Abby heard the car pull up. A flush of triumph rose in her chest. Bella was home from school! Now the gloating could begin!
Being twins, the sisters spent most of their time trying to out-do each ... [+]
"Sit up straight, Bronnie," she chided, "and finish your dinner. Your father's ready to read you a story."
"I don't want to."
"Well, if you'd rather go straight to sleep..."
Bronagh pushed her plate away. Always she had to do as her mother said. Why couldn't it be what she wanted for a change?
Her mother raised an eyebrow.
"You're having dinner. You're going to bed. Whether or not you get a story is up to you."
Bronagh eyed the plate again. "Fine," she grumbled. "If I have to."
***Evening fell. The sun disappeared behind the western mountains and the last of its rays slid off the castle. The lands plunged into darkness.
Then the floodlights came on.
Princess Bronagh watched as the king's guards lit enormous bonfires on the parapets above her. Then they set up even bigger mirrors and magnifying glasses, turning them to reflect the flames down onto the grassy field below. Bronagh pursed her lips. The crackle of burning wood annoyed her, and the smoke got in her nose. Why she had to fight at night, she didn't know.
But that was the decree: come dusk on this first Monday, the king and queen's only child was to don her armour and set out to slay the great green two-headed plague dragon.
Sighing, she clutched her trident and stepped forward. For once, Bronagh wished she had a brother. Someone expendable to take on the burden. But the job was hers alone.
Bronagh heard the drawbridge being raised behind her. (That was in case it all went wrong.) She would defend herself first, and only later draw the serrated sword strapped to her back. That was the plan.
Princess Bronagh was a brave girl. At least, she thought she was. After all, hadn't she done battle just last week with a crisp red blood-troll and an avalanche of green ground-harpies? But the plague dragon was something else. The very sight of it drained Bronagh of her usual fearlessness, filling her instead with a shuddering dread.
There it was!
Bronagh stumbled. A lamb had been spitted and left in the field as bait. The dragon lay stretched out next to it, unspeakably sickly and insipid. It was playing dead, Bronagh realised, trying to lure her closer.
Everything about the plague dragon was wrong. Its body was thin and pale, like snot-coloured bone. Its wings were tiny, pitiful, mismatched growths. (It couldn't fly.) It had two heads, each a stubbly mass of green and white pinheads: one a large cluster on top of the creature; the other small and sticking out at a funny angle from the base of its long neck.
Bronagh gagged. Even from this distance, the plague dragon was too ghastly to contemplate. But she had no choice. She could kill it now with trident and sword or have it slink down into the well and poison the whole kingdom. And that wasn't an option. Not really.
It was so unfair!
"Stupid decree," Bronagh muttered. "Why does it have to be me?"
She'd asked earlier why they couldn't send one of the knights; or if it had to be someone royal, why not the queen herself? Her questions hadn't been appreciated.
"Only the princess can slay the plague dragon," the queen had thundered.
"Don't complain," the king had added. "It's only one small dragon."
And that was that.
Bronagh shivered in her pyjama armour. She crabbed sideways across the field, drawing closer until she could feel the heat of the freshly cooked lamb; and beside it, like a corpse, the plague dragon's rotting warmth. She approached in crisscrossing steps, her trident at the ready. Any moment now, she told herself. Any moment now it will leap for my throat.
But it didn't. The dragon stank terribly (Princess Bronagh screwed up her nose), but its eyes were closed and it didn't move. Its stillness made her think of those ships that were occasionally found floating at sea after everyone on board had died. There it was, its body becalmed among the long grasses blown by the evening breeze.
Somehow that made things worse.
If the dragon had only attacked, Bronagh would have been forced to act. Instead she had to push herself forward. She had to make the first move.
"Fine," she decided, and immediately broke out coughing. The scent of the plague dragon had clawed its way into her nose and down the back of her throat. "Urgh!"
Bronagh reeled for several seconds, doubling over and making a show of losing her dinner. Then an empty, ghostly moaning came wafting from the ramparts of the castle behind her: it was the queen's battle horn sounding its mournful behest.
This was it, Bronagh realised. Not even the princess could ignore the queen's battle horn. It was now or never!
Recovering herself, she stood tall, pulled the trident back, and advanced on the plague dragon. Still it did not move.
Bronagh took a deep, careful breath.
It wasn't that she felt sorry for the dragon. (How could she? That would be like pitying a germ or crying over a flushed toilet.) But even so, she wasn't looking forward to this, let alone what had to happen next.
Still, a decree was a decree; and if it had to be done . . .
"Ha!" Bronagh barked.
She jabbed suddenly with her trident and sent its prongs deep into the plague dragon's hard, horrid flesh. The dragon barely quivered. (Bronagh thought it might have oozed a bit.) Grimacing, she drew her serrated sword.
"Take that!" she huffed. "And that!"
With two swift blows, Princess Bronagh chopped the great green plague dragon's heads off.
***Bronagh stared at the broccoli skewered to her fork. She'd decapitated both the flowery bits, leaving just the smooth glossy stalk behind.
"Yuck," she said. She felt sick in her stomach.
"Try it with salt," her dad suggested. "Come on, Bronnie. You're almost there! Just a few more bites."
He patted Bronagh on the head and added:
"Then we can have our story."