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The Knight's Ward

Ago_ Nov 28th, 2018 (edited) 4,837 Never
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  1. *Re-paste after the previous disappeared into the ether. Before doing so, it achieved somewhere around 11.4k hits.*
  2.  
  3. The Knight's Ward
  4. By Ago
  5.  
  6. Finally! After months of tracking, of searching the caves of this wretched, mountainous land, I had found it! The Holy mission given to me by the Company Commander, handed to him directly by the King – I would fulfill my responsibility that day. Oh, Almighty Lord, none could possibly imagine how it felt. After this, what else would I have been given? A company for my own? My coat of arms behind the King’s throne? The King’s daughter, perhaps?
  7.  
  8. “Out! Out of there this instant, wretched hell-beast! This day your fate greets you! Come, taste this blade and be done with this world!”
  9.  
  10. My blood sang in my ears as I heard something stir from within the cave. It could only be the beast of legend, the very same soulless creature I had been sent to kill. Long had it terrorized these lands, killing indiscriminately, thieving from every farm its awful claws could reach. My excitement grew ever more tiring and I feared the anxiety would rob me of my strength had I been made to wait any longer.
  11.  
  12. Lo, it was not long at all. It came out slowly, ploddingly, planting its clawed feet into the dirt as it trudged out of its cave. The animal stood on all fours about thrice my height, its white belly nearly dragging along the dirt and rock as it went. The white ran up all the way the beast’s long, serpentine neck, stretching halfway up the sides of its body before transitioning into pebbly-looking red scales. The head craned downward, and I knew then that this would be the moment: the moment for which war-songs are sung, for which tapestries are woven, the day for which I had trained and rehearsed! As the head came within reach I raised my sword high–
  13.  
  14. And could not fathom what was happening. There was no fight. No struggle for survival or any such instinct one may expect from an animal, much less a legendary killer such as a dragon. With my blade held aloft, ready at an instant to sever the beast’s head from its neck, it laid itself to rest in front of me, its mammoth skull alone almost my height. There was no fight in this creature; barely a breath escaped its toothy maw as it laid there, waiting for the blow to be struck. And damn everything, I wanted to strike, I did!
  15.  
  16. But I just couldn’t. This was no simple creature operating on instinct. In this beast’s black and blue eyes I saw a noticeable lack of will, a broken spirit beyond the repair of anyone or anything except perhaps God himself. An animal will fight tooth and claw to the end for as long as even an ounce of strength remains within it; hunt a bear and the beast is only subdued after a mortal wound. Even a moment before and it is still deadly. It would never saunter up to you, lay down, and accept death. It is not in an animal’s nature to simply give up.
  17.  
  18. What then was this dragon? Clearly not animal nor hellish beast. Had I been mislead? Had the King or Company Commander been mistaken? How could they be? There were corpses abound to prove this beast’s bloodthirstiness, animal and person alike. What was I to do? I had killed all manner of enemies before this but to be told it was merely an animal…
  19.  
  20. As I pondered my options the dragon snorted impatiently, its eyes transfixed upon the blade held over its neck. That gave me even greater pause; could it be asking for death? The thought chilled me to the bone for reasons I could not explain and my resolve faltered. My arm grew tired and the blade fell slowly, so slowly by my side. At this point the dragon seemed to softly sigh and languidly picked itself up, spinning around to wander back into it’s cave. The tail lightly slapped across my breastplate as it disappeared further and further into the darkness.
  21.  
  22. Even with that gentle strike upon my armor I could feel the strength this dragon possessed. Had it wished, I’d be dead with no effort on its part. What could affect this creature so harshly that it would refuse to fight and seemingly beg for death?
  23.  
  24. My knightly senses screamed otherwise, but I had decided to follow the creature into its cavern. Using the sounds of its lumbering body as a guide, I attempted to navigate my way through the darkness. Occassionally I’d see a tiny orange glow further in, as if it was breathing little wisps of flame. I began to lean on the walls in order to maintain my heading; they were smooth as glass with nary an imperfection, and I found myself wondering if this beast had in fact melted out a home in the rock. If this were true, it could surely cook me in my armor with even the gentlest breath. A little further in and I began to lose all sense of direction in the pitch black, until from around a slight bend ahead I saw the ghostly glow of light.
  25.  
  26. Still sliding myself along the wall, I came upon the source of said luminance. From above, pouring through perfectly round circles presumably melted out by the cave’s resident, sunlight cast itself upon a row of stone fixtures which matched the material of the surrounding cave. On closer inspection I saw they they were not mere pieces of furniture, but coffins – sarcophogi! Each one as smooth as glass, done very nearly as professionally as an actual stonemason would have and in some respects, better. There were six of them in a row, a single beam of daylight illuminating each one from a hole above. Decorating each was a brilliantly colored cloth. The first was draped in a deep royal blue with the Marinov coat of arms – the marker of a Knight, though of an order now two hundred years ancient. The other five crests I did not know and surmised they could only be even older than the Marinov Knight.
  27.  
  28. Such care had been taken to properly honor those fallen men. Care that no mere animal could bestow upon a man. At this point I had so many questions swimming about my head that I would have failed had someone asked me to put them into words.
  29.  
  30. Passing the final resting place of those six Knights, the darkness again encroached upon me, however it would not for much longer. Further ahead I heard the sounds of breathing. The closer I drew towards it, the louder it became and the more I began to see the glow of fire. For a little while longer I walked, until I reached the origin of the flame.
  31.  
  32. Illuminated by lamps and torches was what had to have been the largest chamber in the entire mountain. The ceiling stretched up and up, so far above that the furthest point was beyond the reach of the firelights and still shrouded in darkness. The chamber itself would have been fit for a king, though I’m sure the dragon felt otherwise as it was much bigger. Still, it seemed to live in modest comfort; as large as the beast was, it could ably move about without hitting anything. To this room, I was little more than an insect.
  33.  
  34. To the immediate left and right of the entrance to this chamber were statues of what I first took for men, but upon closer inspection appeared to be a mixture of sorts; dragon heads on human bodies. The one on the right appeared mostly finished and though the craftsmanship was a far cry from the realm’s renown sculptors, it surely must have been by someone of some talent. The left statue was left unfinished, as if someone had given up halfway. From the waist up the rock was left untouched, only in the vague shapes of a man with a dragon head.
  35.  
  36. The far end of the cave, the wall behind the beast itself, was filled with books. Overflowing, in fact, with tomes that looked so dusty and ancient that I feared simply touching one would destroy whatever knowledge the pages held within. The dragon must have felt the same, as it seemed to regard me with eyes that said ‘no closer’.
  37.  
  38. Elsewhere about the chamber, odds and ends dominated the space: decorative suits of armor large and small, pieces of art familiar and foreign, tapestries, candlesticks, jars of spices and herbs I’ve never seen or heard of, crates stacked on crates full of nothing but incense.
  39.  
  40. Oddly enough, in spite of all the stories I heard as a child, there was a distinct lack of things one might outright call treasure. No gems, no gold besides the rare piece or two of jewelery, and barely enough silver to mint a few pieces of local currency. When I stood in the midst of all of these things, the word 'riches’ did not spring to mind. Under the glare of the statues, of the armor suits, of the paintings and the library, all I could think of was 'history’. Perhaps even 'culture’.
  41.  
  42. “What is this place, dragon?” I’m not sure what convinced me that it could speak or that it could even understand me, but my gut insisted somehow that it did. It didn’t reply but its eyes opened a bit wider as if I had its full attention. “What is all of this? Where did you get it? How long have you been here?”
  43.  
  44. Still it would not stir, though its gaze followed me as I began to pace in front of it. “Please understand, I did not know about any of this. I was told I was hunting an animal, a killer akin to a wolf or bear. Are you intelligent? Do you understand me? Can you speak? Read? Write?
  45.  
  46. My attention shifted to the makeshift mausoleum I had passed, and I pressed with more questions as I approached. "Who were those bodies I passed? I saw a Marinov crest – who were the other five? Did you kill them? Are you going to kill me? Am I free to leave when I wish?”
  47.  
  48. Upon my last question, the dragon lifted its enormous head and pointed its snout towards the chamber entrance, from where I had come in. So it did understand me. “But I have so many questions.”
  49.  
  50. At this point the beast rolled its eyes, an act that so startled me for its clearly human nature. Without moving its body, it snaked its tail around my waist and effortlessly lifted me into the air. It gingerly placed me as far as possible from its resting spot, then used its tail once more to fling a heavy blanket at me.
  51.  
  52. “Tomorrow, then.”
  53.  
  54. I swear it almost seemed to frown at me, but otherwise it appeared disinterested as it laid its head to rest again. I felt it watching me as I removed my armor suit piece by piece, inspecting each for scuffs or imperfections. The breastplate and abdomen had some smudges, perhaps from where the tail had touched me outside the cave and a moment before.
  55.  
  56. At that moment the good sense struck me to disarm myself. This dragon, who could easily kill me at a moment’s notice, clearly had no intention to do just that, and as such I had no intention of causing harm either. In plain view, I carefully – though casually, so as not to look frightened – unhooked my scabbard from my belt, and placed the sword outside of arm’s reach from where I intended to sleep. Hearing nothing from the dragon, I went on with my routine and fished a cloth and solvent from my belt pouch to wipe away the stains from my armor. They disappeared with minimal effort and I placed it all in a neat pile beside me, my greaves and vambraces stuffed into the cuirass in such a fashion as to look as if a little man sat beside me.
  57.  
  58. Satisfied, I laid down and pulled the blanket atop me. The dragon and I locked eyes briefly before it curled up and tucked its head behind its tail. Despite my situation I felt strangely at ease, as if I was sharing an inn with a fellow Knight; a tender soul capable of violence but only when needed, and only in the amount which may be required and no more. Respectful, just…
  59.  
  60. I somberly recalled our meeting outside the cave. Respectful, just, and apparently eager for death.
  61.  
  62. God, so many questions.
  63.  
  64. Tomorrow, then.
  65.  
  66. -Chapter 2-
  67.  
  68. The dragon woke up before me. I opened my eyes to see it unmoved from its previous position, though it stared directly at me through uninterested eyes. As though it had grown tired of everything inside its cave and I was just another thing added to the pile, immediately devoid of novelty.
  69.  
  70. I drew myself up and sat crosslegged. From my belt I procured a piece of parchment and charred stick. Most people don't know it, but a Knight is a skilled artist; he must be to sketch the lay of the land and report to his company commander how best to direct the flow of battle. When the commander is far from the front lines, his understanding of the battlefield entirely depends on the accuracy of his Knights' drawings.
  71.  
  72. To that end I had honed my art, though without inks or dyes my image would lack a good bit of detail. Still, putting the charcoal to the parchment, I endeavored to make an accurate representation of the beast before me. It laid on its belly, its limbs tucked into and under itself, much like a common cat. Though hidden mostly by its tail, the head and face slowly rose as the dragon took interest in what I was doing. The eyes opened all the way and for the first time I was able to fully appreciate the gaze of this dragon. A brilliant blue iris floating atop a pool of black; no whites to this beast's eyes. Though I could accurately portray the darkness, I cursed my lack of tools with which to draw the bright, royal blue. Beyond the color, the shape was reminiscient of what I knew of reptiles; the pupil and iris were vertically aligned in an oval shape while the pupil itself shifted between slit and rounded depending upon the light.
  73.  
  74. As it looked on, I began to sktech the face, as who knew when it might lose interest and retreat. The skull as a whole resembled an alligator of the southern swamps, though from straight on it was taller and narrower, not wide or flat. The eyes sat on either side of its head, facing mostly forward; it must have an excellent field of vision and great depth perception. Underneath and past the eyes stretched a minor protuberance of what appeared to be skin or scales, which gave the appearance of a fin held flush to the face. Atop the skull sat two ears resembling those of a horse, though longer and much larger to match the greater proportions of the dragon in general. Perhaps a rabbit might be a more apt comparison? I couldn't decide.
  75.  
  76. The body was split between two colors; a rosy pink bordering closely on red and a stark, creamy white dominated the underside. Where the pink was, the skin appeared both pebbly and smooth, as though it was made up of river stones. The off-white scales that stretched all the way up to the underside of the chin and all the way down to the underside of the tail resembled an alligator's belly, or even a snake's.
  77.  
  78. Soot-colored plates lined the upper veterbrae of a long, nearly serpentine neck, as though the bone had grown out or the scales there had thickened. Amongst their dark color sparkled little glimmers; an inherent mineral, perhaps? Something in its diet or maybe pulverized rock embedded in the tissue? Impossible to tell. Several of these plates stretched partway across the shoulders and across the space that saw the tail meet the body.
  79.  
  80. Going back up the shoulders, I saw a wing sprouting from each side, held tight to the body, perhaps to minimize their interference in an enclosed space such as this.
  81.  
  82. It sat there staring at me for what must have been a long while, for by the time it turned its gaze away from me I had completed my drawing. It wasn't half bad, to be perfectly honest. For a moment I thought that it would make an excellent reference for my report.
  83.  
  84. Then I realized there would be no report. I couldn't go back. Not with my dignity intact. To fail the King's orders is one thing, but to willfully ignore them is worthy of execution. Perhaps I could argue that the conditions of my mission had changed; I believed that I had been sent to slay an animal but it was clear that was not the case. A person deserves a trial; could I convince them this dragon was a person? Or maybe they already knew and I was sent out not as a Knight, but an executioner. But that would be a perversion of my duties, of the very code I adhere to. What was I to do? Stay here? Take my chance on the run?
  85.  
  86. "Dragon."
  87.  
  88. It did not lift its head but turned slowly to look at me, dragging its chin across the smooth rock of the cave floor.
  89.  
  90. "You do understand me, yes?"
  91.  
