(c) Richard Parks First Published in Wizard Fantastic, DAW Books, 1997
A THING OR TWO ABOUT LOVE
In a cave deep in the Northern Mountains there lived a Dragon and a Princess. Dragon played host to all visiting heroes; later he left their bones in neat little piles by the door and promptly forgot the names of all but the very few who tasted particularly good. The Princess slept an enchanted sleep and didn’t do much of anything but lie in the claw‑carved bed Dragon had made for her and look ravishing. She being a True Princess and he being a True Dragon this was all they expected of each other.
One fine spring afternoon, when Dragon and the Princess happened to be asleep at the same time, there came a knock
on the door. Dragon opened one eye and considered the matter. His appetite wasn’t exactly keen ‑‑ he had already left one exceptionally tough hero half‑chewed that month. The knocking persisted and he opened another eye as a faint voice came wafting through the cracks.
”On guard, Fiend! I am Prince Eric of Sturga come to rescue the Princess Allison!”
Dragon opened his third and final eye and made a mental note of the name. He wasn’t optimistic ‑‑ knights-errant as a group weren’t very tasty but princes were worse. Since they were reared on weird delicacies from birth, they tended to lie like stones in his stomach.
”I suppose you have your heart set on this?” asked Dragon.
”Open this door or I’ll break it down!”
There wasn’t much chance of that, so to spare the newcomer embarrassment Dragon gave the door a nudge with his forepaw. The prince, standing too close, was knocked sprawling partway down the rocky slope. His armor made a gratifying clatter.
Dragon bared his long teeth in something that passed for a grin. A bag of gold to the harper who sings this part of the story honestly. The chance of losing part of his horde didn’t worry him; Dragon considered himself a student of the possible and let the saints worry about miracles.
Dragon studied his opponent with professional detachment as Prince Eric hauled himself upright using his sword as a crutch. He was larger than most, with long fair hair, blue eyes, and a face that wasn’t so much merely handsome as a sculptor’s masterpiece waiting to happen.
Everything a hero should be, Dragon thought. It depressed him a little.
While Dragon looked at Eric, Eric shielded his eyes against the glare and got his first good look at Dragon.
”Don’t tell me,” sighed Dragon, “I’m bigger than you expected, yes?”
”By a few hundred stone,” Prince Eric admitted, “but I’ve sworn to rescue the Princess Allison and rescue her I shall. Prepare yourself!”
Sometime later, with his armor shredded and most of his hair singed, Prince Eric leaned on his sword again and tried to catch his runaway breath.
”Well fought, Dragon,” he managed.
”Thank you,” Dragon replied, courteously, “Well fought, yourself.” Which wasn’t just manners ‑‑ Eric had scratched one of Dragon’s scales. He rarely took so much damage.
Several times during the fight Dragon had found himself trying to think of an excuse not to kill Eric. He couldn’t find one, but the trying allowed the fight to drag on. Then he tried to think why he was trying to think of an excuse in the first place, which of course let the fight go on even longer. It was during one of these distracted periods that Eric had landed his scale‑marring blow.
When Eric recovered enough to lift his sword the whole thing began again. And again. The shadows lengthened.
”Prince Eric,” Dragon said, finally, “Should a gentleman such as yourself be fighting so late in the day?”
From his present position ‑‑ flat on his back ‑‑ Eric considered the matter. “Well, I seem to recall some reference to it in the Code of Chivalry, but I’m not sure.”
”I wouldn’t want you to compromise your principles for me,” Dragon said, “We can pick this up later, if you don’t mind. I’m a little tired.”
”It would certainly be chivalrous to allow you some rest,” said Eric, “Perhaps tomorrow…?”
Dragon shook his head, causing a minor rockslide. “Tomorrow’s a holy day,” he pointed out, “The Feast of Saint St. John the Persistent. It’ll have to be later.”
”Later is fine,” said Eric, “Good night, Dragon.”
”Good night, Highness,” said Dragon, going back into the cave and closing the door.
Now why did I do that? Dragon wondered. It wasn’t because he liked Eric ‑‑ which he did, but that was beside the point. Dragon had been on good terms with several heroes before devouring them. He shrugged, and several small stalactites shattered. Dragon crawled deeper into the cave to where Princess Allison lay sleeping, her long golden hair lovingly arranged on the pillow. He drank in her beauty like a familiar vintage, resting his three eyes on the curve of her dainty breasts, the roses of her cheeks, the line of her dear little nose.
