In the center of the garden, the king built a grand stone castle, surrounded by a blue river that flowed into fountains, pools, and streams. Deer, monkeys, lions, elephants, horses, goats, and rabbits all quenched their thirst with its cool liquid, and a lovely enchantment overshadowed them so that not one bared a tooth or lifted a hoof against another. Both native and exotic birds prepared nests in the trees, from which they sang their daily songs of joy.
The castle itself King Alroy furnished with the richest of tapestries, the softest beds, and the most exquisite doors and windows.
When the garden looked perfect, King Alroy formed a pair of lovers, Romulo and Emberlynn, to inhabit, tend, and rule the estate. The king’s son, Palti, daily visited the lovers, and all three delighted in their friendship. The merry feasts, the peaceful walks, the deep conversations – all touched each heart that partook.
But one day, Zimitrok the evil dragon disguised himself in suave allure, crept silently into the orchard, and convinced Romulo and Emberlynn to dine with him. Zimitrok prepared a feast of exotic foods the lovers had never tasted, and wines they had never drunk. The pleasures of that evening were new and strange. Romulo and Emberlynn became drunk with the new wines and fell into a deep sleep.
When they awoke the next morning just before dawn, they looked around, bewildered. Their surroundings reminded them of their old home. The room had the same shape, but the furniture had an old, worn look and a musty smell. The mattress felt hard beneath them. Cobwebs hung in the corners; and one of the windowpanes was shattered, the shards lying about on the floor below.
Romulo and Emberlynn rose and walked downstairs and outdoors into the still-dark, hazy world and looked around at the once-noble trees now dropping their leaves. The grass had turned brown. In the distance, a lion roared and a hyena laughed. Vultures circled ominously.
Emberlynn looked down through tears and smiled at the few delicate roses yet clinging to the bushes beside the castle. Reaching down to pluck one, she gasped and quickly withdrew her white fingers now wet with drops of blood. What were those painful prickly things? Romulo shook his head mournfully.
The two left the threshold, walking out a few paces. A little beyond lay the enormous, hideous black body of the dragon. Turning, they beheld their beloved castle. Oh! Look at it now! Stones crumbling, overgrown with moss, full of broken windows. How had this happened?
“It’s your fault!” Rage suddenly filled Romulo’s face. “If you hadn’t listened to Zimitrok-“
“But I didn’t know! He deceived me! How could I have known?”
The lovers stared at each other, then turned and walked silently back into the castle, where they lived under the sway of the dragon the rest of their days.
Emberlynn gave birth to several daughters, beautiful daughters of whom the dragon painted large portraits, which he posted in neighboring kingdoms.
Knights, having seen these pictures, rode day and night, mile after mile to see the young girls; and, once they saw them, to kiss and use the girls as suited their desires. Before they left, the knights filled the dragon’s paws with gold and promised to return.
Peasants came, too, but had no money to pay the dragon; so he kept them in a small room of the castle, some to produce more little girls and some to sell to the knights who came calling and kissing.
Generation after generation of girls were born in the ruins of the castle, and generation after generation of knights came to kiss and hit and destroy them. Sometimes the dragon dug his claws into the girls’ backs, and sometimes he kissed them himself, and every night he counted his gold and laughed at his own ingenuity.
From the beginning, King Alroy also put out advertisements. Many brave knights responded to them, riding day and night and mile after mile to rescue the girls. However, upon reaching the land of the ruined gardens, many could not find either dragon or castle through the dense, overgrown forest. Some were able to cut through and find their object, but feared the enchanting eyes and sharp claws of the dragon they beheld. Some courageous men climbed the hill and fought the dragon, only to retreat wounded and defeated.
Still others scorned the posters and the girls, telling each other that those people got themselves into this mess and were responsible to get their filthy selves out of it. Of course, King Alroy could not have put up the posters; perhaps one of the dragon’s henchmen had done it to seduce them into filling his bulging coffers.
