The Work Dragon (Short Story Sunday)


Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a princess who worked in an office in a tall tower. No one knew she was a princess, although had they been told, they wouldn’t have been surprised, for the princess was always gracious, even when the magical equipment failed – which it frequently did – or when there was a fault with the hourglasses that made time run too fast or too slow – which it frequently did. She remained calm and unflustered, almost as if she didn’t notice, because she had read many fairytales in which princesses faced terrible dangers and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that they invariably overcame. She often wondered how she would behave in a similar circumstance, and if you read on you will see that she very soon found out. 

The princess worked as a scribe on the seventieth floor. Every morning she said, “good morning,” to the porter at the great gate, picked up the parcel of letters that it was her task to sort and translate, and walked up the seventy flights of steps to the office she shared with a dozen other clerks. She was never late. But that morning, a bird had flown into the window of her carriage, and she had stopped to pick it up and help it recover, and then she had walked some way into the woods to let it free, and when she arrived at the great gates of the tower, the porter had already begun to push the wings shut. The princess dashed through the gap. Then she paused, regained her composure, greeted the porter and picking up her parcel, entered the tower with unrushed, but quick and purposeful steps.

As soon as she was inside, she felt that something was different, but she shrugged it off, thinking it was because she had never been late before. But when she had walked up the seventy flights of steps and into her office-hall, what should she see but a great, hulking dragon towering over her workmates.

“You’re late,” bellowed the dragon.

“I’m sorry,” said the princess. “I’ve never been late before. It’s just that-”

“Get to work,” shouted the dragon. Her voice made the windows rattle.

The princess took her seat, untied her parcel of letters, and began sorting them. The dragon walked up and down, her wingtips scraping grooves in the wooden floors, and her glittering eyes fastened on the figures below her.

Out of the corner of her eye, the princess could see her friends sitting on either side of her, huddled in fright over their desks, and writing furiously.

“Fasssster,” hissed the dragon.

The others scratched faster at their parchment, but the princess continued at the same pace. The dragon bent its head until its muzzle was inches away from her face. The princess could smell the dragon’s smoky breath.

“Why aren’t you working faster?” rumbled the dragon.

“I’m trying to be careful,” said the princess. “I don’t want to make a mistake or I will have to start over.” All the stories she had read about dragons were running through her mind, and although she kept her voice steady, she felt a little trembling in her stomach. Dragons not infrequently ate princesses. They trapped them in castles for centuries. They… No, she wouldn’t think of that. But what if she wasn’t strong enough to face a dragon after all? What if she wasn’t that sort of princess? What if she was more of a failing sort of princess?

As if sensing her doubt, the dragon bared its razor-sharp teeth. “Work fasster,” it hissed. A drop of its spit landed on the princess’s parchment and burnt a hole in it.

The princess swallowed, and nodded.

She found that she could work faster, after all. The letters that would have taken her until the evening, were finished by midday. She noticed that the scribe sitting next to her had also finished, and was eyeing the hourglass, as if wondering whether it was working right.

The dragon had fallen asleep, but her tail still twitched and occasionally whipped the air as if still alert.

When the tower bell tolled twelve, only one scribe was still writing, a rather slow, meticulous man whose special joy was finding mistakes in other peoples’ letters. Some of the workers had been annoyed by him, but the princess had always thanked him for his corrections, and after a while he found no fault with her. But now the dragon yawned, slowly uncurled her huge bulk, and sat on her haunches, regarding the man. He became aware of the scrutiny. He looked around and saw that everyone else had finished their work. He gulped, and put down his pen.

“Too ssslow,” said the dragon. She reached out, and with two pointed pincer-like talons plucked the man from his desk. Then, before anyone had a chance to do more than gasp, or scream, she swallowed him whole.

The princess watched in horror as the man wriggled down the dragon’s throat and into her belly.

“No, you can’t do that! Spit him out!” said the princess.

A few of the others shouted in agreement, but they were all shaken by what they’d seen, and afraid that they would share the poor pedant’s fate.

The dragon paid them no heed. She lumbered to the filing cabinets that lined the room, opened the drawers, and flung the contents out.