  92. It looked away again and loosed a heavy sigh that saw black wisps of smoke flow from its nostrils. It flicked its tail; whether or not this was a gesture of some sort I could not tell.
  93.  
  94. "I would look at you should you speak to me. Am I out of place to ask that same respect from you?"
  95.  
  96. At this the dragon turned back towards me with a look in its eyes I recognized. Young squires who hadn't yet had their manners drilled into them would look at their Knight like a child might a nagging parent. A look the dragon was wearing so well I nearly laughed. Clearly, it understood me.
  97.  
  98. "Can you speak English, then?"
  99.  
  100. It maintained eye contact but did nothing else. Maybe it did know English but simpled played its hand close to its chest.
  101.  
  102. "Well, give me something. You can clearly communicate. Do you have a name? Is this your post or your home? Are you man or -- male or female?"
  103.  
  104. It rolled its eyes and huffed out an impatient breath. An inch of flame leapt from its snout.
  105.  
  106. "Well, I'll continue with the questions until I get answers or until you eat me out of annoyance."
  107.  
  108. It sighed again and lazily rolled onto its side, back towards me, careful to lift its wing to keep it from being trapped beneath its body. The tail, seemingly with a mind of its own, stretched out and dove into a pile of loose clothing. A moment later and it reappeared, thrust through a dress sleeve to sleeve as though the tail was a clothes line.
  109.  
  110. It presented the dress to me. It was ornately detailed with swirling patterns of gold and black across the chest and a plunging neck line. It felt luxurious to the touch as well. It was clearly a fine dress, though it was quite large. Curiously, there was a hole in the back of the waist; not a tear or a rip, but a hole purposefully sewn into the garment itself. Beyond all of that that, I didn't understand why the dragon gave me the dress. Maybe it was a ball gown or a courtesean's attire. Regardless of what sort of woman wore it -- oh.
  111.  
  112. "Female, then?" The tip of the tail curled to point straight up, as if a finger on a hand saying 'now you've got it'. She snaked her tail over and ran it through the sleeves of the dress once again, taking it from me and putting it back exactly where she found it.
  113.  
  114. "Does my lady have a name?" It certainly felt odd to say that. If she was not an animal then she was a person, and all persons are due respect from a Knight -- women especially. Despite my courtesy, she remained silent save for another little huff.
  115.  
  116. "'My lady' will do for now, then." She had no objections. Verbal ones, anyway. I noticed her tail had begun to twitch incessantly, as though with irritation. I was undeterred. "Do you know what I am?"
  117.  
  118. She used her tail to fish a book from the shelves behind her. Out of hundreds, perhaps thousands of books, she precisely plucked one from a high up shelf. She pulled it by the spine and caught it before it fell to the ground. Balanced precariously on one part of her tail, her incredibly dexterous tail-tip opened the book and immediately flipped to a specific page. She showed me the book and on the paper I saw an image of an ancient Knight, made evident by his long outdated gear and armor.
  119.  
  120. "Yes, I am a Knight. I am Sir Anan." There was a brass plate behind her and to the left, leaning against the bottom bookshelf. In its reflection I swear I saw her roll her eyes again. The gesture was beginning to grate. "I'll just get to the point: I was sent here to kill you. I suppose you guessed that when I was shouting for you at the entrance to your cave."
  121.  
  122. Her tail slid across the floor in a wide arc, as if searching. It hit the hilt of my sword. She seized upon it and attempted to give it to me. When I refused to take it, she dropped it at my feet. It clattered noisily for a long, uncomfortable moment before settling.
  123.  
  124. "What is this malaise consuming you? What could cause you to wish for your own demise?"
  125.  
  126. Still she would not answer me in any appreciable manner. A long time ago I learned that if you cannot appeal to reason, then an appeal to emotion may be in order. Make the person angry, make them upset and they may show their hand.
  127.  
  128. "Very well. What about the Knights you murdered? The six tombs I saw on my way in?" She slapped the ground with her tail and inhaled deeply, as if preparing to go on a long-winded tirade, but she let it go in a long breath. Instead, she slipped her tail around a shield from one of the armor suits within reach and held it in front of her.
  129.  
  130. "You defended yourself?" She placed the shield back into the armor's posed hand. "Then why not defend yourself against me?"
  131.  
  132. I suppose she had had enough questions and could bear my annoying her no longer. In one swift motion she shifted her weight and sprung to her feet. She trotted off to the back of the cave and disappeared from sight into another network of chambers I hadn't known even existed, but not before casting a tired glare my way, as if she wanted to be menacing but had no energy for it. Like she was simply going through the motions.
  133.  
  134. She went her way. Pausing briefly to partake in some provisions from my pack, I made my way back towards the cave entrance. I came upon the six tombs again and stopped to more closely examine them. The light from above was starkly white, indicating the sun must be nearly overhead, so it was some time near midday; I had overslept.
  135.  
  136. Each tomb was well crafted. She must have melted their final resting places out of rock, using her fire like a chisel; each sarcophagus was smooth as glass, something only intense heat could do. Behind the row of six, the cave wall lost its uniformity to a bunch of rubble, as though there had been a collapse of some kind. At the base of each tomb there appeared to be a language of some kind I could not decipher. It appeared vaguely runic, but runic lanuages hadn't been a part of these lands for nearly half a millenium, if historians were to be trusted.
  137.  
  138. If she really was only defending herself, why did these Knights attack her? Why would she go through the trouble of giving them proper burials? And the question that still rattled me: why did she not kill me as well?
  139.  
  140. Clearly she had had enough of me for the time being. I went back for my sword. My provisions might last for another day, maybe two. I had hunting to do. Maybe I could ply her with fresh goat, or whatever animals might roam these mountains.
  141.  
  142. -Chapter 3-
  143.  
  144. My foray into the cliffs and cracks of the mountainside had proved successful. After spending the night hunting, I had finally been able to procure a goat. I could have taken another but the second one was a pregnant female, so I let it go.
  145.  
  146. Hauling the goat’s carcass up on the steep rock to the dragon’s cave was certainly a little more trying than I had hoped it would be. I suppose living off of terribly rationed portions of salted meats had taken its toll and I simply hadn’t noticed. Regardless, the cave mouth was within sight. It felt oddly relieving; not only for being able to offload the goat, but there was a homely sense about it. It’s host bore no ill will towards me and it provided cozy shelter.
  147.  
  148. Imagine my surprise to see said host perched outside the cave, as though waiting for me. As I drew closer her head peered up over the cliffside. Though initially soft, her expression turned sour when she saw what I had brought back. Her displeasure became more obvious the closer I got. Once I finally reached the top, she blocked my way into the cave while wearing a nasty frown that showed quite a few teeth.
  149.  
  150. “What? You don’t like goat? I worked hard for this, you know.”
  151.  
  152. She huffed strongly enough to blow the dirt at my feet. She hunkered down into a vaguely defensive posture and gestured with her head towards the cliffs I had just climbed up.
  153.  
  154. “I wish you could speak because I’d like to be certain that you’re not telling me to toss my catch back down the mountain.” She nodded curtly just once. “You’re mad. I spent all night hunting this fellow.”
  155.  
  156. She inhaled deeply, slightly puffing herself up to appear larger and blocking just a little more of the cave’s entrance. “What is it? Afraid I’ll track blood or douse your library in red?”
  157.  
  158. Again she gestured for me to toss it. “Absolutely not. If you don’t want it inside then I’ll just prepare it right here. I’m not going to let a perfectly good kill go to waste. I had brought this as a gift but clearly you are not having it, so I’ll make use of it.”
  159.  
  160. She sighed and laid down, still blocking the cave in her determined effort to keep the goat carcass outside. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her watch me as I worked. I had already field dressed my catch before hauling it up here; all that was left was skinning it. I took the knife from my belt and went to work, first starting by cutting around the neck.
  161.  
  162. “You know, this is the most animated you’ve been since we met. Even with my blade held over your neck, you were rather melancholic. Speaking of which,” I looked at her but she turned away, “are you ever going to try to tell me what that was about? Why would you let anybody kill you?”
  163.  
  164. Predictably, she remained silent. Not knowing what else to say on the matter, I let the uncomfortable quiet hang in the air while I prepared the goat. It wasn’t much longer before I had the skin entirely freed, and I used it as a mat upon which to place the carcass. I had in my belt some flint and kindling; a good Knight always carries kindling for he never knows when he’ll need some and be unable to find any. It was a good thing to have in the mountains where plant life was rare. I remembered a thick, dry piece of branch jutting out from the rock a few paces below; I went back for it and smashed it to pieces with the crossguard of my sword and gathered up a handful of the splinters.
  165.  
  166. The air was dry and so the kindling took a spark well. I used my knife to slice off pieces of goatflesh and stuck them on the sharp ends of the wooden splinters. While the fire quickly grew in strength, I leaned the sticks such that the meat hung over the jumping flames and propped them up using my sword and my rolled-up belt.
  167.  
  168. “If you won’t speak, I hope you’ll not grow angry that I continue.” She didn’t bother moving. I shifted a little bit and saw her eyes had glazed over, empty and uninterested.
  169.  
  170. “Very well. As I mentioned before, I am Sir Anan of the Highland Knights, Second Company. I was sent by our King to find and kill a bloodthirsty dragon. Stolen livestock and several murders are attributed to this beast. Strange to think of the latter now; all of the victims were known bandits. Nonetheless, all deserved trial.
  171.  
  172. "But what should I find up here? Some hellish creature waiting to do battle with any and all challengers? An animal acting on the simple instincts of survival? No, I find you – a broken, pitiful thing with barely the strength to rise in the mornings.
  173.  
  174. "Now, this mission of mine–” The fire popped and the air took on the familiar scent of cooked meat. One of the smaller pieces looked done enough; I ate it as I kept talking. “Failure in my task would mean demotion. Eviction from the Knighthood. If I were lucky I’d start again as a stablehand, even at my age. But because this was a royal edict, the penalties would be worse. Jail or exile, perhaps.
  175.  
  176. "The real problem is not my failure, however; it’s my refusal. I found no opponent up here, no beast I could slay. I found you – equal to man in all manner save for appearance – and your solemn desire to die. Under no threat and facing an unarmed person, by no part of a Knight’s code could I strike you down. By flaunting the orders of my King, I have surely condemned myself to death should I return home and report my findings. Then another Knight would be sent out, and maybe he would not adhere as strictly as I do to the Knight’s code and you might finally find what you’re looking for.”
  177.  
  178. I took another piece of roasted goat from the fire. “I will not kill you and I cannot return home. I ask you, my lady, to extend your hospitality a bit longer while I figure out what to do with myself.”
  179.  
  180. She tucked her wings in as closely as possible and rolled onto her back to stare at the sky. I just kept eating, wrestling with the idea that I was contemplating self-imposed exile to save a stranger – a dragon! – from a suicide by Knight. We were both quiet for a long, long while under the weight of our own burdens, and it was strangely peaceful that way. Though her motives remained obscure, it was as if she was beginning to have an understanding of me – that alone was a comforting thought.
  181.  
  182. The comfort and quiet were short-lived. My gut rumbled and an urgent desire to wretch bubbled to the surface. I had eaten a good amount but not enough to gorge myself. What then–
  183.  
  184. “God Almighty, what was wrong with that goat?”
  185.  
  186. -
  187.  
  188. I awoke inside the cave, in a chamber I was unfamiliar with, on a bed far, far too large for a man. My thoughts were giving me trouble; a ferocious inferno burned behind my eyes and my skull felt fit to burst. My stomach felt as if it had been stabbed repeatedly and the pain was fresh with every rumbling, aching protest my body gave.
  189.  
  190. Finding the words in my head proved difficult. “Where am I?”
  191.  
  192. In my hazy vision I saw something pink and white come into focus, something long and fidgety. It looked like a tail – her tail. She laid the end of it atop my forehead and left it for but a moment; how incredibly cool and relieving those scales were, like ice over my fiery head.
  193.  
  194. Without moving my head I traced her tail to its source and saw her hunched over a large bowl, adding this and that and grinding away with a pestle. She saw me – I saw her notice me – and she opened her mouth. A long, hissing, slippery sound slid past her lips and through the air. My mind told me she was speaking but I could not make anything intelligible out of it.
  195.  
  196. “Rest. Feverish.”
  197.  
  198. “You do speak English.”
  199.  
  200. “Little. Difficult.” Her words had a hard edge to them, like she had to deliberately and painfully pronounce each syllable. They came out with throaty growls and hisses. Her voice, though…it was incredibly disconcerting how familiar it sounded. Past the appearance, past the inhuman sounds carried with her words, her voice was certainly a woman’s. Maybe a bit rough and tumble, but feminine beyond any doubt. Matronly, if I had to put a word to it.
  201.  
  202. Wait. “Am I naked?”
  203.  
  204. “Yes.”
  205.  
  206. “I thought the bed linens felt a little too good. Why?”
  207.  
  208. “Clothes soiled. Illness. Washed.” Her tail slid off of my head and then returned with a small goblet of green liquid, which she put to my lips. It sloshed around as easily as water and went down just the same. It was bitter and smelled a bit like grass, but left a sweet aftertaste that seemed to blossom, filling my throat and nostrils with a refreshingly cool sensation.
  209.  
  210. “Two doses remain,” she growled.
  211.  
  212. “Is that good or bad?”
  213.  
  214. “Seven total.”
  215.  
  216. “I don’t remember the other four.”
  217.  
  218. “Delirious. Three nights.”
  219.  
  220. I’ve been bedridden for three days? What illness had afflicted me? What could possibly have been in that goat? I didn’t understand, I had dressed it, cleaned it, cooked it as well as I’ve ever cooked any other game…
  221.  
  222. “You knew about the goat. You knew! And you still let me eat it!”
  223.  
  224. “Lesson. Tried to warn.”
  225.  
