Editor's note: Based on an ancient Provencal legend, this tale tells how a young girl captures the dragon that has terrorized the villagers of Tarascon.
In the stillness before dawn, when the fire had burned its last, Martha pushed back her quilts. Noiselessly she unlocked the window and stood on a chair. Without a sound she climbed over the ledge and dropped to the ground. She ran to town hall just as the dragon's dreadful green tail disappeared past the church. Martha raced after him.
"Stop!" she commanded in a voice that cut through the beast's terrible roar. The dragon turned his great ugly head. He billowed black smoke into Martha's unsmiling face.
"I am La Tarasque," he shouted. "I am the most terrible dragon in all of Provence. In my big belly right now are Farmer Pierre's goats, Martin the innkeeper's pigs, Madame Du Pont's geese, Monsieur Claude's sheep, Madame Pascal's fat cow, Marcel the butcher's great big dogs, and the seat of a naughty boy's pants. And I still have room for a wisp of a young miss!"
Martha didn't move.
"Didn't you hear me?" bellowed La Tarasque. He opened his ferocious eyes so wide that smoke puffed out around the edges.
Martha looked directly into his fiery eyes with a steady gaze. "Shame on you for your wickedness," she said as she untied her long sash.
La Tarasque snorted fire and reared up on his hind legs. He lunged for Martha's head. But Martha made a loop in her sash and twirled it, catching one of the dragon's front legs. He stumbled, though he regained his balance.
"You will not terrorize this village!" said Martha, stamping her bare foot so hard that the cobblestones rattled.
La Tarasque surrounded her. Flames snapped from his eyeballs. Martha, with a flick of her wrist, flipped her sash again.
"I know the difference between good and evil," she said fiercely. "And you are going to know the difference too."
Now La Tarasque's two front feet were bound. He ran in a circle, around and around Martha, snatching at her furiously with his back claws. He scratched her thin arm and made six bloody stripes from her elbow to her wrist. Undaunted, Martha looped her sash once more and encircled the whole dragon. Dodging his snaky tail, she whipped her sash in the air again and again, catching his back legs with it, one after the other.
La Tarasque streaked the night sky with red lightning, and his thundering cry roiled the air.
"You shall not stay here," said Martha, cool as rain.
She tied a knot with the last of her sash and pulled the snarling, bawling, struggling dragon all the way to the dungeon, where she left him locked behind bars.
Just before the last star disappeared into morning, Martha arrived back at the baker's house. She climbed through the window, bound her scratched arm, bolted the window, and slipped into her little bed, sure that no one had seen her.
An hour later the people gathered again in front of town hall. Everything had gone well the night before. All the animals had been counted, all the children had awakened safe in their beds.
Martha stood in the street with Baker Galette, his wife, and Naughty Bernard. The mayor leaned over his railing. "I see that Naughty Bernard is safe. And you, mademoiselle -- I hope you had a good night. But what is this? What happened to your poor arm?" Martha quickly pulled back her shawl, which had slipped and revealed her bandaged scratches.
"Whatever happened to you, Martha?" demanded Madame Galette.
"Just a scratch. Really, it's nothing," Martha said with a laugh. But the townspeople crowded around her, waiting for an explanation.
And then Naughty Bernard's piping voice was heard. All in one breath he said, "It's NOT NOTHING! Martha caught the dragon, she saved our village, I saw her do it, but he scratched her, she tied him up with her long silky sash, see, she's not wearing it! And she dragged him to the dungeon! She locked the dragon up! She ran back to our house and was in bed before morning!"
"No!" murmured the people in disbelief. Then someone tugged at Martha's bandage. Her six red ribbons of valor glistened in the sunlight.
"Oh, Martha!" shouted the people. "Hurrah for Martha!" shouted the people. "Brave Martha!" shouted the people. "Thank you, Martha!" shouted the people.
BRAVE MARTHA AND THE DRAGON by Susan Roth. copyright (c) Susan L. Roth, 1996. Published by arrangement with Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.