With sheer reluctance, Hermione stepped over to the announcer waiting for her to arrive at the throne-room. The opulent marble columns in the palace of the kingdom of Cimmeria, a small but wealthy kingdom.
“Is this really necessary?” Hermione asked.
The announcer gave her a nervous smile. “It's protocol, your highness.”
Hermione let out a heavy sigh. “Fine, let's get this over with, then.”
The announcer slammed the end of his wooden rod into the ground, sending an audible tap through the throne-room. “Prince Hermione the first, beloved son of King Conan the Destroyer. Defender of Realm and Faith, knight-captain and slayer of the giantess of the Forgotten Plains. May He Live Forever.”
Hermione sighed. Yes. Prince Hermione, son of king Conan. The man who wanted nothing more than to have a son, an heir, a lad he could entrust his life and kingdom to. Unfortunately, for him, his only child was a girl.
She could only imagine how big his disappointment must have been at the time.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on one's perspective, he had just the solution to this dire problem: simply pretend that Hermione was a boy and raise her as such! Then issue a proclamation and royal decree to the entire kingdom that the newly born little princess Hermione would be referred to as Prince Hermione and treated as a boy at all times.
Her room has been painted sky blue. She had no dolls, but plenty of toy swords, wagons, horses and wooden shields. From her early years, she had been training with the blade, the bow and horseback riding as any royal lad in her bloodline should have. All the knights, guards, servants and aristocracy referred to her as 'Lord', 'Prince' or 'Young Master' on pain of blood as she later learned.
If only her mother hadn't passed on when she'd been born: she would have put a stop to this, no doubt.
It wasn't until she was around ten years old when she started to notice she was different from the other lads. With everyone vehemently denying her being anything else than a page-prince, it took her another two years to figure out that she was, in fact, a girl. The next three years of her life was filled with frustration as she was trying to get people to actually acknowledge her as a girl. On her fifteenth birthday, she had proclaimed that she was a girl, to which one of her father's barons had laughed and told her father that it was time to stop lying to himself.
The baron had been swiftly beheaded the next morning.
That event gave Hermione a lot of pause. Sure, she wanted to be acknowledged as a girl, but she didn't want anyone to die over it either.
So, the next two years of her life, she resigned herself to being a boy, hoping that, one day, her father would snap out of it and stop forcing her to live this well-meant but blatant lie. She'd been trying to be more subtle about it, such as letting her long brown hair grow out until it reached the small of her back... only for her father to loudly proclaim just how manly and rugged that made her look, just like he had in his old adventuring days.
Of course, her many martial victories didn't help either. She was an accomplished swordswoman... sorry, swords man, who was fleet of foot and quick of wit. Her battle with the giantess of the Forgotten Plain had been won through being clever rather than being brutal. Even so, she considered herself a good fighter.
Here she was, seventeen years old and clad in full plate armor and with a sword sheathed on her belt and a shield strapped to her back. The carapace-like plate armor felt like a second skin to her. She held her helmet under her arm and knelt before her father, as was protocol.
“Ah, my wonderful son,” said her father, sat on the throne and dressed in his finery. “How quickly you have grown, my boy.”
Hermione raised her head and let out a brief sigh. “Father,” she asked. “How much longer are you going to keep up this ridiculous charade?”
Immediately, the two guards on either side of the king exchanged worried glances.
“What do you mean, my boy,” the king smiled, but lay a dangerous emphasis on that damning last word..
Hermione closed her eyes and counted to ten. “You summoned me, father?”
“Yes, my boy,” said her father. “Hermione, you have come of age and how grown up to be a fine young man. Many a lord would be jealous of the figure my fine son strikes!”
Yes. Her figure. Her decidedly hour-glass womanly figure. Well, maybe not exactly hour-glass , considering she worked out a lot, but the point remained.
“It is time for you to claim a bride,” spoke her father. “Your duty as a man of this house is to father an heir to continue out family line.”
Hermione blinked, closed her eyes and sighed. “And, pray tell, how do you see this happening, exactly?”
“Well, you see,” her father started, leaning forward on his throne. “When a man and a woman love each other very much...”
“STOP!” Hermione interrupted. “Stop, just stop! Fine! Fine, I'll go out questing for a bride if that's what you want so much. Crom almighty!”
“Ah, I remember when I was your age... questing around the world, slaying brigands, fighting in the arena's, slicing off Thulsa Doom's head and watching it roll down those stairs. It is time for you to find your place in this world, boy, and claim a woman of your own.”
