Once there were three daughters, equal in birth, blood and colour. In the morning they went to get water from the well, at midday they ate bread and cheese, and in the afternoon they listened to music. They were equal in interests, plays and smiles, though the youngest was unequal in beauty. As the days grew shorter, Ariana’s cheekbones sharpened, her deep ocean-blue eyes became deeper and her roselike mouth became softer. The two other sisters watched her grow more beautiful by the day and envied her, though their strong sisterly bond withheld them from jealousy. When they were old enough, their father accepted the hands of two men who married the oldest sister and the middle sister, while Ariana watched them with envy.
“Don’t worry,” the two sisters said, “there will be someone for you as well.” But no one came, for all the men thought Ariana too beautiful to be within their reach. She spent her days going to the well, eating bread and cheese, and listening to music in profound loneliness she had not known before. Her father watched it quietly and sought to find her a husband. A rugged man came to him and said: “I see Ariana is lonely and yearning to share her life with someone. If tomorrow morning, when the peaked hill is still hidden in mist and the heather is still damp from the night’s tears, she goes up that mountain and stands on the cliff, she will meet an ivory dragon to take her to her fate.”
It was dusk when Ariana climbed up the mountain alone, her body chilled and her hands muddy. As she reached the peak, she watched the bleak morning sun rise over the rugged hills and waited, weeping from fear. A strong western wind came and a monstrous ivory dragon with crimson eyes landed before her. “Don’t fret. Climb on my back if you want to meet your fate, but beware of my scales. They are made from the pearls of the Red Sea and sharp to the flesh,” the dragon said. Ariana stepped back in fright, but then climbed in between his wings. As he took flight, she saw the magnificent pearly scales of the dragon and stroked them gently.
The dragon landed in a valley so lush and prosperous, the pine trees and white ashes had grown twice its size. “This is the valley of Zedoaria,” the dragon said. “To meet your fate you must walk towards the forest between those two hills and then follow the stream until you come to a palace of coral marble. You may drink from the stream and eat from the pear tree, but you must not pick the yellow flowers or touch the red leaves.” Ariana promised she wouldn’t and the dragon flew away. She felt tired and slept in the dense grass. Then, she walked towards the forest between the hills. Just before the treeline she became thirsty and bent down to cup her hands into the clear stream, but she heard a cry from the shrubs.
“Help me, please,” a bee said, “I’m so thirsty, but I cannot reach the yellow flowers for my wing is torn.” Ariana took pity but hesitated to pick the yellow flowers that bloomed around her ankles since the dragon had warned her not to do so. “Please, beautiful stranger, I’m so thirsty. I only need one yellow flower.” And so Ariana picked one yellow flower and gave it to the thirsty bee, who thanked her and drank.
She entered the forest and saw glorious, deep green ivy and moss falling down the high trees like curtains. Ariana walked until she came upon a sunlit grass field surrounded by trees. A lone pear tree stood in the middle and she reached to pick a pear so juicy that the sweet sap dripped down the round belly of the fruit. Then she heard a cry.
“Help me, please,” a deer said, “I’m so hungry, but I cannot reach the red leaves for I’m with child and my belly is too heavy.” Ariana reached towards the red leaves that grew from shrubs around the pear tree, but she thought about what the ivory dragon had said. “Please, beautiful stranger, I’m so hungry. I only need one red leaf.” And so Ariana picked one red leaf and gave it to the hungry deer, who thanked her and ate.
Ariana walked until she saw the magnificent towers and walls made from coral marble and she entered through the large, hard oaken door. A servant came to her and gave her bread and cheese, and another servant gave her a bath. Then, Ariana laid down in a plush bed with golden curtains and fell asleep. In the night she was awoken by a rustle beside her. Frightened, she reached to the candle on the bedside table to illuminate the stranger that had crept into her bed, but a friendly hand touching her shoulder stopped her. “I am your fate,” the voice whispered. “I will love you, but you may never see me.” Ariana reached once more for the candle but the voice said: “Because you picked the yellow flowers to quench the bee, you cannot see me. If you do, the ivory dragon will come and will devour you.” There was a kindness in his voice that Ariana had yearned for in her loneliness. She let go of the candle and allowed the stranger to kiss her and to stay the night.
When she woke the bed was empty. Ariana searched the palace and asked the servants about the stranger, but they only said that he was a handsome and wealthy master. The following nights she was again awoken by the stranger and, although she found it hard to accept in the beginning, started to enjoy his company more every day. With her hands and lips, she felt His face and she found that she could see him now in her mind’s eye. The desire to see Him faded as the years past and Ariana was happy. She spent her mornings walking through the tall grass, her middays eating bread with honey, and in the afternoon she bathed.
It was a crisp night and the cool wind sighed through the bedroom and caressed the silken curtains. Ariana let her hands follow the outline of His chest and asked why she had not become pregnant yet. “You cannot conceive a child,” the voice whispered. “I love you, but because you picked the red leaves to feed the deer, we cannot have a child.” This saddened Ariana so that she asked how she could make this right. “For building a castle in this sacred valley I was cursed by the ivory dragon for he is its protector. I am never to leave this valley and my life is always under his influence.” Ariana asked if he could destroy the ivory dragon and his voice became so soft she could hardly hear his words. “I cannot destroy the ivory dragon for his scales are made from the pearls of the Red Sea. His skin is impervious.”
When He had fallen asleep and Ariana listened to his regular, deep breaths, she thought of what he had said. Would the ivory dragon truly come if she now let the candle unveil his face? Hesitantly she stretched her arm and felt for the candle. The heavy metal of the candle holder felt cold in her hand as she allowed the flickering flame to pour light over His face. In his sleep, he looked calm. He had handsome features, a strong jaw, a brown mole above his dark eyebrows and his hair had the colour of freshly polished copper. Ariana admired His face, but then the candle dripped hot wax and it fell on his shoulder. His eyes shot open. “What have you done! Now the dragon will come.”
As he uttered the words, a strong western wind came and the ivory dragon landed on the balcony of the bedroom. His enormous body crushed the coral marble columns as he approached followed by the morning sun. “You have seen his face,” the dragon’s voice bellowed. “You have broken the promise and now you will die.” He lurched forward, his knife-like teeth aiming for Ariana. “Hide!” He said and he pulled a glimmering sword from underneath the bed. He puffed, then took one deep breath and moved forward, sword pointing at the neck of the dragon. He jumped over the tail, his body glided to the left and then to the right and then he sprang forward, allowing the sword to come to the dragon’s neck with fantastic force. But the sword did not pierce the shiny scales; it fell in fragments on the marble floor and He was swept sideways against the strong wall by the dragon’s sharp paw.
The ivory dragon smiled an uncanny smile and came closer to Ariana and he swallowed her whole. Her dress was torn by his teeth, her hair and body wet from his saliva. She felt the dragon move and she feared for Him. In the belly, she could hardly move. But in her hand, she held a pearly scale she had taken when the ivory dragon had flown her to the valley, and now she pierced his flesh and cut so fiercely that the dragon halted and screeched in agony. Ariana let her hands guide her through the flesh and she then stepped out of the belly of the ivory dragon, who wobbled and screamed and finally fell on the floor. The blood she was covered in was thick and sticky.
Ariana sprung to Him and took his hand. “You’ve set us free,” the voice whispered. “We’re free.”