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Ardath Mayhar is a Texas writer whose stories have appeared in many, many publications. This story first appeared in Sorcerer's Apprentice in 1984.

 

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Fido is a Loving Beast

by Ardath Mayhar

 

The clanging of metal upon metal brought Florelle to the edge of the forest. "God's boots and buckler!" she said aloud, reveling in her irreverence. "What can that signify?" She listened, her golden head cocked on one side, the better to hear.
It was not the urgent yammering of the great iron bell that her father was so proud of. Besides, that only signalled war, and all the neighboring principalities had made peace long since. A couple of her father's peers were, even now, working in the hayfields with him and all the serfs they could spare from necessary tasks.
No, that sounded like ... she sighed. Another noble lackwit, come to make his name by slaying the last dragon in all the known lands. Drat! He was hammering with his sword- hilt upon the metal-studded gate of the keep, even though the thing stood wide in time of haying.
She pulled her oldest gown above her knees and sped back the way she had come. Poor Fido! He was such a loving beast. It always upset him when this happened. And she! It made her wince to think of all the far from noble dodges she had been put to in order to protect her unlikely pet.
But she had reared him from a tiny creature, hardly eight feet long, Just from the egg, he had been, when his mother had fallen victim to just such a one as now stood at the castle gate. Florelle had been wandering the forest, as her habit had been since she was tiny, and had found him, lying all but starved in her path.
For months, nobody had been able to explain the disappearance of hens and eggs from the poultry runs. Then he had graduated to live game, which had relieved her of much unpleasant scrambling about after disturbed hens in the most distant of the runs.
It was too bad the forester had sighted him. By then, of course, he was at least half grown and a very respectable dragon, indeed, with lengthy coils and scarlet wings. The word had gone out at once. Another dragon for the slaying! Wonderful!
And all the idiots with nothing better to do had donned their armor to come and do battle with him. As if Fido knew how to fight armed men! Only his mother could have taught him that. All Florelle could do was to teach him to trick them, and that she had done with a will.
Of course her father had been forced by tradition (and her mother, who felt herself to be tradition's mainstay) to offer his daughter's hand to the one who would deliver his principality from the fearsome beast. That was the way it was done, notwithstanding the fact that the aforesaid beast had never harmed a creature under his protection, unless you might count those early hens. Prince Paulus's forest was singularly free of predators and of large rats, as well, though nobody could account for that, except for Florelle.
Now she ran among the huge boles of oaks and beeches, and her thoughts were as unprincesslike as her gait. The charcoal -- was there enough? Yes, she had seen to that after the last attacker, back in the late fall. And the cauldron of dye as red as blood? It was full. She had checked only a week ago. Still, she must warn her pet, for he was entirely too trusting for one of his species.
Pausing before an outcropping of rock that had tumbled down the steep cliff at the edge of the wood, she whistled sharply. There came a grumbling roar in reply ... a very soft one, she was glad to note. Fido had learned not to give full voice after shaking the ground all the way to the nearest cathedral town and setting the bells to ringing at midnight. That had given her a fright, indeed, though the scholars and theologians luckily decided that the Devil had been unusually active in Hell on that night.
Fortunately, men were mainly fools, she had decided long ago.
A large head with liquid green eyes and golden whiskers came slithering out of a cranny in the rock-slide. The eyes went soft when they saw her, and a burbling purr came from the cart-wide span of his mouth.
She smiled in spite of herself. He was so loving! But entirely too trusting. She scrambled into the cavern and sat on a rock. The great creature arranged his coils among the stones that furnished his home and laid his chin -- or what served as such -- at her feet.
"There is another one at the gate this moment," she told Fido. "Metal from head to heels, and likely a helmful of purest granite. He will probably dine and sleep the night before coming out to find you, but I want you well hidden, just in case he is in a hurry. I shall slip away before the house wakes in the morning and stoke up the fires at the back of the cave.
"You go into the deepest places and keep very still. Go to sleep -- you do that so well, dear. I'll make a dragon for him, smokes and flames and all, and if he is like the rest he will claim to have slain you and nobly renounce all reward before he leaves. Heaven knows what I should do if one came who had no honor at all and tried to claim me. I might well bring him here for a dalliance. Yet I would hesitate to give you a taste for humanity. That might become awkward."
