A Date with Destiny

Destiny has no regard for tradition.
Photo: Craig Adderley
Dragon breathing fire on top of building.

by Chris Hodgins

It was the most important day of Amelia’s life, a fact which she resented to no end. Today was her bestand onlychance to win the affections of the eminent Prince Jedrek. He wouldn’t be prince for long though. Jedrek was expected to murder his father and ascend the throne any day now. “Poisoned by his enemies,” he’d no doubt claim. Sure. Every king for the last six generations had been “poisoned by his enemies.” That’s just the way things always went around here. The important thing was that Jedrek was going to be king soon, and Amelia was going to make damn well sure she was along for that ride.

She’d won the beauty contest at the town fair, the prize for which was an opportunity to lunch with his royal highness. Ambitious women had flocked to compete, but all the serious contenders had dropped out due to “mysterious accidents, so Amelia had won pretty much by default. She suspected her mother had something to do with that. She’d been reluctant to enter the running in the first place, but the old bat hadn’t given her much of a choice.

If she was being honest, Amelia wasn’t all that ambitious. She hadn’t originally planned on becoming queen, and Jedrek was a bit too murder-y for her tastes. Her mother didn’t care about that, though. She smelled an opportunity, and Amelia was a means to an end. The knob-nosed crone had hidden her beloved horse Gunter away somewhere, so she had little choice but to play along.

Enter that contest and win fer Tarok’s sake! her mother had shrilled. Yer looks are all ye’re good fer! Now woo that bloody prince, or I’ll turn Gunter into a toad! Yeah. Delightful woman. And people wondered where Amelia got her sparkling personality from.

Amelia got up at the crack of dawn to look for Gunter—and to avoid her mother. No doubt she’d try to feed her a potion of beauty, or prince-charming, or some other crap. Her mother was the town witch and a giant pain in the ass. The townsfolk hated her, but her potions mostly worked and only tasted a little bit like mud, so nobody had burned her at the stake yet. Amelia wouldn’t chance using one of her potions, though. No amount of beauty or charm would matter if she threw up all over the prince’s shoes.

Amelia crept out of her mother’s hut and into the town. It was best to search there before the villagers woke up. Like all peasants, they always had rotten vegetables at the ready to throw at anyone they didn’t like. That meant Amelia. They hated her just because she was the witch’s daughter, and maybe also because her one and only attempt at brewing a potion made everyone’s hair fall out. Becoming queen had been her mother’s idea, sure, but if marrying Jedrek meant all those bald faces would stop looking down on her, well damn it, she’d do it. If she could get Gunter back too, she’d even be able to boss her mother around for once. That’d make it all worth it.

***

Amelia looked up at the sky and her eyes went wide. Crap. She was so busy looking for Gunter she hadn’t realized how high the sun had gotten. She was supposed to meet the prince at noon, and time was running short. Without Gunter, she’d be forced to go on foot, and she needed to leave now.

Amelia dashed across fields and over hills, cursing her mother between ragged breaths. Even as her heart thrummed against her ribs and her legs burned, she found the motivation to keep going by imagining what she’d do to her mother once she was queen. Nothing too horrid, but she’d definitely send her off somewhere she’d be miserable. Maybe Elftown; the singing would drive her nuts.

Because she was running so late, Amelia decided to take a shortcut through the Dark Woods, which turned out to be a pretty terrible idea. She was immediately set upon by a jabbering pack of goblins, which chased her from one end of the forest to the other. Long, spindly branches from dead trees tugged and clawed at her as she ran, ripping her dress and scratching her skin. She eventually managed to shake her pint-sized pursuers by leaping into a fetid swamp that was too deep for the little bastards to wade through. She was filthy from the waist down and smelled almost as bad as the goblins, but at least she wasn’t lunch.

With the monsters well behind her, Amelia stopped to rest. What time was it? She couldn’t see the sun from under the trees. She wondered, was the prince even going to like her? Would she like him? Did it even matter? And was that sweat or blood dripping down her face? She shook her head and tried to focus. She was going to woo the hell out of that stupid prince, become queen, find Gunter, and stick it to her mother. Maybe then everyone would finally show her some goddamn respect—and find somebody else to throw their stinking vegetables at. She collected herself and kept moving.

Castle Town was close now. Amelia cleared the trees and could see it ahead, across a final stretch of field. Was she still on time? She glanced up, but something had blotted out the sun. Before she had a chance to register what it was, a great green blur descended from the sky and landed with an earth-shaking THUD in front of her, kicking up dust and throwing her off her feet. It was the wings she noticed first. Unfurled, they would have been nearly one hundred feet across, easily. The dappled green wings belonged to a massive reptilian frame covered in hardened emerald scales. The beast leered at her from a pair of intelligent yellow eyes.

A dragon?! Now?! Seriously?!

“Greetings.The dragon’s voice resonated with unmatched authority. “I am the one your kind calls Tarok.”

Tarok! She knew that name. Everyone did. He was the mightiest of all dragons in the land, both protector and destroyer, beloved and reviled. Even a king was nothing before such a creature. And now he was here. Amelia knew what she had to do. She began to speak the words of adulation, words everyone knew to recite in the presence of a dragon.

