Princess Hannah awakened in dim, cold light. Her head ached. Confined within rigid walls, she couldn’t move. Something smelled bad.
Groping to consciousness, she sensed eyes upon her. Grotesque faces watched wherever she turned.
But moving she realized they were reflections of herself. As bad as she felt, she hoped these hideous images were not true. ‘No princess could survive looking so wretched. Am I dead? If I look like that, this must be hell.’
Memories of last night’s palace ball came in fragments. The minstrel artfully played his lyre and made up songs. Eyes upon her, he sang, ‘Lovely as an apple blossom.’
Too much drink fogged her mind. Hilarious at first, friends kept repeating, ‘til death do us party.’ It now ran, over and again, like the refrain of a bad song.
But she felt cold. ‘Can’t be hell. Hell is hot.’
‘Who was there? Too much fun, maybe…’
Hannah closed her eyes. That lightened the pain. And banished those rippled mirror images.
‘Did I drink a philter?’ She remembered Aeris. ‘She shared her flagon… Aeris Witch.’ Hannah always felt Aeris’ last name was unfortunate. ‘But if it fits…?’
She struggled against the close confines. ‘What happened? Where am I?’
As if an earthquake struck, the walls withdrew, leaving her sitting on cold stone. Those were not walls, but a dragon’s long tail now uncoiled. Those awful mirrors were its massive scales.
The dragon’s eye regarded her. Tall enough to step through, its elongated, vertical pupil widened. Trails of vapor drifted from its nostrils.
Despite her training in royal composure, Hannah screamed. The dragon lay still. The cave’s mouth lay beyond its head. ‘Trapped!’ No hope of escape.
The monster fanned its wings over her head. Its scaly tail swept the cave floor, cat like. Its sulfurous breath thickened the air. Something stank of death.
None of her training prepared her for this. How could they miss this possibility? Hannah vowed; no future princess would ever suffer this unprepared.
Her mother’s stock reaction, ‘Heads would roll!’ came to mind. Hannah found humor helped gain perspective on a problem. ‘But now what?’
Feigning nonchalance, Hannah explored. She peered into the cave’s dim recesses. The dragon watched. Mounds of trash, splintered wood, and tarnished armor and weapons dominated. Glimmers of gold and jewels shone through the grime. She noticed her torn party dress.
She realized a human skull stared. Her pending doom weighed, but it sparked the will to escape.
‘Who would rescue wretched me, from a place so filthy? What does the dragon want?’
Hannah strode up to the dragon’s eye. Its iris opened. Her dark reflection stared back.
“Mr. Dragon… We haven’t been introduced. What did your mother call you?”
The dragon huffed smoke from its nostrils.
She hid her surprise at any reaction. “You cannot keep me captive without drawing the wrath of my father, the King, and my fiancé, Sir Mace. Their armies will destroy you. If you wish to live, you must let me go.”
The dragon’s tail swept the floor and nearly knocked her down. Quick on her feet, and agile, she leaped onto its tail and clutched a fin. The dragon flicked its tail. She screamed but she held fast.
Her scream turned to laughter. She waved one arm about and whooped hilariously.
The dragon let its tail settle. Hannah dismounted with a dainty hop.
“Whew! That was fun! Thank you, Mr. Dragon.” It grunted. “Now, we need some ground rules. I’m hungry. Is this any way to treat a guest? To keep me in such rude surroundings, you must, at the least, feed me.” Its eye flickered. “And I’m cold. Can nothing be done? I’m not dressed for damp…”
The beast stirred and turned toward Hannah. She backed away, unsure of its intent. A rumble sounded from deep in its chest. It exhaled and a wave of warm air washed over her.
She couldn’t believe this kind gesture. It felt so good after that cold night’s sleep.
Ignoring the foul scent, she thought, ‘compromise is a virtue.’ But, basking in the warm breeze she curtsied to the dragon. She reached up and placed her hand on its haunch.
“Thank you, Mr. Dragon. That felt wonderful.”
It groaned in response. It seemed pleased.
Hannah brightened. “I know! ‘Mr. Dragon’ is too formal. If I’m to stay, you need a proper name. May I?”
The dragon huffed.
She curtsied, “I’m Princess Hannah. May I call you… uhm, Noggin? Does ‘Noggin the Dragon’ suit you?”
Noggin blew twin smoke rings, signaling acceptance.
