Read the First Story

Chapter One: The Littlest Dragon

There came the time in which we now live, when princesses are seen only in picture-books, wizards are met only in stories, and dragons eke out a mythical and heraldic existence on shields, flags, badges — and perhaps in the minds of those who yearn for a simpler age.

Into this rational but anxious time were born two children, a sister and a brother. They were well-fed, well-loved, well-dressed and well-educated, and they knew that if only their world lasted another lifetime they would surely acquire a generous share of its goods and pleasures. Their names were Petra and Daniel, and they were both of that special age at which they had discovered that their parents did not always understand them.

They had been taken by trains, airplanes, cars and ships to a little remote village at the foot of great mountains that rose out of a fjord as deep as the peaks were high. They were on holiday, but since neither Petra nor Daniel had been consulted about their destination, they were not overjoyed when they arrived on a rainy day when the clouds clung to the knees of the mountains, the sea-mist rose up the cliffs, the pines dripped onto the rocks below and the the stone houses of the Village huddled damply together within the constant sound of the surging sea.

The next day was no better. While their mother and father exclaimed about unspoiled beauty, traditional architecture and unchanged folkways, Daniel and Petra were bored by the rain-soaked Village that smelled of fish, and wished for the entertainments to which they were used in their city home. The voices of the Villagers were slow and slurred in their ears, the children of their own age who they saw from time to time in the Village square had no attention to spare for tourists, and did not even give the visitors’ bright holiday clothes a second glance. The inn at which they stayed was filled with adults who frowned if Petra and Daniel so much as ran down the stairs, and it was too wet to play outside.

When they woke on the second day and saw raindrops sliding down the windowpanes, Petra looked at Daniel and Daniel looked at Petra and without a word exchanged between them, they decided to sulk. They tagged along behind their parents, had their photographs taken in front of the ruined Castle, their tummies filled with cakes and pastries between meals that left them groaning from overindulgence, and their feet were made sore from walking on cobblestone streets while their parents conducted an implacable search for anything old enough to be picturesque and odd enough to be called quaint.

They stared at coats of arms in a museum and saw a bewildering assortment of dragons rendered in ironwork, paint, wood, glass, picture books, and even on needlepoint chair-backs and quilts. Daniel broke their sulking pact to stick out his tongue in imitation of one of the more horrendous dragons — a sea monster holding a girl in its claw — and Petra laughed before she remembered that she was trying to maintain a day-long frown.

The third day was as bright as the preceding two had been grey and misty. The rain-pools dwindled among the cobblestones, the sun warmed the pines so that they perfumed the air, and old men came out of nowhere to sit on bollards and benches at the edge of the quay which formed one side of the Village square. Their seamed and wrinkled old faces impassive, they sucked on pipes and stared out of rheumy eyes at the fishing-boats, no doubt thinking how much easier it was for today’s sailors than it had been when they were young.

After breakfast, Petra and Daniel were informed that they were to amuse themselves — a prospect which appealed only slightly less than spending the day seasick on the small and fishy boat which their parents had hired to take them up to the head of the fjord. Feeling abandoned, banished and rejected, the children sulked and pouted until the faces were sore from keeping air in their cheeks and frowns on their foreheads.

A friendly waitress in a blue gingham dress presented them with boxes containing lunch, and told them of a little beach beyond the Castle where she had played as a child. They said a polite and insincere thank-you, and set off across the square, splashing their feet in the few remaining puddles.

Petra and Daniel followed a grassy path along the cliff-top to the seaward side of the ruined Castle. Beside the massive granite walls was a flight of broken stone steps that ran from a battlemented tower, down over the cliffs to where waves splashed into bright spray against a rocky breakwater. Protected by encircling cliffs and the remains of a stone dock was a little bay edged by a sun-warmed beach. The children soon forgot their ill humour as the magic of the meeting between land and sea claimed them; and they climbed carefully down the ancient stairs, eager to explore.

Before long, Petra had a pile of shells that had been curiously shaped and polished by sand and sea water, and also a damp smudge across her forehead to which her fair hair clung. Daniel’s left foot was wet from slipping on a seaweed-covered rock, his curly red hair was filled with sand from trying to see into what might have been a cave in the cliffs, and his pockets clinked and bulged with the smooth stones he had collected.

When they sat down to eat their lunches on a piece of granite bigger than a dining-room table, it was only with difficulty that they remembered to complain.

“Nothing to do,” said Petra, nibbling on a hard-boiled egg.

“Not one solitary thing,” agreed Daniel around a mouthful of smoked herring.

“Awful,” said Petra.

“Dismal,” said Daniel.

They finished their shortbread in silence broken only by the sounds of the sea and the creaking cry of gulls that circled overhead, looking for scraps. Daniel threw his apple into the air and they watched the birds squabble over it until one particularly large and fierce gull flew with his prize up to the top of the Castle’s crumbling battlements.

“Bet you I can skip a stone seven times,” said Daniel.

“Bet you can’t,” said Petra.

Daniel managed five on his first try, six on his second, and then Petra lost interest after a succession of threes and fours.

“Seven!” he yelled, and turned to see his sister bent over the shells she had gathered, her hair curtaining her face.

“You never,” she said.

“I did. It was a beauty. I bet there isn’t another skipping stone like it on this beach. In the whole world, maybe.”

