The Dragon’s Son

A Romanian fairy tale

retold by Craig Coss

 

Once upon a time, a gruesome red dragon lived in a beautiful valley high in the mountains. He would capture passers-by along the road near the entrance to his valley, asking them each this riddle:

“Can you tell me why my valley, where the days are always as lovely as the warmest days of summer, is surrounded by icicles as hard as the coldest stone in winter?”

But no person ever answered his riddle, and so the red dragon ate them all.

The dragon had a magical ring that allowed him to change his shape. Once he fell in love with a lady and, disguised as a strong hero, he married her. But one day, soon after their son Mihai was born, the dragon went walking in the valley alone, and he removed his ring. But his poor wife caught sight of her husband in his true form, and it shocked her so severely that she died of fright. After that, the dragon always appeared before his son as a tall hero in a silver mantle, and so Mihai never knew what his father really was.

Once, when Mihai had grown to be a handsome young man, he ran home from the woods to tell his father of a rumor he had heard.

“Father, I have listened to the voices of the trees, and they told me tales of a terrible red dragon that lives near our valley, and who feeds on human blood. Father, I believe I am strong enough now to kill this red dragon myself.”

         “Alas, my son! What if this dragon is not as wicked as the trees say?”

         “The dragon is evil, father, for it eats people and causes great suffering in this land.”

         “But what if it cannot eat other foods, but must eat people? Is it the dragon’s fault if it is true to its nature? Is it evil to be what you are?”

         “Father, I do not care for the dragon’s fate, but for the lives of the knights he kills. So I ask you now: give me a swift steed and a bright sword, so I may find that dragon and pierce his heart.”

         “Yes, son of mine,” sighed the dragon, “I will give you the sword you ask for, but even without it you may pierce the poor dragon’s heart.”

         The dragon led his son to the stable and gave him a fine steed, and then buckled a broad sword of steel at his side. And saddled on his new horse, Mihai rode from the valley in search of the red dragon. But his father knew that he hunted the dragon in vain.

         After the echoes of the horse hooves left the valley, the dragon removed his ring and curled up on his favorite rock. “My joy is gone,” he spoke to the sky. “O when will my son come back to me?” Thus he lay on his stone for three days without eating or sleeping. But on the fourth day, he felt so weak that he could not resist any longer, and decided to wait by the road and see what food might come by.

         There, the dragon found an old voivode, a nobleman of many years, riding up on his horse. “This old lord has lived a full life already,” the dragon said to himself. “He certainly has not many years left. What harm would be done if I just ate this one old man?”

         So the dragon suddenly seized the voivode, pulled him from his steed, and asked him his riddle.

“If you can answer my riddle, old prince, I shall not eat you. Can you tell me why my valley, where the days are always as lovely as the warmest day in summer, is surrounded by icicles as hard as the coldest stone in winter?”

The poor voivode could hardly think as he struggled to free himself from the red dragon’s grasp. “Eh…well…ah…”

“No, I don’t think that answer will work,” said the dragon. “Any other solutions?”

After pondering a moment, trembling in fear, the voivode asked, “How can your valley be always as warm as summer? You must be mistaken!”

“No,” said the dragon, “you, sir, are the one who is mistaken.” And with one bite, the red dragon chewed and swallowed the old voivode. He lay back on the cliff, belched louder than any tuba, and rubbed the scales of his mighty underbelly. Then he pulled from his teeth an enchanted whistle of ivory which the voivode had worn around his neck.

         “I’ll give this magic whistle to my son when he returns,” the dragon thought.

        

But his son would not return soon. Mihai rode his fiery steed through the woods, and he sang as the sun shone upon his brow: “Surly the sun sees few things finer than a young warrior, galloping free from home, in search of his heart’s desire!”

         But on the fourth day of his quest, Mihai heard a shrill cry for help in the woods. He turned his horse to follow the voice, and soon found a young lady in the woods, with a monstrous beast upon her. Quickly, he rode at the beast and struck it with his sword. The creature fell, and the maiden held fast to Mihai as he leapt from his horse.

         “Thank you, thank you, young hero,” she said, trembling. “My father and I went hunting at dawn with our falcons, and I left him to pick berries in this glade. Suddenly, this monster attacked me, and I could not reach my dagger.