  226. The heat began to return to my head and I was uncertain if it was the fever or my fury. “You could’ve said something in bloody English!”
  227.  
  228. “Could have. Difficult. Illness never fatal.”
  229.  
  230. She again laid the end of her tail atop my head and I was sure then the heat I felt was the fever, for it dissipated under her scales. I suppose my body and mind were still too wracked by the stress of the fever to be too upset. Anger takes a lot of energy.
  231.  
  232. “Maybe not fatal but I sure wish it were. Here I am naked in my host’s bed after soiling my pants, being waited on hand and foot like a child.”
  233.  
  234. I didn’t fully grasp what I had said before saying it, and afterwards I immediately felt awful. Her silence was no indication of anything, as that seemed to be her natural state. But I couldn’t let it just hang there, ugly as I felt it was.
  235.  
  236. “I did not mean -- I don’t wish it was fatal.” She didn’t say a word, just kept crushing and mixing different ingredients with her mortar and pestle. I wasn’t sure if there was an apology to be given; it was a strange thing for me to say considering how we met, but I wondered how she might take offense to it, if any at all. Better to be safe than sorry. “Forgive me. It was insensitive of me to say that.”
  237.  
  238. She sighed quietly, the wall in front of her illuminated by a tiny lick of flame from her snout. She stopped grinding whatever medicine she had been making and slowly began to leave the bedchamber. Agonizingly, her tail lazily slid from off my forehead, following the rest of her as she went.
  239.  
  240. “Rest,” she growled over her shoulder.
  241.  
  242. -Chapter 4-
  243.  
  244. I awoke later – sometime in the morning, I guessed – to find my clean clothing laid out beside me. Wispy strands of grey and white smoke still stuck to the candlewicks, indicating they had recently been blown out. I got dressed and left the comfort of that large bed and sought to explore a bit.
  245.  
  246. The bedchamber was at the end of a long tunnel lit intermittently by candles and oil lamps. Each side of the tunnel would sometimes open up into a new room. To the immediate left of the bedchamber was a mostly empty room with a line of rope hung across it; if I had to guess, it was where my clothes had been dried. Further down the tunnel on the right was another room. From this one I heard running water and dared to venture inside. The floor ended in a uniform crater that appeared more than large enough to fit a dragon, inside which was a shallow body of flowing water. At first glance it appeared no more than waist deep to me and seemed a good place for a bath.
  247.  
  248. The next room on the left had a bubbling tub of boiling, crystal-clear water. I used the word ‘tub’ in the loosest possible terms; it looked as though somebody had sliced a rock formation towards the bottom, hollowed it out, and filled it with water. There sat at the base another layer of rock which served as a reinforcement and as a heat source; it softly glowed, as if it had been recently heated up and only just began to cool. Perhaps this was where my clothing had been washed. It too seemed an inviting spot for a dip, but I was left to wonder why this little hot spring had it’s own room. Though it could fit several men with to room to spare, my hostess was far too large to make any use of it. Neither did she wear anything but the scales upon her body, so surely she would not wash clothing in here. I thought to explore a bit more, but a most enticing scent pulled me further down the corridor.
  249.  
  250. Guided by my nose, I passed a workshop filled with weapons and armor in varying states of completion. I passed a seamstress’ room, a spinning wheel inside with heaps of material of all kinds strewn about. Three more rooms branched off the main tunnel but I could no longer ignore the smells coming from further down and my stomach urged me forward.
  251.  
  252. The corridor opened up into a larger chamber from which I could see the antechamber I was most familiar with. To my left, my hostess focused on an assortment of meats sizzling on a slab of rock. She carefully tended to them all, periodically turning them or spraying a weak flame from her mouth. Not wishing to disturb her, I walked past her to look around. Against the far wall sat stacks and stacks of dishes and expertly carved wooden chairs large enough for two men to eat from and sit in. Judging by the cobwebs that clung to them they had not been used in some time. Besides that, the room was empty. The silence and wide-open space between us made me uncomfortable for some reason and I thought to break the quiet.
  253.  
  254. “Hello.” She stayed focused on her cooking while her tail snaked its way up to me to present another bowl of that grassy green liquid. I drank it and she took the bowl from my hands, then placed it by itself by the entrance to the tunnel I had just come from. She then hooked her tail around a chair leg and pried it from the stack before setting it down in front of me. All without looking up. Maybe her tail has a mind of its own? She seemed to know exactly where everything was at all times.
  255.  
  256. “Sit,” she growled. I did as I was told. Her tail shoved a plate of savory and aromatic meats into my hands. Pork and beef spiced with things that I’d never smelled before, the fat still sizzling and popping. In comparison to my usual daily provisions, this was a feast. Though I could hardly wait to eat, I still had my wits – and manners – about me.
  257.  
  258. She must have noticed the lack of sound behind her. “Eat,” she said.
  259.  
  260. “Happily, once my lady joins me.” She sighed – she did that a lot – and slowly spun around to face me. She dipped her head and held a paw out expectantly towards my dish, urging me to eat. A chef may have waited with bated breath and a tentative smile, hoping his charge would like his food, but she still wore that same bored and empty expression she’d had on since we met.
  261.  
  262. I did not wish to pester her for silverware so I ate with my hands. The food was exquisite. In between bites I wanted to stop and say something, pay her some compliment, but before any words could leave my lips another piece of pork or beef made its way in. I probably looked atrocious and savage to her – and I would’ve agreed with her if she thought so – but I had been bedridden for three days, and my appetite showed it. In short order my plate was empty and I only just stopped myself from licking up the greasy bits that remained.
  263.  
  264. “That was…I have no words, my lady. I have never had a finer meal in all my life.” That was no exaggeration on my part, and with the sincerity in my voice I had hoped I might in return see or hear something from her. Still with no change in her expression, she took the plate from my hands and placed it with the medicine-bowl, then made her way for the antechamber. The silence was beginning to irritate now that I knew she could speak. “Wait.”
  265.  
  266. She stopped short. “I do not mean to pry, but – why is it you speak so little?”
  267.  
  268. She tapped a claw against her throat. “Painful,” she rumbled. Maybe her throat was not made for human sounds?
  269.  
  270. “Is there anything I could do to alleviate this pain? I would very much like to converse with you.” She craned her long neck around to look at me with eyes as tired as I’ve ever seen anybody’s eyes, like she had finally given up. She touched her tail to my forehead as if checking for my temperature one last time before she spun all the way around to face me. She leaned in uncomfortably close, putting me within reach of her impressively wicked-looking set of teeth as she looked down and touched the tip of her snout to my forehead. It was…a touching moment, in all honesty, for reasons I did not feel entirely able to explain. It was like a moment of clarity, something that made me feel as though we were both that much closer to a mutual understanding.
  271.  
  272. “What was that?”
  273.  
  274. “The tail is not always accurate with gauging temperature,” she said, turning around to enter the main chamber again. “Sometimes the nose or lips do better.”
  275.  
  276. I fell in beside her as she plodded along. “Now you speak plainly? What about the pain?”
  277.  
  278. “I will manage.” Her tone was about as expressive as a dead man’s. As matter-of-factly as a judge’s. Her lack of interest in anything made her speech severe and off-putting despite her matronly voice. “You wish to speak? Speak. I will not promise conversation.”
  279.  
  280. I thought it best to start with something neutral, nothing personal. “What exactly was wrong with that goat?”
  281.  
  282. “Your little campfire was not hot enough to thoroughly cook the meat. At these altitudes, bacteria are more resistant to temperature differences than those closer to the ground.”
  283.  
  284. “Back-what? Bacteria? I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that word.”
  285.  
  286. “Little things that cannot be seen by the naked eye. They caused your illness.” She laid down in her usual spot by her library. The shelves gently shook as she put her bulk on the floor.
  287.  
  288. “You could not have told me this before eating because…”
  289.  
  290. “Because I did not feel like speaking,” she snapped, “and you should take heed of those older and wiser than you.”
  291.  
  292. “How old are you?”
  293.  
  294. “Old enough.”
  295.  
  296. “How long have you lived here?”
  297.  
  298. “Long enough.”
  299.  
  300. “How large are you?”
  301.  
  302. “Large enough.” Should have seen that coming.
  303.  
  304. “Is this what you do every day? Wake up and lie here in front of your library?” She barely grunted in response, the sort of noise that tells me I’ve hit upon the truth but she’d never admit it. In fact I had seen this behavior before: the disconnected nature, the apathy – even the desire to die. “Would you mind if I spoke for a little while?”
  305.  
  306. She rolled her eyes before hiding more of her face behind her tail. “If you don’t mind me not listening for a while.”
  307.  
  308. I ignored her. “I once knew a man – a brother in the Knighthood. Sir Kitridge, he was called. An incredibly stoic, adamant chap with years of service evident upon his dented and bruised armor. He would meticulously clean it every day until it shone as bright as new but insisted on never fixing the imperfections or acquiring a new suit. He thought it gave him authority and an experienced air. He ignored everyone else telling him that those nicks and dents compromised the armor’s strength. Stubborn, as well – that was him. It all worked in his favor, however. He was a veteran! The newly knighted looked up to him and the Royals trusted him as if he were one of their closest advisors.
  309.  
  310. "Perhaps a year after I was knighted, a crier from a village on the edge of our realm came with speed into the capital city, ignoring the gatekeeper’s orders and barreling into the castle courtyard. While being accosted he was shouting about a barbarian attack, about how the local militia was in danger of defeat. Now, unbeknowst to us at the time, Sir Kitridge’s mother and brother lived in this village. The moment he heard what was happening, he took the First and Second Company out at full strength. I was with him that day. It was the only day I had ever seen an ounce of fear in that man’s eyes. From the capital to this village was nearly a week’s ride; we made it in just three nights, nearly exhausting our horses to death.
  311.  
  312. "In the end, it made no difference. The entire village had been razed to the ground; nothing in those charred and smoking ruins stood taller than my shoulders. There were no cries for help or mercy. Not a single survivor to be found. Sir Kitridge dismounts and sprints into the carnage, screaming like a madman. He stopped at one place in particular and began feverishly digging through the remains, shouting and screaming the whole time. We all watched him for some time, unsure of whether this was something he needed to do alone or not. After an eternity of digging he went deathly silent, and without any further noise picked up a charred body from the ground and hugged it tightly to his chest.
  313.  
  314. "He was not the same man afterwards. The ride back was quiet. His eyes were distant and empty. He was reprimanded for taking two entire Companies away from the capital’s defense, but he couldn’t care less. In the following months his stoic demeanor eroded until all that remained was a cold shell of a man, unfeeling in any way. His armor, meticulously cared for despite its imperfections, fell into such a sorry state that the Commander ordered he be furnished with a new suit; Sir Kitridge did not object. He did not say anything. A day after his new armor had been finished, he killed himself. Poisoned wine.”
  315.  
  316. The dragon had barely shifted during my story. In fact, I would have thought her to be asleep if she hadn’t spoken. “Well, Sir Knight, that was quite a tale, but–”
  317.  
  318. “If my lady would allow me to finish,” I said. Apparently cutting her off was not taken lightly, as following that slight I had her unwavering, uncomfortable attention. “He killed himself no more than four months after his family was murdered. Meanwhile your makeshift mausoleum harbors a tomb bearing the Marinov crest, an order two hundred years old at least. In all that time, you could have easily ended your own life in any number of ways. Instead, for some reason you still will not elaborate upon, you wait for someone else – for me to do it for you. That does not speak highly of your commitment to your goal, terrible as it may be. I appears to be more a cry for help.”
  319.  
  320. No sooner had I finished my sentence, her tail shot out. She wrapped it around my waist and took me to the ground, forcing me onto my back. With startling speed she launched herself up onto all fours and towered over me, her dagger-tooth maw hovering so close that I feared even an errant spit of the tiniest flame would roast my head.
  321.  
  322. “Your insipid little story may have swayed some sad beggar or leper to examine their lives,” she hissed, the heat from her jaws rising in intensity with her tone, “but I am subject to burdens that would crush even a man so brave as to battle a dragon all by his lonesome. Do not pretend to know me or my history if you wish to remain in my good graces!”
  323.  
  324. She heaved with each breath, as if desperately fueling whatever furnace rested within her. “I wouldn’t have to pretend anything if my lady would simply speak with me.”
  325.  
  326. She began as if she meant to speak again, but she stopped short. Her mouth fully closed as though to shield me from the heat within, she looked up and snorted out a bright flame that must have been building during our chat. She looked around and sighed, like there was no escape to be had. Before I could right myself, she picked me up and politely stood me on my feet. “Follow me, Sir Knight.”
  327.  
  328. I dusted myself off before falling in behind her. We passed the library, passed the piles of clothing and art and all the other odds and ends, passed the curiously large suits of armor and the dragonhead statues.We went back out into the entrance tunnel engulfed in the pitch black even during daylight hours. Finally, she stopped in front of the six tombs, each illuminated by sunlight from above.
  329.  
  330. “A moment, Sir Knight.” She carefully stepped over the tombs, pausing briefly to adjust the blue tapestry bearing the Marinov crest. With that done, she turned her attention to the pile of rubble behind the sarcophogi and, without further hesitation, began using her immense strength to claw away at the loose rock. I had a flicker of worry, thinking that she might cause a cave-in, but she had lived in this cave for at least two hundred years; she knew it far better than I did. Or maybe my little talk had stirred something in her and she was finally taking it upon herself to end her life. Why take me along with her? I guess I had made her fairly upset…
  331.  
  332. “Look,” she said. The opaque cloud of dust made it impossible to see past my nose and I felt my anticipation – and my anxiety – build with each passing moment. When all the dirt had settled, I could not believe my eyes.
  333.  
