ONCE upon a time, when dragons roamed the world and Man was innocent, a young sorcerer’s apprentice fell in love with a princess. Every day he saw her from afar as he went about his chores. Each morning he gathered herbs and roots from the fields just outside the castle walls and each morning he spied the Princess Maleen sitting in her window in the High Tower, watching the golden dragons wheel and glide and flap their gigantic wings far, far overhead. If only, thought the apprentice, she would look at me in the same way she gazes at them.

   The sorcerer warned his young ward to harbour no such thoughts, for nothing good could come of them. You are a commoner, he told the boy, and she is royalty. What he didn’t reveal was that the princess, whose every wish was granted by the doting King and Queen, was not only beautiful but vain and proud and selfish and cruel, and he wished only to protect his young ward from harm.

   The princess was sitting in the window of the tower, the sorcerer knew, not because she admired the dragons but because she envied them. Though she slept on silken sheets and ate from jewel-encrusted plates and wore clothes woven from silver beaten to sheer gossamer by elf tailors, it wasn’t enough. She wanted gold, which then only existed in the dragons’ scales.

   Then, much to the sorceror’s dismay, the princess let it be known that she would marry whosoever captured and brought her a dragon.

   The sorcerer went to the King and begged him not to allow his daughter to request such a thing, for it was against the natural law to harm a dragon. There is good reason our maps end with Here Be Dragons, he warned.

   But she has no wish to harm them, said the King angrily, just to have one for her very own. I shall grant her wish, he announced despite the sorcerer’s entreaties, for she is my only and most precious daughter.

   And so the sorcerer, who knew no good could come of the princess’s craving for the dragons’ gold, retreated to his workshop and began to gather ingredients for a spell that would counter the Princess Maleen’s edict, which was even then spreading like plague throughout the land.

   In the coming weeks and months, many suitors arrived from afar to seek the princess’s hand but each one, on reaching the edge of the great forest outside the castle walls, forgot why they were there. Puzzled, they merely went home with no more thoughts of dragons or princesses or quests.

   After many months had passed and not one adventurer had arrived at the castle gates to take up the princess’s challenge the apprentice, who lived inside the city walls and was immune to the sorcerer’s spell, went to the princess behind his master’s back and declared his intention to take up her challenge and win her hand in marriage.

   Suspicious that the lowly apprentice was her only suitor, the princess had him followed and when she discovered what the sorcerer had done she swore revenge on the old man.

   On the orders of the King the sorcerer was brought before the royal court where his hands were chopped off and his tongue cut out so that he could no longer weave spells or sing incantations. He was then thrown into the dungeon.

   And so the apprentice, now as deep under the princess’s spell as his master was imprisoned underground, set out to follow the dragons back to their nesting grounds. With him he took the wizard’s book of runes and a leather bag of amulets and charms with which he hoped to subdue one of the creatures.

   For many years and across many seas he followed the dragons, secretly watching them as they rested on mountain tops. On his way he braved brigands, pirates, robbers and thieves and all the time he remained steadfast and true to the Princess Maleen. Where others would have given up he kept going, strengthened and sustained by his love for Maleen.

   Finally, after struggling through the tangle an enchanted forest he came upon a vast valley, in the mountainous sides of which many thousands of dragons made their homes. There, hidden from their eyes by dark magic, he witnessed the great golden creatures as they nursed their eggs, came and went on mysterious journeys, and passed on the stories of the birth of the world in meeting halls blasted out of the mountains by their fiery breath.

   No man had ever witnessed these great gatherings, though rumours of them grew like weeds. The apprentice crouched behind boulders lest he should accidentally be crushed by one of the creature’s wings or tail, and watched as the great council of elders listened to the tales of Man that the returning dragons brought back with them.

   But try as he might he could not bring even the smallest of the creatures under his control. The wizard’s book of runes was useless in his inexperienced hands.

   In despair he cast one more, desperate spell on a broken dragon’s tooth that he had been using as a dagger to kill rabbits for food. He waited with this enchanted knife clutched to his chest until the next gathering of the dragon clans. And there, he did what no man had ever done before – he plunged the weapon into the side of the nearest dragon and cut off a golden scale from its shimmering hide.

   The invisible apprentice was lucky to escape with his life as the dragons roared and heaved and searched around for the stranger in their midst. For the first time dragon blood had been spilled by Man!

   But the thief had stolen away into the night. If he could not bring the princess a whole dragon he would at least present her with a small part of one.

   On returning to the kingdom he discovered that, in the years he had been away, the King and his wife had died and the Princess was now Queen Maleen.

   She greeted the apprentice in her crystal throne room, more proud, more haughty, more selfish and more beautiful than ever. She demanded to know the whereabouts of her dragon. Holding the glistening golden scale out for her, the apprentice told the tales of his many years on the trail of the dragons and how he had narrowly escaped with his life to bring her something that no man had seen before.

   The Queen was furious. She snatched the scale from him and called for her demon guards. You promised me a dragon and you bring me this? This is how you show me your love? You have failed me! Guards! Take him away!

   Which was how the apprentice found himself sharing a dungeon with his former master, who had been held by the evil Queen ever since the dragon quest had begun. Using the ruined stumps of his arms, the sorcerer wrote one question on the dungeon wall in charcoal: did you reveal the whereabouts of the dragon valley?

   The apprentice could only hang his head in shame. At which his former master fell dead where he stood.

   Above them in the castle Queen Maleen was mesmerised by the golden scale that the hapless apprentice had brought back. She found herself going back to it time and time again. Eventually she took to carrying to everywhere with her. Kept next to her skin it fed her evil thoughts.

   In time she called upon all the practitioners of the dark arts in the kingdom to fashion it into a ring.

