THE PRINCESS TRAP, by Peter Darbyshire:

Saleema was an orphaned sheepherder until her seventeenth year, when a talking dragon landed in the mountain meadow one summer day and ate all her sheep. Then Saleema was just an orphan.

Saleema, however, liked to imagine herself not as a mere orphan, or even an orphan sheepherder, but as the orphaned queen of her village. She imagined the grazing sheep as her army of servants, and the rock she sat on as her throne. She gazed down at the kingdom of her village below and imagined how she would run things differently.

For starters, she’d dig some irrigation canals from the river to the parched fields. And she’d dam up the channel that the men of the village had made to feed the artificial lake they’d dreamed up for their boat battles. And she’d put an end to the bull market — and the whole winter sacrifice of the bulls. The village needed cows for milk and meat, not bulls for symbolic offerings, but the men had traded away the last of the cows to neighboring villages for all their bulls.

Saleema had tried to bring up these ideas at the last village council meeting, but the men had all ignored her when she’d put up her hand, and even when she’d tried to speak. Most of them pretended she didn’t exist since her father hadn’t returned from the last war. Most of them.

But now the dragon had eaten her servants and Saleema was just a homeless orphan again, hiding in a cave in the mountainside, hoping to avoid becoming an after-dinner treat like the sweets the baker sometimes gave her when she ventured down into the village to trade a sheep or two for food.

But the dragon didn’t seem interested in eating her and spitting out her bones afterward like it did with the sheep. Instead, it rolled around the mountainside, tearing up what remained of the good grass and sending a cloud of dust into her cave so thick it made her cough, thus ruining any chance of her remaining hidden from the fearsome creature. Then it lay on its side, twitching its tail like a contented cat, and stared down at the village. Or rather, it stared at the dirt road that led from the village to join the wider dirt road in the west, which led to the road paved with stones, which led to the river with its sailing ships, which led to the city in the west. All of these things had names, of course, but to Saleema they were just the dirt road and the big dirt road and the stone road and the river and the city.

Saleema had never gone farther than the first dirt road in her life, because this wasn’t the sort of land where young women could travel alone. But she’d heard tales about the rest of the world from her father, who’d looked after the sheep himself until he’d signed up for military service and gone off to fight in the wars that had been going on her entire life. He didn’t have the money to buy and raise a bull like the other men, which meant he would never truly be a man in the village. So when the military recruiter rode into the village, Saleema’s father was the first in line to see him, and the first in line to sign the contract to serve the king. In those short times he came back to visit Saleema in the family hut, when they still had a hut, and he told tales about markets in the city that were bigger than the village. He told tales about men who worked their entire lives drawing pictures in books for a living, and were rewarded with gold for it. He told tales about women who sold themselves for that gold and sometimes less on the streets of the city. Like livestock, her father said, if your livestock were wolves that could pick pockets. Each time he returned he said he’d almost saved enough to come back to the village for good and buy his own bull. Maybe even two.

But then Saleema’s father didn’t come back after his latest stint in the king’s army. Most of the men who’d gone off to fight in the last war hadn’t returned. Travelers passing through the village said the king was dead and the city in ruins, but it was too far for anyone to go to find out the truth. And all people really cared about was that the tax collectors stopped coming. That meant more money for the bull competitions and boat battles.

When it was clear Saleema’s father wasn’t coming back, the village blacksmith strode into the hut one day and said it now belonged to him. He told Saleema her father owed him money for the sword and armor he’d taken to the wars with him. Saleema didn’t know if the blacksmith was telling the truth or not, but she didn’t argue. She knew it was the blacksmith’s word against an orphan’s, and the blacksmith was an important man in the village. He was one of the men who was the village. When the blacksmith said he’d look after her as well as the hut, and raise her like his own daughter, she went up the mountain with her sheep. But she didn’t forget the blacksmith. She thought about the blacksmith a great deal.

Now, huddled in her cave, Saleema hoped her father was dead. She didn’t know what he would do to her if he found the entire flock gone as well as the hut, but she suspected even a dragon wouldn’t be a good enough excuse for her father. No excuses were good enough since the plague had taken her mother and half the village to keep her company.

“You can come out of your hiding hole,” the dragon said without looking away from the road. “I’m not going to eat you. I don’t eat princesses. Besides, there’s not enough meat on your bones.”

Saleema was surprised to hear the dragon speak, as she thought it was just a mindless beast. But she didn’t really know much about dragons. She’d thought them legends until this one fell shrieking from the sky and herded the sheep into its jaws with those long wings. She decided to stay in her cave anyway. The dragon’s tail kept flicking back and forth, and she’d watched enough cats with rats to know what that meant. And she wasn’t about to be the rat.

Still, she thought if the dragon talked then maybe there was a chance she could reason with it.

“Um, I think you have the wrong person,” she called to the dragon.

“Undoubtedly,” the dragon said. “I have yet to find the right person.”

Saleema didn’t know what the monster meant by that, so she just cleared her throat and continued on.

“No, I mean I’m not a princess.”

“Of course not,” the dragon said, snorting. “What a ridiculous idea. Who’s been putting such nonsense in your head?”