  334. The Marinov Knight was two hundred years old at least. The other five were older, for I did not recognize them in the slightest. And behind them, through a passageway my hostess had just uncovered, laid row upon row upon row of tombs. Each of them painstakingly carved in the same fashion as the ones I first saw. Some of them had tapestries draped over them that detailed their order and age, some did not. In silent awe I walked among them and could not find a single familiar crest or coat-of-arms. By my count there must have been four hundred at least.
  335.  
  336. “Four hundred and twenty-six tombs,” she said, as if sensing my thoughts. “Friends old and new, enemies to the bitter end, and do-good Knights who felt they could not forsake their duty.”
  337.  
  338. “I don’t understand,” I said, touching a set of runes scratched into a sarcophogus. The sarcophogi all had runes of varying kinds in the same place. “Friends? Who would be forced to defend themselves from friends?”
  339.  
  340. She didn’t answer. Maybe she couldn’t. I wasn’t sure. She just watched me go from one to the other, my hand gliding across each set of runes. Her severity faded, replaced with half-lidded eyes telling of the deepest sort of dejection I’d ever seen. Her stillness and expression lent a serene grace to her figure, like royalty overlooking her subjects.
  341.  
  342. “My lady–”
  343.  
  344. “Later, Sir Knight,” she hissed. I swore I heard a strangled sob but she had already turned away before I looked up. “I will return presently; I have hunting to do. My larder is lighter than I would like in the presence of company.”
  345.  
  346. She exited the enormous mausoleum and melted into the darkness of the cave proper. I would not have even known she had left if not for the deep windy sound of her leathery wings taking to the air.
  347.  
  348. -Chapter 5-
  349.  
  350. She returned later in the evening, a boar’s lifeless body clamped firmly in her jaws. Though I don’t believe there was any hostility between us, I did feel a certain…intensity that kept us from talking that night. She had earlier divulged something to me that for some reason she had kept hidden or wanted forgotten. The tombs raised plenty of questions but if she did not wish to speak further on the matter, I would not push her. We ate in silence; her cooking was just as magnificent as that morning’s.
  351.  
  352. The day after we kept up our aloof manner. And the day after that. I wanted to give her time but I couldn’t decide if she would be inclined to reach out first after despairing alone for so long. After hours of deliberation I decided to attempt to strike up a chat. I would avoid anything I felt too close to her heart at the moment; start impersonally and build up a rapport from there. Just like last time. What else could I do?
  353.  
  354. “So,” I said after clearing my throat, “I noticed you had running water in one of your rooms – the one next to the bedchamber, if memory serves. How is that possible?”
  355.  
  356. She looked at me for a long moment, and I had the sense she knew instantly what I was up to. But she didn’t resist. “The mountains further and higher up the range are constantly covered in clouds. They catch moisture all year round and it flows down through the other mountains – mine included – before emptying into a basin on the northern side.”
  357.  
  358. “Do you wash in that room or…”
  359.  
  360. “Yes. If you feel nature calling there’s another chamber to the left before entering the dining hall; I melted a trench beneath the cave floor that diverts some of the flow of water to the other side of the mountain. If you use that pit, keep it clean or I’ll throw you in it.”
  361.  
  362. “Honestly? And this whole time I’ve been trekking ten minutes down the mountain.”
  363.  
  364. “So that’s why you’d go missing intermittently.”
  365.  
  366. She kept track. Despite our situation did she enjoy my company enough to wonder where I might be? Or maybe she just wanted to know where I was at all times in relation to her library. “You never thought to follow me?”
  367.  
  368. “Didn’t care,” she snorted. The uneasy silence began to creep again between us. I just had to keep her talking.
  369.  
  370. “What happens in times of drought?”
  371.  
  372. “These lands haven’t seen drought in–” She stopped herself and I caught her staring into nothingness, as if she was trying to see through the mountain itself. “A long time.”
  373.  
  374. “What about some of the other chambers?” At this her interest in the conversation began to wane. She rolled over to face away from me and instead focused on the shelves of her book collection. Did she take solace in their presence?
  375.  
  376. “What is it you wish to know?” She was apparently done offering information and would only participate at the bare minimum effort. No matter what I asked, she would barely quip a reply, nothing more than a sentence or two. The empty room I had seen with the rope across it was nothing in particular; its purpose would change with her needs. The chamber with the boiling water was just a washroom for her odds and ends. Dishes and clothing that had grown dusty or moldy would find their way inside. She would heat the rocks gathered at the base which would in turn heat the water. It was clear though she hadn’t done such a task in a long time, for the piles of clothing and stacks of dishes I saw were certainly in need of a washing. She must have stopped caring. Which made sense; if I was looking to end my life, why would I devote time to dishes or laundry?
  377.  
  378. “And what of the armory?” Her large rabbit-like ears flicked once, twice, then stood straight out from her head. “I clearly saw a room filled to the brim with weapons and suits of fine looking armor. There were smithy’s tools as well. Do you work with metal?”
  379.  
  380. “I do,” she said, rolling over onto all fours. In just those two words her voice grew animated, dare I say verging on jubilant. Had I found her passion? I sure hoped so; it was hard for me to imagine two people better meant for friendship than a blacksmith and a Knight. Maybe this is what would bridge the chasm between us.
  381.  
  382. “I do not mean to offend, but – are you any good?”
  383.  
  384. “Am I any good, he asks.” She rolled her eyes; sighing and rolling her eyes – her apparent fallbacks in any conversation. “Follow me.”
  385.  
  386. She led the way to the workshop. The floor behind all the tools and stations was well-worn; I didn’t understand why until she laid herself down directly on top of it. She spent a lot of time in here. Or used to, anyway. She began to take stock of her tools, moving things this way and that with her tail and paws. While she made herself comfortable I had a look around. A large rack of swords as tall as I was lined the back wall. Their blades were thick and the metal swirled, a type of steel I had not seen before. Many of them bore decorative touches at varying points: blades, crossguards, pommels, anywhere and everywhere in between. The decorations varied in intensity. One double-edged sword had a dragon’s head carved on either side of the fuller, each spewing a finely-gilded little flame that stretched a quarter-way up the blade. Another was more artistic and dignified, possessing a flowery bough with vines etched into the handle that stretched and twisted down the grip itself before ending up at the pommel, itself a blossoming silver flower.
  387.  
  388. “These are beautifully crafted,” I said. I wanted to pick one up but they were massive. I didn’t want to drop it and damage it, and potentially incur her wrath. “Everything is by your hand?”
  389.  
  390. “Every piece,” she said. She began splashing flame from her jaws against another sword-in-the-making. The shape was already there; she must be at the tempering process. Slowly, she would alternate heating and cooling the metal, strengthening it against the stresses it may have suffered during forging.
  391.  
  392. While she resumed work on her latest piece, I examined the two armored suits nearby. Each was suspended from a branching metal pole weighted at the base; had the second suit been finished it would have appeared as two hanged men. The design threw me off, however. Besides the fact they looked too giant for any man, the sallets were longer, front and back. The visor had a shallower angle to it which made the whole front appear to jut out away from the face, making the entire thing look unwieldy for a man. The limbs appeared normal save their length, but the chest and waist were exceptionally thin. And most curious of all, the back of the waist was devoid of any metal at all; it had a hole which sat almost directly above the buttocks.
  393.  
  394. “A question, my lady.” She stopped breathing her flame and looked to me. “These armor suits have a conspicuous hole in the back of the waist. The dress you showed me days ago had the same – well, I want to say defect but it appears to be made as such on purpose. Why?”
  395.  
  396. Again she took on an empty glare that seemed to go through the mountain, a look I had seen a little while ago. “Decoration,” she said after a brief pause. “That’s all.”
  397.  
  398. She avoided eye contact and went back to tempering her sword, sparing me a second glance when she thought I had looked away. It did not take a genius to see I was being toyed with. If she wanted games, a game she would have.
  399.  
  400. I couldn’t much think of a reason for a dragon to use a sword, but she must have some skill with them to know what makes a good one. “So you make fine blades. Can you use them?”
  401.  
  402. She regarded me very carefully, as though deciding whether or not she was saying too much. A moment later and she hesistantly said, “I can.”
  403.  
  404. “How about a friendly wager? Pit your blade-skill against mine; whoever deals the simulated killing blow gets to ask the other a question.”
  405.  
  406. “And what makes you think I care to know anything about you?” She snorted and a cloud of black smoke rose from her nostrils. I stared at her unflinchingly while wearing just a hint of smugness. Her upper lip curled back into the beginnings of a snarl; she did not take kindly to my cocksure attitude. She gave me a once-over, perhaps briefly wondering if she was being baited. “Fine, then. Go and fetch your sword, Sir Knight.”
  407.  
  408. I took off at a jog to find my blade exactly where I had left it during my first night within the cave. It was a simple but sturdy make and well-cared for, despite having seen battle and blood before. I hastened back to the workshop and found her already prepared; she had moved some of her wares and tools out of the way. To my consternation, she used her tail to grip and swing her sword about, testing and familiarising with it.
  409.  
  410. Clearly I had not thought this through, though I did not show my worry outwardly. Her tail was long and winding; she could attack from unconventional angles. I should look to keep my distance to stretch more of it out and minimize that advantage. Nor would I have the comfort of observing her stance to try and predict what her next move may be. But she was much, much stronger than I and would have to short her swings if she did not wish to injure me. Meanwhile I could follow my strikes through with my full strength.
  411.  
  412. I took my position opposite her, my guard up. “When you are ready, my lady.”
  413.  
  414. She wasted no time. She lashed out into a thrust, which I parried; her blade slid down against mine as she tried to block the incoming counter but I had already slashed at the air beneath her tail, signifying a hit against an imaginary body.
  415.  
  416. “Hmph. Ask your question.”
  417.  
  418. “What is my lady’s name?”
  419.  
  420. “Emmas.”
  421.  
  422. I reset my stance and position. “Lovely. Did your mother or father name you?”
  423.  
  424. “One question only, Sir Knight.” She saw me at the ready and struck again with the same move, only when I moved to parry she feinted and angled up, pausing her blade before it hit my chin.
  425.  
  426. “Well played.” Her tail was lightning-quick. I could only just keep up with her and even then it was not enough in this instance. She was more skilled than I initially thought; a fact she may have just played to her advantage. Perhaps she thought I believed she was foolish enough to open with the same move twice, and then she exploted my assumption.
  427.  
  428. “What is your parentage?” she asked as she coiled her tail back to its starting position, her sword swaying menacingly with every movement.
  429.  
  430. “My father was an artist from Soderlund who found favor among the royal families. My mother was a handmaiden of the Queen, groomed from birth to be a servant. They met while he was painting a picture of the Queen. A year later, there were married and I was on my way to this world.”
  431.  
  432. She said nothing else but clearly seemed deep in thought. The moment I took my ready pose, she struck again. I saw it coming this time, if only barely; Her foible glanced off my sword but my riposte was slow and she recovered in time to block, though she did not leave herself in an advantageous position. In the split-second she took to consider her options I shifted my position enough to allow my blade to slide down hers, point-first into the air beneath her sword.
  433.  
  434. Her eyes narrowed. “Ask.”
  435.  
  436. “How old are you, Lady Emmas?”
  437.  
  438. Her bottom jaw shifted, like she was grinding her teeth together. “Twelve hundred years.”
  439.  
  440. “Twelve – twelve hundred?” I could scarcely believe it. She was not only a legend, but a veritable ancient! In my shock I had somehow forgotten I had reset to ready, and she effortlessly relieved me of my sword.
  441.  
  442. She didn’t even wait for me to recover before asking her question. “What was your relationship with your parents like?”
  443.  
  444. She had to repeat herself as I was still reeling from her last answer. Twelve hundred years old! “Good. Very good. My mother doted on and encouraged me like all mothers should, and my father was technically well-traveled; he taught me how the world worked in all its many ways.”
  445.  
  446. She cocked her side sideways. “Technically?”
  447.  
  448. I ignored the fact that she was asking two questions, and for a moment I thought it best to drop the charade of the game. “His station as royal artist allowed him to meet many guests of the King. Characters from all over the world, of many creeds, religions, and virtues. Though he never left the realm, you wouldn’t have known it by the stories he told. He exposed me to so many different schools of thought that the Knighthood almost considered me too liberal-minded when I was taken in as a squire; I was more apt to ask questions than follow orders.”
  449.  
  450. She sneered, which frankly was a little difficult to tell apart from a snarl. “Lucky me,” she said, her words dripping sarcasm.
  451.  
  452. “Why the interest in my parents? Seems a strange thing for an ancient dragon to be asking about.”
  453.  
  454. She only shook her head, holding her sword at the ready. So, the game was still on then.
  455.  
  456. I waited for her to strike first – as she had the times before – but she remained rigidly guarded, staring daggers at me. It was then I realized if I wanted that question answered, I would have to be the one to work for it.
  457.  
  458. I thrust off my back foot and stabbed forward. She came in from the side, catching my edge with her flat. She twisted her tail and pivoted her sword, meaning to wedge it between my blade and crossguard and wrench the whole thing from my grasp. Before I could be disarmed I spun my grip, depriving her of the correct angle while opening a different avenue of attack for myself. I struck out but again my edge was excellently blocked by her flat. While I recovered she swung in a wide arc, perhaps hoping to knock the sword out of my hands if I foolishly chose to block. I instead sprung back, then rushed forward once her blade had passed, but she had curled her tail up and back to ward off my blow again. Our two edges locked and we slid closer together until our crossguards nearly touched, her blade pointed down and mine, up. Before she could use her superior strength to take my sword from me, I suddenly dropped my shoulder, deflecting her energy to one side. She overcorrected in an attempt to parry the incoming blow, but she was moments too late. By the time she had recovered, I had already landed the winning blow.
  459.  
  460. But before I could speak a single word, she dropped her sword and got up, moving towards the doorway.
  461.  
