In the last years of Dharab, the greatest dragon-slayer ever known, his daughter Shanama hunted with him, and she learned from him many of the skills that made him great. She learned how to kill her dragon cleanly and humanely, how to protect herself from the fire that the dragon throws from its mouth, and how to avoid the razor-like flail that is the dragon’s tail. She learned to keep her weapons sharp and in good order, but she did not learn the art of burnishing armour or polishing a helmet, for her only armour was a sheath of silver that covered her from head to toe, which she had woven with her own hands.
Shanama had been a weaver of silk before she learned the trade of dragon-slaying, and between journeys across the secluded kingdoms to slay dragons, she would still find peace sitting at her loom, creating magical patterns in more colours than you can see in a rainbow. In between times, she played with her nieces and nephews, racing and tumbling with them, teaching the girls the art of swordplay and the boys the business of argument and persuasion.
One day, when she was passing the shuttle back and forth at her loom, making a blanket in the colours of the sunset for her youngest niece, she heard a scratching at her door. When she opened it, a great wild dog stood there. His head was a big as a drum, and his teeth were like daggers dripping with foam. He seized Shanama in his jaws but she twisted away, and pulled her sword from its place above the fireplace.
Back and forth they battled in the tiny room, lunging at each other, sometimes one briefly dominating, sometimes the other. Finally the great dog leapt in the air and threw himself against Shanama. She fell backwards and hit her head against the stone edge of the fireplace and lost her senses.
When she woke, she was in a large room hung with curtains and carpets of finest wool. It was lit with crystal lamps and scented with the fragrance of hundreds of roses, pink, red, yellow and white. She was lying in a soft, warm bed and a handsome young man was bending over her. “Shanama, my sweet!” he said when he saw that she was awake. “Forgive me for stealing you away, but my feelings for you overcame all wisdom. I have loved you from afar for longer than I can remember. My only wish is to make you my wife!”
Shanama sat up carefully, for her head was aching badly. She looked at the young man, his soft dark eyes, the way his hair curled softly on his neck, the rings that covered his fingers and the gold chains around his neck.
“Be that as it may,” she said, “you should not have had me brought here against my will.”
The young man’s face fell. “Forgive me, I beg you, beautiful one! I could not wait to call you my own.” Shining tears gathered on his eyelashes, and Shanama’s anger faded.
“Who are you,” she asked him, “and what is this place?”
“I am Prince Aleksey of the fourth kingdom. My father is king, and on his death, which I hope and trust will be many years from now, I will be king. My fondest wish is that you will rule with me as my queen.
“This dog,” he went on, indicating the wild dog who lay on the floor at his feet, “this miserable hound is my servant, whom I sent to bring you here. I cannot begin to tell you how angry I am that he has caused you hurt.” When he said this, he gave the dog a savage kick. “But I will not press any more questions on you for now. Come, eat and drink with me, now that you have rested.”
“I will not eat nor drink at your table, since you have brought me here by force,” Shanama said. “Return me to my home, and I will consider what you have said.”
For a moment the prince’s eyes darkened with anger, but then he bowed his head and said, “As you wish, my lovely one.”
He snapped his fingers, and the great dog leaped to his feet. “Carry her back to the place that you brought her from, and be sure no harm comes to her this time, or you will feel the bite of my anger,” he ordered. The dog growled deep in his throat, but obeyed immediately. He picked up Shanama with his teeth, and lifted her onto his back. In less than the blink of an eye they were back in Shanama’s own room. The dog gave a long, echoing howl and disappeared.
Over the next days, Shanama gave much thought to the handsome young prince with his enchanting smile, and his huge wild dog. The more she thought about it, the stranger it seemed to her. She took the problem to her father, Dharab, and they talked at great length, long into the night. When she returned home, she found the wild dog waiting outside her door, his tail whipping back and forth.
Shanama seized her sword, but the dog dropped his head and whined. Instead of launching himself at her, he paced back and forth in front of the door. Shanama saw the marks of many beatings on his back and on his belly, and a fierce anger rose in her. She dropped to her knees in front of the dog. She held his muzzle between her hands and said, “Your master has sent you to being me to him, is that so? And it is not what you would wish?”
She looked into the dog’s eyes and she knew it was true. “No matter, I will go with you,” she said. “But first…” She took her short sword and tied it in its scabbard on her back, between her shoulder blades. Then she dressed herself in a beautiful, silken gown, “For after all,” she said, “I must look my best for the crown prince of the fourth kingdom.” When she was ready, with her lovely hair falling as smoothly as water down her back, she placed one hand on the dog’s shoulder and in an instant they were transported to the elegant room where she had first met the prince.
“Shanama, my lovely one! You have come!” the prince cried. He took her hand and his eyes shone with pleasure. “I have never seen you look more beautiful,” he said. He took a golden ring from his breast pocket.
“You have come here freely, of your own will,” he said to her. “May I hope that you will accept my ring and make me the happiest man in the seven kingdoms by becoming my wife?”
The dog began a low, savage growling deep in his throat. “Quiet!” the prince snapped. He turned back to Shanama and said, “My darling, what is your answer?”
“My answer?” said Shanama. She drew her sword and in one swift movement she sliced the prince’s shirt from neck to waist. It hung open, revealing his bare chest, with a long mark over his heart. “This is my answer. I know you, Tarn, dragon-enchanter from the southern-most island. I know you by your voice, by your cruelty, and by the mark my father Dharab put on you when he almost ended your life!”
The prince’s face and body changed. His eyes grew darker, black and glittering, his face twisted and huge horns unfurled above his forehead. His body, banded with muscle and covered in armoured scales, grew until he towered over Shanama. He laughed, with a sound like chains in an empty cave, and with one huge claw, he swept her aside as if she were merely a blade of grass.
“If you had accepted my ring you would have become my own creature, a slave to my will like this miserable dog!” he hissed. “Now death is all you have to look forward to, you foolish, witless female!”
Shanama lay dazed at his feet but the wild dog hurled himself at the dragon, snarling. The dragon swung his tail to crush the dog like an irritating mosquito, but as it rose in the air, Shanama managed to thrust her sword into the pale flesh beneath the dragon’s tail, the weakest spot on his armour-plated body.
The dragon shrieked with pain. Blood, thick and black as oil, poured out of the wound. He turned his claws on them, long and sharp as knives, but Shanama was on her feet now, striking with her sword again and again. Losing blood, the dragon began to weaken, his huge head drooping lower. “Now – to me!” Shanama shouted. The great dog leapt towards her, and she sprang onto his back and threw her sword, straight and true, into the dragon’s throat. It crashed to the floor, dead.
Shanama fell back, exhausted. When she looked up, a man stood before her, with the piercing blue eyes and the rough, brown hair of the wild dog.
“You are the true prince of the fourth kingdom, Prince Aleksey?” Shanama asked.
“I was placed under an enchantment and held captive by that evil creature,” Aleksey said, “but now, through your courage, I am a free man again, and your humble servant, if you will have me.”
Shanama accepted him and they were married, and in the fullness of time she reigned at his side as queen of the fourth kingdom. Their children were known as the swiftest hunters and the bravest warriors the land had ever known. No dragon or enchanter ever dared even so much as set foot in the fourth kingdom while they reigned, until the Princess Zahara was born, but that is a story for another day.
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