“You did,” Saleema said, beginning to grow a little vexed now. “You said you wouldn’t eat me because you don’t eat princesses.”

“Hmph. Right,” the dragon said, swiveling one eye to glance at her before looking back at the road. “Well, I need a princess and you’ll just have to do because all the real princesses are dead.”

“Did you eat them?” Saleema asked.

Now the dragon turned its head to look at her, and she shrunk back in the cave.

“Are you not listening, child?” it asked. “I said I didn’t eat princesses. What kind of dragon would I be if I did such a thing?”

Saleema had no idea what kind of dragon the dragon would be if it ate princesses. Saleema had no idea what kind of dragon it was now. Saleema had no idea what kind of dragons there were at all.

“What happened to the princesses then?” she asked, deciding she’d best change the subject before the dragon got angry.

The dragon gazed far into the distance now. “The plague,” it sighed.

“Oh,” Saleema said, then added, “I’m sorry.” She remembered how she had felt after the plague had taken her mother. Sheep-eating dragon or not, nothing should feel like that.

She waited for what felt like a respectful amount of time, then said, “You owe me for those sheep. That’s my family business.”

The dragon snorted, but Saleema couldn’t tell if it was amusement or contempt.

“I’m serious,” Saleema said. She figured if the dragon wasn’t going to eat her, then maybe she could bargain with it. Maybe it even had a conscience. Like the baker. “What am I supposed to do now?”

“Take it out of my treasure,” the dragon said.

“What treasure?” Saleema asked. She peeked out of the cave entrance but couldn’t see anything but the dragon and the piles of bloody fur and bone around it.

“It’ll come,” the dragon said, continuing to watch the road as its heavy eyelids slowly slid shut and its head drooped to the ground. “Once word gets out I’ve got a princess here, it’ll come. It always does.” The dragon’s voice grew lower and lower, until it was muttering in its sleep. It muttered all night long, but Saleema couldn’t make out what it was talking about because the cave was too far from the beast. Which suited Saleema just fine.

She couldn’t sleep herself. It was too cold. And then, of course, there was the matter of the dragon. She didn’t dare try to sneak past it, although she crept a few feet out of the cave, just far enough to look down on the village and see what the villagers were doing to come to her aid. But the village was dark, all the fires extinguished, even those in the bullpens to guard against thieves. They were hiding from the dragon. She was on her own.

The treasure turned out to be a knight who showed up two days later. Saleema spent the time in between trying to ignore her thirst and hunger, for she’d dropped her provisions bag when the dragon had swooped down out of the sky. She couldn’t see the bag anywhere from the cave, so she assumed the dragon had eaten it along with the sheep. She tried to draw scenes of the dragon attack on the walls using a rock, in case she didn’t get out of here alive, but her rendering of the dragon looked more like a deer with wings, so she gave up. She didn’t want people to think she’d been killed by a deer with wings. At night, she dreamed of the baker’s sweets.

The dragon spent the time arranging the piles of sheep bones and fur with its snout and claws. It built a large heap and then tore it apart with a snort. It built several smaller heaps and hopped down the hill to study them for a bit. Then it lashed its tail and knocked over the heaps and rearranged them in even smaller piles, so that each collection of bones looked like the skeleton of a man. Topped with a sheep’s skull, of course.

“What are you doing?” Saleema asked, growing tired of this by noon on the first day.

“The view is perfect for a lair,” the dragon said, pacing around the meadow and studying its work some more. “But it lacks that foreboding atmosphere, don’t you think?”

Saleema thought the dragon was plenty foreboding on its own, but she figured it wise to keep that to herself.

The dragon sighed at its work. “It needs more than sheep,” it said. “Are your people the kind of humans that bury their bones underground?”

“They’re not my people,” Saleema muttered, although more to herself than the dragon. She was still vexed by the fact no one had come from the village to help her.

“Perhaps I could dig up their bones and make a few more piles with them,” the dragon went on. “Maybe even a nice bed.” It looked down at the village and then cocked its head to the side, like one of the butcher’s guard dogs whenever the butcher talked to it. “What are they doing?” it said.

Saleema crept a few feet out of the cave again and looked down at the village. Several of the men had dragged one of the larger brown bulls into the field nearest the foot of the mountain. As she watched, they tied it to a post and then ran away, back into the village. The bull looked around in obvious confusion. The bulls were usually only moved from their home fields for the bull competitions, but there were no other bulls in the field. The bull looked after the men, but they were hiding in the huts now.

“I think they’re offering the bull to you,” Saleema told the dragon. She could tell it was an expensive bull from its size and its impressive horns, but it wasn’t the biggest bull in the village. That one belonged to the blacksmith and it was all black.

“Well, I suppose that’s very generous of them,” the dragon said. “But I’m saving my appetite for the knights now.”

Saleema crept back into her cave, hoping the dragon wouldn’t notice she’d exited it in the first place.

It turned its attention back to the bones and began to tell her about past lairs.

