On the dawn of Aralia’s twelfth birthday a witch had appeared in the castle, demanding audience with her mother, the queen. Her father had called his guards to throw her in the dungeons for her audacity, but with a wave of her hand the witch threw them across the room and threatened worse to anyone who attempted to touch her. So the queen was summoned and tearfully explained the whole sorry tale, that she had known that she was barren, but made a deal with the witch for one chance to have children. In return the witch demanded payment, a dear treasure in thirteen years’ time. The witch’s spell had been strong and the queen gave birth to twins, Aralia and her brother.
Then the witch came to collect her debt, the dear treasure she demanded was one of the children.
Rather than risk the wrath of the witch, Aralia was chosen and sent away, possibly with the hope that the witch would train her as an apprentice for such a thing wasn’t unheard of and would be a great boon to the kingdom. Sadly that was not the case, instead she was locked away in a tower on a treacherous mountainside to be used as bait to draw in heroes with shining armor and magic swords to their doom so that the witch could grow her own collection of sorcerous items.
The mountain was protected by all manner of dire wards and, even if the heroes managed to make it past all them, the final threat was by far the most dangerous, a fearsome dragon.
The dragon, she eventually learned, was a Lindworm. The witch didn’t tell her this, for once she was locked away in the tower she was left utterly alone. There was a pantry that was always full no matter how much she took out of it, a kitchen with a small cooking fire that never went out and pots and pans that were always clean immediately after she was finished, though it had taken her several weeks to figure out how to make passable meals from what would appear. The rooms cleaned themselves, as did her clothing and bedding when she left it alone for long enough. For her first month of captivity she tried desperately to catch some invisible servant in the act, but never had any luck. In the end, though she didn’t quite give up, she turned to talking to herself to fight off loneliness and one day, when she was sitting by a window, noticed that the dragon had reared itself to its full height to watch her. Naturally, she was terrified of the beast and fled from its view.
It wasn’t simply that the creature was enormous, it was how unnatural it looked. Unlike dragons in heraldry, it was wingless, its long, mottled body unadorned by spines or fins, just even rows of dull, pitted brown and dusty yellow scales. Rows of curving fangs filled its blunt muzzle and its small eyes were watery and pale, with no glimmer of intelligence that she could see. The worst part about it was its legs, it didn’t have two or four like any normal beast, rather it had countless little, near useless limbs down its sides. The first two sets had two stubby toes each, but all the others ended in a single blunt claw.
As time passed her fear of the creature diminished and she noted that any time she was near a window it was watching her. Because it was an actual living thing she would talk to it or at it, and it would tilt its massive head as though listening. Aside from occasional visits from the witch the monster was her only companion.
Soon that became part of her daily routine, something to stave off boredom and desperation. She would greet it each morning when she awoke, bid it good night when it grew dark and talk to it throughout the day simply to have someone to talk to.
And in time it came to grumble back, soft growls and harsh rasps that didn’t seem aggressive. Animal noises, the way a cat would meow at its master, she assumed.
Over time she realized that there was a pattern to it. The noises it made when she wished it good morning were always the same, as were the ones made in parting come evening. Even in the sounds it made during the day, endlessly varied, there was a pattern. The creature could speak, she grew increasingly sure of it.
The idea terrified her, not because it meant the creature was intelligent, but because there was a chance, that in her desperation for companionship, she was simply imagining it. This fear kept her from testing the idea for many days.
Finally, after steeling herself for disappointment, she greeted it, waited for it to make its noises, and then, to the best of her ability made them back at the creature.
The response was shocking.
The dragon’s whole body straightened out, quivering with excitement, its breath grew harsh then it wound itself around the tower in looping circles, the whole time making excited, almost bird-like trills. Finally it settled down and repeated the sound back to her, more slowly, then reared up, shivering as it watched her.
Again she made the sound, trying to match as closely as possible.
That morning was their first breakthrough and in time they developed a way of talking to each other. It was a crude system, growing more nuanced as the need arose. That was how, in time, she learned that it was a Lindworm, that it had come from the high desert, somewhere that would take a month of nights to travel to, as the creature put it. There were many strange things that it said, things that often made her wonder about her understanding or its sanity, but that all paled in comparison to having someone to talk to.
As their pidgin grew into an actual language, spoken by only the two of them, she was able to tell it her story and learn its equally sad tale.
