(Image credit: Lily Riani, Globetrotter, http://lilyrianitravelholic.blogspot.com/2010_08_01_archive.html )
There once was a great warrior renowned throughout the land. He had fought in many wars, slain numerous monsters, defeated innumerable bandits, and once single-handedly repelled an entire army of invading barbarians. He was widely regarded as the bravest, strongest, most heroic man alive. Yet he was lonely, and one day decided to find himself a wife. Considering his reputation he could woo practically any woman he wanted, and indeed many sought his affections, from peasant girls to princesses. But the warrior didn’t want just any woman – he was accustomed to fighting for the things he desired, and he desired a woman for whom he could struggle, and who would be worth all his sacrifice. Eventually he learned of a ruined palace far, far away, home to a mysterious maiden. No one knew who she was or had even spoken to her, but those who had glimpsed her through the palace windows all agreed that she was the most resplendently beautiful woman in the world. Many a brave suitor had tried to enter the palace to win her hand, but all were defeated by a huge, ferocious fire-breathing dragon who guarded the maiden night and day.
As soon as he heard the story, the warrior knew this was the woman he wanted for his wife, and so he donned his armor and set out for the palace. After journeying for many long months, he finally arrived. Through a narrow window in the palace’s highest tower he could see the maiden, and indeed she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Filled with desire, he drew his sword and charged through the palace gates. But he was immediately met by a gigantic ball of fire, and were it not for his shield he would have been instantly incinerated. He battled the dragon for what seemed like hours, but never got close enough to so much as scrape a scale, and finally, exhausted, was forced to retreat. He tried several more times over the next couple of days, varying his tactics and using a variety of different weapons, but was never successful.
He was on the verge of giving up and riding home when it suddenly occurred to him to ask the maiden herself if she knew the dragon’s weakness. So he waited at the base of the palace walls until, late one night, she appeared in the window. He called up to her, declaring his intentions and requesting the secret to slaying the dragon. Without a word she closed the window and withdrew. Surprised but undeterred, he tried again the next night, and the night after that, until finally she shouted down at him, “Why should I trust you?! How do I know you’re not a bandit come to kidnap, hurt, or kill me? And even if you aren’t, why should I want to marry you?”
“I am the greatest warrior in all the land,” he proclaimed, “and I swear on my honor that my intentions are virtuous. As for why you should want to marry me, well, I have fought in many wars, slain numerous monsters, defeated innumerable bandits, and once single-handedly repelled an entire army of invading barbarians. I could have any woman I wanted, but I only have eyes for you.”
“You’re nothing but an arrogant, bloody-minded thug,” she scoffed at him, and disappeared once more into the palace interior. The warrior was shocked and hurt – never before had anyone dared to speak so insultingly to him. But for some reason, he felt more determined than ever to win her over.
The next evening, he changed his tactics. This time he didn’t ask about the dragon at all, but instead asked about her origins and how she came to reside in the ruined palace. She didn’t respond, but neither did she insult him or withdraw into the palace. Taking this as a good sign, he continued asking questions about her life, and before the night was through had learned that she enjoyed sculpting, gardening, and reading ancient philosophy. The next evening they spoke again, and he found out her favorite foods to eat. As their night conversations continued she gradually opened up and revealed more and more about her herself, including her hopes, dreams, and even faults. Nonetheless, although by this time the warrior knew a great deal about the maiden and felt more in love with her than ever, he had still never been inside the palace, let alone made physical contact with her. But one night this changed, and she invited him to enter the palace and visit her in her chamber.
“But what of the dragon?” he asked.
“Don’t worry,” she replied. “The dragon will not bother you.”
And so, the warrior entered the palace through the main gates, and sure enough there was no trace of the dragon. Climbing to the top chamber of the palace’s highest tower, he found her waiting for him, even more radiant in appearance up close. They spoke late into the night, though still without making any physical contact. The next night, though, she let him hold her hand, and then a few nights later to kiss her on the cheek. The entire time there was never any sign of the dragon, and whenever he asked about it she changed the subject. One evening she finally kissed him on the lips, and it was the most thrilling, soulful kiss he had ever experienced. As they parted for the night, she made him a promise.
“Next time we meet,” she said, “you can take me as your wife.”
The warrior enthusiastically agreed, and the next night arrived at the palace bearing sumptuous gifts: a bounteous feast, elaborate bouquet, jewelry, books, and sculpting materials. When he reached her chamber, however, he was startled to find the dragon coiled in wait, its massive scaly bulk filling the entire room. He drew his sword, but before he could attack the dragon spoke, in an unexpectedly soft and familiar voice. “Wait,” it said, and before his eyes transformed into the maiden!
“Now you know my true nature,” she explained. “I am a princess, the daughter of the Dragon King. He sought to have me married, but I refused every suitor he presented to me. None were to my liking, and eventually he had me banished for disobedience. I have lived in this palace ever since, waiting to find someone worthy of my heart’s affection. I have decided you are worthy.”
The warrior, however, was horrified, and wanted to leave at once. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I can’t marry a woman who isn’t even human.” Before he could leave, the maiden grabbed his arm and, tears welling in her eyes, placed an amulet in his hand. “This amulet is carved from a scale of my dragon hide, and the string is woven from my human hair. Remember me.”
As the warrior left, he contemplated getting rid of the amulet, and nearly cast it into a nearby river. He couldn’t bring himself to let go of it, however, and without fully knowing why he hung it around his neck instead. He rode for several days, struggling in vain to clear the memory of the dragon maiden from his mind, until suddenly he was ambushed by a horde of bandits. He drew his sword and fought them, and despite difficulty seemed to be prevailing, until an enormous man with greenish skin and sharp tusks for teeth stepped forward and declared himself their leader. Despite his massive size, the man did not cast a shadow. It was then that the warrior realized these were no ordinary bandits: they were forest ogres, and their leader the infamous Ogre King. He battled the Ogre King with all his might, but to no avail, and eventually found himself lying injured, disarmed, and exhausted at the Ogre King’s feet. As the Ogre King raised his axe to deliver the killing blow, the warrior thought suddenly of the only other opponent ever to defeat him in battle: the dragon maiden. He clutched the amulet around his neck, and shed a tear for having left her brokenhearted.
And then, suddenly, miraculously, she appeared before him! Employing tooth, nail, and her fiery breath, she battled the Ogre King and his minions and defeated them easily. As the survivors fled into the forest, she turned to the warrior and assumed her human form. He prostrated himself before her in gratitude and shame, and then, kneeling, bowed his head and declared his love for her. If she would forgive his betrayal and accept him as her husband, he would be forever loyal and devoted to her, and aspire always to be deserving of her affection.
She accepted, and the two were married and lived a long, happy life together. And to this day, the people of that realm have a saying: “Wise is the man who marries a dragon.”
Author’s note: This is a fairy tale I wrote a couple of years ago. The premise is very loosely inspired by the Burmese legend of Hkun Ai, a culture hero who unknowingly married a dragon woman, but was too disturbed to stay with her after discovering her true form. The overall narrative came to me rather suddenly, and I composed the whole story in one sitting, though this is the first time I’ve ever shared it with anyone.