“I had a lovely one in the Frozen Spikes range,” it said. “The icicles at the entrance looked like fangs, so it was like you were entering my mouth just walking inside. But it was too cold and remote for anyone to seek me out, so I had to leave it. After that I tried a lair in the Forgotten Swamp, but it was just too wet. My hole was always flooding, and I kept losing things in the muck. So then I took over this abandoned keep in the Borderlands, but keeps actually start falling apart if you don’t properly maintain them, so one time when I landed on the tower, it actually just crumbled away underneath me. I could have been killed! Imagine dying because your lair collapses. So after that…”

Saleema began to believe the dragon mad, and she didn’t hold out much hope for her chances of escape.

So when she saw the knight the next day, she almost screamed with joy. But she managed to keep quiet, because it was dawn and the dragon was still sleeping and muttering about its previous lairs.  Each breath it expelled sent tufts of sheep fur up into the air, which drifted back down like snow.

The knight was riding a dirty white horse and carrying a lance pointed up in the air. Saleema had never seen a knight before, although her father had talked about them sometimes. Too stuck up to even whore, he’d said. Her mother, on the other hand, had told her knights were the kind of men who would give you everything they had, although Saleema wasn’t sure how her mother could have known that. She watched the man and horse make their way up the rough slope, the morning sun gleaming on shining armor, and then she ran out of the cave and down the mountainside to him as quietly as she could, waving her arms to attract the knight’s attention.

The knight drew up on his horse and watched her approach, but showed no sign of breaking out any bread or water. So be it. Saleema could wait a few moments. No doubt the knight had a few questions about the dragon he wanted to ask her.

But instead he bowed to her in the saddle, which looked to be difficult in a full set of armor, as he almost fell off. She looked over her shoulder at the dragon as the knight straightened himself with a great deal of clanking and swearing, and the horse staggered about under his shifting weight. But the dragon just sighed and murmured something about fiery heaths and mud goblins.

“My princess,” the knight finally said when he’d managed to sit upright again. “I am here to rescue you.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Saleema said. “Although I’m not a princess.” She had trouble speaking the words because her mouth was so dry from lack of water.

The knight frowned at her and then up at the dragon.

“One of her handmaidens, are you? Where’s the real princess then? In that cave yonder? Quick, run and tell her Sir Gladhand of the Fishmonger Clan has arrived to save her.”

“There’s no princess,” Saleema said. “It’s just me.”

“Am I too late to save her then?” the knight said, his eyes widening. “Has the foul beast eaten her?”

“No, no, it’s not like that,” Saleema said.

“I came as quick as I could,” the knight muttered. “But the roads are not what they used to be.” He shrugged, which almost knocked him off the horse again. “Well, if I can’t save her, I’ll at least avenge her.”

“I really think we should leave,” Saleema said. “Quickly. And quietly.”

Sir Gladhand smiled at her like the villagers sometimes smiled at the village simpleton, back before he’d burned down the village hall.

“Child, I am a knight,” he said. “It would not do to scurry away from a dragon like some sheep.”

“Sheep don’t scurry, and even if they did — ” Saleema began, but he kept on talking like he didn’t hear her.

“I’ll never become king that way,” he said. He slammed his visor shut and the dragon snorted in its sleep.

“Fear not,” Sir Gladhand told Saleema. “I can always find another princess after I slay the foul beast. I don’t think the order really matters.”

Saleema had no idea what he was talking about, but it didn’t matter. She watched as he lowered his lance and spurred his horse forward and charged the dragon.

For a moment, Saleema thought perhaps he might be successful in slaying the creature. It was sleeping, after all. But then Sir Gladhand let out a war cry. “Wake to your death, O bane of the realm!” he shouted at the dragon. “Prepare to meet my glory!”

Saleema wasn’t sure what he meant by that, and she doubted the wisdom of waking the dragon before attacking it, but she was impressed by the complete lack of fear on the parts of Sir Gladhand and his steed.

She was less impressed when the dragon opened its eyes at the sound of Sir Gladhand’s shouting and then snapped its tail forward like a spear, skewering both Sir Gladhand and the horse. Sir Gladhand’s armor made a sound similar to the sheep’s bones in the dragon’s mouth. Sir Gladhand himself made no sound other than a surprised whimper, which matched the horse’s surprised snort.

“Umm,” Saleema said, uncertain about what to do now that her salvation had turned out to be less than, well, a salvation. She looked around for another cave to hide in, but the only one in sight was the one back behind the dragon.

The dragon brought its tail closer to its head and looked at Sir Gladhand and his horse like a fisherman inspecting a catch. Then it gave a shake of its wings that Saleema thought may have been a shrug, and it set about eating its catch, ripping off limbs and swallowing them whole, armor and all. Saleema turned away. She wasn’t sure if Gladhand was actually dead yet, and she didn’t particularly want to watch this.

“You should have woken me so I could have talked to him and learned his name,” the dragon said around a mouthful of something. “I do like to know what I’m eating.”

“His name was Sir Gladhand of the Fishmonger Clan,” Saleema said.

“A Fishmonger? Hmm.” The dragon spat out bones and shards of metal: a piece of breastplate, the crushed and split-open helmet, the broken blade of the sword. “Not very auspicious. I far prefer the Warsouls and Ironbreakers. And the Deathseekers.” The dragon got a far-away look in his eyes. “Ohh, how I miss the Deathseekers. They were so well seasoned.”