One night, King Alroy and Prince Palti watched from their palace as another baby girl was born in the broken-down castle they had built so long ago. “Must it continue, Father?” Palti asked in pain. “Must it go on and on? Our knights are no match for the dragon, and the girls remain trapped in misery.”
“You are right, my son. Enough is enough.”
“Then what shall we do? May I not go and rescue them? I am stronger than Zimitrok, and my sword is sharp enough to pierce his scaly hide in one blow.”
“This is true, my son. But our poor people will not be lifted to the royal birthright of their fathers by the slaying of the dragon. They chose an alliance with him, and their hearts are now black like his skin. We must rescue them entirely.”
“What must we do?”
“It will be difficult for you, my son. Since they rebelled against me, and chose slavery to the dragon instead, they must die. To rescue them, you must give your life in their stead. You must let Zimitrok slay you.”
“I will go, Father.”
The next day, Prince Palti set out on his journey. He chose a common horse and dressed himself in the clothes of his serfs. Along the way, dust from the roads flew up, clinging to his feet and clothes and entering his mouth and eyes. Other travelers, more richly dressed, mistook him for the peasant he appeared to be and mocked him or bade him stop and haul water for them at wells by the roadside.
That night, Prince Palti arrived in the town below the forest and tied his horse to the hitching post in front of the single local tavern. He had never felt so hot, tired, dirty, itchy, hungry, or thirsty. Entering the tavern, he inquired, “Do you have any rooms available?”
“No, sir, we’re full to the brim.”
No rooms! So Prince Palti turned and walked back outside, where he walked his horse into the woods, drank from the stream, washed his face, plucked cherries and walnuts from the trees, and sat down with his back against a large oak to think.
All night, he read and reread the letter his father had given him, and his spirit communed with his father. Strength coursed through his veins, and before the sun rose over the eastern mountains he had cut his way through half the tangled underbrush of what was now known to the locals as the Dragon’s Forest. The day grew warm, and sweat poured down Prince Palti’s back as he chopped through stems and branches with his ax. As he walked, he thought with bittersweet remembrance of the walks he used to enjoy with Romulo and Emberlynn so many years ago. Each cut he made was for them, and for their children!
Coming out the other side, he looked up at the brown grass, the weedy gardens, the low murky river, the kudzu-covered castle, and – there he was – the huge ugly Zimitrok, that evil murderer, the age-old enemy of King Alroy. Prince Palti advanced with boldness to slay the dragon.
Zimitrok had sensed the prince’s approach and prepared himself for a good fight. He had made the forest denser than usual, and expanded his body to look even fiercer, and now he breathed out fireballs bigger than any he had released before.
But Prince Palti’s response bewildered the dragon. The prince approached in peasant’s clothes, armed with an ax – no sword? And he came forward in a gentle manner, not speaking, no anger in his face. What could he be doing? The dragon’s eyes narrowed; some kind of trickery must be afoot, and Zimitrok had not intentions of falling to some clever ruse.
Prince Palti drew closer, and Zimitrok rose silently into a crouch. Still Prince Palti came nearer, and nearer, and nearer - in a flash, Zimitrok was upon him. He roared, shrieked, and blew fire in the prince’s fair face. He threw back his head and laughed a throaty, detestable laugh. “You are MINE!” he shouted. “Mine! I will finish you off forever. What were you thinking, coming to me alone like this? Where is your daddy? Did you think you could take my lair from me?” And he laughed again.
Zimitrok clawed Prince Palti’s body until his clothes hung in shreds and the blood ran thick. He yanked out fistfuls of the prince’s hair, and spit into his face. Finally, he dragged the prince’s now-weak body to a nearby tree and wrapped himself around the prince and the tree with his long, slimy black tail.
An hour of taunting, fireballs, and spitballs filled the dragon with freakish pleasure. Zimitrok slowly worked himself up into a frenzy of evil until he culminated his tortures with a bite and rip of the prince’s neck. Drawing back, he panted from his exertions and delighted in the sight of his kill. It was almost too good to be true – the son of his archenemy, killed in an afternoon. What luck was this? Zimitrok laughed again, and withdrew, letting the body fall to the ground with a thud. What fun it would be to watch it rot over the coming days and weeks!
