Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, there lived a brave and handsome prince. He was the first in line to the throne. He had fought for the glory of his kingdom in many long and hard battles. He had completely wiped out the barbaric hordes that opposed him. He had slain many ruthless tyrants and liberated their people. His people hailed him as a hero. Some complained about things like heavy taxes and zero public welfare, but these were enemy spies.
However, there was one enemy he had not conquered yet.
Part of this kingdom was bordered by a great sea. Walking on its shore, if one looked to the east, they saw the horizon interrupted by a tall black tower. It stood proud on an offshore island, surrounded by a small forest – supremely indifferent to the glorious kingdom.
Now, a mere piece of architecture was not something the prince would be losing sleep on. It so happened that the tower was rumoured to be the roost of a terrifying dragon. Some even said that among its captives was a beautiful princess, waiting for a knight in shining armour to come and rescue her.
One fine day, the prince decided that he’d had enough. He would either slay the dragon or die trying. He set sail for the island with a fleet of warships.
Dropping anchor away from the shore, the prince set off on a longboat rowed by ten men. When they reached the island, he gave his men strict orders – they were not to follow him unless absolutely necessary. Alone ventured the brave prince into the dragon’s lair. His men saw the forest swallowing him, and prayed.
The forest was not too difficult to navigate. Emerging, the prince saw a lanky boy in chain mail walking towards the black tower.
The prince approached him. “Young boy, would you know where lives the fair princess?”
The boy turned, but he wasn’t. ‘He’ was a girl. She had black pixie-cut hair and eyes that glowed electric blue.
“The princess?” she said. “That would be me. How may I help you?”
The prince was lost for words. The person in front of him could not be a princess.
“You lie!” said the prince. “Tell me! Where is the fair princess?”
“I am the princess!” said the girl. “Why would I lie?”
“What princess wears her hair short?” said the prince. “You seem a boy without a beard!”
“And what princess wears chainmail?”
“I know not of other princesses. I have seen none.”
“What? You jest!”
“No, I fear not. I live alone in the tower, with my family.”
“And the dragon?”
The prince puffed his chest in all his royal manliness. “I am the prince Valir, and I come to slay the dragon and rescue the princess!”
As if on cue, a cloaked figure appeared out of thin air, tackled the prince, and pinned him to the ground.
“Ivy, no! He’s a visitor!” cried the princess.
The cloaked figure looked up. She had short, red hair and eyes that hid amber fire. Her scarred face and piercing gaze made her look remarkably like a wolf.
“Did you not hear his words?!” she hissed.
“It is all right, Ivy. He means no harm.”
“Ivy. Worry not. Trust me.”
Ivy let the prince go, but her expression made it clear that she was itching to tear him to pieces. Valir got up, dusting himself. He took one look at Ivy, and drew back in horror.
“You! Are you not that mass murderer who was never caught?”
“And if I am?” said Ivy, producing a short blade from nowhere.
“Do you not feel any remorse for the lives you have taken?”
“Did they feel any, for those they scarred forever?”
“What about the church priest? He was a kind and religious man!”
“Worst of the lot.”
Valir stared, his mouth hanging open. He gave up on Ivy, and turned to the princess.
“How can you get along with this heartless murderer, my princess?” he said, taking a step in her direction.
The blade stopped a whisker away from his throat.
“One false move,” warned Ivy, “and it will be your last.”
“That will do, Ivy,” said the princess. “Prince Valir, follow me. Let me show you my home!”
And off she went. Ivy shot the prince a look of pure venom, and took off after her. Not wanting to be left alone, the prince followed them.
A dirt path took them to the tower entrance – two large, intimidating panels of wood set in dark grey stone. They stepped into a short, dark corridor that led to a hall vast enough to fit an entire three-storey house. A long staircase spiralled against the cylindrical wall. Stained glass windows and a brilliant chandelier provided illumination. The ceiling was held up by eight symmetrically arranged pillars of stone.
“Irma! Periwinkle! Anna! Thomas! We have a visitor!” called out the princess. Her voice seemed unnaturally loud and deep. It reverberated through the hall, and began to fade just as a young girl appeared at the top of the stairway.
“Periwinkle!” said the princess, delighted.
“Rayza!” squealed the girl. She skipped down the stairs and tackled the princess in a permanent hug.
Meanwhile, three other figures were making their way down the stairs.
There was a frail old woman leaning on a staff, with her white hair in a bun and spectacles on her nose.