Saleema nodded like she understood. She figured her only chance to survive was to humor whatever mental ailment the dragon had.

“Did he mention anything else about his lineage?” the dragon asked. “Any heroes among his ancestors? Kin to any magicians perhaps?” He spat out a jumble of bones. “He tastes awfully fresh.”

Saleema shook her head. “He said something about becoming a king if he slew you,” she said. “And he thought I was a princess.”

“Oh good,” the dragon said. “It’s working then.”

“What’s working?” Saleema asked.

“My princess trap,” the dragon said.

“Princess trap?” Saleema said.

The dragon let out a low, long groan that took Saleema a moment to realize was a belch.

“It’s the best way to get the knights to come,” the dragon said. “They can’t resist a princess.”

“But I’m not a princess,” Saleema said.

The dragon sighed. “It’s a sad state of affairs,” it said, “but what can be done?”

“You could go look for knights yourself,” Saleema suggested, “instead of eating all my sheep and holding me hostage in a cave.”

The dragon snorted. “A fine dragon I would be if I went about challenging knights instead of doing things the proper way,” it said. It pushed Sir Gladhand’s bones into one of the piles of sheep bones.

“What difference does it make?” Saleema asked.

“It’s custom,” the dragon said. “It’s the way things have worked since the first knight sought out the first dragon. Why would we want to change something that is working perfectly well?”

Saleema thought this particular custom wasn’t working well at all for anyone but the dragon, but she kept that thought to herself.

“And I’m not forcing you to stay in that cave,” the dragon added. “You can come out whenever you like.”

“What I’d like is some food and water,” she said. “But you seem to have eaten my provisions. And Sir Gladhand’s.”

“You humans always have something to complain about, don’t you?” the dragon said. It coughed several times and then spat up a jumble of gear — more bits of armor, half a saddle, and the knight’s saddlebags. Then it groaned and wiggled a bit on the spot.

“I shouldn’t have eaten that lance,” it said. “Or that armor.” It spat out another shard of metal. Saleema wasn’t sure but thought it could have been a mangled boot.

She took a few steps toward the saddlebag, but kept an eye on the dragon.

“Why don’t you take off the armor first?” she said.

The dragon rolled an eye at her. “And how am I supposed to do that?” it asked. “I can’t very well ask the knights to disrobe in the heat of battle.”

“Just take it off after you’ve killed them,” Saleema said. “Deshell them. You know, like turtles.” She instantly regretted saying that, wondering if dragons and turtles were somehow related. She got ready to run for the cave, but the great beast didn’t seem to take offense. Instead, it considered its massive talons.

“I don’t think I could,” it said. “I’m good at clawing and tearing but not so much at opening buckles and undoing latches.” It looked back at Saleema. “But perhaps you could help…?”

Saleema folded her arms across her chest. “You haven’t even paid me for my sheep yet,” she pointed out.

“You can keep whatever the knight had,” the dragon said.

Saleema turned her attention back to the saddlebags. She couldn’t resist anymore. She ran over to them and ripped them open. She was relieved to find the bread and sausage and water bag inside intact, if a little slimy. She drained half the water in one go, then devoured the food in seconds and finished the rest of the water. It was only after the provisions were gone that she searched the rest of the saddlebags and found several gold coins in a pouch. She rubbed the slime off them and held them up to the sky. Gold. She’d never seen a gold coin before, despite all her father’s mutterings about them. They did look a little like the sun. She could see why people fought and died for them.

“All I have to do is take the armor off the knights after you’ve slain them?” she asked.

“And talk to them beforehand,” the dragon said. “Find out their lineage.”

“What difference does it make if you’re going to eat them anyway?” she asked.

The dragon lashed its tail about, sending sheep bones into the air. Or maybe Gladhand bones. Saleema ducked as a couple of them flew over her head. “How would you like it if I just gave you some random pile of meat and told you to eat it without asking what it was?” the dragon asked.

Saleema thought that was more or less what the dragon had done with the saddlebags, but she was so happy to have finally eaten again that she didn’t say anything. She looked down at the village instead. The bull was still tied to the post, still staring back at the huts where the men were hiding. Nobody was coming to save her. Nobody but the knights.

“What do the knights want with princesses anyway?” Saleema asked. “Whatever it is, it can’t be worth the price they pay.” She looked at the skull of Sir Gladhand, which the dragon had placed on top of one of the bone piles and was now adjusting with a talon.

“You need to marry a princess to be able to become king in this land,” the dragon said. “And no princess is likely to refuse a marriage proposal if you’ve rescued her from me.”

“How often do the knights rescue a princess from you?” Saleema asked.

“Never, of course,” the dragon said. “I’m a dragon. They’re just knights. They don’t really stand much of a chance, do they?”

“So why don’t they just find some other princess?” Saleema asked. She was trying very hard to understand all this, but it seemed a little like the bull sacrifice competition. That is, it was something that only made sense to men.

“There are no other princesses,” the dragon said. “The plague wiped out the royal bloodline. Otherwise I would have made my princess trap with a real princess like in the old days.” It let out a sigh. “Those were very good days.”

“What are you going to do if they figure it out?” Saleema asked, polishing the gold coins some more. She wondered if she’d ever be able to spend them.

