The King watched from a window in the throne room. He feared that he already knew the outcome. Every man who had come at the dragon had perished.
The knight charged the red dragon like no one they had seen before, headlong, horseless and without hesitation. Seven princesses crowded around a different window, their colorful dresses like a basket of flowers. They clung to each other and exchanged whispers as they leaned out. Would this be the hero to save the kingdom from the fearsome beast that had terrorized them for these many months? If he vanquished the dragon he would win the right to choose one of them as his wife along with one third of the kingdom’s wealth.
The crown prince watched as well but from a window one floor up, away from his father’s scornful eye. He clenched his fists. Why couldn’t he fight the dragon? Though his father had forbid it, in truth he did not want to fight. But his father knew that. The king knew he was no hero. He would only get himself killed in the attempt. But whoever won, that man would be his rival for the throne. Perhaps his father meant to have a more worthy heir through one of his sisters. He loosened his hands and observed the crescent shaped indents that his fingernails had made on his palms. His father said his nails were too long. But they had to be long to pluck the strings of his instruments. He and his father had never been close. And his mother was dead. Music was all he had.
His eyes were drawn back to the action. The knight ran at the monster, sword upraised. The monster blew its terrible blue fire and hit the knight dead on. He would be cooked in his armor as the others had been. But valiantly, the knight ran on, surprising the prince. Evidently the dragon was surprised too as the knight got past the fearsome claws on the forelegs and sank his sword into the creature’s chest. The animal shuddered, reared up and then collapsed to the ground, quivering. The knight pulled his sword free from the dragon’s flesh. A flow of red blood spilled from the mortal wound.
The crown prince crossed his arms over his chest. With any luck the man would soon die from wounds he received during the battle. But as the knight hacked the creature’s head off the prince began to doubt his assessment. The knight’s steps did not falter as he approached the castle. The prince stared incredulously. He started down the stairs to the throne room at a brisk pace. The king would expect him there as the hero received his reward.
He entered the throne room. His father motioned impatiently.
“Ferdinand! Hurry up!”
The crown prince cringed he knew that Ferdinand was a perfectly proper name for a royal. It was the name of his great grandfather who had been king over their land before his father’s father. But the way the king said it made the name seem childish, laughable. Ferdinand’s pace quickened as he approached the king. They spoke no word of greeting as he took his place, standing to the right of the throne.
His sisters stood in a bunch on his father’s left. One of them was to be the prize, part of it, at least. And the royal priest was also in attendance just beyond the young women. The king intended to make good his word immediately. One of his sisters would soon be wed. Their eyes were fixed on the open doors, waiting to see what kind of man this would be.
Any hope Ferdinand had of the knight being gravely injured fled as the tall armored hero strode into the throne room. Quickly he clattered to the throne and knelt on one knee.
The king stood. “Brave Sir. I now offer you one of my children in marriage as well as one third of my kingdom.”
“Thank you, your Majesty. I accept.” The voice was higher than Ferdinand had expected. He must be a very young man!
“May one of my servants help you with your armor?”
“Yes, thank you.” The hero stood.
A servant rushed from the wings with tools for removing armor.
“That is a fine sword you carry,” remarked the king.
“Thank you, your Majesty. It was a gift from my father.”
“I thought you were cooked for sure,” said Ferdinand.
The king shot him a disapproving look but said nothing. The servant was having a difficult time dismantling the armor.
“I designed this suit myself,” said the knight. “It has water pouches inside which help to absorb the heat.”
“Ingenious!” said the King. “I am so glad to welcome such a brave and intelligent man into my family. What is your name, Sir?”
The servant was finally able to pull the helmet free. Ferdinand gasped as he saw the fair face, which was revealed.
“I’m a woman actually. My name is Val. I usually tell people it’s short for Valiant but it’s actually short for Valerie.” She smiled, her brown eyes twinkling. Her brown hair was cropped short but even so – they all could see it was true – the hero was a woman!
The servant stood gaping for only a second before he caught himself and continued to remove the armor. He carefully removed the armored gloves.
“Very excited and honored to become a part of your family, your Majesty. So I’ll take that one.” She pointed a bare finger at Prince Ferdinand.
His mouth opened in surprise and he looked to his father. Though he was technically of marrying age he had made it clear that he wasn’t interested in getting married yet. And to her?! Ferdinand noticed with chagrin that she had shorter fingernails than he did.
“Well…yes…” stammered the king. “That is only right and proper I suppose.” He looked helplessly towards his only son. The king didn’t see any way around it. He had promised the hero one of his children to wed. Though his son’s pale blue eyes pleaded with him to reconsider, there was no alternative. “Well, yes. You shall now be wed to my son.” He motioned to the priest.
“One moment, Sire, might I be permitted to change my clothing.” Val now wore only an off-white undergarment of some kind. “It is not fitting that I should marry the prince wearing this.” She gestured to her humble attire.
The king nodded. “As you wish. My daughters will help you find something suitable to wear.”
The seven princesses stepped gracefully from the raised dais and fluttered around the knight for a moment then the then they exited the throne room with her like a flight of colorful butterflies.
The prince stood awkwardly at his father’s side. Neither of them spoke. Now Ferdinand was to be a reward for the dragon slayer. He didn’t even know what to feel anymore. Could his life get any worse? He wouldn’t marry some cultured beauty who would respect him and adore his music but instead some base woman who was probably stronger than he was. Ferdinand looked at his father. Was he punishing him? Did he really hate him so? But no. The king had no choice but to honor his word. No one would have ever expected that the hero could be a woman.