“My father is the great lord who lives where the whispering rivers meet. Please let me take you to our fair palace. My father and all of our knights must meet you, and you will be our honored guest tonight. There I shall give you a gold and silver veil and a red belt that I have woven with my own hands!”

         The princess ran to where she had tied her horse nearby, whistled for her falcon,  and then the two rode beside each other through the woods. And as they rode together, their horses often stumbled, as the couple looked more at each other than the path before them. The princess laughed, “Surly our steeds are not pleased to carry so happy a pair!” And giggling together, they neared the palace where the whispering rivers met.

But their mirth did not last long, for they heard voices grieving about the castle. The princess rode through the gatehouse and up to the soldiers, who met her with heads hung low. “Why do the women wail? Tell me why the soldiers are silent!”

At last the eldest knight approached the princess, and told her, “Fair princess, open your tresses and spill your hair upon your shoulders. Your brave father, our lord, is dead. The red dragon has slain him at the entrance to the valley.”

The princess frowned and her eyes filled with tears. “My sorrow is as great as the forest and the skies! Fetch me my father’s wildest steed, and I will bring his body back on his own horse!”

The soldier did not answer, but only shook his head slowly. And the princess understood. The dragon not only killed her father, but ate him too.

 

For three days the princess locked herself in her chamber and would not see anyone. Finally, her closest servant knocked on her door with a message from Mihai. “Your grace, the young stranger you brought home wishes you to know that he has sworn or your veil to avenge your father’s death, to slay the red dragon, and to bring the monster’s head to our palace gate.”

“Bring him to me at once,” she replied. So the servant brought Mihai up to her chamber, where she left the two alone.

“I’m sorry, my new friend,” she told him, “I had wanted you to find good cheer in our palace, but here is only grief. All of our treasures have lost their luster in the shadow of my father’s death.”

“I could gaze upon no finer treasure than your eyes, which are the brightest jewels my heart has ever seen.” He knelt before her, saying, “I do love thee. Please let me take you to my home, where you may meet my brave father. Our valley is a wild place, but full of love that makes everything bright.”

“Oh my love,” she cried, hugging him, “Go and tell your father I shall meet him there in three days. And after the red dragon is slain, I shall marry you, and we can live together in peace.”

 

Meanwhile, in the valley, the red dragon lay lazily in the grass, staring at the sun. “O where is my handsome son? When will Mihai return to me?” Scarcely had he spoken these words when he heard the distant thunder of an approaching rider. He quickly placed his ring back on his finger and became the stalwart hero in the silver mantle.

“Father, father!” said Mihai, leaping from his horse. “Great news! I have met the most wondrous of women—a princess even—and she intends to marry me!”

 “If she’s a prince’s daughter, and lives in a palace, our humble home is no place for her, Mihai. We must build her a palace here.”

“But father, she will be here in three days!”

 “My boy, you look tired from your travels. Why don’t you get some rest tonight and let your father take care of things?”

So when Mihai went to bed, the dragon walked to the fields in the middle of the valley, and drew forth a magical sword from it’s scabbard. With the blade of the sword, he traced the foundation of a great palace in the earth, and waving it in the air, he traced its silhouette, with elegant turrets and terraces that touched the sky. And as he waved the blade, the icicles from the high mountain tops flew down over the wild valley. Over the field they danced through the air, weaving a palace of ice between them. The chambers and towers which grew high as the mountain peaks under the stars glowed with a rosy hue in the light of dawn. And, sheathing his sword at last, the dragon said to himself, “For a red dragon, I’m awfully clever. Certainly Mihai will be proud of his father now.”

But when Mihai awoke and beheld the castle, he ran to his father, enraged. “Tell me what wizardry has built that palace in one night! It is a treasure yes: a joy to behold, but it is wizardry for sure. Please tell me you are not a wizard, father, for I would not be a wizard’s son!”

His father trembled. “Of course not, son; I am no wizard. But a fairy who used to love me when I was young still grants me favors from time to time. It is she who has built this palace of ice for you. She visited just last night.”

Mihai beamed at his father’s answer, and when the princess rode into the wild valley, he kissed her hand, and then kissed her lips. “Here is the palace where our hearts will dwell. Although it is made of ice, our love will warm it soon. It was a gift of a fairy who loved my father once when he was young.”

