Stealing through the pre-dawn forest, Leaf sensed the dragon before seeing it. He’d never smelled brimstone before but the ungodly stench fit the name. Dressed in an ill-fitting suit of armor, he moved as quietly as he could.
A low howl filled his ears from beyond the copse of trees. The mixture of pain and rage and an unnatural timbre made him shudder. It joined discordant chorus with the plaintive cries of the princess. What unspeakable acts could reduce her to such undignified pleading?
Roaring a challenge, he burst from the underbrush, his broadsword held overhead. Startled, the scaly beast and Princess Hannah turned.
Twin trails of vapor rose from the monster’s nostrils. A rumbling growl shook the ground as it rose on its haunches. Its wings flapped and its tail encircled the princess.
Hannah sighed, “Now you’ve ruined the best part.” Her book slapped shut so sharply, a clutch of partridge took flight.
Leaf made ready to charge.
Hannah raised her hands. “Whoa, whoa, whoa there fella. What mischief are you about?”
This stopped him cold. He lowered the broadsword which eased his aching arms. His armor clanked as he shrank into it. He stretched to see out the visor.
“Take that silly thing off. I wish to see to whom I speak.” She made a calming gesture to the dragon. It sighed. “Your name, please?”
Pulling the helmet off, his chin disappeared behind the gorget.
“And don’t slouch.”
Stretching, his head emerged from the armor, many sizes too large for him. Hannah decided he was not unattractive, but young.
“You are but a boy.”
“I’m Leaf,” he said. “Nearly grown. Rescuing you from this monster, Princess Hannah.” He bowed. The armor groaned.
Hannah suppressed a smirk. “There must be a mistake… uhm, Sir… Leaf?”
“For one thing… Leaf, it’s not on the schedule. These events get planned for weeks. I would know if a rescue were afoot.”
Leaf tried to process her statement.
“And we’ve never met. I never heard of a free-lance ‘rescue.’ Did you, perchance, aim to rescue Princess Anna? She lives two castles down.”
Leaf shook his head. “I wanted to help.”
“This is Noggin.” She patted the dragon. It gazed on her like a dog at its master.
“Do I appear a damsel, distressed?”
“I don’t understand…”
“Not only errant but arrogant. Must you kill what won’t submit to your understanding?”
Leaf said nothing.
“Would you kill me for your lack of discernment?”
“You were screaming. I…”
She held up her book. “I was reading Noggin’s favorite sad story, Beowulf. It makes him cry. Even dragons need catharsis.”
He stepped back with a clank.
She stepped forward. “You commoners. Really. Do you understand anything?”
Chastened, he looked about for escape. She gestured toward Noggin.
“Note his energy. You’d destroy him in your quest for accolades?”
“I would, the Devil’s spawn…”
“So, you’re family?”
“I was rescuing you, Milady. Have you become enthralled?”
“Did I request saving? You aren’t even a knight.”
Leaf turned away.
“I’m speaking to you and you turn? Do they teach you nothing?”
“Should I leave, Milady? I am unschooled.”
“Get armor that fits. No proper knight would be caught dead in that. Did your mother say you’d grow into it?”
“I… found it.”
Now Hannah didn’t understand. Costly armor did not get left for peasants to pick up like fallen fruit.
“I’m not a thief! I found it, abandoned.”
“Off a dead knight?”
He stood firm. “Never.”
“You’re from my father’s castle? How have we not met?” Leaf balked but she let the question hang. “You’re spirited. Why aren’t you in the army?”
“Too young, or too stupid to catch arrows. They took Papa. Left me to attend my mother.”
“And your position with us?”
“Not a knight, Princess, but a night-man.”
Now she stepped back. “Oh.” She turned away. The dragon sniffed and shrank from him.
“I know what a night-man is, Leaf. Spare me descriptions”
The night-man might go by ‘plumber’ today. But with no running water to plumb, his occupation was cleaning cess-pits. It lay beneath the lowest rung on the ladder of success, untouchable.