  462. “I’m finished with this. No more questions,” she growled as she walked away.
  463.  
  464. After standing still in disbelief for a moment ,I gave chase, out of breath as I was. “Lady Emmas, the last round was mine – well fought but certainly mine. The rules we agreed upon–”
  465.  
  466. “The rules!” She spun around and trudged menacingly towards me, forcing me on the back-step. The glow of fire from her jaws silhoutted her teeth in a ghastly way. “There is only one rule and that is here, I make the rules! I am not subject to your whims, nor is my life some prize to be had in your silly game of pretend battle! As I said before: what burdens I have are mine alone and should I choose to keep them that way, no one will have any say to the contrary – certainly not some human Knight with his childish games!”
  467.  
  468. She trained her steely-eyed glare on me for a moment longer before jerking her head away. Her body followed and she squeezed herself out of the workshop, headed towards the antechamber.
  469.  
  470. Not until I could no longer hear her walking did I realize I was on my back, my face hot and dry. In my terror I did not even remember falling down. The whole ‘standing over me’ bit must be one of her favorites; it certainly gets the point across. Be that as it may, I am not one to enjoy being alone with his thoughts when the majority of them are questions. She possessed more than a passing interest in my parents – why? What could a twelve hundred year-old dragon want to know about the parents of a random Knight? Wouldn’t she be keen to know how the world had changed? What Kings and Queens rule what realms? What wars had been fought and alliances made and broken?
  471.  
  472. And not just any Knight. She clearly had specified the word 'human’. There must be some deeper meaning behind this, some hidden memory or prejudiced thought. Which, honestly, I could not fault her for at all. If what she said was true – about having to defend herself from four hundred and twenty-six Knights – I’d be surprised if she didn’t have something against humans.
  473.  
  474. My line of thought came to screeching halt as my hand slid across something familiar while I got to my feet. Wet and slick – it was blood, crimson and searing hot; It certainly wasn’t mine. I laid back down for a moment, cursing my luck. She definitely wanted to be alone, but it would not be right of me to know of her injury and not make an effort to check on her.
  475.  
  476. It did not seem a serious wound. While I could clearly track her movement, the droplets were less frequent than I had feared. I followed the spots out into the main tunnel and I turned left, but to my surprise I did not find her in the great antechamber. Instead I tracked her further out, past her collection of history and towards the mouth of the cave. As I passed the mausoleum I heard sobbing and again, cursed my luck under my breath. She closely guarded herself; what anger was I about to incur upon finding her more emotional than she had ever dared to show me?
  477.  
  478. While I was still shrouded in the darkness of the entrance tunnel, I spied her laying down just outside of the cave. Her wings drooped so much they touched the dirt and her body shook as she tried and failed to choke back her sobbing. Every so often she’d look skyward to the half-moon and stars before letting her chin hit the dirt again.
  479.  
  480. I steeled myself and ventured into the moonlit dark. The sparse bloodtrail was still wet and reflected some of the night sky. It stopped beneath her tail, a small nick near the very, very tip. “My lady?”
  481.  
  482. She looked at me out of reflex and quickly turned away, but not before I saw the glistening in her eyes and the wet trails which shined the scales beneath them. She grew quiet, stifling whatever noises she had just been making. “What are you doing here?”
  483.  
  484. “Your tail,” I meekly said, venturing closer. “May I?”
  485.  
  486. She seemed confused as she lifted her tail to inspect it; she hadn’t even known she’d been cut. She shook her head and held her tail off the ground. “Come,” she said, her voice softening.
  487.  
  488. I sidled up to her and sat down nearby and she plopped the tip of her tail into my lap. The cut was entirely superficial, but even a small wound could become angry and dangerous if left untreated in the wilds. I had some aid accoutrements on my person, stashed in my belt pouches. I removed my gloves to apply a medicinal salve. Mixed with it was a viscous sap that acted to seal the wound shut. The pebbly texture of her red scales was smooth and pleasant to the touch, whereas my hands would literally glide across the scales of her off-white underside; they possessed a cool, silky wet feel even though she was dry. Her tail would twitch as I worked; I knew from experience the salve stung mildly.
  489.  
  490. “I’m sorry, my lady. For the cut and for the game.”
  491.  
  492. “Don’t be. Not on either account. This is the most I’ve felt anything in four hundred years. The pain, the anger…it’s liberating to know I can still feel things other than hunger and fatigue.” Her voice wavered and I distinctly heard her swallow what must have been another sob rising up. “And you may call me by my name, Sir Anan.”
  493.  
  494. She used my name! “Only with your permission, and not because it had been won like it was some novel prize.”
  495.  
  496. “Then you have my permission.” She stretched her wings up and out, lifting them off the ground and tidily tucking them to her body. I smeared on another layer of the salve as the first layer dried. In some distant corner of my mind I realized I was petting a dragon! Granted it was for good reason but still, how many people could ever say that? As much as I wanted to laugh at the thought, this was not a time for it.
  497.  
  498. “Lady Emmas, I ask again with nothing in my heart but genuine curiosity of you: why the interest in my parents?”
  499.  
  500. “Do you know what Soderlund actually means?” she said, as if ignoring my question. “It literally translates to 'land in the south’. Same thing with the other realms. Norderlund, Esterlund, Wezerlund, and Ceferlund – land in the north, east, west, and center. Even you, Knight of Highland – land on high. Dreadfully boring names for the kingdoms I once knew.”
  501.  
  502. “I’m…I’m confused, Lady Emmas. I fail to draw a line between my question and your answer.”
  503.  
  504. She sighed and looked skyward. She continued to breathe heavily, as though straining to lift a weight from her mind, before she said, “I’m not sure where I’m headed with this line of thought either, Sir Anan. Forgive me – I’ll have my thoughts in order by tomorrow morning. For now, let us retire to the dining hall; I will prepare dinner.”
  505.  
  506. -Chapter 6-
  507.  
  508. Breakfast was pervaded by a heavy silence. In spite of her enormous maw, she took small bites and would not look up from her meal. I felt awful putting her under this much pressure; she knew I wanted to know all about her but I suppose she couldn’t figure out where to start. All she knew was last night, she promised she would start somewhere. Yet for as bad as I felt about her distress, I still wanted to know. And I guess she was gauging my continued interest at varying points throughout breakfast; she’d steal innocent glances my way, as though to check if I was still there to listen.
  509.  
  510. She swallowed the last of her portion of boar. I was finished soon after and she set both of our plates on the floor by the secondary tunnel.
  511.  
  512. “Before I begin, Sir Anan, one question: what would you have gained had you taken my head that evening?”
  513.  
  514. I vividly recalled that moment. My blood had been boiling, my ears ringing, my sword poised to slice her head from her neck…and yet in her eyes she had already appeared dead. “I can’t say for sure. On my way up the mountain I was thinking I’d be made Commander of my own Company. Or my family crest would hang behind the King’s throne, or that the King might even offer me his daughter’s hand.”
  515.  
  516. “Such trivial things in exchange for the last remnants of my history,” she sighed, wearing a false smile that only conveyed disappointment. She locked eyes with me. “Would you mind if I spoke for a little while?”
  517.  
  518. “Please do.”
  519.  
  520. “And you mustn’t interrupt, lest I lose my nerve.”
  521.  
  522. “I would never.”
  523.  
  524. “And I warn you some of what I will say may astonish you.”
  525.  
  526. Her stalling gave rise to anxious impatience. “Lady Emmas…”
  527.  
  528. “Fine, fine,” she hissed before taking a deep breath. “I am, to the best of my knowledge, the last remaining representative of my people.”
  529.  
  530. She paused. Whether for dramatic effect or because she expected some reply I could not tell, but I remained silent until she continued. “My people’s kingdom was in modern-day Ceferlund, then called Ariscorech – ‘Land of Ash-Makers.”
  531.  
  532. I said nothing but the look upon my face must have spoke volumes to her on my confusion.
  533.  
  534. “This is what I spoke of last night when I said the realms’ names these days were boring. Ariscorech was the middle realm, surrounded on all sides only by friends. The humans had Kingsreach, a great tract of land that sprawled across the north and east and included what is now called Highland. To the south and west were two more smaller human settlements: Gandameid and Jagutun. Between Gandameid and Jagutun stretched an incalculaby vast land of brackish swamps and forests with canopies so thick it always appeared to be night-time from the ground beneath. Here–”
  535.  
  536. “Lady Emmas, I am so sorry,” I sputtered to her smoky disapproval. “I know I said I would not interrupt but – I’ve never heard of these names before, ever. Not once in the archives of the Knighthood or even from the King’s own historian.”
  537.  
  538. She sighed, irritated she had been diverted from the path she had set her story on, but she saw fit to indulge me. “Come with me.”
  539.  
  540. She stood and walked out into the great antechamber, and with a certain amount of giddiness I guessed where it was she was leading me. We rounded the corner and my suspicions were confirmed when we stopped in front of her apparent pride and joy. The bookshelves loomed overhead so high that even her tail was stretched to its limit as it plucked book after dusty book from their resting places. She moved with purpose; she wasn’t just grabbing ones at random, but as though she knew – among the hundreds, perhaps thousands of books – exactly which ones she sought. It crossed my mind that such encyclopaedic knowledge of her vast collection would only come after a very, very long time. Indeed, after twelve hundred years in this cave, she must have known by memory alone exactly where every single little trinket and treasure was, down to the last goblet.
  541.  
  542. “Here,” she said, pushing a stack of books into my arms. “These are a good place to start. Please be very careful with them. Once you’ve skimmed through those, volumes six through nine of Historical Ariscorech by Fharer should keep you going. After that…”
  543.  
  544. She kept talking but I lost track of what she said the moment I opened the top book to its first page. The writing was a sort of runic script, written in a single pen-stroke with characters that flowed into and out of each other, as if they were swimming upon the page.
  545.  
  546. “Lady Emmas, what language is this?”
  547.  
  548. She went silent, a moment of consideration upon her face. “English. Why?”
  549.  
  550. “This is certainly not English.”
  551.  
  552. She looked oddly at the open book, then to me. “Perhaps you’re still feverish?”
  553.  
  554. “I feel fine, I assure you.”
  555.  
  556. She reached out with her tail and held its cool tip against my forehead. She cocked her head, seemingly unsatisfied, then leaned down to gently bump her snout into my head. I felt at ease, lucid almost, and I could feel my entire body relax as she pulled away. “You feel all right to me, Sir Anan.”
  557.  
  558. “That’s all very good,” I said as I looked down again, “but it doesn’t change the fact these pages are not in–”
  559.  
  560. To my utter disbelief, the squirming, slippery script I had seen moments earlier was now clear-as-day English. I feared madness may have been fraying my mind. Perhaps the stress of my situation was getting to me; there was the abandonment of my orders and thoughts of deserting my King and the Knighthood. My life was meaningless without the cornerstones of duty and service and I had barely given any thought to what life would be after they were gone. In my rush for knowledge, had I neglected myself? Was I eager to learn more of her to hide the fact that beyond my service as a Knight, the possibility existed I barely knew myself? Who was I if not a Knight?
  561.  
  562. “Sir Anan?” Her voice, full of genuine concern, guided me back. “Are you well?”
  563.  
  564. “Yes. Just thinking. Now then, which book should I start with?” She closed the one I had opened and squeezed it into the middle of the pile, replacing it with a thinner green one with a gilded spine. The pile of books in my arms grew heavier with each passing moment and with her continued adjustments to the stack. “Maybe I’d be more productive if I sat down to read, Lady Emmas.”
  565.  
  566. “Oh,” she said, pushing away a pile of red and black tomes behind me. “That’s a good idea. Sit, sit.”
  567.  
  568. The first book may have been bright green at some point in its life but the color now was murky and faded. The gilded corners and spine still glittered when hit by light at the correct angles but for the most part all of it was dull. It was sad to look at, like a reminder of better times long gone. Though to be honest it was in remarkably good condition for having been kept for twelve hundred years at least. As I opened it I was greeted by a cloud of dust that had to be broken up with a wave of my hand.
  569.  
  570. The pages were decrepit and yellow; the anxiety in the air as I laid my fingers upon the paper was palpable for fear it would simply turn to dust beneath the slightest disturbance. Lady Emma must have felt the same way, for as open as she was being she looked about to scream the moment I touched the pages. She held it in, to her credit.
  571.  
  572. And yet she continued looking at me, expectant of something. “What?”
  573.  
  574. “Nothing,” she rumbled. “Just waiting, I suppose.”
  575.  
  576. I ran my thumb across the book’s spine to feel how thick it was. “I fear you may be waiting for quite a while. Though thinner than the others, this book could easily fill an evening’s time and then some.”
  577.  
  578. “I’ve been here twelve hundred years already, Sir Anan. I can wait a little longer.” She used her snout to nudge me away from the library and then squeezed herself inbetween it and me. She squirmed a little in an effort to get comfortable, accompanied by a healthy amount of grunting as she minutely shifted her body this way and that to make sure I was comfortable as well. When she finally stilled herself, I was leaning back against her side, her tail formed a semi-circle around us both, and her neck craned over me to read along as I went. Or maybe she just wanted to keep a close eye on her books. Either way, it was…endearing, to be as we were. It sort of reminded me of how my mother would teach me to read.
  579.  
  580. “Go on,” she said.
  581.  
  582. The book was a historical account of Ariscorech and opened with a detailed description. Despite its translation into 'Land of Ash-makers’, it seemed by the author’s account to be a natural paradise. Rivers flowed and fell from all sides into the center of the realm, filtered until clear by surrounding groves of water-hardy trees and roots. Lush, verdant hills rolled across the land, punctuated by meadows bursting with wildflowers. In the eastern reach was an evergreen forest full of all types of sustainably-hunted game: boar, elk, deer, among others. The capital was a sprawling city of multi-leveled homes and keeps built into the hills and sprouting up out of the ground. In the middle of it all sat the King’s Keep, a fortress built into a large hill whose walls extended out to surround the nearest sections of the city itself.