“Excellent! Now about victuals…”
Noggin stood abruptly. It coiled its tail around Hannah and placed her between its wings. She barely had time to settle, before wings flapping, he went aloft. Hannah’s hair streamed behind her.
Daring to look, she saw a rich green valley open beneath them. At the foot of three mountain peaks lay a tarn. Waterfalls provided it with fresh clear water. The surrounding hills were lush and green.
After a few minutes flight, Noggin descended, circling an apple orchard and landed on an open patch. Squealing with delight, Hannah leaped down and ran amidst the trees. Apple blossoms fell around her. She filled her skirt with ripe apples. Thrilled by the adventure, she never thought of escape.
She returned to Noggin, laden with apples. She hoped they would last until rescue came. Noggin lifted her to his shoulders. He flapped his wings and returned to his cave near the falls.
Landing at the cavern’s mouth, Hannah dismounted and deposited the apples in a nook. She thought of stew. ‘Perhaps some fresh venison…’ But, for now, she felt so much better than when she first awakened.
She clapped and curtsied again. “Thank you, Noggin. That was thrilling!”
She ate two apples. Assessing her dire circumstances sobered her.
She said, “Noggin, I need to tidy up.” The dragon’s rumble sounded disapproving, but not threatening. “Meaning this…” pointing to the cave. “There’s no hope for…” she indicated her dress.
Hannah continued, “I’ll be earning my keep. This can’t be healthy for you either.”
Noggin cocked his head.
She said, “Leave it to me. Don’t do a thing…”
She’d grown up in a world where she barely lifted a finger. Attendants washed and dressed her. Her tutor insisted, ‘we don’t do physical labor. We may observe it, when necessary.’
You might think Hannah never exerted herself more strenuously than raising a silver spoon to her lips. But she owned horses. And trained them herself. Her legendary agility with a fencing foil had earned the respect of her peers.
Princess Hannah did not fear work, with purpose.
Setting about her task, she took stock and began by clearing broken wood, bones, and debris from the cave’s interior. She piled what she could carry at the cliff’s edge, overlooking the lake.
Weapons and armor were arranged against one wall. The prospect of fighting the dragon flickered briefly. But she could barely drag the broad swords, let alone mount an attack.
Jewels and coins went into a cranny. An amazing assortment of tankards, flagons, candlesticks, cups and goblets lay about. Some were jeweled. Polishing would wait.
And books. Books! A veritable library. Why did Noggin keep books? Several titles intrigued, but ‘Beowulf’ stood out. Clearing a dry alcove, she arranged them alphabetically. A sentimental needlepoint emerged. She shook the dust off and placed it atop the books.
Useful items, she sorted in piles against the walls. She set aside a cloth for cleaning. And a sponge. Always resourceful, Hannah improvised a broom and swept decades of dust from the cave. Noggin watched without comment.
An ancient wooden chest contained blankets and a dress. Tucked beneath, she discovered a comb and a mirror.
“Now that’s treasure!” she exclaimed.
Hours had passed. She hadn’t stopped. But she wasn’t finished.
Hannah tossed one of the apples toward Noggin who snapped his jaws and caught it midair. He swallowed without chewing.
Approaching Noggin with a wet sponge, she polished his scales, one by one. Noggin’s breathing relaxed. He shut his eyes and let a contented groan escape. His tail twitched.
Hannah discovered the scales’ mirror-like qualities improved with attention. She told herself, ‘This may be in vain, but it’s not entirely my vanity.’ Catching her reflection, she rubbed dirt from her face.
Without a break, she vigorously polished from Noggin’s neck down to behind the dragon’s front legs. She noticed Noggin’s breathing had become ragged. A string of smoke rings shot from his nostrils. She stopped and the dragon’s erratic breath subsided. She resumed polishing. Again, the ragged breath.
“Noggin, are you ticklish?”
The dragon turned away.
Exhaustion overwhelmed Hannah. Dropping her cloth, she leaned on the dragon and sat. Noggin swept his tail around to block the draft. He warmed her with his breath.
Sinking into sleep, the thought occurred, ‘Am I its pet? Or it mine?’
She awoke in the cool morning.
But the clarity of her plight caused her chill. ‘What am I doing? I need to escape. Need home. Where are my rescuers? My father? Sir Mace? Am I abandoned?’