“I’m more concerned about running out of knights first,” the dragon said. “It’s not like in the past, when they were as plentiful as sheep.” It shook its head.

Saleema couldn’t help but ask the question on her mind. “So if you have to rescue a princess from a dragon to become king,” she said, “then how did the king — ”

The dragon sent bones flying everywhere across the meadow again.

“We need to clean up before the next knight arrives,” it snapped. “Let’s make this place look like a proper lair.”

Saleema quickly discovered that dragons had very different ideas about “cleaning up” than humans did. She helped the creature gather the sheep bones again and arrange them in a large pile, topped by the bones of Sir Gladhand — she let the dragon handle those bits — and the shards of armor and weapons it had worked out of its system.

“It’s not a lair without a good pile of bones,” the dragon said, nodding to itself when they were finally done, near nightfall.

Saleema looked around the empty mountainside and thought it would always look more like a meadow than a lair but held her tongue. She was getting paid more than she’d ever been paid in her life, after all.

The dragon also insisted on making Saleema wear one of its teeth on a strap of leather it spat up.

“It’ll mark you as mine,” it said. “So no one thinks you’re just a princess’s servant or some smelly sheepherder,” it said.

Saleema looked at the tooth before putting it on. She’d never worn a necklace in her life. None of the women in the village had. The men only gave necklaces to the bulls, and then only for the competitions. But she had seen them on the women that accompanied the traveling merchants.

“I don’t give my teeth to just anyone, you know,” the dragon said, eyeing her.

Saleema put the tooth around her neck but tucked it inside her shirt when the dragon wasn’t looking.

That night she built a fire at the entrance to the cave with what sticks she could find. She stuffed sheep fur down her shirt and pants to add to the warmth. It was almost enough to make her stop shivering from the chill.

The dragon looked up at the stars overhead and let out a low croon. Saleema was afraid it was going to start talking about its past lairs again, so she asked it to tell her about the city to distract it.

“Oh, it’s a lovely place,” the dragon said. “Full of tall spires you can perch on at night so no one knows you’re there. Sometimes you can even snatch soldiers off the battlements for a quick meal.”

Saleema wondered if maybe the dragon had eaten her father. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. After all, her father wouldn’t be mad at her for losing the flock if he’d been eaten.

“The smells are wonderful,” the dragon went on. “A thousand cooking fires, a thousand different types of roasted meat, all mingling together. And the spices! So many even I can’t recognize them all. And then of course, there are the people. There are the swordsmiths and the armorers, and the weapons trainers, of course. Did I mention the archers? And the soldiers on the walls? There are also the soldiers on the horses. And the soldiers on the ships, which aren’t the same thing as the sailors on the ships, of course.”

With each mention of a different profession, the dragon drew a line in the ground with one of its claws. Saleema took note that its tail also lashed a little more.

“Oh, and the royal guard,” the dragon said. “The ones that protect the king and the princesses. Back when there were a king and princesses.” It sighed again. It always seemed to be sighing.

Saleema remembered what she had wanted to ask the dragon earlier in the day.

“If you have to rescue a princess and slay a dragon to become king,” she said, “then how did the king become the king?”

The dragon didn’t say anything for a moment. Then it closed its eyes.

“Once, a knight did manage to slay a dragon,” it muttered. “That’s how the whole custom began. That knight went on to become the king.”

“How did he manage that?” Saleema asked.

The dragon shifted about and dragged a talon through the lines it had drawn.

“You may have noticed we are heavy sleepers,” the dragon said. “On account of our nocturnal habits.”

“You mean talking in your sleep?” Saleema asked.

“Yes,” the dragon said, looking away from her. “We talk in our sleep. The knight used the sound to cover its approach. It slew the dragon as it was remembering its travels in the cities of the cloud giants. A lance through the eye.” It shook its head. “A nightmare.”

“How do you know what happened?” Saleema asked. “How do you know what it was dreaming?”

“We remember,” the dragon said, looking around the meadow like it saw another knight there now. “It is in our lineage.”

“That must be a terrible thing,” Saleema said, and she meant the words.

The dragon laid its head on the ground and stared down at the dark village and the dark roads beyond it.

“It is why we eat the knights,” the dragon said. “It’s like the saying goes, that which you consume cannot consume you.”

Saleema had never heard that particular saying before. She decided it was time to change the subject again.

“What did the princesses look like?” she asked, closing her eyes. She tried to imagine a princess, but the dragon’s words didn’t help.

“Well, they were soft and pink, without too much meat on their bones,” the dragon said. “Not at all like the queen. But they did wear nice spices. Maybe that would have made them tasty.”

“Tell me about the queen instead,” Saleema said.

“She was a very strong woman,” the dragon said. “She was the one who made the kingdom great. She ran it like a dragon. But then she died in childbirth, and the king had to look after running the kingdom. That’s when the wars started, and the wars brought the plagues.”

“How did the queen run the kingdom?” Saleema asked. She wondered how a real queen worked, and if she’d been close in her imagination.