  583.  
  584. “You lived here?”
  585.  
  586. “Never,” she whispered. Beneath her breathing I could hear her heart. As I read on, her heartbeat grew intensity. Before long I could feel it in my head and chest, loudly reverberating as if it were my own. Occasionally her body would tremble for a moment as her breath hitched, only to be released as the start of a muffled cry.
  587.  
  588. “We can stop if you wish, Lady Emmas.”
  589.  
  590. “Keep reading.”
  591.  
  592. Ariscorech enjoyed a robust friendship with its neighbors; humans and dragons regularly met through trade and commerce, and arts and theater. The book went further, describing in greater detail how the two societies interacted. The human realms possessed an abundance of farmland which produced enough food to sate their hunger and that of the dragons. In exchange, dragon mines and their plethora of underground material were used to create tools and infrastucture across all the realms.
  593.  
  594. The rest of the book was as equally dry and informative as the beginning of it. It had production tables for its various mines, game reports from the eastern forests, even a census – dragons numbered in the thousands. For such a small population to enjoy such power and influence must have spoken volumes of their friendliness. Or maybe their penchant for intimidation. Nothing the author spoke of indicated any such strong-arm tactics, but by look alone it is easy to see why one would prefer not to clash with any dragon, let alone a city of them.
  595.  
  596. Hours must have gone by by the time I was finished with the first book, but so voraciously did I absorb all the information that I had not noticed.
  597.  
  598. “I sometimes see it,” she mumbled as I turned the final page, “in my dreams, I mean. Silver-veined stone roads, sanctuaries amongst the cliffs and waterfalls, an open market where humans and dragons peddled wares or food.”
  599.  
  600. “I still don’t understand. Not one scrap of paper in any archive or library I’ve ever browsed has any mention of this.”
  601.  
  602. “Erase anything that challenges your account of history and it becomes irrefutable.”
  603.  
  604. Clearly she implied humans were responsible for the erasure of her people. That would explain her outburst last night when she deliberately used 'human’ as though it were a curse word. That seemed a rough subject for such a late hour, not to mention something that would have to be within the pages of another book – one that I’ll eventually get to.
  605.  
  606. “Well, this Fharer fellow was an excellent writer.”
  607.  
  608. “Yes he is.”
  609.  
  610. “Did you know him?”
  611.  
  612. “Yes,” she said blankly, as if her mind was somewhere else. “He was my father.”
  613.  
  614. The book suddenly felt heavier in my hands and for some reason, I imagined it turning red hot and scorching to the touch, as though just out of a fire. Not only were these the last records of her people, but perhaps her father’s final words. No wonder she was so protective of them.
  615.  
  616. “I’m sorry, Lady Emmas, I – I didn’t know, I don’t–”
  617.  
  618. “Nothing to apologize for, Sir Anan,” she said serenely, as though she had practiced her reaction beforehand. "Let us...leave that for another night."
  619.  
  620. With her gentle voice she dispelled my anxiety and I felt comfortable enough to touch the handle the book as I had before. Before closing it I saw Fharer’s name signed on the back of the last page, and next to the signature was an ornate-looking red wax seal. A pillar of flame split a circle into halves; in one half was the head of a dragon breathing more flames that joined into the central pillar. On the opposite side sat a small crown within a laurel of leaves. Atop the crown itself burned a tiny mote of fire.
  621.  
  622. “That’s the King’s seal,” she said, watching me carefully as I ran my fingers over the wax.
  623.  
  624. What she said did not hit me right away. I was certainly listening, I had definitely heard what she said but my mind did not immediately recognize anything deeper beyond what was in front of me. I saw two separate pieces; her father’s name on one side and the King’s seal on another. In what may have been more evidence of my frayed nerves, my mind began to jump this way and that until the pieces finally jammed themselves together; Last of her kind. The King is dead. Long live the Queen.
  625.  
  626. “Your Highness!” I shouted, scrambling to my feet only to bow beneath her amused glare.
  627.  
  628. “Do not flatter me, Sir Anan. There is no queen without a kingdom or a people.” She wrapped her tail around my waist and stood me straight up. “I am royalty to no one. I would much rather we continue to address each other as we have been. As…”
  629.  
  630. She paused, as if to chew on the words like they were fat. “As friends.”
  631.  
  632. She looked away, like she was embarrassed by what she had asked. Me, Anan, former dragonslayer-to-be of the Highland Knights, friends with a dragon.
  633.  
  634. I bowed halfway and extended my hand. She strangely regarded my gesture before daintily placing the tip of her tail within my palm. “As friends then, Lady Emmas.”
  635.  
  636. -Chapter 7-
  637.  
  638. The next morning’s breakfast was just as savory as the others. Instead of another helping of the boar she had killed earlier in the week, she brought out thick slabs of moose from an excursion north she had taken weeks ago. When I asked her how it was kept fresh, she mentioned another passageway inadvertently hidden among the piles of historical artifacts in the antechamber. Within that hall were her food stores, stocked nearly to the ceiling with a treasure trove of preserved meats, fruits, and vegetables.
  639.  
  640. While eating I had noticed the pile of dusty plates had been cleaned and neatly stacked. The nearby chairs, previously as dirty as the plates and haphazardly locked together by their legs in a pile, where now brightly polished and set in a uniform row. Without the dust and cobwebs to obscure the wood’s color, bright and luxurious white oak showed itself, tendrils of polished silver winding down the legs. They had a muted elegance about them – absolutely yet reservedly regal, like a royal who wanted the class her station promised but without the flamboyance that many kings and queens seem to fall into.
  641.  
  642. Though I still didn’t understand why she had these chairs; again, they were too large for a single man but much too small for a dragon. A question for another time, I suppose. There were more important things on my mind.
  643.  
  644. I finished the last of my meal and wiped my greasy fingers on my pants when she wasn’t looking. “So which book will we start with today, Lady Emmas?”
  645.  
  646. “Whichever one happens to be next, Sir Anan. I believe I told you Volume Six would be your next read. You may begin when we get back.”
  647.  
  648. “Back? Where are we going?”
  649.  
  650. “I have silk, bee’s wax, and vegetables to harvest. All of it is within a couple hours’ flight from here.”
  651.  
  652. “What on Earth do you use the first two for?”
  653.  
  654. “I use bee’s wax to make the candles that keep the insects away from the library, and I use silk to make linens.”
  655.  
  656. She grabbed a pouch as large as me while we passed through the antechamber to the mouth of the cave. The morning air was brisk and dry but the unobstructed sun kept the weather comfortably warm. “A blacksmith, spinstress, swordswoman, farmer – what is it you don’t do?”
  657.  
  658. “I’ve had a long time to learn and try all manner of hobbies and professions. Back when I used to care about warding off boredom.”
  659.  
  660. I watched her pause at the edge of the cliff, stretching her wings as far and as widely as she could. She lifted each leg, shook and flexed it, then turned to me with what I believe was the first hint of a smile I’d ever seen from her, mischievous as it was. It was at that moment I began to worry for the lack of equipment upon her body. “Pray tell, how am I to accompany you?”
  661.  
  662. She flexed her front legs and paws again, clicking her claws together as she tested her grip. “I’ll carry you.”
  663.  
  664. My heart sank to the bottom of my stomach. “No method of securement? No saddle or harness?”
  665.  
  666. She arched a pebbly eyebrow. “Do I look like a horse?”
  667.  
  668. While keeping her within my periphery, I nervously peered over the edge of the cliff. It wasn’t the height that scared me; I had made the trek up here without any ropes, slowly and cautiously finding my footing while fully armored. I could easily make it down again the same way, but to just go sailing off it with nothing to plant my feet on? The thought made my chest heave.
  669.  
  670. “I promise you: I would never let anything happen to you.”
  671.  
  672. “Why can you not leave me here?”
  673.  
  674. “Two pairs of hands makes it half as much work.”
  675.  
  676. I noisily attempted to swallow down the coppery taste of fear in my mouth. It did nothing, and when I tried it again I realized my mouth had become painfully dry. What was I to do? Refuse to help my hostess, my friend, in her chores despite the fact she had continued to graciously provide me with food and shelter? What sort of awful person would do such a thing? I puffed my chest; certainly not me – not a Knight!
  677.  
  678. “Very well.” I closed my eyes in a vain attempt to steel myself. I felt her tail wrap around my waist and lift me up before she carefully placed me into the large leather pouch she had strapped across her chest and back.
  679.  
  680. “Oh.”
  681.  
  682. “Now, Sir Anan, listen carefully. I will hold you snugly on the initial dive. You should hold your breath; the mind panics because the air is rushing by too quickly for the body to breathe. Soon after leveling out, our speed will decline and you may breathe easily again. It will be about twenty or thirty seconds before we slow down. Do you understand?”
  683.  
  684. What I didn’t say was ‘God help me’. “Yes.”
  685.  
  686. She closed the flap on the pouch and I was enveloped by darkness. I felt her paw through the leather coming up beneath me, pressing me firmly against her body. I thought I heard her begin a countdown but the anxiety and fear had made it impossible to hear anything over the blood that rushed through my ears and the pounding of my heart which rattled my chest. Her body shifted, I felt myself jerked upwards, and I only just barely heard the scuffling sound of her claws scratching the rock as they were lifted from the ground. I’m sure my heart must have stopped beating because it was lodged within my throat.
  687.  
  688. My sense of balance became skewed as I felt myself dipping forward in what must have been the dive. In total darkness, I had no sense of up and down and it took every ounce of my fortitude to quell the resulting nausea; if she was to carry her harvest in this sack, I did not want to soil it.
  689.  
  690. The wind started to whisper and the leather pouch I was in began to take a beating from the buffetting winds. The whisper grew into a moaning howl before finally culminating into a ghastly scream as we reached what must have been the apex of our speed. As terribly as my sense of balance was affected during this manuever, I was still able to tell when we were moving – just not in which direction. I felt our heading change, how it seemed to press all of my insides into the pit of my stomach, and the screeching wind began to fade into only a dull roar. Her grip upon me through the pouch loosened, my organs apparently resettled into their usual places, and my sense of balance and direction told me I was more or less level and at a steady speed. Only now did I realize that I had actually forgotten to hold my breath, just that my mind did it subconsciously.
  691.  
  692. The leather upon which I crawled was taught and allowed me to move well enough and I headed towards the sliver of daylight peeking through the flap. She must have felt my weight shifting, for again her paw came up to secure my body in place. Held where I was, my head just barely sticking outside of the pouch, my eyes reflexively looked down for solid Earth, and I immediately regretted my decision; the treetops whizzed past so uncomfortably close I felt like I could reach out and have my arm taken off by a branch. When I asked her why she was flying so low, my voice was lost entirely to the wind’s roar as we flew. I retreated as far back as I could; she relaxed her grip on me when she felt my intention.
  693.  
  694. Wedged as tightly as I was in the bottom of the bag, I heard – I felt a deep, thumping metronome over the wind. Its pace was excited but steady. Was she simply exerting herself? Or was she in her element? Was flying one of the few things she still enjoyed? The thought of her perhaps smiling as she flew somehow put me at ease, and I allayed my fear of airborne travel by simply listening to Lady Emmas’ heartbeat.
  695.  
  696. I lost track of time. I only knew we had reached our destination when I noticed the roaring wind had died down, replaced by the sonorous flapping of her wings. With a sudden jolt we touched upon solid ground again, and I unceremoniously rolled myself out of the pouch. I might have kissed the ground if I thought I would not have lost my breakfast immediately upon opening my mouth.
  697.  
  698. “You did well, Sir Anan. I was half-expecting to find you had fainted.”
  699.  
  700. I sat cross-legged in the dirt for what felt like a very, very long while. Either my sense of time was still off or Lady Emmas was being very patient with me; I wondered if she was merely amused by my lack of fortitude. I only spoke when I was absolutely certain my nausea had passed.
  701.  
  702. “We were flying very low.”
  703.  
  704. “Yes. The higher I go, the more easily I am seen. I prefer to keep a low profile.”
  705.  
  706. I started to speak again, but cut myself off when another wave of nausea passed over me. It came and went. “Where are we?”
  707.  
  708. “A remote forest. I never bothered learning its name, or if it even has one. In all the time I’ve been coming here, never have I encountered another soul.”
  709.  
  710. I scanned my surroundings. It was a forest of evergreens, busy with wildlife despite the appearance of a dragon. Birds flitted through the branches, squirrels and rabbits sat idly by to watch us – it was rather peaceful.
  711.  
  712. “Strange nothing here seems frightened by you, Lady Emmas.”
  713.  
  714. “I’ve been coming here for hundreds of years. I won’t deny that rabbit is a tasty treat,” she said, turning to watch one hop over her tail, “but it’s just too small a morsel to bother with. This forest is not my hunting ground – it’s unusually devoid of large game – so the little creatures pay me no mind since I pay them no mind. Come now, all three things I need are within walking distance.”
  715.  
  716. We filled our walk with idle chatter: the weather, the forest, her farming. Despite her explanation earlier, I was still completely amazed at how unperturbed the creatures of the forest were by our presence. Rabbits would only move if directly in our path. The squirrels would only clear the branches about to be shaken by Lady Emmas’ wings. We even passed a small stream blocked by a beaver that gave us an uninterested glance before it resumed its work.
  717.  
  718. “Ah, here we are.” We came across a small clearing amongst the trees, its edges marked by colorful weeds and flowers. The ground was criss-crossed by the shade cast from the branches above. In the center sat a square of loamy, turned-up dirt in mostly uniform rows with bits of green sprouting up from beneath the soil.
  719.  
  720. “What did you plant?”
  721.  
