Through the gates of the afflicted city a man walked in, leading a horse by the bridle.
"I have come to fight the dragon who is terrorizing this neighborhood," he said to the guard who inquired after his business.
"You have come to fight the dragon?" cried the latter. "Ah! Then you will surely be killed by it, for no one who has set out to kill it has yet come back alive."
But the man only nodded indifferently and passed on, to all appearance undisturbed by this statement. The streets were crowded with people: all were arguing, gesticulating, and shouting at the top of their voices. The man stopped to listen to what those nearest to him were saying, but at that moment all voices grew suddenly still, and a woman next to him said excitedly to her neighbor:
"Hush! The King's Herald is coming to announce the daily proclamation."
And then he heard the sound of a trumpet and a voice crying:
"Give way to the King's Herald, good people! Give way! Give way!"
And he saw four horsemen clad in the King's livery approach, and behind them the Herald. Right in front of him they stopped, and the Herald stepped forward and cleared his throat, and then produced a scroll which he slowly unrolled and read in a loud voice, while all was still around him, everybody listening with breathless attention:
"In the name of our good and just King I proclaim to the people of this town, that any man who will this day go forth and kill the terrible dragon who lives in the forest, and who has proved the bane of so many among us, and thus relieve the city of this terrible danger and affliction, shall be named successor to the throne."
Then he looked up and turned his eyes in every direction.
"Any one willing to volunteer please step forward and give me his name," he said. For a while no one moved. Then the new-comer with the horse went up to the Herald.
"I desire to go forth and kill the dragon," he said calmly. The Herald looked at him eagerly.
"Your name, brave youth?" he asked.
"Vincent is my name," was the answer.
"Come with me, then, Vincent," said the Herald, "and prepare yourself for the coming combat."
"I will come with you since you wish it," said Vincent, "but there is little left for me to prepare. Here is my sword, and here my horse."
At that the crowd began to cheer and to cry:
"He will deliver us from the dreadful dragon! He will save our city! Look at him: victory is written on his face!"
Obediently Vincent followed the Herald to the royal palace, and was there eagerly welcomed by the old king who led him to his own private apartments where he made him taste of the daintiest dishes, assuring him that he needed to strengthen himself for the coming trial. While Vincent was eating the old king told him all about the dragon.
"It lives in the forest," he told the youth, "and every now and then it comes to the gates of this city and devours those who are about to walk in or out. And always it comes when least expected! Many have set out to kill it and put an end to our affliction, but none have ever returned. If you but knew how many have tried! Inexperienced youths have gone forth full of confidence and swagger, and have not come back: men in the prime of life, full of assurance as to the invincibleness of their own strength and that of their horse — they never came back either. Why, there have even been a few who had spent their lives in study and who came armed with pens and rulers and compasses, declaring that they needed no other weapons with which to slay the dragon. They were so full of self-confidence and disdain of the monster that all thought they would surely succeed — but they did not come back either. And now, for many days no one has volunteered to go to the dragon's den and kill it, for all are grown fearful and timorous.
"But you will surely succeed, O youth! " he said turning to Vincent with eyes full of hope. "Something tells me that you are he who is destined to deliver our city from this terror! Kill it, and I will name you son and make you successor to the throne! I am a lonely, childless old man, and I feel that I love you already. Come back the conqueror, and I will make your life a subject of envy throughout the world, and fill your days with music and joy!"
And he looked at him wistfully and yet hopefully, and Vincent returned his look with one of calmness and courage, and thought that it would be surprisingly easy to love this old king.
When he had eaten and rested a little and his horse had been amply fed, he took leave of the king and mounting, rode out through the city gates and to where the woods lay, accompanied by the cheering and the blessings of all the denizens who watched him depart. As he neared the somber woods he felt his heart beat quicker, and he tightened his hold on the heavy sword as his horse pricked up its ears and snorted with fright and began to shake in all its limbs. Then he heard a terrible roar, and out of the forest rushed the dragon.
It was the most terrifying monster imaginable. Out of its nostrils came smoke and fire; its bloodshot eyes glared at him evilly; its enormous body was entirely covered with green scales, and as it opened its huge mouth he glimpsed four horrible black fangs, looking for all the world like four sharp swords ready to be plunged into the body of him who dared to come near. So ghastly was the appearance of this monster that for the fraction of a moment both Vincent and his horse were paralyzed with dread, but when the dragon rushed at him with its evil jaws widely apart, the youth suddenly recovered the use of his limbs and hastily reining in his horse, which was almost mad with fear, he lifted his massive weapon above his head and awaited its attack.
At him it rushed, and when Vincent felt its poisonous breath on his face and saw its fiery eyes flaming before him, he lifted his sword and with all his might thrust it into the monster's side. The creature uttered a howl of pain and wrenched itself away, and Vincent saw its black blood gush out of the open wound. Then, to his surprise, the dragon, instead of rushing at him again, remained still and spoke.
