h3=. Maid for a Dragon
Copyright 2009 Roderick Gladwish
Published by Roderick Gladwish at Shakespir
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Jen woke up chained to a rock. This was not where the thirteen-year-old girl had gone to sleep. Actually Jen couldn’t remember where she had gone to sleep, but it was not attached to a blackened stone in the middle of Don’t-Go-In-There-Wood. Around her towered dark trees blocking all but a hazy glow from the bright summer’s day. She sat in a clearing made up of burnt tree stumps. Jen had been told about what lived in Don’t-Go-In-There-Wood, it burnt things, it crushed things and it ate people.
Jen felt the iron collar locked to her neck, her fingers couldn’t make it move. A heavy chain from the collar ended in an iron stake hammered into the stone. It wouldn’t budge even when she put all her weight behind it. It was while she was pulling, that the dragon arrived for a Jen-flavoured snack.
‘Eek!’ she eek-ed.
Leathery wings beat the air like thunder and a dark body the size of twenty cows strapped together arrived with the sound of twenty cows landing in the clearing. Wood cracked like cockroaches under a boot.
Jen spun round to face the dragon.
Its head was as long as Jen’s body, its eyes as big as her face. Looking at her sideways because its long teeth-filled mouth got in the way, it licked its lips with a pink forked tongue.
‘Tasty,’ it said in a growl that made Jen’s body tremble on top of the trembling she was already doing.
‘I think there’s been a mix-up,’ Jen said, giving the chain a hopeful tug.
‘It’s princesses dragons eat isn’t it?’
‘Oh, I eat all sorts of things, cows, pigs, cabbages and so on, but when the need arises a chomp on a princess doesn’t go amiss.’
‘I am not a princess. I’m a maid. I do the washing up, make beds and carry food. So you can see there’s been a terrible mix-up.’
‘I get one princess chained to this rock every generation and in return I don’t burn any of the villages in the kingdom, well, don’t burn them with people in them.’
‘I’m not a princess,’ Jen tried again. ‘You want my mistress, Princess Aileen.’
‘You are chained to the rock.’
‘You’re wearing a gown fit for a princess.’
‘You’ve even got a dainty crown and that makes you a princess.’
‘Ah…no, you see…ah…I can see where the mistake has happened. I was wearing Princess Aileen’s dress ’cause it let her see how she would look. She was very nice about it. She even got me a drink, which is really my job, but — the crafty cow! She drugged me! No wonder no one talks about the maid I replaced. That cow, when I see her again, I don’t care whether her father is the king, I’m going to tell her what I think of her.’
‘All very clever princess, but I don’t believe it. Prepare to be fried.’ He drew in a huge breath.
Jen leapt over the rock and ducked down as far as the chain would allow.
Flames struck the rock roaring around Jen as she huddled.
It went quiet.
The dragon pulled on the chain with a giant claw and dragged Jen to him. She tried to pull back, but his strength was far more than one tricked maid.
‘You are not playing ball.’
‘I don’t want to be eaten. Anyhow, you are going to have trouble eating me, I mean my clothes are going to taste awful.’
‘Never had a problem before,’ he replied. ‘Quick puff of flame and you get cooked like a jacket potato.’
Jen thought fast. ‘Chain. This collar, I can’t get it off, it’ll break a tooth or something. You don’t want that.’
‘I find that after I’ve cooked a princess—’
‘I am not a princess.’
‘— a quick pull and the head comes right off, no problem with the collar.’
‘I feel sick. I have to sit down.’ Jen slumped onto the rock.
‘Fine, you sit there, helps my aim.’
‘Wait, wait, I must be more useful alive than toasted. I’m a maid; I do lots of things. What can I do for you?’
‘Sit still for about two seconds and I can do the rest.’
Jen sighed, ‘Could you answer one question, before you eat me?’
‘This is very irregular. I think I can wait. I don’t like tricks, no saying it’s going to take twenty years to think up a question.’
‘Rats,’ she said and quickly tried to think of a hard question. In the end she gave up and asked the first question that popped into her mind. ‘Why do you burn villages? You don’t eat anyone while the villages burn. Answer me that.’