“Bet there is. You can’t find it, that’s all,” said Petra, and went on arranging her shells into interesting patterns.

Daniel started to search for another well-shaped stone. He walked along the edge of the sea where the ripples left salt foam on the sand, and he stepped onto clinking shale that had fallen from the cliffs into the shadows below. Near the cave-like cleft in the rocks that had fascinated him earlier, but into which for some reason he had not wanted to venture, he stumbled and looked down. There was a stone round as a coin, polished as a jewel, smooth as a china saucer. It fitted his hand comfortably, and when he moved into the sun and stroked it with curious fingers, it warmed to his touch.

“I found it!” he shouted. “Watch me!”

Petra glanced up in time to see Daniel’s arm swing back. She looked out at the water to where the splashes would come, but nothing disturbed the ripples on the little bay.

“Ha!” she said derisively. “You dropped it.”

When she looked back at her brother, she saw that he was holding his hands in front of him and staring at them intently. Wondering whether he might have hurt himself, she left her shells and walked to where he stood.

“It spoke to me!” murmured Daniel, and then looked at Petra. “How did you do that?”

“What?” asked Petra.

“Make your voice go all hissy and squeaky,” said Daniel. “‘Don’t you dare,’ you said.”

“I did not,” she replied.

Daniel shrugged and raised his arm again to throw the stone.

“Throw me in that cold water, and you’ll be sorry,” said a small voice.

Daniel looked at Petra, and Petra looked at Daniel, and they both stared at the stone in Daniel’s hand. The rounded rock swayed back and forth on his palm, then split open. With the sound of a peculiarly strong eggshell breaking, two thin husks of stone fell onto the beach, and in Daniel’s hand was a tiny winged creature.

“It’s a bug!” said Petra.

“I am not a bug,” said the small voice. “Insects don’t have scales.”

“It’s a snake,” said Daniel.

“I am not a snake,” said the voice clearly. “Snakes don’t have wings.”

“Then what are you?” asked Daniel.

“I’m a Dragon.”

They stared at the little creature, which flexed its emerald green wings, swung its pointed ruby-red tail and opened its mouth to display needle-sharp fangs no bigger than those of a mouse.

“It’s beautiful,” said Petra.

The Dragon nodded.

“I know,” it said proudly.

“I’m going to throw it into the sea,” said Daniel, who was confused, nervous and felt the need for decisive action.

“Do that and all your hair will drop out,” said the Dragon. “You’ll be an old man just as quickly as I can say the words, and you won’t like it a bit.”

“Go on,” said Daniel. “You’re too small to hurt me.”

“All right,” said the Dragon. “I’ll give you one more chance. Look at the top of the Castle wall.”

Daniel and Petra looked up to where the granite blocks of the fortress were a ragged line against the sky. A piece of the battlements twice the size of a chest of drawers turned bright red, flew up into the air and fell hissing into the water of the little bay where they stood.

“See?” said the Dragon. “Any more rude remarks about size, and the next time I’ll choose a piece of that mountain over there, and you’ll be underneath.”

“Ah — would you mind if I sat down?” asked Daniel, and his knees did it for him before he could get an answer. The little Dragon was unaccountably heavier in his hand.

“Are you related to the dragons whose pictures we saw in the museum?” asked Petra.

“I certainly am,” said the Dragon.

“I’m Petra and this is Daniel,” said Petra.

“I know,” said the Dragon. “He’s the one who put out his tongue at the picture of Ke-Au-Ka Ida and the Princess.”

“I’m sorry,” said Daniel.

“There was a time when you’d have been turned to stone or transformed into a flounder, or at least given a plague of warts,” said the Dragon. “But it’s more difficult to do the magic these days. Steel ships plow the sea and it’s not safe to fly above the treetops. Only the old people give us a thought – as if we were legends and dreams.”

“Would you like a piece of my sandwich?” asked Petra. “There’s still some left.”

“It’s nice to see that there still is one fair maiden,” said the Dragon gallantly. “Thank you, I’d like that.”

Petra offered a piece of ham sandwich, and the Dragon took it between two shining claws. Sharp teeth flashed, chewed appreciatively, and the Dragon grew longer by the width of Daniel’s thumb.

“May I put you down on this rock?” asked Daniel.

“You don’t happen to have another name, such as George or Beowulf, by any chance?” asked the Dragon.

“No,” said Daniel.

“And you don’t have a sword somewhere?”

“No,” said Daniel.

“Good,” said the Dragon. “I knew it all along, of course, but I was just checking. These days you can’t be too careful.”

Daniel gently lowered his hand and the Dragon walked with dignity to the top of the sunlit rock. It coiled its tail on the stone and stretched its wings with the rustling sound of fine steel being sharpened.

“Right,” said the Dragon. “Make yourselves comfortable, because I’m going to educate you.”

Petra and Daniel looked at each other.

“Oh no,” said the Dragon. “Not your sort of education. None of that foolishness of proving theories or testing hypotheses or learning to juggle imaginary numbers. I’m going to tell you a story.”

“Oh good,” said Petra. “I like stories.”

“All right,” said Daniel. “But we won’t have to answer questions afterwards, will we?”

“Of course not,” said the Dragon. “Any worthwhile story is complete when it’s been told and heard. All you should do is tell it again. Now listen carefully.”

And as Petra and Daniel leaned forward, the Dragon told them the tale of a princess and a sea-dragon.