White Scales and Red Roses
Updated: Feb 3, 2022
“The hunger of a dragon is slow to wake, but hard to sate.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin
A long, long time ago, beyond the seven mountains, beyond the seven rivers, there lived a king and queen. The two were bathed in riches, loved by all and, as these stories often go, they were not happy.
Despite their riches, despite their loving home, the two could not have the thing they wanted most of all.
They could not have a child.
Years passed, the glow of new marriage growing old and weary in their eyes with each year the bore no fruit. The queen fell to weeping, drifting aimlessly through the palace halls, her hands stitching tiny toys that little hands would never cling close and love. The king fell to planning, someone, somewhere must have the secret that would bring life into their home. His men rode out in four directions, searching first the kingdom, then the land, and then the world for any who could bring forth the king’s great wish.
Wise men, great alchemists, healers, priests. Each came and stood before the crown and laid their remedy at the king’s feet. And each failed.
With each failure the king grew greyer, the queen grew thinner, sorrow sitting heavy on once hopeful brows and shoulders.
And then, and only then, did she come.
Silver hair gone dry with age swung down beneath the heavy cloak that hid her face, shimmering like shiny metal in the torches’ light. Her hands were twisted, red with pain at the knuckles, the joints swollen and the palms soft and thin as paper.
When she spoke, her voice was cracked, but strong enough the hall fell silent to hear her speak.
“A child, you wish?” the woman said and held out her hands. In each palm she held a single seed, the first green wisps beginning to curl free of their earthy shell and reach towards the sky. “Plant these beneath a moonless sky, and come morning see their roses bloom. This,” she held forth her left hand, “Will bloom white, and this,” she held forward her right, “will bloom red.”
“And then?” the queen asked, leaning forward, face lit from within like a candle’s glow.
“White will bring a girl, red will bring a boy,” the woman said. “Eat the rose for the child you wish to have. Be warned.” Her voice turned dark, the wind howled against the castle-stone. “Eat one and one alone. To eat both will bring a great misfortune onto you, and on your house.”
“I swear,” the queen said, stepping forwards, hands outstretched. The woman, face still covered, seemed to smile. She placed the seeds into the outstretched hands and disappeared.
A week later, the queen stood in the garden. Alone. Her husband had offered, but she said no. A yes would have saved them all a lot of grief.
She dithered on her choice. White or red? Red or white? Her husband needed an heir. A son would be needed. But she would never have another. And what of her, when her son was learning his father’s trade, was marching off to battle? She would be childless once again. So then, a daughter. One to keep close, and love and teach her everything she could. But then. A daughter would marry. Would leave for another’s house and not return. And the queen would be childless once again.
Her hand lashed out before thought, her eyes closed as she plucked a rose and popped it in her mouth.
It was… it was sweet. It melted on her tongue like honey, only warmer, gone far too fast for her to savour the taste. Her next thoughts were not of sons or daughters, nor of promises made to old women with starlight hair. Her thoughts were only of that sweetness. Of wanting more. Her hand lashed out again, a second rose, a second burst of sweetened joy.
And then her eyes opened on two empty stems.
Her heart stuttered. Her breath caught. But… they were only roses. How much harm could a flower do?
Perhaps no harm, but they could bring joy.
The moons passed, the rose bush withered, and the queen grew round with child, dire warnings long since cast aside in favour of new joy.
The day came, the king left the women to their business. And in her bed the queen screamed in horror as white scales tumbled onto bloodstained sheets. The creature twisted snake-lithe in the bed, scales sharp and gleaming, dark eyes that glittered malice. It scrambled free, long claws tearing the skin of the women who tried to grab it and wriggled through the window – disappeared into the night.
The queen screamed again – not horror now, or shock, but pain again. Her women ran to attend her. And this time, her labour brought a child. A perfect boy. Ten fingers. Ten toes. Round cheeks. Soft skin.
The women held each other’s eyes and held their peace. Who was to say what had happened in that locked room. What had spilled from their queen and into the night. They had a healthy heir. And the monster was young. It may not yet survive.