“She created taxes, but only on the merchant classes,” the dragon said. “She used the money to help the farmers so there were more goods for sales. She had canals dug from the rivers to the farmers’ fields, and started a ferry service for the shipment of produce…”

Saleema curled up by the fire and drifted off to sleep with a smile.

The second knight showed up the next morning, riding a white horse that was dirtier than the first knight’s. The dragon pointed him out to Saleema, who lay dozing against the creature’s great, warm side. She sat up and looked around with a start. She didn’t remember coming out of the cave to the dragon. She also noticed the dragon’s tooth was dangling on the outside of her shirt again.

“This one looks promising,” the dragon muttered. It lifted a claw halfway, like it was thinking about waving. “Go down and find out his name and lineage,” it said.

So Saleema went down the mountainside to the knight, who stopped a good distance away from the dragon and scowled at it. The horse snorted at Saleema, in a fashion that Saleema thought dismissive.

“Hello,” Saleema said. “You should probably turn around and ride away now.” Saleema liked getting paid by the dragon, but she didn’t really want to see it eat anyone else.

The knight eyed her and her tooth necklace, then looked back up the mountain. The dragon was moving the first knight’s bones around on its pile, like it was making some finishing touches in preparation for the new knight’s arrival.

“I appreciate your concern, princess,” the knight said, “but I cannot leave you in such distress.” He bowed on his horse with as much difficulty as the first knight.

“I’m fine,” Saleema said. She didn’t bother trying to correct him about the princess bit. She knew better now. “Don’t worry about me.”

He smiled at her. “How could I be any less brave than you, a simple princess?” he said. “I will slay the beast and then we will be wed.”

Saleema stepped back from him. “Rein in your passion,” she said. “We’ve only just met.”

His smile turned into a grin. “You’re feisty. I like that.”

Saleema frowned at him. “It killed another knight and ate him just yesterday,” she said, pointing at the dragon. “Impaled him on its tail like a hog on a stick.”

The knight nodded. “Avoid the tail. Got it.” He took several deep breaths and then slammed his visor shut. The horse shook its head at Saleema and pawed the ground.

Saleema shrugged. “Could I have your name at least?” she asked.

“Sir Farseer,” the knight said, his voice echoing inside his helmet. “Of the Bookmonger clan. Riding the fierce steed Cyclops.”

Saleema looked closer and saw one of the horse’s eyes was clouded over with blindness. Then Sir Farseer spurred Cyclops forward and they charged the dragon, which let out a bellow of delight and flapped its wings excitedly.

Saleema watched for the dragon’s twitching tail to strike out and impale this new knight, so she was surprised when the dragon threw itself at the knight like a snake instead, knocking the lance aside and coiling around horse and rider. She looked away as the sounds of cracking metal and bone began.

“What did this one say his name was?” the dragon called to her.

“Sir Farseer of the Bookmonger clan,” Saleema said, turning her gaze on the bull in field below rather than watch this scene. The bull had uprooted the post and was now dragging it behind itself as it grazed.

“A Bookmonger?” the dragon said. “Are those new?”

“Gggggggggggghhhhhh,” Sir Farseer said.

It was difficult to extract Sir Farseer and his horse from their crushed armor after the dragon had finally squeezed the life out of them. Saleema had to use the knight’s sword, the only intact thing remaining, to pry open parts of the armor.

“How much longer is this going to take?” the dragon asked, looking over Saleema’s shoulder as she worked. “I like to eat my meals hot.”

“How about you don’t crush them next time then,” Saleema said, finally managing to pop the breastplate off Sir Farseer. The dragon couldn’t wait any longer and pushed Saleema aside with its great head to rip a chunk out of Sir Farseer’s chest. It chewed slowly and thoughtfully, rolling the meat over in its mouth as Saleema hurriedly pried off the rest of the armor. She was worried the dragon would grow impatient and try a piece from her chest next.

“I don’t much care for Bookmonger,” the dragon sighed. “It’s even younger than the Fishmonger.”

“Why don’t you try cooking them?” Saleema said.

“How would I do that?” the dragon asked.

“Roast them with your dragon breath,” Saleema said.

“That’s just a myth,” the dragon said, snorting. The air turned foul and Saleema tried not to gag. “We can’t actually breathe fire. Honestly, I don’t know how these rumors get started.” It wolfed down one of Sir Farseer’s legs, then eyed Saleema. “Perhaps you could start another fire though…” it said.

But Saleema shook her head and walked away for some fresh air. There were some things she wouldn’t do, not even for gold.

She added the scraps of armor to the pile of bones, but the sword she placed in the cave. She had a plan for it.

That night, Saleema huddled against the dragon for warmth again. She hated herself a little for doing it, but the dragon was better than any fire she could make up here. If only the dragon would stop talking…

This night the dragon told her about other knights it had slain in the past.

“Now Hammerfist of the Trollkin Clan, there was a knight,” the dragon said. “He hit harder with his fist than he did his mace. So strong. It took me days to eat him. But sometimes elegance is better than toughness. Take Hawkeye of the Free Archer Clan, for instance. He moved like water over stones, and he was very light, but with a sweet aftertaste. I think it came from all his traveling.”

“They were all on quests to free princesses from you?” Saleema asked.

“A knight isn’t a knight without a princess quest,” the dragon said.

