By John McDonnell
It had been blazing hot all morning, and Princess Meredith was perspiring when she came around a bend on the mountain path and saw the wooden bridge stretching across the gorge. There was a white-bearded old man in a long robe standing near the bridge, and she was not happy about this. He was probably one of those old men who make you answer three questions before they let you cross their bridge, and she wasn’t in a mood to answer questions.
"Hello, blind man," she called, as she approached him. She could tell he was blind because his eyes didn’t focus on anything. Also, because he was looking at a tree instead of her.
"Hello," he said, bowing to the tree. "Charmed to meet you."
"I’m over here, to your left."
"Sorry. I’m blind, you know."
She sighed. "I thought old blind bridgekeepers had a really keen sense of hearing, but you obviously don’t."
"Well, I’ve never had good ears. Nor a good nose, for that matter. But, I can tell everything about a person by touching them. For example," he said, running his hands all over her, "I can tell you’re female, you’ve been perspiring, you’re 19, and you have very big—"
She slapped him across the face. "Keep your hands to yourself, you cheeky devil!"
"Sorry," he said. "I don’t see many young girls around here. Last one must have been two years ago. Princess, she was. On a quest. The dragon ate her, I’m sure."
"Oh, fudge," Princess Meredith said, stamping her foot. "You mean there’s a dragon over there?" She pointed at the other end of the bridge.
"Why yes, Miss," he said, chuckling. "There’s always a dragon, isn’t there?"
"Is he big?"
"Oh, he’s a roaring big sort of a fellow, with nasty breath. Even I, with my dodgy sense of smell, I can tell his breath is terrible bad."
"Well, that’s no good. I have to get over there, because I’m on a quest. An evil witch has put a curse on my father, and turned him into a lampshade, and she won’t turn him back until I return with a ring from the treasure cave across that bridge."
"Ah, yes. All the witches like to send people to the dragon’s cave. It’s a common enough quest. Of course, there are alternatives. You could be sent to a wizard’s castle to pluck his beard. Or, you could sneak up to a dwarf’s forge and steal his hammer. Or, perhaps take an ogre’s supper from him? Ah, that would be an interesting one. . ."
"Yadda yadda," she said. "I don’t have time for this," and she started across the bridge.
"Wait, miss, if you please. I’m the guardian of this bridge. You can’t get past unless I let you."
"And how will you stop me? You’re blind."
He smiled. "Yes. But I have special powers. What kind of a bridgekeeper would I be without special powers?"
She sighed. "And you probably have three questions for me to answer."
"Three questions?" He stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Hmm. Never thought of that. No, that wouldn’t do. I’d have to remember three answers."
"Well, what do I have to do?"
"Yes. Well. You have to. . . that is to say. . . if you wouldn’t mind. . . I mean, ah."
"Would you please get to the point," the princess said, tapping her foot. "I don’t have all day."
"You have to let me give you a massage."
"What? In your dreams."
His face fell. "Oh, that’s what they all say. No massage for us, they say. No. Old George, who has three out of five senses on the fritz, who has to sit out in front of this bridge night and day, with no companionship, year after year, Old George is not allowed the simple pleasure of touching another human being, not allowed to satisfy the basic human need for –"
"Oh all right," the princess said. "Just stop your yammering."
"Would you?" his wrinkled face split into a grin.
"Yes. But make it quick," she said, lying down on her stomach on a nearby flat stone. "And if you go any lower than my third lumbar vertebrae, I’ll beat you to within an inch of your life."
"Oh, don’t worry, miss, I won’t," he said, placing his large hands on her neck. "I’ll be a perfect gentleman, I will."
"A little lower, please," the princess said, struggling to get the words out.
"Can’t hear you," the old man said.
"Argh, akhl, gack," the princess said, as his grip tightened. He certainly did have a strong grip for such a decrepit old man. However, she was able to loosen his grip by kicking backwards into his groin, and then turning and pummeling him about the face and upper body. In a matter of seconds she was on top of him on the ground, with her hands wrapped around his neck. His lips were turning the most interesting shade of green, and his breath – his breath? – was fouler than anything she’d ever smelled.
So it was that just before the old man was able to transform himself into the dragon, the princess strangled him into unconsciousness, then dragged his body to the edge of the cliff and tossed it over, where it fell a great distance and plunged like an anvil into the rapids below.
The princess got up and dusted herself off, then made her way across the bridge and to the cave, where she found lots of treasure. She found the ring the witch wanted, but before she left she took a few baubles along with it.
The princess thought of them as her insurance policy. Her father was impulsive, prone to angering witches, and she figured he’d be cursed again one of these days. It was better to have a gift to placate the next witch than to have to go on another quest like this.
Copyright John McDonnell 2010