“Oh, for the love of...” Hermione sighed. “I love you, father, but you're crazy.”
And so, with her father's blessing, Prince Hermione, Defender of Realm and Faith, knight-captain and slayer of the giantess of the Forgotten Plains, packed her travel supplies, mounted her trusty steed Lochinvar and rode off into the countryside after one last goodbye to her father. Yes, her father was crazy, but despite everything she loved him dearly.
Before she left town, however, she checked the adventurer's guild board for any interesting leads. The bride she was looking for wouldn't have to be a princess herself, or even a noblewoman. Her own father hadn't been that discerning either, after all. But she was supposed to brave great dangers and snatch her new bride out of the jaws of death.
Now that suited her fine. Combat, she actually quite enjoyed.
One interesting lead on the adventurer's board mentioned a castle where a girl was being held hostage by a dragon. Judging by the way the paper had been yellowed in the sun and the many holes in the top of the parchment, it had been put up repeatedly. The castle itself was a ruin on the far side of the Kingdom, quite near the neighboring kingdom of Aquilonia, a trip of at least two days on horseback.
And so, Prince Hermione rode over dusty trails and empty roads. She did encounter the occasional brigand, which she dispatched with consummate ease like the undisciplined thugs they were. It was something she quite regretted, to be honest, because after being addressed as 'boy', 'prince' and 'his lordship' by everything, being called a 'bitch' or a 'whore' almost felt like a blessed relief.
It was already late in the evening when she arrived at the village of Ogg-Barlarn and she had made good time. Tomorrow, would only have to travel a few hours to get to the castle. Though Prince Hermione would have preferred to say at the local inn, she was somehow expected by the town guards and swiftly escorted to the mansion of the local boyar. No doubt her father had sent a raven ahead.
The boyar and his family were quite nice and welcoming and were honored to have her as a guest for the night. After a nice feast, Hermione sent her armor to be shined and found herself alone in her room... dressed in a man's tunic and matching trousers and boots, of course. Clothes any man would be proud of, she thought while rolling her eyes.
She had tossed her tunic on the bed and was about to put her clothes away in the dresser, when she noticed something already hanging inside of it. Apparently, the previous occupant had left something there: a long, silken green gown.
Hermione let out a gasp. In her life, she had never been let near one. And her one was, within reach. Her hands trembled as she gently removed it from the dresser, holding it as if it was a treasure made from spun gold.
Hermione rubbed the fabric against her cheek. So soft. So smooth.
She had to try it on.
To her delight, the dress was almost her size too, only slightly too big, but nothing that couldn't be fixed by tightening the straps on her back. The dress hugged her body tightly, accentuating her curves and billowing around her legs.
It felt... wonderful.
A joyous laugh escaped her as she twirled around her axis, giggling madly. Her long loose hair cascaded over her shoulders and back. The only things missing were a necklace and a bonnet. And a proper pair of shoes, perhaps. Wearing a dress felt so good. So natural.
And then it all came crashing down when one of the servants entered the room. The servant was a woman, middle-aged, who immediately felt to her knees and wailed the moment she saw Prince Hermione in a dress.
“Oh, my prince!” she cried. “Please! Please remove that dress and never speak of it! If your father learns of this, he'll have us all put to the sword! Please, think of our village. Think of our children. We are your subjects too!”
Hermione closed her eyes, sighed and almost growled her next words. “FINE!”
Her joyous moment ended with her throwing herself onto the bed after the servant had absconded with her prize. Embittered and angry, she looked at the ceiling of the darkened room and found sleep hard to come by.
“WHY CAN'T I BE MYSELF, FOR FUCK'S SAKE!” she shouted into the night.
But she didn't cry.
Boys don't cry, after all.
Part of her still wanted to jump on the back of her horse and ride and ride and ride until she found a place where nobody would know who she was and where she could finally be a girl. A proper girl. With a dress and everything!
But no. Her father would come looking for her, no doubt, and carve a bloody path through any foreign lands she would find herself in. Again, she resigned herself to her fate: to claim a bride and to father an heir... somehow.
After a nice breakfast the next morning, Prince Hermione set off again and made good time. She arrived at the foreboding ruined castle around midday. Not that she could tell, as the castle, situated on top of a mountain, seemed to be perpetually covered in a dark cloudy mist. Honestly, this place hadn't seen the sun in ages.