   When this was done, and her dark heart was darker than ever, she assembled a great army of men, imps and demons and sent them off to the secret valley with instructions to bring back as many dragons as possible.

   And so began the terrible Age of Man, when they hunted the dragons to the edge of extinction.

   At first the hunters were unable to destroy the dragons but their swords and axes and arrows inflicted many small blows similar to that of the apprentice and the battlefields were left strewn with blood and golden flakes. The Queen, in her anger at being unable to capture even one of the creatures, began waging her war with ever larger engines of destruction.

   And still the dragons, now driven out of their ancestral home, resisted.

   Years passed and the old Queen’s frustrations grew until, in a fit of rage, she ordered all the scales that had been ripped and cut and sliced from their hosts – except the one on her finger – to be melted down and fashioned into a golden spear. Along its length she had mystic runes engraved.

   The next dragon the Queen’s forces found, a small female nesting in a cave in a wood, fought savagely to defend her eggs but died at the first thrust of the magical spear.

   Thus, with an evil corruption of their own flesh, the dragons began to fall. Eventually, the queen believed, she would be the only one to possess their gold, in the ring and in the death-dealing spear.

   Thousands were exterminated each year until finally word was brought back to the now-dying Queen that there were only 12 left and that her armies were closing in on them.

   Kill them, she said, kill them all.

   It was her dying wish, a wish that whispered around the cold-hearted canyons of her castle, slipping through cracks in the marble and rock until it reached the ears of an apprentice sorcerer, no longer young, who languished in the dungeons, forgotten by everyone except the jailer who brought him food once a day.

   Kill them, he heard, kill them all.

   And he cried in his sleep for what he had done for Love.”


Now, you will recall that our apprentice was languishing in the dungeon, crying. The big baby! Well, as is the case with all such stories, his anguish melted the heart of his jailer, just as the hearts of many of the evil Queen’s subjects were beginning to soften again as she approached the moment of her death. You have been imprisoned here for many years, said the jailer, for nothing more than listening to your heart. Be away with you.

   “But the apprentice could not leave the castle without seeing his Princess Maleen one more time and, using the lessons learned from his old master, he entered her room later that night under a cloak of invisibility and stood by her bed.

   “Who’s there? cried the malevolent old woman before him. Who’s there?

   “Slipping the cloak from his shoulders the apprentice appeared before her and before she could cry out, pulled the dragon ring from her gnarled finger.

   “No! Not the ring, apprentice, not the ring! Forgive me!

   “Never! The ring must be returned from whence it came, whispered the apprentice in her ear lest the guards hear him. And you, you must return to the hell from whence you sprang.

   “With that he slowly pushed a sharpened bone from his master’s skeleton through her chest and into her hard, shrivelled heart. He watched the light die in her eyes and then, as dawn peeped into the room and her physician entered to check on his patient the murderer-apprentice faded into the motes of sunlight. And was never seen in the kingdom again. Nor was the ring, though many searched high and low for it, hoping to take for themselves the magic powers it was said to possess.

   “The ring was never found because the apprentice – sorcerer now for he had learned much in the many years of his incarceration – returned it to its true owners.

   “As the last 12 dragons met on a mountaintop in a far off land, the man who set in motion their demise appeared among them.

   “You are either very brave or foolish beyond reckoning, said the largest of the beasts as he stood in the centre of their final council circle. He could not understand dragon-speak but heard the words in his head in man-speak. In truth, the sorcerer was expecting nothing but death. He held up the ring and offered it to them. I ask no forgiveness for what I have done is unforgiveable, he said. Take the ring, which I have taken from the dying hand of the evil Queen Maleen, and do with me what you will.

   “The great circle of beasts, their scales glinting in the towering fires around them until they shone like creatures of fire, turned their long necks this way and that, murmuring, talking, discussing. This sinuous dance went on long into the night, long after the sorcerer, exhausted by the effort needed to perform his magic, curled up on a flat stone and slept with his cloak wrapped around him.

   “Dawn was breaking when, with a rustling of wings, the dragons woke him. On the mountainsides below them he could hear the Queen’s army preparing for its final assault on the dragons’ stronghold.

   “In mind-speak the oldest, largest dragon revealed that the council’s deliberations were done.

   “The time of Man is upon us and we are needed no longer. We are tired. We are tired of the fight, tired of the running and tired of the battles. Tired of seeing our loved ones broken and torn asunder. We will fight no more, but neither will we die without dignity.

   “Instead, we will each of us find a corner of this new world of Man and burrow deep, deep within the earth beyond his reach. There, surrounded by the dense rock of our birth, we will slumber until, many years hence, death reaches out to each of us in turn. In our own time.

   “Man will try to find us but he will fail.

   “And my fate? asked the apprentice through his tears.

   “You, said the dragon, will hold the key to our whereabouts. You and all your descendants will be cursed with the location of The Twelve and you will be hunted as we have been hunted.

   “And with that he laid one of his great golden talons on the apprentice’s back. There was a moment of unspeakable agony, searing pain accompanied by the smell of burning flesh, and the apprentic fell to his knees.

   “The next thing he noticed was the beating of golden wings as those majestic creatures – the last of their – kind flew high into the air and disappeared in 12 different directions.

“Fare well, said the voice in the apprentice’s head. And … run!

   “Then came the tramp of the army’s vanguard as it poured onto the mountaintop with warlike cries. And he ran, and ran and ran.

   “To this day people still search for his descendants and the map that shows the location of The Twelve.

   “The Maleen – which the golden spear came to be called – also disappeared in the confusion of those final days of the dragon and the first days of Man. It is said that Alexander the Great found it, that Adolf Hitler sought it. Who can know?

   “And the dragons? They were never seen again, though many have sought them, too. Some say they are still entombed deep underground, sleeping in huge subterranean caverns, gradually becoming one with the earth from which they came.”


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