  722. “Mostly carrots and potatoes. There are leeks as well; I’m not fond of them but they repel insects with a taste for carrots. Also the rabbits tend to eat the leeks first instead of going through the effort of digging up my tubers and root vegetables.” She looked skyward with a scowl. “One moment.”
  723.  
  724. Curiously, I watched her poke her head up into the branches above her crop, eyeballing each and every one. “What are you doing?” I asked.
  725.  
  726. “Checking for nests before I clear the branches. They are encroaching upon my plot’s sunlight.” Apparently satisfied, she drew her head back. A rumbling growl rose from the depths of her maw before she spewed a pillar of flame upwards, instantly turning the offending branches to ash with minimal damage to the trees. She stamped on the glowing embers that fell to the ground, or used her wings to beat the stubborn wisps of fire that clung to the newly-trimmed boughs.
  727.  
  728. Unsurprisingly, the noises of the forest stopped. Not a single critter was to be heard or seen. “Well, now they’ll steer clear of you.”
  729.  
  730. “They’ll forget all about it by next harvest, which won’t be for a while. This is my last crop until the final frost, which isn’t for some time. Now look here,” she said, digging into the ground with her hind legs in order to plant herself firmly in place. She reached out and spiked one of her forward claws into the dirt before raking it repeatedly down the line, loosening up the soil enough that anything within it was easily obtainable. The brown was then speckled by the comparatively bright orange of the upturned carrots and the slightly-less-brown potatoes. She then repeated this maneuver five more times; dig a claw as deep as she could into the dirt, then drag it towards her to free up anything underground.
  731.  
  732. It was…enthralling to watch her work. To see someone so large engaged in manual labor had a certain charm all its own, but there was just something about her. Lady Emmas, a dragoness of royal lineage, up to her elbows in dirt while digging up the fruits of her labors. It made her relatable. In front of her library, she could be severe and intimidating, but here she was unguarded. Beyond that, she was self-sufficient in every regard, something I greatly admired and a quality I took pride in having.
  733.  
  734. The longer I looked, the stranger the places I found my eyes wandering. As she strained to split the earth, she wore a determined look on her face; her features were softer in the natural sunlight, without the candles and lamps to cast their shadows. I saw how the muscles in her limbs bulged and relaxed as she braced herself. There were the soot-colored plates along her spine and tail that only glittered more brilliantly in the sun than before, and I couldn’t help but notice the elegant curve that ran down her serpentine neck, down the valleys and hills of her back and haunches, all the way up to the tip of her tail held arched above her wings and body…
  735.  
  736. “What?”
  737.  
  738. Bright blue eyes, always more striking for the blackness upon which her irises sat, stared fiercely back at me. “Beg your pardon?”
  739.  
  740. “You’re staring.”
  741.  
  742. “Only thinking.”
  743.  
  744. “People look through things when thinking. You were staring right at me.”
  745.  
  746. “I assure you, Lady Emmas, I was merely lost in my mind.” She continued to glare as though she might divine my thoughts through my eyes alone. A bird chirped from somewhere above; it was enough to break the silence.
  747.  
  748. “Well,” she said, continuing to stare me down, “I’ve dug up everything I’d planted. If you would be so kind to gather it all into a pile – I’ve silk and wax to collect. By chance might you still have your knife on you?” I unsheathed the short blade from my belt and held it up for her. She plucked it from my grip with her tail. “I normally use my teeth to scrape the wax from the honeycombs, but this will do much better. Once I return, we’ll be on our way.”
  749.  
  750. “The bees don’t sting you?” I called out as she disappeared into the treeline.
  751.  
  752. I couldn’t see any of her when I heard her reply, “They can’t get through the scales!”
  753.  
  754. I had barely begun my work before I realized how naked I felt without a blade on my person, or without Lady Emmas beside me. She had mentioned that the forest was devoid of large game – no bears or wolves or anything of the sort, but it still set my hair on end to be in an unknown land without self-protection save for my wits and hands. So long as the smaller woodland animals around me – who had since resumed their activities – continued to make noise as usual, I had little concern.
  755.  
  756. I set to work, gathering everything she had turned up. Some of it was damaged, but I had a feeling Lady Emmas did not much care whether or not her foodstuffs were in one piece, or else she would have been more careful. Amongst the carrots and potatoes I would find bits and pieces of the leeks she had planted as well; I knew she had said she wasn’t fond of them, but I could make a tasty stew or soup with them. Maybe I could change her mind.
  757.  
  758. The shadows changed their orientation; time passed by but I was too busy to pay much mind to how long Lady Emmas had been gone. The longer I worked on my own and the harder the afternoon sun beat down upon me, the more my heat-stricken mind began to wander to places I wasn’t sure I quite understood. Places of rosy red and white, of graceful curves and a strong physique…
  759.  
  760. “Sir Anan!” The sound of her plodding footsteps was only eclipsed by the underbrush that crunched and crackled beneath her. “I have what I need – ah, what you’ve gathered is plenty. We’ll leave the rest for the rabbits.”
  761.  
  762. She emptied the contents of her pouch. The silken cocoons were carefully and gently rolled out of the bag, lest she damage the delicate threads. After that came the bee’s wax, which she simply dumped onto the ground with a wet thud. She then put the vegetables in first – they were the heaviest – followed by the wax, then the silk on top.
  763.  
  764. “Is there even room for me?”
  765.  
  766. “Sure, though it may be a tight fit. You’re not claustrophobic, are you?”
  767.  
  768. “Not one bit. I couldn’t imagine wearing a full suit of armor if I was.”
  769.  
  770. “Here then,” she said, lifting me into the stuffed pouch, “move your legs that way – watch the silk, it’s fragile! Now spin yourself – don’t mind it, it’s only the wax. And…there we go. Settled?”
  771.  
  772. She had tucked me into one side, while my other side was flush against all of her harvest. I tried to stretch, to see how far my arms could move and how much space my legs had. It wasn’t much. But already I could hear her comforting heartbeat. I was further from it and it was slightly quieter as a result, but it was there.
  773.  
  774. “I’m settled.”
  775.  
  776. “Good. The return flight will be a bit slower but much smoother than before.”
  777.  
  778. She began the same way as when we first set off: a countdown, then the heavy beating of her wings as we lifted. The forces that moved my insides and spun my head seemed weaker than the last time. It didn’t matter much; just like before, I lost track of time to the darkness and to the unwavering pounding within her chest.
  779.  
  780. We touched down back at the mouth of the cave. As I got out of the pouch, I saw the sun had begun to set, splashing the sky with fiery colors. We shared a quiet moment outside before venturing inward. I cast a glance towards the mausoleum as we passed it, and to my surprise saw English etched into the stone. Confused by its sudden appearance, I decided to take a closer look. It was a date and a name, presumably the name of the interred and the date of his death.
  781.  
  782. “What is it, Sir Anan?”
  783.  
  784. “This was not here before,” I said, pointing to the inelegant script seemingly scratched into the stone. “This used to be runes. I know that for a fact, but now it is in English.”
  785.  
  786. Lady Emmas’ features hardened. “Maybe you’re mistaken,” she said with a tremble in her voice, “or maybe your fever–”
  787.  
  788. “I have no fever. I am not mistaken. I saw runes on these tombs the day I laid eyes on them and for days after.”
  789.  
  790. She looked about, focusing on anything that was not me. When by chance she mistakenly made eye contact, I saw in her eyes the sort of fear and confusion I truly did not know she had been capable of showing. The darting eyes, the heavy breathing, the twisted frown – they were all evident of one thing: guilt.
  791.  
  792. “Lady Emmas.”
  793.  
  794. With that lone, stern utterance, she broke.
  795.  
  796. “Please, please, I didn’t – please don’t hate me!” she cried, throwing her head to the floor as if prostrating herself before me. “P-Please don’t be scared of me! I just did what was easiest, the simplest way! It’s been nearly twelve hundred years since – since – I just wanted to make things easy, I swear to you! There’s nothing – it’s nothing wrong with you! It’s natural for us – dragons, I mean, and like I said, it’s been so long I just thought it would be okay if I did it again! Please, plase don’t hate me, don’t be scared of me, please, please…”
  797.  
  798. She went on and on, begging my forgiveness while I stood there like an imbecile still wondering what it was she had done. And she had most certainly done something or this outburst would never have occurred. Before daring to speak another word I took mental and physical inventory of my person and could find nothing amiss.
  799.  
  800. “What is it you’ve done?”
  801.  
  802. She hid her face behind one of her drooping wings. “I just – I bewitched you.”
  803.  
  804. “What does that mean?”
  805.  
  806. I heard her swallow, hard. “It’s a sort of spell – a minor one! The only one I know, I swear! A gift of knowledge – it allows you to perceive my language as if it were yours. It truly is painful for me to speak English; when I touched my snout to your head – that’s when I did it. That’s when you could understand me. I did it again when you saw the books. That single-stroke script you saw upon the pages was Drachaeic. The first word I ever spoke to you was Drachaeic, before I realized my mistake and switched to English. Please understand, it would take you months of study to have even a child’s understanding of my language, and beyond that, you’d never be able to speak it. I wanted – I wanted so badly to speak to someone again, It’s been forever and a day. I’m sorry, please, don’t be afraid of me. I can reverse it if you want me to, just don’t be afraid of me.”
  807.  
  808. Lady Emmas, recently so proud as to pin me to the ground while shouting in my face that her burdens are her own, now nearly to the point of tears over something so…harmless. Unknown and admittedly frightening, but ultimately harmless. While I was mildly upset I had been deceived, she had done it for nothing but her desire for understanding. For interaction with another soul.
  809.  
  810. “We started out with you asking me to kill you,” I said, pausing briefly to laugh to myself. “Then we progressed to you yelling in my face, to you saying we’re friends, to you crying your eyes out and begging my forgiveness. We do have a rather tumultuous friendship, don’t we?”
  811.  
  812. “Are you not mad?” She timidly asked, daring only now to reveal her face.
  813.  
  814. “What on Earth for?”
  815.  
  816. “The last Knight I tried this with – he ended up trying to kill me for it. He screamed I was a sorceror, a heretic.”
  817.  
  818. I reached out and wiped away a giant tear welling up in the corner of her eye. My leather glove did not absorb the moisture and I ended up simply smearing the wetness across her scales. “The natural reaction of people is to fear what they do not know or understand. I will be honest with you: your ability does scare me, but my first reaction is not to wither away in terror from, but seek to understand it. And the grand truth about this world is not everything will be understood.
  819.  
  820. "Apart from the tales my father told me, I have a few of my own. I was selected as part of the King’s Guard while he hosted guests from a far-away land. No altercation was expected, mind you – it was strictly ceremonial. This guest was an emissary from the East, him and his band of tan-skinned men as small as he was with small eyes, dressed in yellow and red with golden decorations. Things were jovial and the night progressed well. Sometime after dark, one of our guests decided upon a demonstration; a bit of theater, if you will, to entertain the King.
  821.  
  822. "With everyone gathered around him to watch, he sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor for no less than ten minutes, seemingly humming to himself. Some of us thought he had gone mad, but the King was intensely curious and allowed it to play out. One of the man’s companions politely asked for a cuirass, like we Knights wore that night.
  823.  
  824. "Upon being presented with the cuirass, the man who had previously been meditating – mind you, he would barely come up to my shoulders when standing – sprang to his feet, screamed something in his language at the top of his lungs, and plowed his fist straight through the armor piece at its thickest point. And this was a very fine piece of armor, one that I would have had no issue wearing into battle. Women fainted, men were shouting, the King was clapping – merry times, all around.
  825.  
  826. "My point is: I do not believe for one second strength like that was anything except supernatural. And to this day I cannot fathom what powers he called upon that would have allowed such a display. And that’s perfectly fine with me! Whatever it was he was attuned to, whatever or whoever it was that blessed him – I am fine not knowing what it was. He was of a different culture, a different religion with different customs. How much of a hypocrite would I be if I claimed to be fine with his power and not with yours?”
  827.  
  828. “So,” she said, rearing up and sniffling, “you’re not upset?”
  829.  
  830. “Like I said, I am far more curious. When your mouth moves, it’s as if it matches up with the English words you speak. Would your lips not match up with what you are actually saying?”
  831.  
  832. She curled her neck back, allowing herself to wipe her eyes with one of her wings. “It’s difficult to explain because my father never explained it to me before he was – before he passed. Something about the subconscious mind framing everything it knows within the context of the conscious mind? All he plainly mentioned was it would be the only spell I’d ever need.”
  833.  
  834. If not even she understood how it worked, then surely I had no hope. I changed the topic to something else she had said during her sobbing outburst. “This Knight, the one you last tried this on – that was almost twelve hundred years ago? When you were a child?”
  835.  
  836. “No. I encountered that man, Sir Havalan, seven hundred and twenty-two years ago. I was…I was simply saying that it’s been a very, very long time,” she paused, looking very sheepish, “since I’ve been able to say I’ve had an actual friend, someone that hasn’t tried to kill me.”
  837.  
  838. “So, you mean to say you’ve never had one?”
  839.  
  840. She turned away. Her embarrassed, irritated silence was an answer of its own.
  841.  
  842. “Well, look no further, Lady Emmas. What say we skip reading for tonight and you allow me to make dinner? You know what I do for friends? I serve them my famous leek stew while regaling them with tales of my service.”
  843.  
  844. “I’m not fond of leeks.”
  845.  
  846. “You’ll like these leeks; I’ll need a touch of ale and however much boar, moose, or whatever other meat it is you fancy adding to the mix. Now, listen to this: during the Rider’s War, when the barbarians were pressing on the northern borders of Highland…”
  847.  
  848. -Chapter 8-
  849.  