Night fell, and Zimitrok counted his gold. By this time, he had developed an intricate system of inventory. Several rooms in his cave were full of heavy bags and chests, each containing a precise number of gold pieces. Tonight he entered the nearest room and deposited the day’s wages in an open bag. A good day, this! Peering into the other rooms filled to the ceiling with golden chests, he licked his fangy lips and departed into the back room, plush with the furnishings he had stolen centuries ago from Romulo and Emberlynn’s bedroom and settled down for a deep sleep on their still-soft mattress.
The next day, all was as before, except for the added pleasure of a view of a man’s rotting body at the edge of the forest. Zimitrok felt overjoyed in his invincibility and supreme rule.
Another morning dawned bright and clear. Zimitrok opened the door and gazed out on the murky beauty of his kingdom. A toothy smile added to the ugliness of his face; and he made his way, blindly confident, to the castle to toy with his little girls.
Meanwhile, a certain decaying body raised itself up by some magical touch of King Alroy. The dirt and spit washed away, and clean radiance shown forth from an alert face. Royal garments clothed Prince Palti, and his own sword hung at his side. Death had matured him, and he strode forth determinedly to complete the task for which he had come.
Zimitrok opened the door to the bedroom of the youngest girls, calling, “Rise and shine, sweethearts! Time to play.” The girls woke and sat up, cowering before him. But then, they looked behind him and their eyes filled with peace. Zimitrok turned quickly – what?
Prince Palti struck quickly, driving his sword through Zimitrok’s scales until it came out the other side. With a hiss, the dragon’s body fell to the ground. Prince Palti carried the body outside and threw it far, beyond the mountains.
Then he called to the girls. “Come, all who are weak and heavily-burdened, and I will give you rest. Come, all who are thirsty, and I will quench your thirst. Come, all who are hungry for love, and I will love you.”
The littlest girls came slowly, fearfully out to him and looked up into his kind face. He hugged them and smiled at them, and they smiled back. More and more girls came out to him. When they ceased coming, he called to the girls still in the castle, girls who stayed because they doubted his integrity or feared the unknown. “There is still room. Will you come?”
But no more came. So he led the girls standing near him to a clearing about an acre beyond the castle. Here he cleared the debris from the fountain, weeded the flower garden, hacked away the overgrown underbrush in the woods, and pruned the extra branches of the trees. A feast of oranges, peaches, apples, bananas, cherries, nuts, and cool fountain water refreshed the girls.
Then, while the prince erected a small shelter for the girls, they bathed in the stream and came out clean, clothed in the garments of a princess. They fixed each other’s hair and wove flower garlands and crowns.
After another feast, the prince gathered the girls around him and talked with them. He told them the story of their first parents, Romulo and Emberlynn, and the girls wondered at the royal blood they never knew was in them. Prince Palti told them of their tasks from King Alroy, to tend and rule the garden, and to love the poor girls still in the castle. The slaves were welcome in the pure meadow if they renounced their servitude to Zimitrok and gave themselves to King Alroy. Prince Palti’s death had redeemed all of them, and his heart had love enough for all of them.
He rose and walked with his girls until sunset, and then led them toward the trees. “I will be back,” he promised. “My father and I will build a new castle, grander than the first. When it is completed, we will return to restore this garden and live with you forever. But every day I will come here to walk and talk with you. And if you need me for any reason, call to me, and I will come. I love you.”
And so the girls lived in their meadow and drank in the beauty around them and healed from the wounds of the dragon. Every morning they read the letters the king sent, every afternoon they carried fruit and water to the girls in the castle and nursed their wounds and talk to them about Prince Palti, and every evening they shared a feast and a long walk with their beloved prince. Every day their love for him grew, and every day they longed more for the day when he would come to stay. They are there to this day, still waiting, and the day quickly approaches when their hope will come to pass.
And these girls will live happily ever after with their prince.