After a lengthy and laborious climb, Sir Clarenbald the Bold finally reached the summit of the Crag of Doom. The cave of the dragon lay before him, its mouth a dark void in the grey rock.
Sir Clarenbald dismounted from his trusty stallion Lightwind. He drew his equally trusty sword Steelslayer and raised it high above his head, as if to draw down the lightning.
“Atricor!” Sir Clarenbald hollered. “Atricor the Terrifying! I’ve come to challenge you.”
There was no response. Only a few wisps of smoke escaped from the dark maw of the cave.
“Atricor,” Sir Clarenbald repeated. “Come out and face me or be known forevermore as Atricor the Cowardly.”
Now Atricor finally did pop his head out of his cave. His eyes were glowing like smouldering coals and his scales were a mottled green and grey like the rocks among which he had made his home.
“Really? Do we have to do this now?” Atricor blew a puff of smoke at Sir Clarenbald. “Because I’m not in the mood. So why don’t you be a good little paladin and go back to wherever you came from? Tell them that you’ve slain me, if you must. At least that should discourage future attempts.”
Sir Clarenbald was taken aback by this flagrant lack of not just fear, but interest. “Atricor, I have come to…”
“Slay me, end my reign of terror, steal my hoard of gold.” Atricor yawned and emitted another puff of smoke. “Yes, I know. You’re not the first, you know? You’re not even the first this month.”
He should just ram Steelslayer into Atricor’s eye, cut off the dragon’s head and be done with it, Sir Clarenbald thought. But there were still forms and traditions to be observed.
So he began again. “Atricor, I have come to rescue the Princess Ysabeau from your clutches.”
At this moment, a slender figure appeared next to Atricor’s oversized head. It was a woman, golden-haired and beautiful. Or at least, she would have been beautiful if clad in proper court dress. Instead, her glorious golden tresses were tied back in a simple but practical braid. Workman’s boots peeked out under the hem of her white sacrificial gown, now liberally splattered with mud and grime. Over the thin gown she wore a thick brown wool coat, of the type travelling traders wore.
“What is it?” the Princess Ysabeau asked. She seemed remarkably calm, considering she’d spent the past six moons as a prisoner of the most fearsome dragon in the realm.
“This gentleman is here to rescue you,” Atricor replied.
Princess Ysabeau sighed. “Another? Does my father never give up?”
Sir Clarenbald cleared his throat. “Your Highness, have no fear…” he began, then realised that the princess did not seem afraid at all. Surely she was in shock. “I have come to rescue you from the clutches of this vile monster.”
“Hey, there’s no need to get insulting,” Atricor said with a puff of sulphur.
Princess Ysabeau emitted another sigh. “Listen, Sir Whatever Your Name Is. I don’t need any rescue. I’m exactly where I want to be. I’m not going back to my father and I’m certainly not going to marry you, if that’s what he promised you. So why don’t you find someone who actually needs and wants your help?”
The princess was under a spell. She had to be. Truly, a most terrible magic was at work here.
“Fiend, you have bewitched the princess,” Sir Clarenbald spat at the dragon. “But I shall free her from your evil spell.”
“Hello, I’m standing right here. So please don’t talk about me as if I were a piece of furniture,” the princess said indignantly. “And no, I’m not bewitched nor under any spell, I’m here of my own free will. So why don’t you get lost and tell my father that I’m not coming back ever again?”
This was not at all going how Sir Clarenbald had imagined it. “Fiend, to seduce and defile the princess with your black magic…”
Ysabeau exchanged a glance with the dragon. “And here we go again. My father is once again overly concerned about my virginity.”
“I shall free you from the enchantment this vile worm has placed upon you.” Sir Clarenbald brandished his blade. “For Steelslayer can cut even through the blackest of magics.”
Atricor turned to the princess. “Can I eat him now?”
Ysabeau nodded. “Feel free. We gave him enough chances to walk away.”
Atricor slithered out of his cave, even bigger and uglier than Sir Clarenbald had imagined.
“For the realm!” Sir Clarenbald cried and rushed towards the dragon, Steelslayer in his outstretched hand.
In response, Atricor opened his maw and emitted a jet of flame. There was a scream, and a very crispy knight lay on the ground, Steelslayer still clutched in his charred hand.
Ysabeau sighed. “They never learn, do they?” She stepped out of the cave and regarded Sir Clarenbald, or rather, what was left of him. “Such a waste of young lives.”
Atricor nudged the barbecued knight with his snout. “I hope he tastes better than the wearisome bore he was in life.” He examined Steelslayer. “Nice sword, though. It will make a fine addition to my hoard.” He turned to Ysabeau. “I know you don’t eat knight, dear, but would you like me to barbecue his horse for you?”
Ysabeau shook her head. “No, the horse is innocent, and probably as annoyed by his master as we were.” She slapped the white stallion on the flank. “Go. You’re free.”
Without hesitation, Lightwind galloped away.
“You’re too soft-hearted, dearest,” Atricor said, gnawing on roast leg of knight.
Ysabeau shook her head. “I was going to make some mushroom and mutton stew with fresh mountain herbs anyway. I’ll be fine.” She bent down to kiss Atricor on the snout. “And I’m right where I want to be, my love.”
— Cora Buhlert