‘That’s not an answer.’
‘I suffer from scale rot. When you get to be a big dragon, it’s hard to get to all those nooks, especially under the scales. Scale rot is awful especially when you can’t get at it. I have found that burning reeds smoke out the beasties that makes me itch and reduces the old rot. Only reeds in reed beds are wet, but you humans put them on wooden frames to dry out and they burn up a treat.’
‘Those wooden frames are houses. You keep burning down our houses! Someone should do something about it.’
‘They do. They give me a princess to eat and I bother someone else. Happy with the answer?’ He asked, considering whether it was worth drawing in a roasting breath or was his meal going to ask another question.
Jen said nothing. She was thinking. The collar was rubbing her neck sore. As sore as a dragon with scale rot.
‘Happy?’ he asked again optimistically. Keep preparing for a flaming and then being stopped by this awkward dinner was giving him heartburn.
‘I can clean your scales. I’m used to doing dirty jobs. Get me a branch with some leaves on it and I’ll get to work,’ Jen ordered.
‘You don’t have to work, just sit there and I can—’
‘You need a good clean and I can give you that cleaning.’
‘This is some trick to help you escape,’ he challenged suspiciously.
‘I’m chained to a rock.’
‘Good point.’ He reach out one of his claws gripped the nearest tree and ripped it from the ground. ‘Will this do?’
‘A branch, something I can use to get under your scales, not a whole tree.’
The dragon used its teeth to bite off a few branches of a manageable size.
Jen selected a good cleaning branch.
‘Now get closer because I can’t reach.’
He sidled up to Jen raising one of his great wings for her to get under.
‘Pooh, what a stink,’ she said.
‘Four legs, two wings equals six armpits,’ he explained.
Ignoring the smell Jen pushed up her sleeves and set to work. Bristling his scales allowed her to dig in the brush. Cockroaches, wood lice and all sorts of spiders made their homes under the armour of the beast. They rained on the maid as she poked into the gaps between scales. Jen sneezed quite a bit, but she continued with her task. When one branch wore out, looking like candyfloss made out of dirty spider’s webs, Jen picked up another.
After hours of work a brown dragon had become a green one with yellow patterns.
The dragon stepped back so Jen, still held by the chain, could view her handiwork.
Hands on hips she was satisfied.
‘Some metal polish could make those scales really shine. A bit of saddle soap on the wings and you’d be getting Valentines from all the lady dragons in the country.’
The dragon reversed and drew a deep breath.
‘Wait!’ Jen screamed.
Coughing hot smelly air, the dragon thumped his armoured chest with a fist.
‘Stop doing that, it hurts,’ he complained.
‘You can’t eat me after all I’ve done for you.’
‘I can, it’s easy.’
‘Are princesses your favourite food?’ Jen asked with fingers crossed.
‘No, far too skinny.’
‘What if I keep you clean and saw you got as much of your favourite food as you wanted. Would that be worth not eating me?’
Jen was giving him indigestion before eating her. He considered it might be worse if he did. ‘Yes,’ he said doubtfully.
‘Then I’m going to need a little help.’
Astride the dragon, Jen clutched his neck scales as he flew over the woods.
He stayed low so the tops of the trees tickled his tummy.
Jen couldn’t stop herself from saying ‘Wheeeeeeee!’ as the air rushed by and a cloud of leaves followed their flight.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Jimius De Forgebreath Knightburner the Fourteenth,’ said the dragon.
‘I’ll call you Jim.”
Soon they were over farmland. Below people ran away from their houses for fear of being roasted. Animals scattered everywhere. Quickly Jim passed the farms and carried on to the first of the towns. Bells rang out and people ran away.
In the distance was a castle. Tall spires and high walls were good enough to stop an army of knights in armour, but lacked effective anti-dragon defences. Knowing the drill, guards were running away as the flying monster loomed up.
‘That’s where I used to work.’ Jen shouted against the wind. ‘The audience chamber is in the middle of the biggest tower.’
Jim swung round the largest tower.
‘The doors are too small.’
‘Dragons make their own doors!’