Years passed, the son grew big and tall, with his mother’s hair, and his father’s easy smile. Eventually it came time for him to take a wife of his and so, with his men at his sides, and a laugh in the air, the young prince set off.
And found his way blocked.
A great wyrm sat, coiled on the road, his eyes glitter-dark with malice and his scales as white and dry as bone beneath the crisp morning.
His great mouth cracked open into a wicked smile, teeth sharp voice deep as it rumbled. “And where is my bride, sweet brother?”
The young prince drew his sword, raised his shield. The wyrm merely laughed, skittered backwards from his brother’s blows, but did not leave. His great length rolled around them coiled and uncurled. He did not strike back, but he did not let his brother’s weapon land.
Eventually, tired and defeated, the prince turned back.
He told his father what he’d seen, the defeat he had faced. The king sent men to the road, who found it empty. The queen stayed quiet. The next day the prince road out again and once again his brother blocked the road.
This time the queen spoke. Told her husband all about the half-remembered creature, that pain and time had almost taken from her mind.
An elder son. An Heir.
The next day the king road out to meet his son, his youngest at his side.
The wyrm was there, eyes dark, teeth sharp and smile even sharper. “Hello father, hello brother,” he rumbled. Head titling with a challenge as he said, “A bride for me, before a bride for you.”
The king agreed.
He sent word to the kingdoms, summoned any woman willing to be a queen at the cost of a marriage to a monster (a deal some make, even without scales and teeth involved). One by one the wyrm wedded them. And one by one they failed to satisfy.
They did not live to see their wedding morning.
The king kept at his search, and each woman died at his son’s hand. At his son’s teeth.
Finally, with nothing else to do, he ordered the daughter of a loyal shepherd brought to him.
The shepherd wept, his daughter weeping with him but the king – though saddened – was unmoved. The girl was brought to the palace, awaiting her joyous marriage.
Alone again, she wept.
The girl flinched, leapt to her feet. In the corner of the room, a woman stood. Her face was covered by her cloak and her hands were strong, but worn with age. Though her mouth was hidden, the girl got the sense that she was smiling.
“Hello, child,” the woman said. “Do you want to live to see the morning?”
“Please!” The girl said.
The woman’s smile grew as she told the girl the secret.
When they came for her, she was ready, head high, hands held in fists at her side. She walked with straight back to her husband-monster and did not flinch as his hot breath brushed against her skin.
“Hello, my wife,” the monster said. “Will you not let me see you?”
The girl tilted her head higher. “I will if you will.”
The wyrm laughed, half delight, half malice, and twisted, rubbing his scales against the harsh stone walls of the castle room, scratching at his chest until he sat in the ghostly discharge of his shed skin. The girl removed her dress. Beneath she wore another dress.
The wyrm’s eyes narrowed. “That one too, my wife.”
The girl smiled her challenge. “I will if you will.”
And so, it went.
With each dress the girl lost, she came closer to her last. But, with each skin the wyrm shed, the smaller he grew. By the time the girl had only one dress remaining the wyrm was half his size, body trembling with pain at the touch of fresh air upon it. His scales were so thin beneath them the girl could see the deep red of veins, the pulse of blood fluttering steadfastly through.
From the cupboard where she hid them, the girl pulled whips of rawhide, dipped in lye, lashing at the wrym as he screamed and writhed. The last skin tore beneath her strength. The creature screamed. Those fragile veins split.
When exhaustion and pain had left the wyrm a fragile curl upon the floor the girl relented. She bathed the creature with soft cloth, dipped in milk and honey. She gathered him in her arms and took him to the bed. They slept.
Dawn woke to skin against skin, new limbs stretched out across a bed, hair white and strong as scales once had been. The girl woke. Her husband, new and fresh and man woke too. The malice gone from his eyes, and heart. The wrym was dead. Long live the prince. He took his new wife in his arms, and kissed her, thanked her, loved her.
The kingdom rejoiced. The wyrm was dead. And they welcomes with open hearts and happy shouts a prince, and his princess.
In the woods, far from the kingdom walls, a woman with her face covered in a cloak, and starlight silver in her hair, smiled.
And, if she did not die, she’s still alive today.
Insp. Prince Lindworm