A man of science, Irvus the optometrist didn’t believe in enchantment. But a dare was a dare, and he wasn’t about to cede his convictions to a bunch of old-timers at the Pickled Sow. It was the 5th century, for Heaven’s Sake. The last known dragon had gone extinct a hundred years ago.
The climb up the scree to the cave was steeper than it appeared from a distance. His borrowed twin-bladed battle-ax weighed a ton, and if the rusted iron weren’t strapped to his back, he would have abandoned it on the dirt track below. Sweat dripped into his eyes and plastered his hair to his scalp. He renewed his determination to begin exercising, again… maybe.
Then he spotted the old skull.
His boot crunched on a human spine twisted like a skeletal snake. Farther up, a rubble of sun-bleached bones littered the loose stones below the cave’s gaping maw.
Irvus paused, tongue idly exploring the gap in his front teeth. A bear or a mountain lion, surely. Had to be since dragons didn’t exist. He wrestled out of the straps crossing his back and hefted the intimidating ax, his pluck rallying with the weapon in hand.
Other than the racket of sliding and tumbling stones, he crept silently up to the cave and peered inside. His breath hitched.
There, bathed in shadow, sat the princess that the wrinkled fellows at the Sow had dared him to rescue. A genuine princess with a perfectly forlorn face, pink lips, and crown of golden curls. She rested on a chunk of stone, her delicate frame draped in azure and emerald silks.
No dragon in sight, he hissed at her. “Psst! Over here.” She jolted up, eyes flashing with surprise. He beckoned with a frantic hand.
She glanced behind her and tiptoed toward him, careful to avoid the sunlight. “Are you a prince?” she whispered.
“No, I’m an optometrist.”
“I’m here to rescue you; I think.”
“Indeed, you’re very noble. But for me to escape this horrid place, you must first slay the dragon.” She tilted her curly head toward the cave’s interior.
He arched a skeptical eyebrow. “A real dragon?”
She nodded, tears glittering in a pair of startling and beautiful gold-burnished eyes. “I’m trapped by an enchantment, captive here for all eternity or until a brave soul sets me free. Are you truly he?”
Irvus considered her predicament and decided that the whole situation was rather implausible, but there she was, an honest to god princess. She seemed sincere, and so far, he hadn’t seen anything more menacing than a rabbit. Best of all, she’d implied he was “brave.”
He sucked in a breath, stepped into the shadow, and halted. A deep snuffle of warm breath wafted over him from the black of the soot-smeared cave. His eyes adjusted rapidly due to his exceptional vision care, and he gasped. A dragon slept curled in a nest of straw among the jagged rocks.
A magnificent beast, its scales glistened in hues of azure and emerald. A serpentine tail curled around its body and webbed wings folded against its back. Curved claws glinted like shards of ice, and scimitar spikes thrust from its spine. With each restful exhale, puffs of smoke snorted from a horned snout.
The princess threaded her arm through his and gazed up at him with those disconcerting golden eyes, eyelashes fluttering like feathers. In all his years of optometry, he’d never seen eyes so… avian. “Please,” she murmured. “Slay it, free me, and you will win my heart.” She rose onto her toes and pressed her lips to his sweaty cheek.
He swallowed, kissing a pastime sorely absent from his hectic life. He gathered his faltering courage and inched toward the dragon. The slumbering monster shifted and sighed, blasting him with heated air. His hands tightened around the haft of his battle-ax, and he glanced behind him, chewing on a lip. “Maybe this wasn’t such a hot idea.”
The princess winced at the pun and crept up behind him, her eyes alight with a strange glow. She waved him onward and pressed her slender hands to her heart. He faced the beast, raised his ax to his shoulder, risked another step, and kicked a stone. It rolled and clinked against a deadly claw. He froze.
The dragon’s eyelid quivered and rolled up. In a tremendous surge, the colossal beast reared. Wings unfurled and thundered against the cave’s ceiling. Its scaled tail uncoiled and swept the cave’s debris, flinging stones and raising the dust. It bared its fangs and blew a stream of fire over Irvus’s head as it scrambled back against the wall.
Irvus shrieked and turned to run. The princess met his charge and heaved him back toward the dragon. “Kill it,” she screamed. “Slay it now! Kill it.” She blocked his way out, stalked toward him, hands raised to force him into a fight. “Kill it, or I’ll be trapped here forever. You can’t leave me here.”
He thrust the ax at her. “You kill it.”
“I can’t,” she cried, shoving it back. “The enchantment won’t permit it. It must be you. Please.”
He faced the dragon, sweat drenching his body, his hands slick on the ax. The dragon writhed against the back wall, massive chest heaving. Its tail thrashed and slapped the rocks of its nest. Fire flared with each breath, burning the walls. It extended two sets of razor claws, poised for an attack or… Or warding one off?
“Kill it,” the princess urged over Irvus’s shoulder.
Irvus hesitated, mesmerized. The dragon blinked at him with wide doe eyes, the most beautiful nut-brown, liquid eyes he’d ever seen. The beast probably had a family history of healthy eye care, a diet rich in dark leafy greens and fatty cold-water fish. The smoke wasn’t good, but the cave’s shade provided protection from the sun’s damaging rays.
“What’s the matter?” the princess cried. “Kill it! Hurry! Don’t leave me here. Break the spell.”
He hefted the battle-ax. The dragon looked at him with those soft chestnut eyes. The heavy ax head slipped in his sweaty hands. He tightened his grip and raised it over his head to fling at the beast. As much as he cringed at the thought, he couldn’t forsake the princess to a cave-bound eternity.
“Yes,” the princess hissed behind him.
The dragon shuttered its sublime eyes, lowered its scaled head, and stilled as if awaiting the fatal strike.
“No, I can’t.” Irvus’s arms relaxed. Suspended behind his head for the killing blow, the heavy weapon sagged. The weight of its iron blade pulled him backward. His balance teetered, the haft slipping through his fingers. He lurched over the stones, struggling to find his footing, and the weapon slid free. A gasp and thump behind him loosed a shudder that rattled his bones.
He spun around and gaped at the dead princess, the ax blade embedded in her forehead. He slapped his hands over his mouth in a panic.
Then her body began to bloat, clothes splitting at the seams. Irvus stumbled backward as scales erupted on her skin and a spiked tail snaked from her back, elongating across the rubble. The princess’s fingers lengthened, joints swelled, and nails curled into crystalline claws. Her face contorted, nose and jaw jutting into a horned snout. Limbs bulged and crooked, every inch of her transformed except the sightless golden eyes staring at the ceiling.
He yelped and pivoted. A brown-eyed woman sat on the black stones of the dragon’s nest, her human nakedness wrapped in a blanket of glittering azure and emerald scales.
“You broke the enchantment,” she said. “You set me free.”
“You’re the princess?”
“A librarian,” she said. “Are you a prince?”
“No, I’m an optometrist.”
She gathered the serpentine skin around her and stood. “And the kindest man I’ve ever met.”
He smiled, puffed up his chest, and offered his hand. “Are you ready to go?”
They walked to the sharp rim of sunlight at the cave’s entrance where he rearranged the dragon’s pelt to shade her face. The gray-beards at the Pickled Sow might accept his tale about accidentally slaying a dragon, but they’d never believe those perfect brown beauties, not until they spied them with their very own eyes.
This rather long and silly story was inspired by Sue Vincent’s Thursday #writephoto prompt: Shelter