Prince Cyrus and the Great Test
By Bethany Spiller
Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, a handsome prince named Cyrus wanted to do great things—fight battles, save people, be brave and true—so he made it his goal always to do right.
One day Cyrus heard the tale of a beautiful maiden, Princess Ember, who was locked away in a faraway tower. The tower was said to be guarded by a horrible dragon, but whoever could survive the dragon’s scorching flame and rescue Princess Ember could take her as his bride. Many knights had quested to rescue her, but none had succeeded, and few lived to tell the tale.
But when Prince Cyrus found out about her plight, he felt it was his destiny to help her. So, Cyrus set off for the forest where the dragon’s tower was said to be.
At the edge of the forest a sign heralded a warning for all who entered:
“Any man who dare set foot here
Should take these words to heart.
Lest when you’ve reached the end you’ll wish
You’d never let it start.
This be the land a dragon reigns
And to escape her flame,
There is a test which you must pass
Or ‘Lunch’ will be your name.”
Cyrus read the sign over and over. He was fond of his name, and he certainly didn’t want it to be “lunch”—especially not a dragon’s lunch. The sign gave no rules or hint of what type of trial this test might be, but Cyrus did not turn back, set on his quest of rescuing Princess Ember. He’d never shrunk back from a quest before, and he wasn’t going to start now.
After an hour of searching the forest, he came upon a great river. Perhaps this is my test, Cyrus thought. He was a gifted swimmer, and seeing no danger in the waters, he crossed it without difficulty.
Sometime later, he came upon a tall mountain. Maybe this is my test. He was a gifted climber, and seeing no danger of a rockslide, he climbed it without difficulty.
Even later, he came upon a wide chasm, one that ran deep as well as long. Surely this is my quest. He was a smart prince as well, and soon he noticed a tree that hung out to the middle of the chasm, a rope dangling off the end. The rope seemed sturdy, and Cyrus was a gifted jumper, so he decided to make the leap.
He ran at the cliffside from a distance, jumped at its edge, and just barely caught the rope. It swung forward, then backward, and when it came back forward, he released the rope, landing on the edge of the canyon. As he continued his quest, he saw the tower in the distance and wondered if he could arrive there before nightfall.
But as he wandered through the forest, the tower not too far off, he came upon a scorched clearing. No trees grew there, but smoke raised itself from charred stumps. As he tried to walk around the clearing, he spotted an injured rabbit with singed fur a broken leg.
Without a second thought he was on his knees at the rabbit’s side. “You were lucky to escape the dragon’s scorch,” he told the rabbit, pulling it into his lap, “You must be strong and brave as well. I don’t know much about medicine, but I think I can help you.”
For a moment, Cyrus paused. The princess’ tower was within reach. Was it worth stopping in the middle of his journey? He had set out to rescue a princess, not to detour as a veterinarian for a forest critter. But as the rabbit nuzzled closer to him, compassion came over him. The princess had dozens of heroes trying to rescue her, but who was there to help this rabbit?
Me, he thought. I’m here for her. He mourned that Princess Ember would have to wait one day longer. But this rabbit didn’t have that one day to spare, not in its condition.
Cyrus began to nurse the rabbit back to health. Since he’d neglected to bring any extra cloths with him, he tore a chunk off the hem of his tunic. He wet the cloth with water from his canteen and used it to wash the rabbit’s wounds. He then took another clean strip of his garment and wrapped it around the cut on the rabbit’s leg.
Now that the rabbit was healed, or as close to healed as Cyrus could manage, the prince made a fire and prepared a simple broth for supper, which he shared with his furry patient.
After they ate, Cyrus curled up on the ground to get some rest in preparation for his big day tomorrow. The rabbit lay curled underneath his cloak.
“Tomorrow, I shall rescue Princess Ember,” Cyrus said. “Would you like to come with me?”
Of course, the rabbit didn’t respond.
He laughed a little. “You’ve had a rough day, my friend. Let me sing you a song.”
The rabbit drifted off in Cyrus’s arms to the tune of a lullaby Cyrus’s mother had often sung him.
The next morning when he woke, the rabbit was gone, but he saw its tracks leading into the thick of the forest. Evidently, it had hopped without injury, thanks to him. He packed up his camp and headed for Princess Ember’s tower.
Before long, Cyrus found himself on a path lined with scorched bodies–bodies of princes and knights and men much like him, all of whom had died trying to get to the princess, though none seemed to have been eaten, only cooked and left to rot.
Cyrus shuddered. At any moment, the dragon might appear and do the same to him. He approached the tower with stealth and nerve.
Just when he was about to count himself safe, a great lizard soared out of the forest, scales sparkling in the late morning sun. Cyrus drew his wits and his sword as the creature landed on its hind legs in front of the tower.
As the dragon puffed its wings and prepared to breathe its flame upon him, Cyrus stood strong, knowing this could be his end. He didn’t retreat, but instead charged the dragon, choosing to die a hero than a coward.
As Cyrus neared the dragon, the great beast stretched, inhaled, and vanished in a puff of smoke. In its place sat the rabbit he had grown so fond of, nuzzling its paw.
The prince ran toward the rabbit, confused but excited, and hugged it close to him. Then he remembered the sign at the edge of the forest. “Were you the dragon all along?” he asked. “And were you the test?”
“Yes,” the rabbit said.
Shocked that the rabbit had a voice, Cyrus let it go. She landed lightly on her feet and began to transform yet again. This time when it transformed, it was neither into rabbit nor dragon but into human form, and that of a beautiful young woman. A princess.
“Princess Ember?” Prince Cyrus asked.
“Indeed.” She nodded. “I apologize for my deception.”
“What manner of magic is this?”
“A few years ago, I was cursed with the ability to change forms. My mother and father sent me away knowing any who knew my secret would only see me as a beast, as a monster. They intended for me to remain here all my days, but I knew there was still nobleness among men, that perhaps someone would come along who would love me as I am.”
“And these men didn’t?” Cyrus gestured to the bodies scattered about.
“I gave all who entered this same great test,” the princess said. “The rabbit’s test. Most of them ignored my plight as a rabbit. Some even tried to catch me for their supper or attempted to use me as bait for the dragon. Because they had no compassion for me as a rabbit, I knew they could never truly love me as a beast. For ignoring me as a rabbit, I scorched them as a dragon.
“But you saw me as a rabbit and loved me in my weakness. You took care of me for just what I was. When I was the least of beasts, you still loved me, even if you didn’t know it was me you were helping. I knew I could trust you as a friend, that you could love me, curse and all. I knew that you could be my hero.”
“As a rabbit, you brought out my compassion,” Prince Cyrus said, “and as a dragon, you’ve brought out my awe and courage. Whatever other forms you may take, I pray they bring out the best in me as well. But I know that in human form, you bring out my heroism, my nobility, my love.”
Prince Cyrus knelt before Princess Ember and took her hand. “Princess Ember, will you be my queen?”
“I would love to.” Princess Ember smiled as he kissed her hand.
She then transformed into a dragon, and he rode out of the forest on her majestic back.
They were soon wed, and when they began their reign, they ruled with bravery and compassion. Queen Ember began to master her curse, learn every form she could take, and how best to use them. Their kingdom became a powerful ally to any who asked but a deadly enemy in battle to those who opposed them.
For who can compete with a kingdom with a dragon on its side?
And on quiet nights, King Cyrus still held her in his arms, and they fell asleep together under his cloak as he sang the lullaby he’d sung on their first adventure together.