“Serves me right, I suppose,” the dragon muttered to himself. He would have little trouble with the interlopers; they hadn’t even bothered to bring a wizard. He lifted his head and rumbled, “You’re trespassing. How did you get past Winnis without her warning me?”
One of the knights held his sword aloft and intoned, “I am Prince Carlow, son of the Good King Haff, and I shall take your head as a trophy, foul Worm!”
The dragon snorted. “You’ve brought less than twenty men; I’ve destroyed armies, Princeling. Did your father send you, or was this your own silly idea?”
The knight cried out, “My father will see my worth when I’ve rid the Realm of your pestilence!”
“Oh, I see. He doesn’t even know you’re here, does he? What’s the matter, Princeling, not feeling the Royal Approval? Were you passed over in the line of succession?”
“The throne is mine. No woman will—”
“Oh ho! A woman, eh? A sister, perhaps? Passed over for a sister? No wonder you’re angry. Given how sexist you humans are, you’d have to be completely incompetent—”
The Prince screamed and charged. None of the others followed, which was telling. Midz-Aset dispatched the Prince with a flick of the tail; torso and legs flew in opposite directions, plate mail clattering and screeching as it bounced and scraped on the rocks.
The dragon surveyed the remaining Knights, who were backing slowly away. “Now then. I’ve forgotten already: what was his father’s name? The King?”
One of the other knights answered hesitantly, “…Haff, my Lord.”
“Well,” the dragon said, “Tell Good King Haff I will be coming to see him as soon as I am done with my nap.”
“…Yes, my Lord.” The humans hurriedly disappeared into the tunnels that led back to the mountainside.
Midz-Aset closed his one open eye and curled up even tighter atop his pile of gold coins. After a time, he fell back to sleep.
By the time Midz-Aset woke again, the Prince’s bones were bare and dust-covered, and the dragon was hungry, hungrier than he would have expected. He wondered aloud, “How long have I been asleep?” Of course, no one answered.
He crawled through one of the larger tunnels until he reached the surface. Sunny, and warm: summertime. He made his way across the mountainside to the tall pine tree that was the home of the Oreiad, the mountain spirit. Winnis was nowhere to be seen, and instead of the great tree and its resident mountain spirit, he found only a dead stump and fallen, rotten timber. Whatever had happened to her home-tree had happened long ago, while he slept. This time his exclamation thundered against the mountainside. “How long?”
He spread his immense wings and leapt from the mountain with a casual disregard for gravity, sailing down through the clouds, across the forested foothills, and out over the valley.
There was much he did not recognize: many of the dirt roads were now stone-paved, and at their crossings stood thriving new villages. And there, on a hill inside a curve of the river, stood a castle that had not existed previously.
Most of the guards on the castle wall-walk fled, which made them smart, if not brave. The ones that remained at least had the good sense not to attack immediately upon his landing atop one of the bastions. He called out, “Where is Good King Haff?”
None of the guards replied immediately. He roared and spat fire in their general direction, causing a slightly singed archer to respond, “My Lord, King Haff has been dead these five years! His daughter, the White Queen Isenette rules…”
“Isenette? Sister, perhaps, to… oh, what was it now? Carl?”
“Carlow, my Lord.” The archer bowed deeply. “Please forgive me for correcting your magnificence — but Prince Carlow disappeared more than ten years ago…”
“His bones are in my lair.”
None of the guards had much of a reaction to the revelation. Not missed was the Prince, it seemed.
“Very well. I will speak to the Queen. Go and fetch her. I would imagine she will be cowering somewhere nearby. Perhaps behind the throne itself?”
The archer didn’t need to be asked twice: he ran down the nearest steps, followed in close order by his companions, leaving Midz-Aset alone atop the wall. The inhabitants of the courtyard having fled into hiding — leaving their livestock behind — he leaped down and gobbled up a milk cow more or less whole. He was taking his time on a second when a woman, dressed in finery reserved for royalty, appeared from behind a heavy oaken door.
“You would be Isenette, then?”
“I would. For what reason have you invaded my Realm? Surely not to devour a few head of cattle?”
He laughed, a great bellow of steam and noise. “I am Midz-Aset. Your brother made the same mistake: you are within my Realm, Queen Isenette. The mountain is my throne, and all that can be seen from its peak is my back garden.”
She walked slowly out into the open, to where she could speak to him without shouting. “My brother?”
“He imagined he would prove his worthiness to inherit your father’s throne by sneaking into my lair and killing me in my sleep.”
“I gather his efforts were unsuccessful…”
“You were not told? I spared his men to return and warn of my coming...”
“I was not told. My father the King spent the days after my brother’s disappearance sequestered in his apartments with his most trusted advisors. I was sent away, to Ricklemeade, and was not to return until my father’s passing.”
“There is a contract. Entered into after the battle at Clory by myself and King Walford—”
“Walford was my grandfather.”
“…It appears that my nap was longer than I had planned. I wonder how long I had already slept when your brother barged in.” He added, pointedly, “Certainly you have had time to build a sturdy castle and many lovely villages.”
The Queen did not react. Midz-Aset surveyed her: she was pretty, though not in a flashy way. A less romantic soul might have described her as ‘handsome’. She stood her ground, trying her best to radiate confidence and calm even as her hands shook at her sides.
“The contract lays out the obligations of the humans of the valley. Obligations to me. Walford signed it in good faith. His son Haff appears to have failed to uphold it. I am impatient with failure.”
The queen turned back towards the still-open doorway and called, “Castellan!”
No one appeared in the doorway, but a meek voice answered from within the darkness, “Your Majesty?”
“Find and bring me Walford’s treaty with the Dragon of the Mountain—”
“…with Midz-Aset. And a table and chair, and some tea.” She turned back. “Whatever the treaty terms, I will meet them. I would offer my life in sacrifice, as penance for my father’s oversight, but perhaps we can agree that my brother has already done so.”
The dragon showed his teeth, though not in anger: in a grin.