”Do you know why I let him live, Dearest?”
It wasn’t exactly an answer, but, deep in dream, the Princess smiled.
Later that evening, Prince Eric of Sturga, the third son of Konrad II of Sturga and heir to not very much, slept the sleep of the totally exhausted next to the cold ashes of his campfire. He shivered occasionally through the thin blanket, but not quite hard enough to wake himself. Somewhere in the depths of sleep Eric’s situation was a lot better. Somewhere there was a quiet stream, and soft grass, and a soft lap to lie his head in. Princess Allison tended his wounds in regal silence.
”I failed you,” said Eric, close to tears.
Allison daintily dabbed blood from a long scratch on his cheek. “You’re the first to even survive the attempt,” she said, “Surely the fates spared you for a reason.” Allison dampened her kerchief in the stream, watching blood drift away in little red puffs. “Will you try again?” she asked.
”If it means my death,” he said, knowing that it probably would. “If I have your promise..?”
”Slay him and I will be yours for as long as you want me,” she replied, turning her eyes away with becoming modesty.
Eric lay enraptured by the thought, just as he had the first time Princess Allison had appeared to him in his dreams, the most beautiful vision he had ever seen. The fleeting dreams were no longer enough; he had to make them real.
Somewhere near Eric’s camp a meadowlark began to sing, and within the dream the grass grew colder, Allison’s touch more distant.
”There’s little time,” she said, “but now that you’ve proven your courage I am free to tell you ‑‑ there’s another way. Seek the mage Amadon at Crumbling Tower due east of here. He can help you…”
Allison disappeared and Prince Eric awoke stiff, sore, and chilled. He regarded the pitiful remnants of his armor a little wistfully, and finally left them where they lay. He buckled on his sword and dagger, unhobbled his gray stallion, and rode toward the rising sun.
’Crumbling Tower’ was hard to miss. It was intricately cracked from base to crenelations, and bits of it pelted down all the while Prince Eric approached. Oddly, the tower never seemed to get any shorter or the piles of debris any taller. Eric turned his mount loose to graze at a safe distance, stepped carefully over the rubble‑filled moat and ‑‑ with many nervous glances upward ‑‑ made a dash for the door. He made it and rapped the lion‑headed knocker once. The lion spat a stream of stale‑smelling fluid into his face.
”Poison!” shrieked Eric, dabbling frantically at his cheek.
A voice from within the tower demurred. “Hardly the Nectar of the Gods, but not as bad as that.”
Amadon stood in the open doorway, a wide grin on his face. He wasn’t what Eric expected: he was little more than a boy, with a wisp of fine yellow hair on his chin pretending to be a beard. The rest of his hair was short, ill‑cut and unruly, and he had watery blue eyes that seemed a little too large for his face. It gave him a look of constant amazement.
”Sorry about the knocker,” he said, “but I get so few visitors I couldn’t resist trying it out. Not very subtle, but effective, don’t you think?”
Eric bit his lip and nodded, already starting to question Allison’s judgment, if not her intentions. “You are Amadon, aren’t you?” he hesitated, then added, “the Wizard?”
Amadon sighed deeply. “It’s that hateful Meralna’s fault. The witch in the next valley. She put an ‘Illusion of Youth’ spell on me, and just because I grew a wart on the end of her nose. It’s not as if it was the only one there, heaven knows. Still, it was clever trick; I confess it. Who expects an almost‑beardless boy to know anything about the Mystic Arts?”
”I imagine it’s a problem,” Eric said, trying not to sound too abrupt, “but I’ve got one of my own.”
Amadon looked him up and down. “Your youth isn’t an illusion, so let me guess ‑‑ love.”
”Partly,” admitted Eric, “but mostly it’s the dragon.”
Amadon’s eyes narrowed. It made his pointed hat fall over his face. He paused to adjust it. “That wouldn’t be the one guarding Allison of Adriatica?”
Eric frowned. “There’s another?”