She left her horse at the bottom of the mountain trail and started her trek up the mountain in full armor, helmet on her head and sword and shield at her side. She came across a sign which read 'WARNING: DRAGON!' halfway up the path. Still, she wasn't too discouraged, since it was only half-burned.
The metal of her armor clanked as it hit the stones and after an awfully long climb, she finally arrived at the top. The castle itself looked to be in a state of ruin with the exception of a single tower near the barbican. Light seemed to be coming from a window above. Hermione put her hands to her mouth and shouted.
“HELLO?!” she shouted out.
A few moments later, a rather pretty young girl about her age leaned out of the window. She wore a black dress, had a pale fair complexion and a head of messy black curls. The girl gave her a look of disdain. “FUCK OFF!” she shouted down before disappearing back into the tower.
“Okay,” Hermione muttered and then called out again. “I think you misunderstand! I'm here to rescue you!”
The girl popped her head out of the window again. “Fuck off! The dragon will eat you! Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!”
And the girl was gone again.
Hermione sighed heavily. “Fair lady!” she shouted. “Let me explain to you how this works. I, the handsome young knight, am here to rescue the fair maiden in distress, who is you! I do this by slaying the dragon, who is yet to appear. I then carry you off on my horse to my father's castle, as is protocol and idiom!”
Before Hermione knew what was happening, she found herself soaked to the bone. Above her, the curly-haired girl laughed mockingly at her while holding a now empty bucket of water. She then withdrew into the tower and closed the window shutters.
“RIGHT,” yelled Hermione. “Maybe I should just slay the maiden in distress and marry the bloody dragon instead!”
With sword and shield at the ready, Prince Hermione slowly made her way into the castle courtyard over the ruined drawbridge. The wood creaked under her every step and with gritted teeth, she stepped into the confines of the castle. It was quiet. Far too quiet. And that sign hadn't been there for nothing, after all.
From the corner of her eye, through a hole in the wall of the ruined keep, she spotted movement in the darkness. Hermione's eyes grew wide when the darkness brightened and a large ball of flame was suddenly hurtling towards her. The young prince drove to one side, narrowing avoiding it but still feeling the searing heat as it passed her by. She raised her sword and shield as the beast emerged.
It was a dragon, alright. A pitch-black, snarling friend with fours legs, wings spread out and a scaled hide. Two yellow eyes bore into her soul and a wicked maw filled with dagger-like teeth opened wide. Still, as dragons went, this particular specimen was... surprisingly small. Its main body, not counting the tail and wings, was about the size of a horse.
Hermione yelped as the dragon's neck brightened into an ugly orange glow before another fireball was launched at her. She raised her shield just in time to block the flame. It exploded against her shield, knocking her back a bit while superheating the air in front of her. Her shield started to radiate heat from the impact.
The dragon wasn't done with her. Another fireball impacted with her shield. By now, it was a red-hot glowing sheet of metal quickly reaching its melting point and Hermione was forced to abandon it. This didn't go unnoticed by the dragon who now had Hermione on the defensive. The young prince tried to way her options: take the high ground and head for the parapet? Head for the tower, fetch the girl and run? Face the dragon head on and hoping to avoid its flame?
Her decision was made for her when the dragon puffed again and let out a continuous stream of heavy flame directed at her. Hermione dove to one side and scrambled to avoid the stream, eventually ducking behind what used to be the stables.
Hermione was in quite the predicament. Though she was safe for the moment, she already heard the heavy footfalls of the approaching dragon. She looked around frantically for something... anything she could find.
Then, she saw it.
A well. She was standing right next to a well.
Hermione was hardly a religious woman and her title of 'Defender of the Faith' was mostly a ceremonial one. Still, she prayed to Crom at that very moment when she lowered the chain holding the bucket bucket and was utterly delighted when she heard a splash. She quickly pulled up a filled bucket and got into position.
By the time she got ready, the dragon was almost ready to round about the corner. Hermione watched the beasts' shadow and held the bucket high, getting ready to strike.
The moment the dragon's head appeared, Prince Hermione spun around and hurled the bucket's watery contents right into the dragon's maw. There was a sizzle as the flame in the dragon's throat fizzled out, following by a cough and a hack... odd sounds coming from a dragon.
Water had apparently reached the dragon's lungs and it was seizing up, craning its neck down and coughing profusely. Not wasting the opportunity, Hermione took hold of the bucket's chain and swiftly wrapped it around the dragon's maw. The dragon yelped and, after a blow from the hilt of her sword, was forced to the ground where Hermione swiftly bound the dragon's legs with the long chain.