She stared and he looked away.
“I discovered the armor in my job. It fits poorly, but it’s clean.”
You could almost hear her eyes roll.
“Forgive me, Princess. I mean no offense. I only wish to serve. To bring honor to you and my mother.”
“Works in the scullery. Miss Agnes, Milady. I want the best for her.”
“You think you are better.”
“I wish to improve. But not better than you. I want to serve. I can do more than...”
Hannah held her hand up. She’d heard enough.
“You are a child.”
“Not so young…”
The dragon stirred. Hanna and Leaf both turned to see the multitude of eyes glowing from the shadows. A wolf stepped into the light. Five others emerged, fanning out behind their leader.
Leaf raised his sword and stepped between them and the princess. Hannah easily recognized Leaf's bravery exceeded his skills. The outsized armor and the cumbersome sword, could not obscure it.
Leaf kept his eyes on the predators maneuvering into position. “Should I greet them like a basket of rambunctious puppies?”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“Am I to believe these are also beloved pets?”
“I only desire you keep half a wit or two until we reach safety.”
The dragon reared up and exhaled a plume of fire into a pile of dry brush. Flames rose and the wolves shied away. Leaf exchanged looks with Hannah.
“Ah, a torch.” He strode over and selected a burning branch. The pack retreated as he advanced, sweeping his torch before him.
Hannah followed him. “My horse is tethered yonder.”
He adjusted his course, and kept the wolves at bay. Hannah soothed and mounted her nervous steed.
“Thank you, young Leaf. Perhaps we shall meet again. The dragon and I meet here most Tuesdays.” With that, she kicked the horse and galloped away.
The sun now well risen, Leaf nodded to the dragon, which grunted and fanned its wings. He made his way home, wary for frustrated wolves and other perils.
Leaf hid the armor under some hay and entered his mother’s hovel, outside the castle. He stoked the fire, poured himself some water, and sat on a rough stool.
‘Most of the day gone and for nothing.’
He knew there were no missed steps. ‘Nearing bottom, almost time to push off,’ his father said before leaving. More than a year now, they’d heard nothing. The war raged on.
Leaf could have joined too, but being young, his parents hid him. ‘Their loss.’
His mother prayed he’d join the clergy, but with Papa gone, she needed him.
His father said, ‘Churching’s more dependable than marching.’
Leaf knew it offered more of a future. But to a peasant, the cost of an education remained as ungraspable as flying to the moon. Regardless the task, work presents a challenge. But the monastery offered something bigger than mere work. Education offered a chance to serve in God’s name.
Agnes stooped in, and saw the fire dancing. “You’re home, then.” She came and hugged him. “You smell of smoke. That’s perfume to the usual.”
“Eau-de-dragon…” They laughed.
“So there is a monster?”
“She and the dragon are inseparable.”
It sank in for a moment and then she almost fell off her chair for laughter. “That’s terrible. She’s not so bad.”
“I think she invited me to meet again.” Her brow raised. “Said dragon will chaperone. She calls it ‘Noggin.’”
“She can’t be worse than that Mace. Why don’t they get married and go away?”
“Someone has a vested interest in the status quo.”
Agnes got busy. “Hungry? I’ll put dinner on.”
“What’s Mace up to, Mama?”
She pretended not to hear. Then equivocated. “He gets handy, is all.”
“Stay in the kitchen.”
“You know these feasts. It’s all hands on deck.”
“Lucky Papa’s not here.”
She glanced at him. “Young Leaf… You’re here. But still a boy. You cannot. Mace’d kill you as soon as greet you.”
Hearing a commotion, Leaf stepped out to see Mace ride by with a pack of dogs. The dust lingered.
The next Tuesday, Hannah arrived to the clearing to find Leaf, in his armor, sitting on a rock. The dragon and he watched each other. He stood when she arrived.
“You two getting on?”
“He hasn’t roasted me. Tell me about Mace.”