”More than you can shake a sword at,” said Amadon, “but he’s closest. Come in and we’ll discuss it.” Eric hesitated and Amadon grinned. “The tower is perfectly safe ‑‑ another of Meralna’s illusions. I’ll pay her back when I get around to it.”
The inside of ‘Crumbling Tower’ wasn’t crumbling at all. It was a simple round tower with a spiral staircase. The walls were lined with tapestries that changed scenes while you watched, and the main room was packed full of some of the oddest bric‑a‑brac Eric had ever seen: grotesque glassware, statues of green marble and lead, metal popinjays that sang the time and hour in tinny voices, and several spring‑cog objects that didn’t seem to do anything but hum together in harmony. Eric was a bit overwhelmed.
Amadon watched his reaction carefully, then he smiled. “Nine parts of wizardry is the accumulation of trivia, Prince Eric. You gather and consider until the patterns are clear, then tap their power. My old master learned his most powerful spell by studying all the synonyms of ‘salubrity’.”
Amadon kept up a stream of such trivial chatter as he seated Eric at a round table and poured him a goblet of rich red wine.
”How do you know about Princess Allison?” Eric asked between sips, “Or me, for that matter?”
”The necessity of trivia, Dear Boy. Let’s see… Allison of Adriatica. Quite a little hellion if the stories are true: self‑centered, vain to the point of obsession, even dabbled in Black Magic, not to mention politics ‑‑ “
Eric stiffened. “I’ll thank you not to slander the woman I love, Wizard!”
Amadon smiled a disarming smile. “Your pardon, Highness, but I can’t help but glory in the details: kidnapped by a dragon under mysterious circumstances, kept in an enchanted sleep for four hundred years, heroes slain left and right trying to rescue her… the first one of your ancestral kinsmen, I believe. Prince Alexander of Sturga. Did you know about him?”
”Of course!” snapped Eric, “but this is hardly ‑‑ “
”Relevant?” Amadon sighed. “My boy, everything is relevant. But I can see you’re not interested. Your main concern is to slay the beastly beast and claim the lovely lady, yes?”
”I mean to rescue her,” said Eric, “I’ll marry her if she’ll have me.”
”Oh, I’m sure she will.”
There was an undercurrent of cynicism in Amadon’s voice that irritated Eric. He rose, finishing his wine in one long gulp. “I can see this is a waste of time. Allison was mistaken ‑‑ “
”Sit down, Prince.”
Eric sat down. He didn’t want to. He didn’t have any choice. The compulsion was overwhelming. “What have you done to me!?”
”A minor enchantment ‑‑ in the wine, of course. I’ve not lived so long by allowing armed men near me without some precaution.”
The effects of the potion, triggered by Amadon’s voice, left Eric’s vision a little fuzzy except when he looked at the wizard. Now he could see through the illusion: Amadon was a wizened old man with face and head totally shaven. His eyes held little of the aimless humor in those of the illusory boy ‑‑ it had been replaced with an odd, unsettling intensity.
”I mean you no harm, Prince, but it seemed as if you were going to leave without asking for my assistance. Since I’ve decided to give it that would not do at all.”
Eric was still angry, but pragmatic enough to realize the matter was out of his hands. “Very well. What do you want in return?”
Amadon shrugged. “The only thing of real worth in this world ‑‑ trivia. Knowledge, to the high‑minded. If you rescue Allison I may be able to add the missing pieces of her story, and frankly I’m interested.”
”How can you help me?”
”Well, surely when you fought the dragon you noticed he was awfully hard to hurt?”
Eric, not for the first time, got the distinct feeling that the fates had written down the story beforehand and given the scroll to Amadon for safekeeping. “I never said I fought the dragon.”
Amadon laughed. “You didn’t have to; it’s in the pattern. I know you, Prince. Or rather, I know what you are: a hero, down to your toenails. You wouldn’t come to someone like me except in utter desperation. Now, to business. That dragon is harder than Sturgan steel. The only way you’re going to defeat him is with something harder. Come with me.”
Amadon led Eric up the spiraling stairs like a bald vulture, circling. He stopped at a door that looked like all the other doors along the way and opened it with a key that looked like all the other keys on his belt. Eric stepped inside and gasped.
The room was large, and every few feet along the walls there hung a suit of armor of exceedingly fine make. Racks of weapons stood about full of swords and axes and war hammers and some things Eric didn’t recognize at all. The far wall was empty, but large chests were lined along its entire length.