Too late, Jim dived toward a wall of hard looking stones.
The crash was so loud Jen thought she was standing beside herself. Dust was everywhere while stones rattled off floors and walls. It cleared slowly with the sound of the explosion ringing in the maid’s head.
The dragon filled the king’s grand audience chamber. The red carpet had been bunched up until it was like a screwed up hanky. Stone blocks the size of coffee tables rested randomly over the polished wooden floor that was now covered in more scratches than if someone had tried to wax it with a sack full of angry cats. Looking dazed was the royal family. They had been discussing replacement maids.
King Albert sat dumbstruck on his dusty throne. Queen Roberta was hiding under her upturned chair. Princess Aileen, who did look a lot like Jen, was sitting on the floor with an expression of a girl who has been slapped with a wet sock.
Jen slid off the dragon. Noticing a smudge on a scale she stopped to polish it with her sleeve.
‘Oh foul beast, what do you demand of us?’ asked the king, shivering with fright.
‘It’s me, your majesty, it’s Jen,’ she said knocking as much dust off her clothes as she could.
The king peered at her with no idea who Jen was. To him all maids were called ‘girl’.
Princess Aileen started crawling to the door beside the thrones.
‘I have come to say I’ve stopped the dragon from burning our villages.’
‘Ah, right, very good,’ said the king, mind on the repair bill for his audience chamber. ‘You must be rewarded with the hand of my daughter in marriage and half my kingdom.’
‘I’m a girl.’
‘Oh right, ah…the marriage thing doesn’t work does it?’
Princess Aileen found a large stone had jammed the door shut. She began crawling toward an exit at the back of the chamber.
‘This is what I want and if I don’t get it, my friend here will go back to his old ways,’ Jen said.
‘Name anything, can’t have villages burning, bad for…er…bad for villages, what?’
Jen turned to look at Aileen who was failing to be invisible. Jim turned his head as well.
‘Not leaving are we?’ Jen asked.
‘Very important princess business,’ Aileen said, ‘need to be—eek!’
Jim sucked in a deep breath and Aileen began sliding toward his jaws. Madly grabbing at the floor the girl moved backwards. More securely than being chained to a rock, Princess Aileen stuck to Jim’s left nostril.
‘Must let breath out,’ Jim warned.
Jen yanked the princess clear as a jet of flame shot out of the dragon and burned a neat hole in the nearest wall.
Sinking to the floor like a balloon with a leak, Princess Aileen fainted.
‘Back to business,’ Jen said, hands on hips. ‘I am now the Kingdom’s official Dragon Cleaner. This is a dangerous and difficult job so I will need to be paid more than a maid, I think five pence a day. Also I need some things to make my job easier.’
King Albert stood up and picked plaster out of his robes. Kings get to be kings in all sorts of ways, but they stay kings by making deals. Wall-smashing girls with fire-breathing friends were scary, but making deals was normal kingly work.
‘Jen, is it?’ He asked walking over to her. ‘I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.’
‘So do I,’ she replied. ‘First, I want a delivery of thatch, enough to re-roof my house, every—’ she looked over to Jim.
‘Two months,’ said Jim.
‘— two months.’
‘Five pence a day, thatch every two months, got it,’ said the king.
‘I’ll need a regular supply of cows to feed the dragon.’
‘The cows will need dresses and crowns because they will be princess cows.’
‘Did you say princess cows?’
Jen leaned closer and whispered, ‘It’s a dragon thing, they have to eat princesses, but who said they had to be human?’
‘Cow princesses, check.’
‘Finally, this job will take up all my time and if my toilet gets blocked, which happens quite a lot, I need someone to clean it out. I’d like that person to be Princess Aileen.’
‘As soon as Aileen wakes up I’ll enrol her in a City and Guild’s course in plumbing.’
Jen asked for nothing else because she knew that happiness was having a dragon for a friend and someone else to clean out her toilet.
Roderick is an aerospace engineer whose day job is designing spacecraft structures. When he loses self-control he writes stories. In 2008 he won the British Science Fiction Association 50th Anniversary Short Story Competition. He also illustrates his own work.
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