“Young and handsome like you, Mihai,” the princess said with a wink.

And then the dragon approached, appearing as the stalwart hero wearing his mantle of silver. He greeted her with a bow, saying, “Surely, sweet maiden, where your soft feet tread, the fragrant bulbs will bloom and the sun will forever shine.”

As the three of them strolled through the halls of crystal, the princess suddenly put her hand to her chest. “My bird, my little yellow falcon! I left it soaring as I entered your valley. Usually, I carry my ivory whistle with me, but I’ve forgotten it today. If I only had my whistle, I could call my falcon back!”

“Do not fear for your falcon, dear,” said the dragon. “You may use this whistle to summon your bird.” And the dragon drew the voivode’s ivory whistle from his sleeve.

As the princess took the whistle into her hands, her face turned pale. “Why, this is my father’s whistle—my poor father’s own ivory whistle that he wore on his neck! How did you come by this whistle?” she asked the dragon.

The dragon told her: “The wandering brook brings many things through this valley, and it brought this whistle to me. I found it while resting on its banks.”

The princess called her falcon with the whistle, and, noticing a little crimson spot of blood dried on it, she kissed the spot. “Please let me keep it. I will always wear it close to my heart.”

“But you must be hungry!” said Mihai. “Come, let us feast together.” And the three seated themselves around a long table, and drank wine together from goblets of crystal cut like diamonds.

As the hall filled with their joyful voices, the dragon leaned back in his chair and thought to himself, “In all my life, I have never been so happy.”

But his contentment did not last long. During the meal, the princess asked, “Why has your father not eaten any food? We have almost finished dinner, and he hasn’t eaten a thing!”

“I have a special diet, my dear,” he said with a shudder. “I can only eat the fruits that grow on the distant mountain tops. Do not mind me; I shall eat later.”

So they talked of warriors and horses, falcons and wild beasts, and after dinner each sang a song. Then Mihai asked his father to touch his bride’s soft hair: “It is as fine as silk, my father!”

But as the dragon did so, the little spot of blood on the whistle whispered, saying: “How can a princess allow her father’s murderer to touch her hair?”

“Who speaks those awful words!” she asked.

The dragon bit his lip and said, “I apologize. The fairy loved a certain sparrow, which she gave the gift of speech. Unfortunately, it often speaks at random. It is nothing. Please, let us drink the rich burning wine!”

 Then Mihai called his father again, “Come and take my seat, father, and look into my sweet bride’s eyes. They are deep as the river.”

But as the dragon took his son’s chair and gazed into the eyes of the princess, the voice, quite loudly this time, spoke again from the whistle: “How can a great princess allow her father’s murderer to gaze into her eyes!”

“I’m sorry,” the dragon stuttered, “it is the voice of the wind in the willow trees. Sometimes the wind tells strange tales, but it is nothing. Come, let us walk by the river where the long rushes sing.” And he led them from the table.

Outside, as the three walked beside the river, Mihai said with delight, “Father, please, take the princess’s hand, and I shall hold her flowers, her dagger, and her veil.”

But as the dragon took the princess’s hand in his, the ghostly voice spoke boldly: “Touch not the hand of your father’s murderer, Princess!”

With this, Mihai drew his sword to kill the invisible fiend. “It is madness! We all know that the red dragon murdered her father—the same red dragon that I have sworn to slay, or die in his embrace!”

But the voice replied, “Mihai will break his promise; Mihai will not keep his word.”

Hearing this, he jabbed his sword into the earth and knelt before his bride, taking her hand. “Hear this solemn oath of mine, my lady: I shall eat neither flesh nor fruit, drink neither wine nor water, nor look into thy soft eyes again until I have slain the red dragon and brought its ugly head to you.”

But his father interjected, “My son, your oath is rash! Do not make so severe a promise. You will need strength to fight a dragon, and so you must eat!”

“You are right, Father, but I have spoken. You have taught me that a hero’s words are only as good as his deeds, and therefore I will hold true to my oath, and neither eat nor drink until the red dragon is slain.” He turned to the princess again, kissed her cheek, and strode from the hall. Outside, he saddled his horse and rode into the night, once again in pursuit of the dragon.