Saleema closed her eyes and started to drift off. “What happened to the other princesses you caught?” she asked.

“It’s hard to keep track of them in the heat of battle,” the dragon admitted. “Sometimes they get crushed when I roll around or get sent flying off a cliff by a stray wing. It’s terribly embarrassing when that happens.”

Saleema slept restlessly that evening, waking every few hours to make sure the dragon wasn’t about to roll over on her.

The third knight arrived late the next afternoon, an hour or so after the sun had passed directly overhead. This one had a red sash tied to his lance, and the dragon crooned at the sight of it. “A pennant,” it said. “Just what my lair needs.”

“I’ll go talk to him,” Saleema sighed, and went down the mountain to greet the knight before he got too close.

“I don’t suppose I could convince you to turn around now before you get eaten,” she said to the knight.

“None of the Warehouser Clan have ever fled a dragon before, my lady,” the knight said to her, “And Sir Tumble won’t be the first.”

Saleema suspected none of the Warehouser Clan had so much as seen a dragon before, but she kept that to himself. Instead, she decided to offer what advice she could.

“Watch for the tail,” she said. “It uses it like a lance. And don’t get close enough to let it constrict you. You won’t be able to get out of that one.”

“What about its fire breath?” Sir Tumble asked.

“That’s a myth,” Saleema said. “Who knows how these stories get started?”

“Are you coming or not?” the dragon called. “The day is wasting and it takes the princess ages to extract your kind from its shells.”

Sir Tumble turned white. “It knows how to talk?” he said.

Saleema nodded. “Oh yes,” she said. “But it doesn’t know how to be silent.”

“And it forces you to do its grisly work,” Sir Tumble said, shaking his head. “What a vile beast.”

“Actually, it isn’t that bad,” Saleema said. “Not unless you’re a knight, I guess.”

“Thank you for bringing the pennant,” the dragon added. “That was very thoughtful.”

The horse turned its head to look at Sir Tumble, who looked back at it.

“Look, you can still leave,” Saleema said. “I’ll tell it you’re going back for more knights. It’ll probably let you do that.”

“Nonsense,” Sir Tumble said, although his voice broke on the word. “I am a knight of the Shining Realm. I will rescue you and become king. And you will bear me many children.”

Saleema shrugged and stepped aside as Sir Tumble spurred his horse forward — slower than the others, though, she noted.

The dragon couldn’t wait. It charged down the hill at them, and the horse reared up at the sight of it, throwing Sir Tumble from its back. He fell to the ground with a mighty clang, and some swearing, and the horse galloped the way it had come.

Sir Tumble held up a hand as the dragon bore down on it. “One moment,” he said. “Just let me fetch my steed again and — ” The rest of his words were lost as the dragon lunged forward and bit off his head.

Saleema sighed and watched the horse ride off down the mountainside, back toward the road. The bull pawed at the ground and shook its head at the horse as it passed, then it went back to dragging the post around the empty field.

“There you go,” the dragon said around Sir Tumble’s head. “Now you can deshell — who did he say he was?”

“Sir Tumble of the Warehouser Clan,” Saleema said, bending down and beginning the work of taking off the knight’s armor.

The dragon spat out the helmet and chewed Sir Tumble’s head thoughtfully. “Hmm, I think he may have been a bastard,” he said. “I’m sure I can taste a little Regent in him. Or maybe Prophet.”

Saleema dragged the armor back up the hill while the dragon ate Sir Tumble’s deshelled body and debated the taste of it with itself. Instead of adding the armor to the bone piles, though, Saleema put it in the cave with the sword. She figured the dragon wouldn’t notice because it was so preoccupied with its meal. She had a plan for the armor as well. Now she just needed one more thing.

The dragon continued to talk about past knights long after it had consumed the present one and Saleema had curled up against it again for warmth from the night’s chill. “He could have been descended from the Noblelance Clan,” it said. “He has that lingering taste. Not as strong as a Privateer, mind you — they’re much saltier. Although that’s fine if you wash them down with the blood of virgins.” It reached out with a claw to stroke Sir Tumble’s pennant, which it had tied to a leg bone sticking out of a pile.

“Why are none of those other knights seeking you out?” Saleema asked. “Why is it all Warehousers and Bookmongers instead of Hammerfists and Deathseekers?” She had to admit that she felt a little insulted about the quality of knights she was attracting.

The dragon was silent for a moment. Then, in a low grumble, it said, “I think I’ve eaten all the good knights. That’s why we’re seeing this sorry lot.”

“You ate them all?” Saleema said.

“Well, some got killed in the wars,” the dragon muttered.

“How many knights have you eaten?” Saleema demanded to know.

“You human females just need to have larger broods,” the dragon said, ignoring her question. “It takes no time at all to work through your stock.”

“Or maybe you could stop eating everything that moves,” Saleema said.

“You think I like eating Bookmongers?” the dragon protested. “But it’s all that’s left! What choice do I have? It’s a sad state of affairs for everyone, especially me.”

Saleema shook her head and opened her bag to count her gold again. She had a hefty sum now, so much the bag was hard to move around. If she went back to the village with it, she’d be rich. Richer than even the blacksmith, probably. But she had other things than the village on her mind now.

