The Book Dragon
The path through the woods led to a deserted cabin full of dusty books. Jane was sure Prince Gavin would never look for her there. He had told her time and again during his stay at the castle that books bored him to tears, and he would much rather find himself wielding a sword against a dragon than read all afternoon. It was just one more thing that made her feel like their future engagement was horribly horribly wrong. She did not want to get married to someone she did not know. She wanted to read and travel the kingdom and pursue her own dreams.
Being born a princess really put a thorn in all that.
Rumors abound that this old cabin used to belong to her grandfather’s groundskeeper, who also happened to be a sorcerer. Not the evil, world-dominating kind, but more of a scatterbrained scientist using his magic to learn more about the world around them. Jane had always liked that about the old groundskeeper, and it comforted her more than a little as she walked down the overgrown path. Briars snagged her skirts and scraggly branches blocked out much of the morning sun, but the promise of books and solitude swept her onward.
The path ended in a small clearing filled with a rainbow array of wildflowers. Nestled in the center stood the cabin. The roof was covered in a thick layer of moss and the walls and chimney trailed ivy. Windchimes and scraps of colored glass hung from the eves, glinting in the sunbeams. It was altogether a bewitching sight. The door stuck a little when Jane went to open it, but with a creak the rust flaked away from the hinges and she stepped inside. She blinked in the dim light and surveyed her surroundings.
It was a cozy little cabin, a single room still cluttered with every possession from its previous owner. Shelves affixed every open wall and were stuffed floor to ceiling with books. There was no bed but a comfy looking armchair tucked in front of the fireplace and covered with a collection of dusty furs and moth-eaten blankets. A circular table in the center of the room was piled high with yet more books, along with a collection of quills, parchment, and glass jars that must have once held the old groundskeeper-scientist’s specimens.
Smiling triumphantly, Jane pushed back her sleeves and set to work carving out her own nook to read. She pulled back the ratty curtains and opened the windows wide to let in the fresh forest air, then found a rag to scrub off a small side table and stacked a few of the most appealing looking reads atop it. Finally she pulled off the furs and shook out the blankets before settling into the chair. It creaked as she sank into the lumpy depths and opened the first book, An Explorer’s Guide to Gryphons.
How much time passed as she read, Jane did not know. She was swept through the worlds of the brave explorer and faced off against a cliff-dwelling gryphon. She followed the antics of Petunia and the Fairies Nine who lived in the Enchanted Woods. She wept at the lament of a long-ago knight’s brave sacrifice and riddled her way through a sly sphyx’s tests. How many worlds did she wander through and how many wondrous people did she meet? Jane could not tell you. But she could pinpoint the moment she was thrust out of that dreamy reader’s realm, just as a large scaly snout edged through the window and knocked over her stack of books.
Jane shrieked and jumped backward, the whole chair tipping in the process. When she finally got to her feet she found two ruby red eyes twinkling at her in laughter. Most astounding of all was that those ruby red eyes belonged to a dragon. Her whole body trembled and she held her current book in front of her chest like a shield.
“It’s been a long time since someone has appreciated this place,” the dragon rumbled, a voice that reminded Jane of mountains and redwoods and old places in the earth. Old, but not scary.
“Th-this is your cabin? But I thought it used to belong to my grandfather’s groundskeeper,” Jane felt some of the fear edging away, curiosity taking over. After all, how many people got past all that nasty sword fighting to actually talk to a dragon?
“Indeed it did.” The dragon flashed what could only be interpreted as a smirk. “I rarely got many visitors back when I was human either. Books aren’t flashy like other kinds of magic, and are all too often overlooked.” The dragon snaked his head farther through the window and nudged a set of shelves affectionately. “But I think you are the kind of person that recognizes their magic.”
“It’s why I came to the cabin,” Jane admitted, admiring the gleam of the dragon’s scales, onyx and opalescent at once. “Because I knew there were stories here. Reading lets me be everything that I can’t be in real life.”
“And what is it that you are in real life?” He assessed her with one all too keen ruby eye.
The dragon huffed, the tiniest spindrel of steam rising from his nostrils. “Are you cursed?”
“No,” Jane shook her head.
“Stuck in a tower?”
“Well, no.” Although sometimes she wondered if that was an option for avoiding Prince Gavin.
“Are you being hunted by an evil queen or an old witch or a grumpy huntsman?”
“No, no, and I would hope not,” she answered, growing a bit baffled at the dragon’s line of inquiry.
The dragon silently scanned his collection of books. He nudged another set of shelves and a single book dropped off the ledge and fell to the floor, pages fluttering. “Then you must be one of those princesses who is going to be married off.”
“Yes.” Even saying that left Jane’s stomach in knots. “But why does that matter to you?”
“Because I can tell you how it all ends.”
“You can do that? Really?” She was afraid to hope.
“Really, but only if you truly want to know,” the dragon answered with a nod of his large head. “It can be a dangerous magic, skipping to the end.”
“But I must know!” Jane pleaded, tears pricking the corners of her eyes. “I don’t want to be a princess, but maybe if I knew everything turned out alright I could bear it a bit better.”
“Very well,” the dragon hummed. “You may find your ending here.” He nodded toward the fallen book. She edged around the overturned chair and slowly picked up the tome, the pages falling open in her hands. The beautiful script inside told the familiar story of a princess, but Jane only had eyes for the final sentence: The path through the woods led to a deserted cabin full of dusty books.
She frowned at the words, then at the dragon waiting above her. “I don’t understand. I’ve already done this. That’s not the future.”
“I warned you, when you skip ahead you miss out on the journey, and the clues that would end up leading you back here again.” The dragon started to pull his head and neck back out of the cabin.
Questions bubbled up in Jane’s chest but before she could open her mouth a strange sensation seeped into her limbs. It was a tickling lightness that touched every nerve and rearranged every part of her. She blinked once and then the world changed.
Or she supposed she did. Her skirts had been replaced by silvery scales, her hands and feet now claws. She no longer had a long braid down her back but a ridge of sharp plates. Wings shrouded her shoulders, and her tail swished with each breeze that tumbled through the open windows. She was a dragon, though one much smaller than the old groundskeeper.
“What happened?” Jane wailed.
“That, I can’t tell you,” the old dragon replied gently. “I can only tell you what happens next. You will take my place guarding the magic of these books. You can read and you can learn, and one day someone very much like you will come along. And if they recognize the power in these words they will become the next book dragon, and you will be free to go on adventures of your own.”
“But why am I a dragon? I’m supposed to be a princess.”
“Not all stories turn out the way we expect them to,” he met her eyes then, ruby to sapphire. “But the end was never the point. It’s how we get that matters. You are just learning your why out of order.” With a final nod, he spread his wings and leaped clear of the cabin and the forest, and arced out into the world beyond.
Jane studied the walls of books once again, then blew out a small breath of flame to light the hearth. The sun was setting and there were still so many books to read. She curled up in front of the fire and set to work. She was thankful, at least, that Prince Gavin found books more fearsome than dragons.