“He’s my fiancé. We’ll marry next spring.”
“It’s almost summer now. Nearly a year hence?”
“Are you in a hurry?”
“No. I’m here to learn.”
“Good. So, about my dragon being spawn of the devil…”
“I may have exaggerated.
“I never said to worship it. But you could learn from it.”
“To be the fire-eater at a carnival?”
“You try so hard to be good, you neglect being real.”
“Pretending knighthood, pursuing things beyond your skills. D’you think you’d fool anyone?”
“Hadn’t considered that…”
“You’d do better losing that ridiculous armor.”
“Take it off.” Leaf didn’t move. “That’s not a request.” He cleared his throat. “This isn’t some minstrel’s song, Leaf. Don’t be shy. There’s no purpose in seeing you naked. I have something for you.”
“Excuse me, then…” He turned his back and pulled the armor off.
Hannah whistled to the dragon. It moved its tail to reveal a new suit of armor. Untouched, it shone like burnished silver.
“Put that on, Leaf. It’s yours. It should fit. It will suit you better.”
Speechless, he walked to it and began to put it on. She assisted in securing some straps.
“Check the sword.”
He drew it and examined the brand new weapon gleaming in the sunshine. He passed it from hand to hand, testing its heft and balance. He bowed to Hannah.
“You humble me, Princess Hannah. How can I…?”
“It is a gift, Leaf.”
“Your bravery is undeniable. But you are green. Opportunities abound. Prove yourself worthy of a title.”
She pulled off her headband and spun the cloth ring into the air. The dragon caught it on a horn. It reared back in celebration. They’d played this game before.
“Retrieve the ring without harming Noggin.”
Leaf and the dragon took stock of each other. He thrust his sword but the beast ducked at the last moment. It teased him like a dog would with a ball.
Grasping his need to play, he laughed. He rose to the challenge and spent the next several hours with give and take, parry and thrust. He quickly gained deftness and skill. The sword became an extension of his arm. He flipped the ring off Noggin’s horn and caught it on the blade. The dragon and he would bow. Leaf tossed the ring again and the game continued.
They played for hours. Leaf’s learning curve improved steadily. He innovated and began outsmarting the dragon more quickly.
Time for a break, Hannah pulled wine and bread from her bag and they rested in the shade.
When the shadows lengthened, Hannah said she must go.
“You are an honorable man, Leaf. Be well. Choose your battles with care.”
May Day had come. The jousting field next to the castle was decorated for a party. Streamers and flags waved in the breeze. Everyone was there. Hannah and Mace, her fiancé, sat with her parents beneath a multi-colored canopy. Friends tested each other in games of skill. Children danced around the Maypole. Laughter, cheers and gaiety prevailed.
No one went hungry. Agnes and the other servants kept busy providing refreshments to all. Food and drink were consumed with no end in sight.
Agnes avoided the royals. She concentrated on keeping the children fed. But one of the other servers went missing. Mace called for more beer. When none came, he called out again. He saw Agnes standing by and pointed at her.
“You! Wench! Get me refreshment now. And be quick about it.”
All eyes were upon her. She curtsied and ran to fill his cup. When she returned, he knocked the flagon from her hand, grabbed her by the skirts and pulled her to him.
“Let’s a kiss, you!”
Hannah and her parents exchanged glances at his boorishness, but said nothing. Agnes protested. Pulling free, she slapped him.
Mace leaped to his feet and roared at her. “Who do you think you are? You dare disrespect a prince?” He swung at her but she backed out of reach.
Hundreds of guests watched. Silence fell upon the party. Only a few giggling children chased each other about.
A voice called out. “Mace! A swine pretends nobility. But his actions prove him a liar and a fool.”
Mace put his hand on his sword’s pommel. He scanned the field for the challenger.
“Who speaks? Show yourself or be known a coward.”
A knight in silver armor stepped through the crowd and stood. People backed away.
Though helmeted, Leaf’s voice rang clear. “I know a coward. He calls himself a prince.”