Noggin had cradled her in his coiled tail. From her reflection in the freshly scrubbed scales, she still looked like hell. But yesterday’s dread had gone.
Nonetheless, she couldn’t stay. She needed freedom. Rescuers or not.
Pulling herself from the coiled tail, something shifted. A sparkling tiara lay in her lap.
“How…?” She examined it. The inscription on the inner band read, ‘The most beautiful of any made of breath and blood.’
Her tears flowed freely. She felt Noggin stir and dried her eyes. Noggin gazed adoringly upon her, like a dog to its master.
Hannah knew she was Noggin’s prized possession. He wouldn’t let her go. She placed the tiara on her head and smiled.
She rose and washed as best she could by the waterfall. Noggin dried her with its breath. ‘Better than those saunas up north,’ she thought.
Her party dress being filthy and torn, she donned the clean one she’d found. Not her taste, it fit well enough. Eating some apples helped her feel more human.
The sun shone through the waterfall’s mist. She looked out over the valley. No one approached.
“Noggin, that trash pile is so unsightly. What can be done?”
Before she’d finished her question, Noggin sent a plume of flame into the debris. In moments, a raging bonfire roared. Smoke rose from the crackling flames and drifted on the wind.
Its warmth felt good. Hannah prayed the smoke would draw her rescuers. She looked out but no one appeared. The fire soon dwindled to hissing embers.
Princess Hannah retrieved ‘Beowulf’ and read aloud. Noggin settled to listen. The story moved him.
But Noggin became distracted. Looking out, they saw a band of riders and foot soldiers approaching along the tarn’s shore. Their armor shone bright in the sun. Spear points and pike blades sparkled.
Noggin seethed. Smoke seeped from his nostrils. His eyes appeared aflame. Hannah touched his side to calm him.
“Noggin, I need you to listen. And trust me.”
He paced and thrashed his tail. Hannah dared not leave him but had to stand back.
“Don’t do anything, Noggin. Stay! I need something. Wait!”
Noggin continued pacing. His growl grew louder and shook the floor. She ran into the cave. Noggin readied to take flight. Flames escaped his mouth.
“Wait! Noggin… Listen. Look at what you kept…” She read the needlepoint. “It says, ‘If you love something, let it go…’”
Noggin recoiled. His roar filled with pain.
“Noggin, we love each other, you and I. But if I stay, they’ll kill you. Help me and we’ll always be friends. Help me get home. I promise I’ll return.”
Trembling, Noggin looked doubtful. He glanced at the book lying on the cave floor.
“Of course, we have to finish the story.”
Moaning sadly, the dragon settled. He blew a smoke ring which settled over Hannah’s shoulders.
Fighting tears, Hannah pleaded. “Noggin, my friend, bring me home. They’ll go away. We’ll prove I’m no distressed damsel!”
Without warning, Noggin plucked Hannah up with his tail and placed her on his back. He flapped his wings, preparing for the flight of his life. In a moment they were airborne.
The soldiers saw Noggin soar above them. He circled and dove, forcing them to cower. Roaring, he spewed a plume of fire over their heads.
One yelled. “Don’t shoot! It has the girl!”
Hannah whooped and waved at them. “See you at home!” She leaned forward. “Let’s go, Noggin! Take me to the castle!”
A few wing flaps and they were gone. The men stood in wonder.
The captain of the guards said, “That Princess Hannah always was a wild one. Guess she’s found a new pet. Let’s head back.”
A few minutes later, as the dragon flies, Noggin alighted in a field in view of the castle. People gathered on the parapets, pointing and shouting. She dismounted and patted Noggin’s neck. He lowered his head, and she gave his cheek a kiss.
“Thanks, Noggin! I promise we’ll be together soon.” Noggin huffed and let out a little groan. “Now go! Before they discover their wits.”
She clapped and stood back. Noggin stretched his wings and was gone. Princess Hannah waved good-bye and turned to the castle. A crowd had emerged and was running toward her. Her maid, Miss Jillian, arrived first. She draped a shawl on Hannah’s shoulders.
“Are you all right, Ms. Hannah?”
“Of course. What do you think? But I need you to draw me a hot bath.” Miss Jillian stood agog at Hannah’s composure. “And what time is dinner? I wouldn’t want to miss it.”
Miss Jillian bowed and parted the crowd making way for Princess Hannah.
That night, the minstrel sang of Princess Hannah’s great adventure. It was all made up.