HE CAUGHT A glimpse of her long blonde hair a split second before the next blast of scorching fire came toward him. At least there truly is a princess, he reasoned. Otherwise, this quest would prove foolish indeed.
Raising his shield to ward off the fiery breath of the dragon, the prince stayed hunched behind the thick metal until the beast stopped to inhale, no doubt readying itself for another assault.
“The least the old hag could have done was bespell my shield so I didn’t feel as if I were going to melt behind it,” he muttered, shaking off the urge to drop his only defense as it became hotter with each passing second.
The old crone’s words whispered in his head. Find the one you seek, but know a secret lies beneath. For once the mark is made, it will be your life to trade.
In his mind’s eye, he could still see the witch snatching up odd things off her table and throwing them into a pot with bunches of dried herbs, stirring them in endless circles as she gave him his fortune. White hair frizzing on end, her wild black eyes stared at him as if she held the power to see into his soul. Her strange riddle sounded like an omen—one that foretold his death.
Before every battle, his father insisted he visit the dark ruins in the forest and seek answers concerning his future. Rupert shivered in spite of the heat searing into his forearm from the shield. If he survived, this was the last time he’d follow his father’s advice.
Once he saved the beauty charmed in sleep, he would awaken her in some fashion, take his place as the new king, and accept his destiny, whatever it may hold—and never visit that witch again.
Rupert grimaced. It also would have been nice if old hag could have at least given him a hint as to what would make the princess rise from her deep slumber—even better had she given him the answer to defeating the dragon.
As if the beast had read his mind, it lowered its head and snapped at him. He jumped out of the way before the massive jaws crushed the stone pillar he’d hidden behind, then ran to the opposite side of the room, the bones and armor of a dozen other failed warriors catching at his boots.
He ducked behind another column, hoping he’d been fast enough that the dragon hadn’t spotted him. He held his breath and waited.
He caught a glimpse of the long, blue-scaled tail before it disappeared around the corner. For such a large creature, it was remarkably stealthy.
A sharp hiss broke the silence and the prince whirled, swinging his sword in a blind arc toward the sound.
The tip of his blade found the dragon’s hard cheek and scored a small cut under its eye. Expecting another bout of flames to explode toward him, he rolled a safer distance away—and found himself right next to the one he’d come to save.
Faint, white scars covered her face and hands, yet the beauty of the princess enchanted him—so much that he turned his back on the dragon to gaze upon her.
The dragon screamed, but all of his attention was locked onto the small cut, high on the sleeping beauty’s cheekbone. Though she still slept, tears ran down her face, disappearing into her thick, golden hair.
A reflection near the top of his shield caught his eye. He expected to see the dragon, but what he found instead was the image of the princess, her face buried in her hands as she cried. He looked back down at the sleeping girl’s face, staring at the faint scars criss-crossing every inch of her skin.
For once the mark is made, it will be your life to trade…
Turning to face the dragon a final time, Rupert lifted his sword. This would be the end. As she came closer, he dropped his weapon. The sword clanked against the stone floor. The shield followed it. “I’ve come to release you. You’ll suffer no more by my hand,” he told her. “I trade my life for your own.”
He dropped to his knees, waiting for the flames to claim him, all the while wondering if the dragon’s clear blue eyes were the same hue as the closed ones of the beautiful princess behind him.
THE WITCH PEERED through her scrying glass and chuckled darkly at the scene playing out before her. It had taken forever, but the lad had finally figured out her message. At the rate he’d been going, she’d started to think he’d be lying there dead with all the others.
Morgana watched the final moment as the dragon opened her mouth to incinerate him, only to melt away as if the beast had only been the flickering ghost of a nightmare.
The prince rushed back to the sleeping beauty.
The enchantment broken, the scars on her face faded as quickly as the dragon, leaving his solitary cut to her cheekbone. Leaning over, the prince brushed a soft kiss against it and waited.
Her eyes fluttered, then opened, and a smile curved her lips.
Morgana grinned as she watched the prince sweep his princess up and the couple made their way out of the tower. One of her favorite pastimes was to meddle in the affairs of kings and princes. They never could seem to quite get things done without someone pointing them in the right direction.
She sighed. Now that she’d had her bit of fun watching, there was more work to do, including packing up and moving on to the next kingdom.
A good witch should never be hard to find, she thought with a chuckle. Soon enough, she’d be needed again.
After all, dragons never went far.