“Tell me more about the city,” she told the dragon. “The queen’s city.”

“Well, they have nicer lairs there than anywhere else,” the dragon said. “Most of them are stone or mud and brick. And they have the most modern sewage system that she arranged, made of these clever pipes connected to the ditches. It all goes to this field outside the city, where…”

Saleema nodded as the dragon spoke. She could see it in her mind. Everything the dragon told her was the sort of thing she’d imagined when she was daydreaming up here instead of herding sheep.

When the next knight came the following afternoon, Saleema offered to hold his horse for him while he fought the dragon. The knight’s armor looked as if each piece had come from a different armorer. The horse was so muddy she couldn’t tell its original color.

“You’ll never beat it on horseback,” she told the knight, who declared himself to be Sir Boy of the Streetsweeper Clan. “But it has a weak spot on its belly you can reach by foot.” She had no idea if that was true or not, but she felt she had to give the knight some small hope.

Sir Boy nodded and dismounted. “I will give you a share of the dragon’s wealth as a reward when I am done slaying it,” he told Saleema. “So you can buy yourself frilly things for when we are wed.”

“No need,” Saleema said and tied the horse to a tree as Sir Boy climbed the slope to his fate. It took Sir Boy several attempts to free his sword from its scabbard, for all the good that it did him.

After, when Saleema had taken off Sir Boy’s battered armor and added it to the piles, the dragon looked down at the horse, which was trying to hide behind the tree.

“Excellent job stopping that one from running away,” it said. “Bring it up here and we’ll have a little dessert.”

“I’m afraid not,” Saleema told the dragon. “I’m keeping this one.”

The dragon looked at her. “What are you talking about?” it asked.

“You can’t eat the horse,” Saleema said. “I’m claiming it.”

The dragon snorted. “A princess can’t claim anything.”

“A princess can claim a kingdom,” she said. “Especially if there are no other royals left.”

The dragon paused. “You? You’re not really a princess,” it said. “Or did you forget?”

“Tell that to the knights,” Saleema said. “They certainly think I’m a princess.”

“What will you do then?” the dragon asked. “Wed one of this sorry lot?” It waved a wing at a pile of bones.

“Actually, I think I’m going to skip the knight part of things,” Saleema said, “and go straight to being queen. It sounds to me like the city needs another queen more than it needs another king.”

The dragon stretched out its neck until its head bumped against her. It sniffed her. “You still smell like sheep,” it said. “How are you going to convince the people in the city to let you become their queen?”

Saleema brushed past the dragon and went into the cave. She put on the armor. By now she’d had enough practice taking it off the dead knights that she had a pretty good understanding of how it all worked, and it didn’t take her long. She picked up the sword she’d taken from the second knight and went back outside.

“What if I’m a dragon slayer as well?” she said to the dragon. “I’m sure the people in the city will accept a dragon-slaying queen.”

The dragon eyed her and lashed its tail back and forth.

“Are you going to challenge me then?” it said.

“After watching what you did to the other knights?” Saleema said. “Not a chance.”

She slipped off her dragon fang necklace and tied it around her head instead, so the fang hung against her forehead. “I’ll just tell them I slew you and show them my crown,” she said.

The dragon snorted and shook its head. “They’ll never believe you,” it said.

“They will if they come here and find the bones of a dragon,” Saleema said. “Or a collection of bones that at least look as if a dragon were slain here.”

The dragon looked at its bone piles for a moment and then back at her. It tapped a talon against the ground. “I see,” it said. “Very clever.”

“I will reward you for your cooperation in this matter, of course,” Saleema said.

The dragon nodded. “That was my next question. What’s in this for me?”

“A most wonderful treasure that you can only dream of,” Saleema said. “Once I am queen, I’ll build up the knight bloodlines again. I’ll identify the best men — the manliest men — and have them trained as knights. I’ll make sure they have proper weapons and noble steeds. I will make them true knights worthy of my kingdom. The finest lineage imaginable. I will bestow upon them grand new names. Deathkillers and Ironhearts and Soulbreakers. Then, when there are enough of them, you can make a return appearance. And you will all have an enemy worth fighting.”

The dragon was still and silent for a moment. Then it chuckled. “And so you’ll be rid of any man who might want to seize the throne and become king,” it said. “A fine way to get rid of the competition.”

Saleema smiled and picked up her saddlebags of gold. “Come visit me some night at the castle,” she said. “We’ll work out the details.”

“You think like a dragon,” the dragon told her.

“Thank you,” Saleema said. She thought it was a compliment anyway. She started down to the horse.

“Before you leave, you may want to pay a visit to the village,” she called over her shoulder. “There are rumors the blacksmith once used to be a knight.”

The dragon turned its gaze to the huts. “Of what clan?” it murmured.

“There’s only one way to find out,” Saleema said.

And then Queen Saleema untied the horse and rode down the mountain to her waiting kingdom.

Peter Darbyshire is the author of the novels Please and The Warhol Gang, and has published short stories in numerous journals, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, On Spec and Innsmouth Magazine. He lives near Vancouver, Canada, where it’s usually too cold for dragons. Usually.

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