"You are foolish to fight against me, Vincent," it said with a mocking leer. "Never will you be able to overcome me, for I am the Dragon Fear, and there is no man who can resist me: I devour all who dare challenge me. Beware, foolish youth! I will kill you and tear you to pieces as I have your predecessors!"
"You will never devour me!" answered Vincent. "You have no power over me for there is only one thing in the world I fear, and that is MYSELF."
At that the dragon screamed with fury and exhaled fire and venom, for it knew that it was vanquished. It rushed at the youth, but with the last ounce of his strength the latter pierced it through the neck with his sword. With a groan the dragon rolled over on the ground and lay still. It was dead. Turning away from it in horror and disgust, Vincent rode back to the city, now rid of its affliction.
There was silence in the streets as he rode in through the gates — yet they were not empty. They were filled with eager people who had remained there all the time that he had been away. Thousands of eloquent eyes greeted him as he rode in. But not a voice was heard anywhere.
"I have killed the dragon," said Vincent in a loud and steady voice. And then the silence was broken indeed.
"Long live our deliverer! Long live Vincent!" cried thousands of voices, while someone took his horse by the bridle and led it to the palace where the king was anxiously awaiting him.
"My son!" was all he said as he stretched out his arms and embraced the youth. Then he turned to the cheering crowd which had followed Vincent to the palace, and held up his hand, thus demanding everybody's attention.
"Behold my adopted son, and heir to the throne!" he said impressively, and again wild cheers rent the air, and cries such as:
"Long live our prince! Long live our deliverer!"
And Vincent looked about him with rightful pride, glorying in this well-earned tribute to his valor.
"All, all for your sake, my Beloved!" he thought. "I will become king of this land one day, and I will acquire glory and renown, and all men will honor me. Fame I will win, great fame . . ."
Then he likewise made a sign with his hand, bidding all voices to be quiet.
"Think not, good people, that I could have done this deed alone," he said. "Had I not held this sword in my hand, I might never have returned — the same dire fate might have overtaken me as those who went before me. It is the sword of Knowledge, and when used in a just cause it is invincible. Praise me therefore less, for without it I could have done nothing."
But his last words were drowned in cries of "Long live Prince Vincent!" and with a resigned smile he relapsed into silence.
"Yes, I will acquire fame and universal honor and respect," he thought again, "and all men will look up to me, and my name shall be known in every part of the world . . ."
At that moment he raised his eyes and met the pitying, slightly contemptuous gaze of an old, white-haired man. He felt as though someone had dealt him a blow across the face when he looked into these calm, penetrating eyes. The man did not, as the others, cheer and call out his name: he stood still and gazed at him dispassionately, and in spite of himself Vincent suddenly went up to him and addressed him.
"You do not appear to share the general joy," he said in a slightly defiant manner, "nor do you seem to approve of him who has been nominated the king's son and successor. Why do you look at me so strangely? Do you not rejoice that the dragon is dead?"
The old man slowly shook his white head.
"You are mistaken, my son," he said calmly. "I do indeed rejoice with all present that the man-eating monster is dead, and although I am but a new-comer to this city and have been here but a day, my joy is as great as theirs. But I rejoice less to see a noble soul sink from its justly acquired height of courage and heroism to the dust of earthly rewards and ambitions."
A hot flush overspread Vincent's face. "Are you then a thought-reader?" he all but exclaimed, but restrained himself and said nothing. With a feeling half of anger, half of shame, he looked at the old man.
"You insolent mendicant!" cried the king, seeing Vincent's confusion. "How dare you presume to criticize a hero, and moreover, my son? Guards! Seize him and put him in prison!"
"Your Majesty," Vincent hastened to intervene, "I beg of you as a favor to do no such thing! This old man . . ." and he turned to look at the old man, and lo! he was gone.
"Where is he?" he said with great astonishment.
"Yes, where is he?" echoed the king, no less surprised. The king's guards hastened to look for him, but he was nowhere to be found.
"Hm!" said the king thoughtfully, "this is very strange! Very strange indeed!"
In silence Vincent gave his horse to the Stablemaster-in-Chief who had been anxiously hovering near him for the last half-hour, and followed the king into the palace. He was frowning and looking by no means as gay as he had done on his victorious arrival to the city: evidently the old man's words were still in his mind. The king immediately started giving orders to prepare a magnificent banquet in his honor, but Vincent begged him for permission not to take part in it, pleading as an excuse that he was weary after his contest, and the king having reluctantly taken leave of him for the night he went to the magnificent bedroom which had been especially prepared for him. But in the middle of the night, when everybody in the palace was asleep, he suddenly rose, put on the simple robe in which he had come, ignoring the rich apparel that had been hung by his bed for him to wear on the following day, and went down to the stables, and took out his horse.
Quietly he rode out of the city, and no one heard or saw his going — for this night, when the dragon was dead, there was no watchman at the gates.