Mace lurched forward, sword drawn. Hannah reached for him but he slipped her grasp. He strode toward the unknown knight who stood his ground. Leaf drew his sword when Mace came within striking distance.
Seeing neither would give ground, they circled to the left, swords held en guarde.
Mace taunted, “It’s a stupid man indeed, who cannot perceive his error. You’ll not live the hour.”
“Your voice is soothing. Do you talk yourself to sleep?”
Mace lunged and Leaf, with a flick of his wrist, parried. He sent Mace’s sword spinning into the air. All eyes watched it arc and fall. Leaf struck and split the weapon in two.
The crowd murmured as the metal thudded to the ground. Mace stood disarmed, his arm raised, as if still holding his weapon. Realization washed across his face and back-peddling, he retreated. Leaf pursued and Mace stumbled to the ground. Leaf held his sword to Mace’s throat.
Mace growled, “Fool! You don’t have a chance. Touch me and they’ll kill you.”
“They may. But you’ll never live to see it. You’ll be no different than a fly-ridden vermin lying in the gutter.”
Castle guards awaited orders. Hannah whispered to her father, who stayed them with his hand.
Mace called, “Help me. Anyone! An assassin attacks.”
No one moved.
“At least a weapon! I’m defenseless.”
Leaf drew no blood, but Mace knew any movement would be his last.
“Listen to me, blackguard. You claim nobility but practice license. Actions prove what words only promise. Our hearts reveal our true nature, not the accident of an ‘elevated’ birth…”
Agnes recognized her son. She stared at her feet. When she glanced at Princess Hannah and their eyes met, she looked down again.
Leaf continued, “…Two infants switched are clueless. But their actions soon reveal the quality of blood pumping through their veins. Our father’s social status decides not our worth, for we are all, of women born. You seek nobility? Look to mothers, who sacrifice everything, even their lives for us.”
Somewhere in the crowd, a baby cried.
“You call yourself a prince?” Leaf laughed. “Tell us, before you die, Mace, why you abuse this woman, who has served you fairly and well. Why shame your betrothed for a lark? If this is nobility, I bow not to it.”
Mace saw an opportunity. “Please… I meant no harm. If I have offended… anyone… I beg your forgiveness. Of everyone…”
Holding his sword steady, Leaf scanned the crowd and beckoned his mother. She approached and stood humbly by.
“Did you hear what he said?”
Weeping, and with a trembling voice Mace repeated himself.
Agnes said, “I hear him.”
“What do you say?”
“I forgive him. Of course. How can I not?”
Leaf knelt and spoke, “You owe her your life, brother. Treat her as such.”
Mace nodded. Leaf stood, sheathed his weapon and walked into the crowd.
Hannah’s father called out, “Why this sorry attitude? Let there be dancing!”
Everyone cheered and laughed. The music and dancing resumed. Mace humbly approached Princess Hannah and bowed. She offered him her hand and they danced.
The following Tuesday, Hannah found Leaf at Noggin’s lair. The silver armor lay beside him, wrapped in a cloth.
Noggin watched from a distance.
“You returned, young Leaf?”
“Yes, Milady. I cannot accept your generous gift. I have no appetite for such a life.”
“You wore it nobly. What will you instead? You won’t remain in your current station.”
“No. Of course not. I am moved to wage spiritual battles, Princess. Armor would weigh me down. I need education.”
“I know a man who seeks armor like this. He would pay handsomely for it.”
“I would be most grateful if you arranged a meeting. And forever in your debt.”
“Nothing of the kind. You are welcome, Leaf. Consider it done.”
She offered him her hand. He took it and bowed. After a moment, he stood and they smiled little smiles. Leaf nodded and walked into the woods from which he first emerged.
Hannah said to Noggin, “Shall we get back to reading? We’ve had so many interruptions of late.”
Noggin sighed and curled around her as she sat and opened her book.
“Let’s see… where did we leave off?”