What happened to it very much paralleled her situation. The witch had taken from its nest while still an egg, bringing it to the mountaintop to hatch and then binding it with a chain of gold, silver and broken wishes. It had never known its family, or the sands of their desert home, but its parents had sung to it in its shell, telling it tales of flowing sands, great storms, treasures buried in the heart of the earth and oasis where all manner of beasts gathered. The songs of the oasis were its favorites and it would often sing them to her and she came to understand its fondness of them, though they often ended in the creatures and caravans being devoured.
In return she sang her own songs to it, or told it stories and it listened with rapt attention, often asking her to explain something it found particularly strange.
This was how she learned that it was blind and had been born that way, as was the nature of its kind, which was why its eyes were so small and dull. Her sight fascinated it and it would ask her to tell it all the things she could see. Then it would tell her what it could smell, the forests far below, fires burning far beyond the mountains, even the rain in the clouds. What it heard was even more astounding. As large as it was, it could hear the scrabbling of birds landing on the stone of the mountain and pebbles falling in the wind.
They were quite the sad pair, but at least they had each other.
The arrival of the first knight to make it to her mountain prison brought with it a joy near blinding in its intensity. The Lindworm heard the clop of hooves and the jangle of armor well before she could see the sun glinting of the knight, and she begged the creature not to kill him. Her request puzzled it, but it obliged, coiling around the tower to wait for the man’s arrival.
When the knight arrived he took one look at the Lindworm and drew his sword. The dragon made a sound of puzzlement and she called out, trying to explain that the creature would not harm her. Sadly, by the battle cry the man let out as grey fire raced along his blade, he did not understand her, hailing from a foreign kingdom where another language was spoken. He attacked and his sword struck true, drawing forth a spray of black blood and it was too much to ask the dragon not to defend itself.
So passed the first would be savior as well as the next to come.
It was always that way, they either wouldn’t understand her or would assume that she was bewitched, under the dragon’s spell and attack the beast. It bore the scare from these battles and there were bones scattered around the tower, those of men and horses, so her pleas for mercy on the creature’s behalf grew less and less believable.
The witch would come to collect any items of interest from the dead and sometimes the bones themselves, but she never spoke to either of them, content with the workings of her trap, finding it unnecessary to talk to the bait or the mechanism.
When Aralia gave in to despair the Lindworm sang to her, not its favorite songs, but its best imitations of hers, ghastly scratching sounds from deep in its throat, but the gesture was achingly sincere. She was its only companion, somewhere between a friend and a pet, for they were too different for either to be anything else to the other.
The chain that bound it was too strong to break, too short for it to hide from the ambitious heroes approaching the tower. The tower’s windows were too small for her to fit through, the stone too thick for the Lindworm to smash. It was stuck. She was stuck.
Until they devised a plan that only a dragon could think of.
The windows were too small for her to get through, but not the items that the witch coveted, the trinkets carried by the heroes.
Together they waited and when the next knight arrived the dragon struck without hesitation, killing him in a single venomous bits and holding the body up to a window for her to search.
Careful to avoid the steaming venom dripping from the dead man’s wounds, she took anything that seemed valuable from the dead man, rings and pendants, scrolls and beads and even his mace.
Later, when the witch came, she found nothing but bones and dented armor.
She even searched the Lindworm’s droppings, the creature gleefully recounted, finding a great deal of humor in the foul act.
They did the same for every hero that arrived afterwards until the witch finally realized what was happening.
Placing her hand on a single discolored stone on the outside of the tower she spoke a single magic word, the dragon listening intently the whole time, and a door opened, a stairway springing into being to take her to the lowermost level of the tower where Aralia was waiting. She had no great skill with a sword or spear or any other weapon, but it only took so much skill to hold up a mace and let the weapon’s weight carry it down onto the head of an unsuspecting target. Two more swings to be sure and she fled the tower.
Once outside she fell to her knees as the enormity of what she’d done sank in. She’d watched the dragon kill countless men, plundered the bodies of at least a dozen of them, but killing was another matter entirely.
The dragon, not understanding, but smelling the blood of the dead witch, sang a triumphant song of slaying fearsome beasts and victory over great foes, the smell and taste of blood, only stopping when she was ill. After that it was silent until she spoke to reassure it that she was unharmed.
She smiled weakly, trembling at the realization that she was free, the Lindworm let out the same shrill chirps that it had made the day she first spoke to it, laughter, then looked at her imploringly.
She was free, but the witch’s death had not freed it, its bindings remained as strong as ever.
There was no choice then, she would wait for the next hero to come, greet him and proclaim that she had freed herself, but would not leave until someone came with a sword that could break the dragon’s chain or a key that could release it.
The wait might be a long one, but it was a matter she had a choice on and what kind of person was she if she could abandon a friend so easily?