There was a woman in an elegant crimson gown. Her long, matte-black hair contrasted perfectly with her radiant, sculpted face.
There was a tall, near-emaciated man with long, unkempt hair. His nose hooked over a pencil-thin moustache and a pointed goatee.
All three of them stopped at the foot of the stairs when they recognised the visitor.
“You!” cried the man.
“How dare you set foot in our castle?” shrieked the old woman, brandishing her staff.
“Get out,” said the woman. “Rayza, kick him out, please!”
Princess Rayza stared at the speakers. “Wait, wait! How do all of you know this man?”
Apparently, Prince Valir knew them too.
“Princess!” he said, turning to Rayza. “That old woman is a witch! That lady –“
“SILENCE!” screamed the lady. The word was an explosion – none spoke until the dust settled. Periwinkle was now hugging Rayza in fear.
“Your lot has spread enough lies and gossip about me,” she resumed in a whisper, a lone tear trickling down her cheek. “Not any more. Rayza, tell him.”
“It is true, Prince Valir,” said Rayza, without letting go of Periwinkle. “Lady Anna had a terrible husband. He –”
“But Princess!” Prince Valir interrupted. “Her husband was Sir Farduss, one of my most honourable knights!”
“Honour? Honour?” said the man, part terrified, part outraged. He grabbed Anna’s arm and rolled up her sleeve. “Look! Look at the honour of Sir Farduss!”
Her arm was covered in angry purple bruises. Valir ignored the marks, and turned to the man. “Speak not of honour, vile dog! You call yourself an artist? Your works are filth! Birds make better art with their droppings!”
The man took a step back, his face fearful. The old woman came to his rescue.
“I can see why Thomas drew you as a wild boar.”
“Silence, witch!” retorted Valir.
“Yes, of course,” said the old woman. “If a woman speaks, she’s a whore or a witch.”
“Why you –!”
The prince drew his mighty sword. He charged at her, but Ivy was faster. A few flashes of steel later, the prince lay squirming on the ground, disarmed and clutching his hand.
Ivy sheathed her scimitar. “Child, you need to learn a few lessons. One, if a drawing offends you, do not have the artist’s house burnt. Two, if you think someone is a “witch,” do not have them tied to a stake and burnt. Three, if a woman tells you that their husband beats them up every day, do not flag them for adultery. Four, if a girl tells you that your knights have raped her, do not flag them for adultery.”
Periwinkle shuddered. She tightened her hug on Rayza.
The prince rose. If his rage could have been quantified, the hall wouldn’t have been enough to hold it. He slunk away to the door, and fired a parting shot.
“This tower is a criminal hideout. There is no dragon here. I will have it burned down.”
“NO!” screamed Rayza.
“Unless,” continued Valir, “Princess Rayza comes with me.”
“Never!” cried Ivy, drawing her scimitar.
Rayza’s voice was small but firm. Ivy turned, murder and incredulity written all over her face.
“Prince Valir, I will go,” said Rayza. “But I will have a few words with my family first.”
“I shall not wait forever,” warned Valir. He leaned against the wall, sulking.
“What is the matter with you?” hissed Ivy, as she and the others approached her.
“Ivy, I –“ began Rayza, but Anna cut in.
“Rayza, he will have you married to him, lock you up in his palace, and beat you every night!”
“What if he comes back to get us?” said Thomas.
Rayza closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
She opened her eyes. The old woman continued. “If you have made a decision, we will not oppose you. We owe our lives to you, after all. But I believe you should tell us why you think so. If not for anyone else, at least for little Periwinkle here.”
“Irma…” Rayza’s eyes were moist. She quickly wiped them with her sleeve. A sideways glance told her that Periwinkle had her head down.
Rayza began. “I do not think Prince Valir is a bad person. Wait, Anna, let me finish. There is something odd about him – did none of you notice how completely he was convinced that you all were criminals? As if the opposite was unthinkable? It made me think – perhaps that is the only truth he knows. Perhaps what is obvious to me or Ivy is not as obvious to him. He only does what he thinks will be the best for his people. He came here to slay the dragon, goodness gracious! He came to ‘rescue’ me!”
Rayza sighed. “I think the man is utterly lonely. I can be a friend to him. I can help him through his life. If I succeed, I am certain that he will only be too happy to let me return. Besides,” and a mischievous grin grew on her face, “Anna, do you really think a mere castle would be enough to trap me?”
“Oh,” said Anna with a sheepish smile. “Right.”