“Ssort them,” she commanded.

The scribes all looked at each other in confusion, wondering what to do. Then one woman stepped forward, kneeled on the floor, and began sorting the scattered papers. The princess knew that the woman had a large family and could afford neither losing her job, nor being eaten by a dragon.

But one man shook his fist at the beast. “Why should we clean up the mess that you made?” he demanded, angrily.

“Yes. We’re all trained scribes,” said another, taking heart. “Why should we do this pointless task?”

With one lightning-fast leap that defied her huge body, the dragon was upon them both. She hooked them each on one claw, and threw them one after the other, headfirst into her maw. Then she swept her long neck along the ranks of those that were left, eyeing them one by one.

“No questionssss,” she hissed.

As one, they all knelt down, including the princess, and began collecting and sorting the papers into piles.

When they finished, the sun was going down, but to their dismay they found that some of them had organised the pages by name, and some by date. They tried to keep the dragon from noticing, but she seemed to be able to sense their error. She woke from her afternoon nap, yawned, lifted her distended belly off the ground, and unfurling her wings, fanned them so that the papers flew to all four corners of the room.

“Finissshhh the work,” bellowed the dragon.

The princess felt her heart sink. They had all been working without break since morning, and they were hungry and exhausted. She wanted to argue with the dragon, but she was afraid too. If she were eaten, she would have no hope of helping the others. So she kept silent, but one man couldn’t contain himself. He had always prided himself on being timely, and was always the one to set the hourglasses in the morning.

“It isn’t right,” he said, his voice trembling. “The last bell sounded over an hour ago. We need to get home to our families.”

“No!” shouted the princess. “No, please don’t!”

But it was too late. The dragon didn’t even bother to pick him up, but bending her neck, closed her huge jaws around the man, and then lifted it and let the morsel slide down her long throat.

The princess was shaking with fear and rage. A few others moaned and sniffed, but there was nothing they could do. They went back to work. At midnight, the dragon woke, stretched, sniffed the air, and without a word or glance at the frightened scribes placing piles of papers back in the filing cabinets, she waddled to the ledge and flapped upwards, into the night.

This ordeal was repeated the next day, and the next, for a whole week. The princess’s skin grew sallow; her hair fell out in clumps; and her heart beat tremulously. At night she had nightmares of sorting papers, and of travelling down the dragon’s neverending throat. The king and queen had long ago turned their castle into an orphanage, and they were very busy with their charges, as well as with the running of the land, so the princess didn’t want to bother them with this problem. She thought that perhaps dragons weren’t so uncommon after all. The princesses in the stories she had read had dealt with dragons and she felt that if she were to become worthy of the title, she would have to do so too.

She descended down to the family crypt, and she knocked three times on her grandmother’s tomb, as she always did when she needed advice. Then she sat on a stool, and waited. After a while the torchlight flickered, and the princess felt her grandmother’s familiar, warming presence.

“What is it, my child?” asked her grandmother. “Why is your skin so sallow? Why is your hair falling out? Why is your heart beating tremulously?”

“Oh, grandmother. A dragon has taken up residence in the tower where I work, and she makes us work fast, and hard, and long, and she gives us tasks which are no use to anyone. And if we complain, she eats us whole. I don’t know what to do, but I can’t go on like this.”

“You must do something. It’s your duty as a princess.”

“I know, grandmother, but what can I do?” asked the princess, in despair.

“Go seek the dragon-slayer who lives outside the village,” said her grandmother. “She can help you. Take her my signet ring. It’s in your mother’s jewel box.”

So that night, the princess stole into her mother’s room while the queen was reading the children a bedtime story, and took her grandmother’s signet ring. Then she saddled the king’s fastest horse and rode out of the castle, to find the dragon-slayer.

When she reached the dragon-slayer’s house outside the village, she knocked on the door. A beautiful woman answered, and invited her in.

“Yes, I’m the dragon-slayer,” she said. “How will you pay for my service?”

The princess turned the ring around and around in her pocket, but he couldn’t bring herself to part with the precious heirloom. “I have nothing to give you,” she said, “but if you need, I can write letters for you, and arrange your papers.”