The big creature burbled softly, and she patted the scaly head. "We shall worry about that when there is cause," she said. "Until then, go quickly and hide. I shall visit you after we have put this newcomer to flight."
Fido arranged his coils and glided away over the stony floor, his scales rustling in a shivery fashion. His friend and mistress watched him go with a fond smile.
Florelle arrived home a bit late and more than a bit untidy from her exertions. She was met by her mother, who was more indignant than usual at her daughter's unladylike ways.
"Here's a fine young man, come all the way from Bar- Bludgeon to fight the dragon and claim your hand, and you are poking about in that dirty wood, getting insects in your hair and dirt on your dress. If only I had produced a proper daughter! But you are too like your Aunt Alzabel. Entirely too like! I wonder why I consented, when your father asked me to wed. I knew Alzabel. I should have been warned!"
Florelle was too used to such tirades to listen. She washed and changed and went meekly down to dinner, where she was all a young girl should be, quiet, meek, agreeable. So much so that her mother glanced suspiciously at her more than once.
The knight, once he peeled off his crust of armor, was very young. Almost, indeed, as young as Florelle. All of the others had been hard-bitten sportsmen with nothing in their heads but spoor and tracking techniques. They had wanted her as little as she did them, for all their lust had been for poor Fido. Until, of course, they came within sight of the cave, with its billows of smoke and its scarlet flames shooting out of the cavern-mouth.
Once they established in their minds that a real ... live ... dragon lived there, it was a matter of much simplicity to send them flying. A bellow from Fido, rumbling up from the depths where she hid him, always had done the job quite well.
She rather hated to do that with this one. He looked too ill-at-ease, too unsure of himself to play such a trick on him. After dinner, for the first time in her life, she consented to sit at one side of the fireplace with him while her mother sewed on the other, within sight but out of easy earshot.
"Why do you come hunting our dragon?" Florelle asked him, pretending to poke back a stray coal into the fire. "From your look, I should say you would take naturally to farming, as my father does."
His hand stole from his side and found hers, where she had carefully left it waiting under a fold of her skirt. Florelle felt something that had not occurred to her before.A most interesting sensation, indeed. She looked questioningly at him, then at her mother.
A grin touched her lips. "Edred, do you like to get up early? Very, very early? There is something I might show you, before dawn tomorrow, if you would meet me at the postern gate." She watched his face closely.
A smile touched his own lips. He shot a glance at the old Princess, but her eyes were fixed on her work. "I'll be there," he breathed.
Fido liked Edred at once. When he overcame his surprise, Edred found the big beast every bit as affectionate and interesting as did Florelle. Before the sun rose, the two young people had gone deeper along the cliffs to find another cavern, better hidden and less accessible than the first.
Getting Fido there was not as chancy as it would have been later in the morning. Once he was well hidden they poured the cauldron of "blood" on the floor, whacked about with Edred's blade to scar a few rocks, and made it look as if a terrible battle had taken place there.
The Prince came, when they called him to view the place where the dragon had been slain. Though no body was found, everyone agreed that not even a Worm could withstand the loss of so much blood without dying, sooner or later.
"He flew away," said Edred, gesturing upward. "I would guess that he fell in the mountains beyond the cliffs. He could hardly fly at all, and he wavered in the air."
The Prince sighed, partly with relief that such foolishness was over, at long last, and partly with regret at what he must say next. "And now I must, by my word, offer you my daughter's hand in marriage. What say you? Though I admit that she will be sorely missed."
Edred's face reddened, but he stood squarely before the older man. "Sir, I will accept her hand, gladly, if she is willing. Not otherwise. And if it please you and your lady wife, perhaps we might live here with you. It seems that you have need for another pair of strong hands about your fields. Farming is my interest and my love, after your beautiful daughter.
"My father has many sons and you have none. Would that be agreeable?"
So the two were wed. Amid much rejoicing, they rode away for a fortnight of privacy, as was proper. They never told anyone they spent the weeks in Fido's cavern, visited often by the big beast.
And no one ever understood why they and their children spent so many fair summer days wandering in the forest at the foot of the cliff near the mountains.

 

THE END