After effectively hog-tying the dragon, she struck the chain with her sword and yanked the end into the knot. The dragon, of course, was struggling to get free, but despite its size, it was not strong enough to break it.
Good. Time for find the girl.
Prince Hermione rushed to the tower, ran up the winding staircase and smashed through the door at the top. What she found was a room filled to the brim with books, plants and many girly dresses. All black. What stood out most was a telescope aimed at the one patch of clear sky above. Apparently the girl enjoyed stargazing.
If she'd been here, that is. There was no sign of the girl.
Fearing the worst, Hermione made her way downstairs and back to the dragon. She stood over the creature menacingly and drew her sword. “Right, beast,” she said, putting the tip against the soft flesh of the dragon's belly. “You have one chance to tell me what you've done with the girl. If I don't like your answer, I'm going to sink this long piece of steel right into your gut! Got that?”
The dragon turned its yellow eyes at her, almost mockingly. Then, the dragon was engulfed in bright light. Its shape started to shift, becoming smaller and smaller. The chains fell off its body and, a few moments later, the girl sat where the dragon had been.
“Wait....” Hermione blinked behind her helmet. “What?! What happened to the dragon?”
“I am the dragon, you idiot!” snarled the girl. “You... you've ruined everything!”
“Stupid lout!” the girl shouted. “Princes always have to stick their swords into places they're not wanted. Heh, you overcompensating or something?”
Hermione blinked. “Now look here...”
“I'm not going with you!” the girl snarled. “I'm a free woman! I don't want to marry a prince! I hate princes!”
“You're... you're a shapeshifter,” Hermione stated.
The girl narrowed her eyes and put her hands to her hips. “I'm a witch, thank you very much! Name's Bellatrix, not that is matters to you ! Now, you can go right back down the mountain, because I'm not going anywhere with you!”
“How did you come to be here? Why disguise yourself as a dragon?” Hermione asked.
“I ran away from home,” said Bellatrix. “I didn't want to marry a prince. I... I want a girl. A girl with long hair, soft lips and soft curves. My father said I was being foolish and threw me out of the home until I'd come back to my senses and marry Prince Rodolphus. But I never will. So I came here and pretended to be a dragon to scare off any suitors. Most of them run off after the first fireball hits them in the face.”
“How long do you think you can keep this up?” asked Hermione.
“As long as I have to!”
Hermione sheathed her sword and regarded the pouty girl. She was... awfully cute. Her gauntlets moved to her helmet, which was swiftly removed to reveal her girlish face and her long hair.
Bellatrix looked at her intently. “You're... you're a girl.”
“Why, thank you for noticing,” chuckled Hermione. “Though you might not want to say that too loudly in Cimmeria.”
“Come again?” asked Bellatrix. “Why are you dressed and armored as a man?”
“Because nobody in my kingdom actually dares to tell the king that his beloved son is a girl,” Hermione smiled. “Say, if you want a girl and your family wants you to marry a prince, I might have quite a nice loophole for you to work with.”
Bellatrix raised an eyebrow. “Tell me more...”
It took Bellatrix about an hour to pack her things. She brought her books and her telescope, but had to leave quite a few of her dresses behind so that everything could fit in two packs fastened to the saddle of Lochinvar. Bellatrix herself rode with Hermione, sitting amazon-style in the saddle with her while she'd wrapped her arms around her.
“So,” asked Bellatrix. “If I'm a girl and you're a girl, how would this fathering an heir with your new bride work?”
“I have no idea,” said Hermione. “I don't think father has any idea either. I figure we'd cross that bridge when we'd get to it.”
“Well,” chuckled Bellatrix. “After you present me to the court as your new bride, I think we'll need to have lots and lots of tries first. You never know, after all.”
Hermione smiled. For the first time in her life, having everyone treat her as if she were the prince of Cimmeria would have its advantages. No one would question her taking this lovely girl as her bride, after all, or father would slice their limbs off.
Bellatrix gave her a sultry grin before leaning in and softly pressing her lips on hers. It wasn't Hermione's first kiss: as a prince, many a girl had treated her to one, after all, but... this was by far one of the sweetest kisses.
And when Bellatrix started a passionate exploration of Hermione's mouth with her tongue, one thought shot through Hermione's mind: It was good to the prince!