“I don’t need a scribe,” said the dragon-slayer. “But I suppose you can do the cleaning, and the cooking, and laundry, for I am far too busy to do those things myself.”

The princess felt great dismay, but agreed to do the work. It was her duty to help the others, and she would undertake whatever was necessary.

The beautiful dragon-slayer went to drink at the inn, and the princess tied on an apron and began mopping the floor, which was filthy.

Work faster, she thought, looking at the clock. Although she was tired to her very bones, she still had a lot of work to do.

Once she had finished cleaning, she began cooking an enormous wild boar that the dragon-slayer had told her to roast. With difficulty, the princess turned the heavy animal on the spit, her arms aching so much that she began to cry.

“Why does she need so much food, anyway?” she wondered. But then she checked herself. Don’t ask questions, she thought.

It was almost dawn by the time the cooking was done, and she had hoped to return to the castle to get some rest, but she still had the laundry to do, and the dragon-slayer wouldn’t help her until all the work was done.

Finish the work, she thought, and filled the tub with water, and began washing the dirty garments that the dragon-slayer had left her. Many of them were covered in blood, which made the princess fearful. Was is dragon’s blood or was it the blood of the dragon-slayer herself?

A little after dawn, the dragon-slayer returned.

“Have you finished?” she asked.

The princess collapsed in a heap on the floor, overcome with exhaustion. “Yes,” she whispered.

“Good,” said the dragon-slayer.

“Are we going to slay the dragon now?” asked the princess.

“Oh, no, your work isn’t done yet,” said the dragon-slayer, carelessly. “Come back tomorrow night.”

The princess couldn’t believe that she would have to endure another day such as this. But endure it she did, day after day for another week.

At the end of the seventh night, the dragon-slayer finally said, “yes, it’s time. Come along.”

The princess followed her, dragging her feet. They went to the tower. The great gate was deserted, the porter gone. Ivy had grown all the way up to the roof, and the stonework had begun to crumble.

“Dear, dear, is this really where you work?” asked the dragon-slayer. “It looks deserted.”

The princess, too, was surprised. Only a fortnight ago, the tower had been in pristine condition, all the stonework newly pointed, the gates well-oiled, and the porter dressed in his starched shirt. Now as she pushed one wing open, the hinges squeaked and protested. As she walked up the path, the weeds slapped against her legs. As she climbed the steps, a bird flew up to its nest on one of the window-ledges.

“I don’t see any dragons here,” said the dragon-slayer, as they entered the office-hall where the princess worked.

The room was empty, and looked long-abandoned. A few old sheets of parchment were strewn on the floor, but even as the princess picked one up it crumbled to dust in her hands.

“I don’t understand,” she said. The days of incessant work had left her confused. She couldn’t remember what time it was, or what month, or even what year. And was she really a princess, or was that something she had dreamt, a long, long time ago?

Then she felt something in her pocket. It was her grandmother’s signet ring. Wishing only for the comfort of something familiar, she slipped it onto her finger.

Suddenly the room returned to its normal state, as if a stage curtain fell away before her eyes. There sat her colleagues – those who were left – still writing frantically at their desks. But they were changed. The work had left them looking haggard and thin, and more than one head drooped and nodded.

The princess heard a rumble beside her. Where the beautiful woman had stood moments before, was the dragon herself, crouching as if getting ready to strike.

“You!” said the princess. “You were the dragon-slayer. You tricked me!”

“Yessss,” hissed the dragon. And leapt.

The princess stood firm. The dragon had moved with tremendous speed, but as the princess watched, she saw everything slow down, as if someone had dropped one of the hourglasses. The dragon’s dark maw parted, its rows of teeth appearing one by one and growing larger as they approached. Then all at once there was a brilliant flash, and just as slowly, the dragon was thrown backwards, clawing at the air as she crashed through the window, taking part of the wall with her, and then disappearing from sight. The sign of the sigil ring hung in the air, drawn in light, then faded to smoke and was blown away. The scribes felt the earth tremble as the dragon’s body hit the ground far below. She was dead.