”Pick a suit that fits,” Amadon said, “The straps may need a little grease.”
Prince Eric picked a suit of delicately fluted Milthan workmanship and set to with a rag and a cake of lard while the wizard fiddled with one of the chests.
”…know I left it here somewhere… ah!”
Amadon pulled a long bundle from the chest and handed it carefully to the prince. Eric unwrapped a longsword edged with a blue‑white crystalline material that turned the light from the small window into rainbows.
Eric’s eyes widened. “Is this..?”
”Yes,” said Amadon, wearily. “but don’t get any delusions of invincibility. It cuts well enough but it’s not much for parrying. Too brittle. In fact, it’s fair to say you’ll only get one stab at the beast… So to speak.”
Eric couldn’t hide his disappointment. “It was hard enough to ask for help in the first place. And now you tell me there’s no certainty? What if I fail?”
”Then Allison will have to wait for another hero. I doubt if she’ll wait long; something’s kept that dragon fed over the years.”
”But is has to be me,” Eric insisted. “I love her.”
Amadon shrugged. “You’re in love with an idea. You don’t even know her.”
”That’s where you’re wrong, Wizard. I’ve met her, spoken to her.”
”In your dreams?” asked Amadon, mildly.
”Yes!” It came out like a snarl. “It’s the truth; do you doubt me?”
Amadon shook his head, slowly. “Not at all, but old men were young men once upon a time, and that’s just as true for wizards. I seem to recall a thing or two about love. Have a care, Prince. That sword won’t help you there.”
Dragon heard the old familiar knocking and opened an eye.
He opened the rest of his eyes and looked sadly at the princess. She lay, demure and silent, as always.
”I’ll have to kill him this time, My Love,” he said. “He’s determined to take you from me.”
Eric hid the sword behind his shield as Dragon peered out the door.
”Hello, Your Highness. Are you ready now?”
Eric nodded. He held the sword at the ready, but hesitated. “Dragon, before we meet again there’s something I must know.”
Dragon’s eyes ‑‑ all of them ‑‑ narrowed. “What is it?”
”Why did you kidnap Allison?”
”I didn’t. She came willingly.”
Eric shook his head. “That can’t be.”
Dragon shrugged, and the earth trembled a bit. “As you will. Be ready, Prince Eric ‑‑ I really must kill you now.”
Eric gripped the diamond‑edged sword tighter as Dragon inched forward. One thrust… Eric tensed.
Amadon..? For one silly instant Eric wanted to stop, but his reflexes had taken over. Just as Dragon turned, distracted, Eric sprang forward and drove the blade with all his strength into Dragon’s massive chest. The beast screamed, spitting fire. A claw from a convulsing leg grazed Eric’s shoulder and sent him spinning down the slope again. This time his head met something harder than it was, and night fell a little early that day.
When Eric opened his eyes again he was immediately aware of something very large.
”Amadon, what have you done to me?!”
”Nothing, dear boy. But I can’t say I’m surprised.”
Amadon perched on a jutting shard of mountain, just out of easy reach. Eric looked down at his dragon’s body. The sword lay several yards away ‑‑ unbroken ‑‑ and the wound in his dragon chest had closed as if it had never been.
”Wizard, change me back this instant!”
”Highness, your ability to ignore the obvious astounds me.” Amadon sighed. “I didn’t change you in the first place, and if you’d been listening ‑‑ “
Eric still wasn’t listening. “Change me back or ‑‑ ” He breathed fire a full second before he realized he knew how, but by the time the fire reached Amadon there was nothing left of him there to burn except his voice. It wasn’t particularly flammable.
”Go greet your lady love, Eric.”
Eric glared at the spot where Amadon wasn’t. “This wasn’t how I planned to greet her.” But, because he didn’t know what else to do, Eric crawled into the cave.
Princess Allison lay asleep in her bed, radiating serene beauty.
”Quite striking for a woman of four hundred and twenty.” A stalactite with Amadon’s face was smiling. “As I suspected, it was Allison who set up this little love‑nest. She kept it going. How better to keep the dragon fed than to make each hero think he was the chosen one? Yet as you’ve discovered the beast can’t be killed ‑‑ not really.”