“Anna, there is nothing that can keep me apart me from my family. They that wish to harm you must first get past me, and then get past Thomas.” She winked at him, much to his horror. “Take care of him,” she added to Anna.
She turned to Irma, and hugged her. “Irma, you are the best parent I never had.”
“Your happiness makes me happy, child,” said Irma. “If only more people were like you.”
Rayza turned to Periwinkle. She clasped her cheeks and lifted her head up. She looked into the blue eyes that had given Periwinkle her name.
“Periwinkle, I want to tell you a story,” said Rayza. “Once upon a time, there was a pair of shoes who were madly in love with each other. They wanted to explore the world together. They wanted to fly above cottony clouds in lilac skies. They wanted to float on a lazy river where the afternoon sun sparkled like diamonds. They wanted to swim beneath emerald seas with basking sharks and killer whales.
“So they ran away from the house of their master. It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents. They did not want to go back to their days of dreary routine. But the downpour was intense. One of them slipped, and was washed away. The other jumped in, and met a similar fate.
“But did you know, that in their last moments, the shoes were neither angry nor sad? They were happy. They were happy to have broken out of an endless cycle. They were happy to have lived. Because the shoes,” here she took a deep breath, “had soles.”
The slap that landed on Rayza’s face was involuntary. Irma tried to remain stoic. Thomas pretended not to know the speaker. Anna groaned and buried her face in her hands. Valir stared at the group without a clue.
“THIS IS FOR THAT HORRENDOUS JOKE, NUTCASE!” roared Periwinkle.
“Yes, this is the Periwinkle I wanted to see before I left,” said Rayza, clutching her cheek. “Ivy?”
She had her back to them.
“Leave,” she said. “See if I care.”
Rayza tapped her shoulder. Ivy turned.
Rayza held her face and kissed her. Valir was scandalised.
Centuries later, they parted. Ivy’s eyes were watery.
“Rayza, stay, please!” she begged.
“No,” said Rayza, smiling. “Take care.”
Ivy forced a weak smile as Rayza walked across the hall and left the place with the prince.
Rayza woke with a start. An unfamiliar wooden ceiling hung over her. The walls, the cabinets, the floorboards – all were of the same polished wood. Sunlight flooded in through a large window, illuminating a large wooden desk.
She got up and walked over to the window. Outside, in the distance, she saw her tower wanting to touch the sky from a small patch of land in an endless sea.
She was in a cabin on a ship. Valir’s ship! Had she fallen asleep in the longboat…?
Wait, smoke? Fires?
She squinted for a better view.
Her blood boiled at the sight.
She left the room. The passengers, mostly nobility, were too busy wining and dining to notice either her or the rapidly gathering storm clouds. It didn’t take her long to hunt down the prince, drinking with a few others.
“Valir,” she began, and the wineglass nearly fell out of his hand, “why are there longboats with burning torches headed for my island?”
“Ah!” exclaimed a man by his side. “I am not telling you that the Royal Council decided to have the tower burnt down, and –“
“Silence, fool!” hissed Valir, but it was already too late.
With her head down, Rayza was glaring up at him with eyes that spat lightning from the heavens. Her face was destruction incarnate. The sky was now overcast. The wind whipped up.
She spoke three words, each hitting the prince like a fist of iron.
“I trusted you.”
She walked off to the ship’s edge, leaning against the railing for a moment before diving into the sea.
“NO! PRINCESS!” cried Valir.
Suddenly, everyone on board was aware of an abrupt change in the weather.
Thunder rumbled. Strong winds raged, twisting themselves into a tornado over the water. There was no rain, but the winds more than made up for it. Sails and riggings were torn apart. All the food and drink was blown away. Walking was impossible. Some of the lighter people were almost carried away.
The tornado suddenly exploded in a blast of air. Those who remained on their feet looked on in horror.
Where there was once a columnar vortex of air, there was now a black serpentine dragon lined with yellow circular markings. It had the triangular head of a snake, a blade-like horn on its snout, and a pair of sleek arms.
“I TRUSTED YOU, PRINCE VALIR!” it boomed.
The prince closed his eyes, as thousands of fiery meteors rained down from the sky, torching his entire fleet.
Parents often tell their children the story of the dragon.
Most speak of how it defeated the prince and his entire navy. These tales warn that it picks off evildoers to its lair.
A few, however, speak of how she protected her family from the prince. These tales remind that if you lose all hope, the dragon will take you home.
Written by Sayar Banerjee