A cheer rose from everyone in the tower. Then the other scribes turned to the princess. They had recognised the sigil of the royal house and knew the princess for who she was. They knelt before her, and swore to follow her lead.

The princess didn’t know what to do. She had worked night and day for a fortnight, and now that she was standing there doing nothing, she felt unbearably empty-handed and anxious.

“We must get back to work,” she said, and went to her desk, where the day’s packet of letters were waiting for her.

The others slowly returned to their desks too, though more than one thought that they deserved the day off.

“We must work faster,” said the princess, scratching so quickly with her pen that her lines became jagged and illegible.

When she finished the letters at midday, she looked around for more work to do. She strode to the filing cabinets, pulled out as many pages as she could, and began sorting them, this time by date.

“Princess, what are you doing?” asked the woman who had first fallen to her knees to do the sorting. “Do you want us to help?”

“We must not ask questions,” said the princess, her fingers flying as they shuffled the papers.

The others, not knowing what to do, followed their princess, and began sorting the pages as they had done for so many days before.

The princess tapped her fingers impatiently, waiting for them to finish. When they did, she began rearranging the filing cabinets themselves, pulling out the drawers, then the folders in the drawers, then the papers in the folders. The last bell tolled, but she showed no signs of stopping.

“Princess,” said one man, “the work day has ended, and we are all weary. Don’t you think we should be going home?”

“You worked longer hours for the dragon. Surely you won’t give up now that I have rid you of her. We must finish the work,” she said.

The scribes looked at one another and felt guilty for their lassitude. They went back to work.

When the princess returned to the castle that night, she realised that she wouldn’t have to go to the dragon-slayer to clean her house, and cook her food, and do her laundry. But this new freedom terrified her. She ran to the broom cupboard and took out a mop and bucket, and began furiously washing the floors. The castle was large, and she would have to work as she had never worked before if she wanted to finish all of her chores before the night was over. As she worked, sloshing soapy water all over the hallway, two little princesses saw her, and ran to tell their mother.

The queen rushed to see what was the matter with her daughter.

“My dear, what are you doing?” she asked. “The floors are perfectly clean.”

“I must work faster,” said the princess. “I still have the cooking and the laundry to do.”

“What do you mean?” asked her mother, worried that the princess was feverish. “Why should you do the cooking and the laundry?”

“Because the dragon-slayer told me to.”

“The dragon-slayer?”

“I went to see the dragon-slayer to kill the dragon. Grandmother told me to.”

“Is there a dragon in our lands?” asked the queen, alarmed.

“No, I killed it,” said the princess. “But I’m sorry I can’t talk anymore. I have so much work to do.”

“My poor daughter, the dragon must have cursed you,” said her mother, laying her hand on her daughter’s forehead. “You have forgotten that you are a princess. Here, sit down.”

The princess resisted, but the queen pushed her daughter firmly down into the chair.

“Such a curse can only be countered with a blessing,” she said, and spoke these words over her daughter:

“May you love your work, and never forget that you are a princess.

May you quest to find meaning in your work, and never forget that you are a princess.

May you work only as long as you love the work, and never forget that you are a princess.

Remember, it is your duty to all the people in your land.”

She kissed her daughter on the forehead, and as she did so, the princess felt a great weight lift from her, as if something as large as a dragon had flown up from its perch on her heart.

The curse was broken, and the princess lived, and worked, happily ever after, and never again forgot that she was a princess, or, in time, a queen.


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I really wanted to write something this week that would fulfil (or at least, attempt to fulfil) what I believe is my work as a writer: to make my readers think and feel about their life in a new way.

When I thought back to the last short story that really made me think, I realised that it was a fairytale. And then I remembered the last fairytale I wrote (which was only a very short, simple story intended to illustrate the One Page Novel method) and how many people wrote to tell me that it had moved them to tears! So I decided to write a fairytale, and if you’ve never written one yourself, you’re denying yourself much enjoyment!

When I come to edit this story, I would love to add a frame narrative, as if the fairytale were part of a collection, possibly with several alternative morphological elements (from Propp). I don’t know if it would annoy readers more than amuse them, but it would certainly tickle me!

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” – Rainer Maria Rilke


How about you?

Writing prompt