“Oh glorious, illustrious Tarok…” She spoke ceremoniously, reciting each line from memory. “Words cannot convey your majesty, your grandeur, your opulence! I am but a humble servant, for your power is so great…” The speech went on and on. The dragon seemed bored, but he knew the tradition, and waited impatiently for Amelia to finish.

“…The green of your scales shines like one-thousand glimmering… um…” Amelia trailed off. The sun was directly above—noontime. Tarok didn’t seem to notice that she’d stopped.

“…You know what? Forget this.” Amelia rose to her feet. The dragon perked up, suddenly attentive. “What do you want? I’m running really late. Everything keeps going wrong today, and I just need this one thing to work out for me. Okay? So if you’re gonna eat me, just get it over with. If not, get out of my way.”

The dragon’s tail flicked back and forth. Amelia thought it looked strangely catlike. Then the beast laughed with a voice that shook the valley.

“Bold, aren’t you! No, I am not going to eat you. I intend to kidnap you.”

On any other day, Amelia would’ve been terrified. Right now, she was just annoyed. She tapped her foot impatiently. “May I ask why?”

“There aren’t any princesses left,” the dragon said, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “Too many volcano sacrifices. You’re the closest thing there is to a princess now, due to your date with the prince. So I’m going to kidnap you instead. It’s what dragons do, I suppose.”

“Oh, you heard about that.”

“Indeed.”

“Can you at least let me meet him first? I don’t even know if it’s going to go well. You can kidnap me afterwards if you want, but damn it, just let me have this!”

Tarok appraised her with his icy gaze. “There are few among your kind who would dare speak to me in such a way. Do you not fear me, girl?”

“The only thing scaring me is how much of my time you’re wasting,” Amelia snapped back. Her face was hot with adrenaline. “You don’t have any better options. Fine. I get that. Neither do I. So just let me do this one thing. Then you can kidnap me, Jedrek will send his stupid knights to get me back, and you’ll get to play your little game. Okay?”

Something shifted in the dragon’s features. Was he grinning?

“I have not met any others who possess such spirit,” Tarok said. Very well! Do as you please. I’ll await your return. I’m certain the prince will find you worthy. I know I do.”

Amelia felt strangely touched by the dragon’s words. She hadn’t honestly expected him to concede, and she did her best to hide her surprise.

“…Well, uh, good! I’ll, um… I’ll be back soon.” With that, Amelia marched off towards the castle under the dragon’s watchful gaze.

***

Amelia made good time after leaving Tarok. The citizens of Castle Town cleared out of her way as she approached; perhaps they’d seen her exchange with the dragon. Or perhaps it was just the smell. She sighed. There was no time to buy a new dress. This was the best Jedrek was gonna get.

Amelia arrived at the castle courtyard to find Jedrek awaiting her in the garden, seated at a small round table with a bottle of wine and flanked by knights in gleaming steel. His feet, clad in spotless boots, were propped up on the table. About half the wine was already gone. Amelia tried not to seem out of breath as she curtsied, nearly losing her balance as she did.

“You’re late,” the prince said. His nostrils flared. “And you reek. You look like the ass-end of a hag. I thought you won the beauty contest. Did the rest of the contestants die of the plague?”

Sort of, Amelia thought grimly to herself. She supposed she looked a bit dishevelled, but maybe she could still salvage this.

“Milord, true beauty lies with—”

“Nope. No. Just no.” Jedrek waved his hand dismissively. “You disgust me. Begone from my sight, hag.”

Amelia stared daggers at the prince. “That’s it?” she snarled. “That’s all I get? After everything I went through to get here?”

“Watch your tongue, peasant. You’re speaking to Prince Je—”

Amelia snatched the wine off the table before he could finish, and the words caught in his throat. She took a swig as Jedrek watched, mouth agape.

“There. Now I’m not leaving empty-handed,” she said, and then tossed the bottle on the stone floor. As it shattered at Jedrek’s feet the knights moved to seize her, but a looming shadow caused them to falter. Tarok landed with another THUD behind Amelia. Jedrek and the knights fell over themselves as they ran away, screaming all the while. Amelia didn’t flinch.

“Did it go well?” the dragon asked.

“Not really,” Amelia replied as she watched the shrieking prince flee to the safety of his castle. She turned to face Tarok. “Still want to kidnap me?”

“Yes.” His cold yellow eyes assessed her, and he grinned again. “Though it’s not kidnapping if you wish to come.”

It’s better than going back,” she said with a shrug. She didn’t try to conceal her smile. “One condition, though. I want you to help me find a horse named Gunter.”

The dragon nodded without hesitation and lowered its body. Amelia climbed onto his back. It was odd, but for the first time in a long time, she felt happy. She couldn’t wait to see the look on her mother’s face.

Author Bio:

Chris Hodgins was born in Nova Scotia but currently lives in Ontario, and he still misses the smell of the sea. He enjoys video games and D&D, and he loves his wife and furry kids more than anything else. A Date with Destiny is his first short story, and combines his love of fantasy with his sarcastic sense of humour.

A Date with Destiny” will be featured in By the Fire: Tales from the Ashes, the upcoming fiction anthology to be published by Algonquin College Professional Writing students in spring 2024. Follow Spine Online on Facebook at facebook.com/ACprofessionalwritingprogram or Twitter/X @ourspineonline for updates on anthology launch dates and ordering information!

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