I watched the clouds roll in.
Black, furious, they billowed upon the horizon, moving towards the city at unnatural speeds. Like smoke, they descended upon us, blocking the sun and sweeping the dust from the ground into the air and our eyes. Wind whipped my hair in all directions as I gazed out the window, a stoic, fixed expression on my face.
It cannot defeat me. It will never defeat me. I am strong; it cannot defeat me.
“Princess,” a woman’s voice quivered behind me, “The dragon has come.”
“I know.” How could I not, with the clear sign of the black thunderclouds obliterating the sky?
“It has asked that you face it and fight.” Her voice trembled.
“Gather the guards,” I replied, turning towards the maidservant. “They will bring my armor. Hasten, and tell them to meet me at the gate.” She curtsied and hurried down the hall.
I walked in the opposite direction, down the hallways that I knew like the back of my hand, and with every turn was that painful sense of familiarity. My footfalls were the only sound in the echoing halls. Everyone was hiding. Everyone who could.
I passed my father’s study slowly, hoping somehow that perhaps the king might hear me and rescue me from my fate. He had tried, many times before, but the dragon had refused to fight him. It saved its spite for me and me alone. This hope that I yet held was but a vain one. I knew that my father was not in the study; he was in the hold, huddled next to the queen in a sacrifice of dignity, fervently praying for my life. This dragon cannot defeat me.
I am strong. It will never defeat me.
A tear travelled slowly down my cheek as I whispered the words to myself.
I shook my head and scrubbed the tear off of my cheek before quickening my pace. The dragon did not like waiting. If I did not come, it would come to me.
Finally, I arrived at the grand entrance of the castle. This time, however, it was to be my exit. I waited for the footmen to open the heavy doors, then continued my strides outside the castle, down the magnificent steps, and into the city.
The city was far too quiet for my liking. I did not understand why the people always hid. The dragon withheld its ire from all but me, so what did they have to be afraid of? They were not the ones marching to what could be the last battle of their lives every time the thunderclouds rolled across the sky.
As I moved further into the city, people began to slowly come out; they lined the streets, watching me with wide, tear-stained eyes. They did not smile. A small child came up to me, holding something bright in her hands. She looked up at me solemnly, holding it aloft; it was a circlet of flowers.
“For you, princess,” she lisped into the heavy silence.
“Thank you,” I said, giving a bittersweet smile as I curtsied and accepted the gift, placing it upon the crown of my head. The little girl shakily curtsied in return and hurried back to her mother. The face of the girl was familiar to me somehow, as familiar as my own, and yet I did not know why. I continued my march to battle alone, down the lined streets, but I was not alone for long. Villagers, old and young, and each and every one of them known to me, presented me with gifts: flowers, most of them, and bits of paper with proverbs and poems for the fight. Petals cascaded from my head and into the streets, leaving a trail of color, and yet soon they would wilt, torn away from the plant. Silence yet continued, with but the rustling of our footsteps piercing the air. Every thump of my heart was amplified.
I reached the gate.
Soldiers stood there, waiting for me. They carried my weapons.
“We are with you, princess,” the townspeople called, “We wish we could fight for you.”
I bowed my head towards them, tears flooding my eyes. I refused to let one fall. I would defeat it. I always did.
Something about this time, however, felt different. Perhaps… perhaps this is the time I would defeat it once and for all, beat it back and cripple it, that it may never trouble this city again.
It cannot defeat me. I am strong.
The soldiers helped me apply my armor. Each piece shielded me from the dragon’s fire and teeth, its razor-sharp claws, its lashing tail. Finally, however, they gave me the sword to strap to my side, and I commanded that the gates be opened.
I walked outside the city, alone.
The dragon waited for me there. It had grown since last time; It was five times my height, towering over me with a wicked smile. Suddenly, it extended its wings and leapt into the air in a great burst of wind. The darkness of the sky lay heavily over the ground, and I braced myself, watching the dragon spiral in the air and plummet towards me. I lifted my shield. A volley of fire rained upon me, but it flowed around the shield and I was not burned. Sweat began to pour down my face from the heat. Finally, the fire ended that the dragon could take another breath, and I leapt out from behind my shield to run towards it. It stood in a battle stance, legs apart and tail whipping from side to side, teeth bared. When I got close enough, it swiped at me with its front right leg, and I met its claws with my sword, turning around its foot and using my momentum to slide under the dragon’s belly. From here, I could stab its belly between the huge scales, but I had used this tactic one too many times; the dragon flew into the air, one of its scales scraping my cheek. It came crashing down away from me, and I narrowly missed being crushed by its tail. The wind swept over me from the flurry of its wings. I staggered back a step before regaining my composure.
Another slew of fire washed over me, and I put my shield up just in time. I couldn’t keep this up much longer. Tears mingled with the sweat, but I stood my ground.
It cannot defeat me. I am strong…
The fire ended, and I let down my shield again to attack, my breathing labored.
But the dragon had not run out of fire. A burst of it flooded over me, searing my skin behind my armor and heating up the metal, and by the time I had lifted my shield up again, it was too late. Those few seconds of fire had breached my defenses and left me crippled. I felt immense pain as my skin bubbled, and my shield arm was the only unburned part of me. My hair was gone; my body was a mix of numbness and overwhelming pain. I collapsed on the ground, and the dragon lifted a claw over me, scooping me up and flying high into the air. Every movement of its wings made my armor scrape against my skin, and I was helpless to defend myself. The nerves in my skin wouldn’t respond. I writhed within the dragon’s talons, trying to escape the pain, but every movement made it worse. Then, suddenly, the dragon released me, and I fell through its talons towards the ground.
They say your life flashes before your eyes right before you die. Mine did not; I simply felt an overwhelming peace. The fight was finally over. I was free.
I smiled, tears pouring down my burned cheeks as I plummeted through the air. I closed my eyes and felt the ground come nearer below me.
My eyes flew open again. The sight that greeted me, however, was entirely different from that which I had seen before my eyes shut; I was lying down, safe and sound, in a white room. My hair was still gone and my breathing was still heavy; but I was not burned, my cheek was not scraped, and I had not been crushed from the impact of falling on the ground from such a height. I was fine. Tubes flowed from my arm to packets of fluid, held at the top of white poles. I heard a beeping sound, steady as my heartbeat. It was all a dream.
“Mom, Dad, she’s awake!” A little girl ran to me, solemn-faced. She was the one who had handed me the flowers in that nightmare. I smiled at her weakly, turning my head. My father walked within my sight as well, and he smiled at me, but his eyes were red-rimmed and glassy.
Breath rattling, I felt my eyes flutter closed again, and I drifted off to sleep for the last time.