gushing. And I shall remind you about maids having no taste next time you pick out something for me to wear."
"I haven't met a dragon before" said the maid.
"I haven't met a maid before" said Smoky. He turned his head to Laura. "I almost ate her by accident before I recognised you. I'm glad I didn't now. She's quite funny isn't she. And she doesn't look that bony to me."
The maid, offended, pulled in her stomach and held her breath to look thinner. Laura poked her in the stomach and it popped out again.
"A princess without her maid is like - a dragon without a tail" said Laura who couldn't really think of a suitable description of what her maid actually did.
"Charming" said the maid. "I think a maid is more like the brains department Your Majestic Smokiness. Without her maid giving sensible advice a princess would just do all the silly things that first came into her head." - Like going into the hills to find dragons for instance - she didn't say out loud - but thought to herself.
"In that case" said Smoky. "What are we going to do now? Are you going to cut my head off. If so I'll shut my eyes and let you do it. I don't want to spoil your wedding. But you don't have a sword as far as I can see. You can't saw off a dragon's head with a nail file."
"As I said before - I came to warn you" said Laura "not to chop your head off. I hate that idea. It's horrible. And I don't want to marry any silly princes. In fact I don't want to live here in the Middle Kingdom any more because I think princesses should be free to choose their own husbands or choose not get married at all if they don't want to."
Smoky breathed a huge fiery sigh of relief up at the sky.
"Thank you Princess Laura for saving my life again. In that case I will fly away to find another country where dragons are not hunted and can roam free without fear. But what about you? How will you travel? Your horses were scared off by your maid's screaming and they won't come back now because of me."
"I have an idea" said the brains department. "Can I whisper it to Milady first?"
She did and Laura smiled. "That's a fantastic idea" she said.
"Let me hear it too" said Smoky.
And that's how it was that Princess Laura's dream from when she was a little girl finally came true...
Laura and her maid climbed onto the dragon's back. There was plenty of room. And they flew off and had many adventures.
And whenever their clothes got worn or they ran out of food the maid would hop off the dragon's back and do a bit of shopping. And in the end they found a country where dragons and maids and princesses can follow their heart's desire. And they all lived happily ever after.
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