It was only a short time later when his sisters returned accompanying a tall woman in a red dress. His eldest sister curtsied before the king. “This dress was the only dress we could find which was the right length and of suitable quality.” The princesses resumed their place on the King’s left.
“Go stand with her.” The king motioned Ferdinand towards the woman.
Though her hair was short and she was taller than him, Ferdinand had to admit she was an attractive woman. And she did have a kind smile, which she was directing his way at that moment.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worn anything so foolish,” she whispered as he took his place beside her.
“You look lovely.” And it was true. She really did.
“I clean up well, I guess.” She beckoned and led the prince away from the priest and the king, out of earshot. “Look, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. If you just hate the idea, I’ll tell your father that I changed my mind and I’ll just take the gold coins.”
“You don’t want to marry me?” he asked with a half-smile. Not only could he never live up to his father’s standards, this peasant girl didn’t even want him. No of course she wouldn’t. She was a dragon-slayer. A hero. What was he? A fop. Not good for anything useful at all.
She was staring at him with wide, brown eyes. “Of course I want to marry you! But my parents were but peasant farmers and they’ve both passed now. I’m an orphan. I don’t want you feeling trapped with me when you could have had a princess.”
Ferdinand considered her words as he looked into her open face. “You want to marry me because then you’ll be queen.” He figured it was as good a reason as any other. Whoever married him would want to for only that reason. At least the girl didn’t despise him.
“I do want the security that a marriage with you would bring. But at first I was thinking to take only the money. But then I saw your face.”
Ferdinand flushed at her boldness. “You find me attractive?”
“Yes. And you don’t look like an angry or harsh man. I feel safe in my armor but as a woman…” she looked down at her dress and shrugged. “I don’t feel safe. But…I feel that I would be safe with you.” Her brown eyes flicked back to his face. “I would be safe marrying you, wouldn’t I?”
“Yes.” Ferdinand smiled and took her hand. “Of course I want to marry you. You’re the dragon slayer.” He led her back to the dais where the king and the priest were waiting. “We are ready,” the prince announced.
The priest spoke some words but Ferdinand couldn’t concentrate. Now he would spend the rest of his life with this woman he barely knew. He came to himself and realized the priest had asked him a question.
“I do,” the prince replied. And so it was done and he led her away as his bride.
Later that afternoon Val saw his harp in the corner of his room. “Do you play this?”
“Yes.” He walked to the harp and plucked a few strings.
“May I watch you play?”
“If it would please you.”
“It would please me very much.”
Prince Ferdinand sat down on a stool and began to play. Val sat at his feet, looking up at him, smiling. A peculiar warmth spread into his heart. He played and played and she watched him, content.
There was a rattling at the door and then the door flew inward. “Why have I been waiting for you all afternoon?” describe
Val startled instantly to her feet. “Who are you and why do you interrupt my lord and enter his presence without knocking?”
“He’s my tutor,” Ferdinand explained.
“And just who are you?” asked the pinched-faced man.
“I am the woman who will one day be queen. Leave now. And never again enter our lord’s presence without first knocking.”
“I don’t have to listen to you, Strumpet.”
“You have not heard word of the dragon slayer who has come to the castle?” asked the prince.
Ferdinand saw Val slide a cast iron poker from near the fireplace. “That’s unfortunate for you, my old tormentor.”
Faster than he could perceive her movements Val had struck the man several blows and he was sitting on his derriere, looking up in stunned confusion.
“Prince Ferdinand is your lord and master. Treat him as such. Be sure there is never such a breach again or you shall find yourself very much the worse for it. Now get out!” She held up the fire poker.
The man scrambled backwards to his feet. Then he turned and fled. Val pushed the door closed behind him.
“May I hear you play more? That was so beautiful. In my travels I have heard many minstrels and even musicians who have played before royalty. But I’ve never heard anyone play as well. You have great talent for music.”
“Thank you.” He bowed to her.
Val touched his hair and then kissed his cheek as he rose. “Your music is beautiful, just like your heart.”
“Thank you.” He drew her into an embrace. “Some people have made me feel like my music is a waste of time. And that somehow I’m less of a man because I like a violin bow better than a crossbow. But you make me feel…worthy.”
“You are as God has made you. And He has made you very good. But it is not good for man to be alone. You were incomplete. So He made me. And gave me to you. Now we are complete.” She clung to him tightly for a moment. “Will you play more?”
The prince released her and smiled. “Gladly.”
Prince Ferdinand played for her until evening when they heard a timid knock on the door. Val walked to the door and pulled it open. A quivering lad stood just beyond the threshold.
“My Lord the king bid me to call you for supper.”
“Thank you.” Val dismissed the servant.
“Shall we go sup?” The prince held out his elbow to her.
“Yes, I’m famished.” She took his arm and he led her to a grand dining hall. Val and Ferdinand took a seat at a large, polished wooden table with the king and his daughters.
“I hear the palace tutor has been abused,” said the king, tearing a bun in half and smearing it with butter.
The prince looked straight at his father. “The man has been chastised. He will knock before entering my chambers.”
Father and son looked at each other and the king pursed his lips. “I suppose that makes sense,” he said finally. “But he said you were idling with music again instead of focusing on your studies.”
Ferdinand inhaled deeply and seemed to grow taller even as he sat there. “Father, it is my wedding day! And playing music is not wasting my time. Music is a gift I’ve been given. I will play.”
The king put down his food and nodded, looking at Val. Then his eyes drifted back to his son. “Marriage suits you. I can see you’re coming into your own.”
And the prince and the dragon slayer lived happily ever after.