The princess fell silent and the dragon sighed and pondered, for he knew his son’s proud heart, and knew that he would keep his fast until he killed the dragon.

Then, taking leave of the princess, he walked into the night, and under the stars removed his ring. He pulled out his silver wand, and spun it in the air before him.

“O wand of mine,” he cried, “my son has sworn to avenge a murder. But I am the murderer; I am the dragon. What must I do, my magic wand, who is wise in all things?”

“Get him to break his oath and drink but a drop of your blood,” the wand told him. “For the blood of a dragon holds much magical power, and he will be under your spell. He will imagine to have slain the red dragon. Then, give him one of your massive teeth to bring back to his bride.”

 

For two days the dragon hunted his son through the woods until he found him looking haggard and weary on his horse.

“My son, have you found the monster?”

“No, father. It goes hard with me. I have caught no sign of the red dragon.”

“Are you hungry? Are you thirsty?”

“It is the thirst that burns my heart. My energy is failing, though my spirit is still strong.”

“Son, please quench your thirst with a drop of your own father’s blood. Let me cut my arm; it will be a healing spring to you in this time of need.”

“No father, I have sworn against it.”

“You swore an oath not to drink wine nor water, but said nothing of your own father’s blood. Here, come drink, and be restored.”

“Do not tempt me! You know the meaning of my oath. Now I must ride off.”

And Mihai rode for three more days. His father followed and watched him from afar, until he saw Mihai slump and fall from his saddle. Then he ran to his son’s side.

“How goes it, son?”

“Father, brave father, I am dying—but I have kept my oath. I have not found the dragon, but no food or water has touched my lips.”

“Surely you must stop. Let me open my veins: my blood will flow, you will drink and be strong again!”

“Tempt me not, father. You have taught me how sacred are a hero’s words: as sacred as his deeds. And when he dies to keep his oath, most sacred is his death.”

“My son, please reconsider. Drink of my blood. One drop will not stain the purity of your promise.”

But Mihai turned away in silence, sat himself at the base of a cypress by the river, and said farewell to his life.

         His father sighed deeply then, and whispered these words: “My brave son, at dusk, in the light of the setting sun, rise up and walk ten steps through the tall reeds to the river. There you will find the red dragon, who will fight a great battle with thee.”

         And Mihai watched his father walk towards the river and vanish in the rushes. When the sun had set, remembering his father’s words, Mihai tottered to his feet with the last of his strength. He drew his sword and stumbled through the river’s tall reeds. There, amid the long shadows and the red light of dusk, in the middle of the river, rose the red dragon, great and fierce!

         With every fiber of his being, Mihai lifted his sword and yelled a cry of joy and hatred. Yet before he could bring his blade to clash upon the monster’s jaws, the red dragon collapsed and lay dead in the river.

         “Father!” Mihai shouted to the sky, “You have cheated me out of my prize! You have poisoned the monster, surely. I cannot boast to have slain the dragon!” And thus Mihai howled by the river, his hand on his useless sword.

 

            Back in the marvelous palace, Mihai and the princess held a wedding feast for three days and three nights. But after the revels, they still waited for his father to return.

“Surely my father must have battled the dragon himself,” said Mihai. “Perhaps he did not escape without injury.”

“Then I will send all of my warriors to comb the land. Certainly they will find him, and if the monster has hurt him, we shall treat his wounds quickly.” So the princess sent all of her soldiers to search the forest and the valleys for sight or word of him, but after many days they returned without news. The couple searched themselves up and down the riverbanks, but with no greater success.

“My love,” Mihai told the princess, “I fear the worst. Perhaps the dragon wounded father in the river, and he sank to the bottom or washed to the sea.” Then tears welled up in Mihai’s eyes, as he said, “He has given his life for mine.”

That night, after he called off the search, exhaustion overcame Mihai. And when he closed his eyes to sleep, his father spoke to him in a dream: Yes, I have died, my fair son. I cannot tell thee more. My crimes were great and many, but know that I have loved you well. So speak no more of the red dragon, but often speak of me. And whenever you draw your bright sword in tournament or war, call on your father’s name, and he will help thee to remain a true knight, a brave warrior, o handsome hero, my son!

 

©2004 Craig Coss