Eric glared at him. “You knew!”
Amadon appeared in human form at the beside and shook his head. “I suspected; not the same thing. The evidence suggested that Allison was an adept; your transformation was the final proof of that. Still, I admit none of the hints really conveyed the genius of her concept.” Amadon bowed his head in respect. “To cast a would‑be lover as the dragon? To enchant herself? That was a master stroke.”
Eric-dragon looked at his love woefully. “But why?”
”Because it fits the pattern: Allison was‑‑is–vain. Obsessively so. This way she can remain young and beautiful forever.”
”It’s not true,” Eric insisted. “She promised.”
Amadon shrugged. “And she meant it. Slay the dragon and she is yours forever. Or at least until time and the burdens of being her watchdog wear you down. Like Prince Alexander. I rather thought he was the one.”
”Damn you! Never mind how I got this way! Change me back!”
Amadon shook his head. “Don’t be deceived by her seemingly dormant state, Prince Eric ‑‑ Allison makes the rules here, but there is a way. I believe it just arrived.”
Eric‑dragon turned at the faint scrape of metal on stone, and his dragon’s blood burned a few degrees colder. Someone with Eric’s body and Dragon’s eyes stood in the doorway holding the diamond sword. A trail of red from a scalp wound marred his face.
”I believe you’ve met Prince Alexander,” Amadon said.
Eric’s soul was at war with itself as the changeling limped closer. “Alexander…”
The former dragon looked right through him, his eyes fixed on the sleeping princess. The point of his sword made little chopping motions in the air.
”What are you doing!?” Eric demanded. Amadon removed himself to a stalactite’s‑eye view from the ceiling.
”She betrayed me,” Alexander hissed. “After four hundred years!”
Alexander’s threat marked a clear path for any hero to follow. Eric was almost grateful. “I can’t let you harm her,” he said, moving between them. It wasn’t just instinct; part of him wanted to kill Allison himself. None of him could do it. Student of the possible… Where had Eric heard that before?”
”Don’t be a fool!” Alexander snapped. “Let me attend to her and I’ll make the exchange with you willingly. I’ve rather grown accustomed to being a dragon.”
I do believe that’s true, Eric thought. “Then make the change now!”
Alexander’s eagerness, so brightly mirrored in his eyes, betrayed him. Eric turned his frenzied lunge with one flick of a talon. “You were after me all along, weren’t you?”
Alexander’s pretense fled. “Allison is mine!”
”She betrayed you,” Eric reminded him.
Alexander smiled a bitter smile. “Do you really think I didn’t know she might? Or that it makes a bit of difference?”
Eric shook his head. “You’ve loved her for four hundred years. You had to know what she was.”
Amadon’s laughter rang through the cave. “Trivial paradox!” he chortled. “Love can die but it can’t be killed. Not even by the truth.”
Eric looked at the beautiful devil on the bed. Quite true. Unfortunately. “Be silent, Wizard,” was all he said.
Eric’s new body tensed for combat as Alexander took a swordsman’s stance. Now Alexander hesitated. “She’ll betray you, too,” he said. “Sooner or later.”
Eric could do no better than to turn Alexander’s knowledge back on him. “Do you really think that makes a difference?”
Alexander smiled again, but there was no bitterness now. It was the smile of one comrade‑in‑arms to another. “Not in the least.”
Dragon licked the last scrap of flesh from Eric’s right femur and dropped the bone into the pile with the others. Something glittery on the floor caught his attention. The sword. Dragon paused in thought for a moment, then smashed the blade into dust with one blow of his paw.
“I gather your decision is final, then?” Amadon was speaking from the ceiling again. The sight of him was beginning to annoy Dragon.
“Did you get what you wanted?” Dragon asked.
The stalactite nodded, creaking. “Powerful, vintage trivia of the first order. Meralna will be so jealous! To celebrate, I’ll add a bit of advice, gratis – kill all the heroes the first time they appear, Prince Eric. Don’t let Allison think your love is fading.”
It was good advice, but Eric didn’t really need it. Already he gazed at the lovely fiend in the bed with a dragon’s true pride of possession, and with delicious anticipation of the dreams to come.
“My name,” he corrected firmly, “Is Dragon.”