  850. We fell into a comfortable routine over the next week. Breakfast, chores, reading, dinner, sleep. At least, we were supposed to read; most of the time I’d be too tired from the day’s work and would barely get more than a few pages in. As time went on, more and more chores were added to the list, as if Lady Emmas had just remembered this had to be done or that hadn’t been done often enough. Every other day or so, she’d free some time up for her hobbies, like she finally had something to interest her again. She resumed her blacksmithing in earnest; more often than not I’d hear her pounding away or roaring fire over her latest pieces. Part of me wished to commission her for a new blade or an ornate helm, but I did not want to impose.
  851.  
  852. She even decided to take up some new hobbies. One in particular was rather close to my heart.
  853.  
  854. “Since when was painting one of your interests?”
  855.  
  856. Her tail swished left and right, each time lightly dabbing a new stroke of color upon the canvas. She paused, drew herself back as if to take in her entire piece, then added another bit of color elsewhere in the picture.
  857.  
  858. “Since never. Just wanted to try something new.” She looked past her canvas at the piles of books in front of her library, and at the many more sitting on the shelves. Though dull and faded, the different colored books still made for an interesting subject. Bookspines of red, gold, blue, and more – some with gilded bands or colorful stripes or lettering. She considered her painting, looked back at her library, and put her brush to the canvas carefully. I walked over to see her progress.
  859.  
  860. “What do you think, Sir Anan?”
  861.  
  862. It bore a passing resemblance, at least. The blob in the lower left looked vaguely recognizable as…something or other. “It looks like it’s coming together well, Lady Emmas.”
  863.  
  864. She turned slowly, lowering her head to look me directly in the eye. The corners of her mouth curled upward into skeptical smile as she poked my chest with the tip of her snout, pushing me onto my heels. “Is it really?”
  865.  
  866. “Well,” I stuttered, “some of the shapes could use more definition, I suppose.”
  867.  
  868. She pulled her head back without breaking her gaze, still wearing that little smile – perhaps it softened a bit as she went, I couldn’t tell exactly. “You don’t need to flatter me. I know exactly how it looks. After all, this is how all of my hobbies began. You should have seen the first swords I ever made; not even a barbarian would have used them if they had been the last blades on Earth. As with all things,” she said, dashing a tiny strip of red paint across the canvas, “practice and dedication are needed.”
  869.  
  870. She worked a little longer on her piece. Even with her self-admitted lack of skill, things began to come into focus as she kept at it. The blob in the lower left eventually gained enough definition to be recognized as a pile of books, a messy collection of squares and rectangles of varying colors. The shelves became more readily apparent, and the tiny stripes of color were easily seen as the spines of the books that sat upon said shelves. When all was done, it was certainly a far cry from when she had asked for my opinion earlier. It looked like a better version of something I would have done after getting into my father’s paints as a child.
  871.  
  872. “So, what really set you off?” I said, admiring her finishing touches. “You’ve got a hundred other projects beneath your wings. Why suddenly start painting?”
  873.  
  874. “A fair question,” she rumbled. “You see the dozens upon dozens of paintings throughout this chamber, don’t you? Some of them were done by my father. His best was a picture of me as a nessie, and I say that without ego. Its color and detail–”
  875.  
  876. “I’m sorry – as a what?”
  877.  
  878. “Nessie. It’s a young dragoness.”
  879.  
  880. “There’s a painting of a little you? Could I have a peek?”
  881.  
  882. She gave off all manner of signs: a scowl, a tail slapping the ground, her ears held down. I might have mistaken it for anger but there was nothing resembling such hot emotion in her eyes. In fact she consciously avoided looking at me during this display. If I had to venture a guess, I would have said it was embarrassment.
  883.  
  884. “Only as an artist,” I added. “I would love to see a painting as expertly done as you describe.”
  885.  
  886. Still scowling, she slipped her tail into a stack of paintings leaned against a nearby wall. She carefully moved the ones at the front until she came across the piece she was looking for. Her tail wrapped twice around it before she brought it to me, heaving it up for me to see. The oval frame appeared to be plain oak with simple patterns engraved upon it. The painting within it was as large as I was.
  887.  
  888. “Is this actual size? As a child, you were as large as I am now?”
  889.  
  890. “Yes.”
  891.  
  892. A little dragon – a nessie, as she said – stared back at me with eyes as brightly blue as they were now. The wings were insignificant, her tail was stubbier and a little fatter, and her coloration was blurred – absent was the clear-cut line she now possessed that separated her off-white underside from the rest of her rosy pink body. The fin-like protrusions on her cheeks were entirely unnoticeable and her face held far more wonder in it than I had ever seen from her. All in all, it was very well done. An immense level of detail – from the veins in her growing wings to the myriad of scales all over her body – gave the image an incredibly life-like quality.
  893.  
  894. “How old are you here?”
  895.  
  896. “Twenty-two. I would not have known had my father not written it on the back of the canvas; I don’t even remember him painting this.”
  897.  
  898. Twenty-two and still a child? “So you say you’re twelve hundred now. How many more years lie ahead of you?”
  899.  
  900. “I’m not sure,” she said, her gaze wandering aimlessly as she considered my question. “I guess I’m just before mid-life if you recall the census records from your reading. My father lived to around nineteen-hundred, but he was…well, he would have lived longer had things been different.”
  901.  
  902. Just before mid-life! Twelve-hundred years behind her and more than twelve-hundred ahead! What a thing to have, what an experience – to be able to witness history across so many ages, to see one’s life change with the era–
  903.  
  904. “Long life is great,” she said, using her tail to lift my bottom jaw, “if the life you’re living is, too.”
  905.  
  906. “Well, why not start sometime? What’s stopping you from making it great hereafter?”
  907.  
  908. “Some burdens make it difficult.”
  909.  
  910. “Any you might like to share?”
  911.  
  912. She looked at the floor and carefully contemplated my question. Wisps of smoke leaked out her mouth from between her teeth, as if from the gears clearly turning inside of her head. She cast a sidelong glance my way before scanning her cave and all the artifacts within, like she was taking inventory of her domain.
  913.  
  914. “Maybe later,” she said quietly. She was tempted, but not quite there yet. She shook her wings out as if to stretch them and began making her way to the library. “Let’s continue your reading while my painting dries. Volume Seven is your next book, correct?”
  915.  
  916. She chose to change the subject. I chose not to press it any further as we sat down next to the library in the same position as before: her laying down, leaning against the library, me propped up against her side with her looking over my shoulder. After placing Volume Seven into my hands with her tail she let it fall gently across one of my outstretched legs. Despite the weight, it was…strangely comfortable.
  917.  
  918. “When you are ready, Sir Anan.”
  919.  
  920. The book began with no connection to the previous volume. The tone was just as dry and informative. As I read I had the sense these books – written by her late father – were only meant to convey as much information as possible as objectively as possible. There was no editorial language, no asides from the author; perhaps Fharer knew his time was coming and wanted to put down the bare minimum needed to inform his daughter of what home used to be like.
  921.  
  922. Whereas Volume Six concerned the lay of the land and its people, this book delved into the cultural and scientific accomplishments of dragonkind. It was dragons who first reached out to man with an offer of friendship. It was dragons who surveyed the Earth from the skies, finding the easiest routes through which to trade. And again, it was dragons who scoured the Earth for land that could properly support a settlement. Indisuputably, the modern realms owe their existence to the scouts that skipped between clouds. Before such searching had occurred, the various kingdoms of man all subsisted precariously on barren soil that could hardly support them, much less crops or livestock. Indeed, if that was the case, then man’s early survival was secured by dragons.
  923.  
  924. “Interesting that your ancestors would choose to let another people settle on farmable land,” I said. These days, such territory was a commodity. Border squabbles were common between realms, and very rarely they would escalate to skirmishes. Diplomacy won out more often than not, but the harsh truth remained that land was not a thing people easily parted with.
  925.  
  926. “Dragons have always been few,” she said, turning the page with the tip of her tail. “They could have taken that land for themselves, but they would not have had the numbers to make full use of it. By guiding the humans towards it, dragons secured their own foodstores and those of man.”
  927.  
  928. The second half of the book dealt with intellectuals and philosophers. Dragons were partially responsible for the discovery of bacteria, the invisible ill-makers Lady Emmas had told me about; a dragon glassmith stumbled upon the nature of lens magnification, whereas a human used it to observe the tiny things which would anchor themselves to dragon skin and scales, aptly named scale rot.
  929.  
  930. “Scale rot is important later,” said Lady Emmas.
  931.  
  932. Science then was not viewed with as much skepticism or suspicion as it was now. If someone could prove their theory beyond reasonable doubt, it was generally regarded as truthful, though it would never be established as fact unless it was absolutely incontrovertible. The book offered up a dragon by the name of Beutrir, an unscrupulous undertaker who sought to understand physiology; Though initially reviled, his studies would prove instrumental in understanding how the dragon body is capable of producing fire. Another dragon called Eftir was credited with being the first one to ponder the nature of existence.
  933.  
  934. “Haven’t we all,” Lady Emmas said. I looked up in time to see her roll her eyes.
  935.  
  936. “You take issue with this Eftir’s achievement?”
  937.  
  938. “It’s no more an achievement than it is for a baby to wonder at a mirror. Everybody thinks about life. Just because you’re the first sod to put your thoughts on paper doesn’t make you great.”
  939.  
  940. I kept reading and reading. There was Azymar, discoverer of medicines; Vakher, discoverer of realms; Rocir, discoverer of the water wheel–
  941.  
  942. “I’m noticing a lot of these names end with the letter ‘r’.”
  943.  
  944. “Oh, yes, it’s very common. Male names typically ended with an 'r’ or an 'o’, whereas dragonesses had names ending in ’s’ or 'i’. It wasn’t a written rule – more a quirk of our language. Humans have the same thing, do they not? Emile is the male, Emily is the female. It’s like that.”
  945.  
  946. The last page came about. As with the last book, it ended with her father’s signature and seal – Fharer, King. I closed Volume Seven and held it up for her to put back on the shelf. She grabbed it with her tail and away it went, back up onto the shelves.
  947.  
  948. I thought her choice of name to demonstrate male and female was telling. “Did you know an Emile?”
  949.  
  950. She sighed heavily and her gaze dropped to the floor. “Yes. Well, no. My father did, before he passed. Sir Emile is one of the knights interred in my mausoleum. He was present during my birth.”
  951.  
  952. “And he tried to kill you?”
  953.  
  954. “It is not so simple, Sir Anan. Most of the tombs I care for have a very simple story. His is not so. It is not something I wish to discuss at the moment.”
  955.  
  956. I easily understood her apprehension. Thought I was certainly no stranger to death, there were a few I kept very close to my heart. Old friends, sometimes even rivals for whom I had great respect. Even for a barbarian man who saved my life before we were forced by circumstance to fight each other. The sorts of things that cannot be simply explained, if at all, and should one try might require a healthy dose of ale. As usual, I would not press her.
  957.  
  958. “I understand, Lady Emmas.”
  959.  
  960. “Lady Emmas,” she hissed in a sort of lighthearted mockery. She wrapped her tail around me and stood me up, taking a moment to gently slap the dust from my pants. “I’ve been thinking, you know. It seems a mouthful for you to say. And we are–”
  961.  
  962. She paused again, like she was still trying the word out, seeing how easily it rolled from her tongue. “We are friends, yes? Friends can drop the formality, right? Why not just Emmas? Anan and Emmas.”
  963.  
  964. Her invitation sat very strangely with me, as thought it were too heavy a thing for me to carry. It seemed improper, almost. “I’ve never called a woman without her title. Is that – may I do that? Is it right?”
  965.  
  966. She smiled – an honest-to-God smile, one that saw the corners of her mouth pulled back and the tips of her upper teeth exposed. You remember the one rule here, don’t you, Anan? I make the rules. Just Emmas will do.“
  967.  
  968. I returned her smile in kind. "Fine by me, La – Emmas.” We stood there looking goofily at each other for what felt like a little too long. The awkwardness was compounded by the fact that it felt so wrong to exclude her title. I had never done that in my whole life. It made me feel uncomfortable, and for my own sake I sought to break the silence.
  969.  
  970. “Well, it’s been hours. Why don’t we see how your painting has fared?”
  971.  
  972. “I should think not!’ she huffed, grabbing me with her tail and spinning me around. "I don’t need another of your expert evaluations. Off to the kitchen with you; I’d love another serving of that leek stew, if you don’t mind. I will join you shortly and we’ll make a proper dinner.”
  973.  
  974. -Chapter 9-
  975.  
  976. I awoke to the sound of fire.
  977.  
  978. It was a difficult thing for my sleep-addled mind to grasp at first. I initially thought it may have been the sound of rushing water, perhaps coming from the bathchamber after a heavy rainfall further up the mountain range. As I awakened more fully, I realized I had fallen asleep within the antechamber, curled up at the base of the library without Lady – without Emmas in sight. That she trusted me near her books by my lonesome was a pride all its own, but my attention was shifted elsewhere when I heard the rushing roar again.
  979.  
  980. I hobbled over to the bathchamber and heard nothing but the gentle flow of running water. When again the roar sounded, I recognized it more clearly as coming from where I had woken up, or at least in that direction. I stumbled, still groggy, back to the antechamber and had a look around. Barely had I begun to scan my surroundings when I laid eyes upon another painting a stone’s throw from where I had woken up.
  981.  
  982. It was a painting of me. To anyone else it would have just been a random gentleman asleep on the floor, but I instantly recognized myself. At least, as well as anyone could from a generally distinct collection of shapes and colors. Her technique showed fast improvement but it would be long before she could call herself an expert. Nonetheless, there I was in my brown leather vest and woolen pants. The ruffled white collar of my undershirt peeked out around my neck. Strangely, she had moved my armor beside me – perhaps to make the composition more interesting.
  983.  
  984. I had not pondered her work for long before I heard the roar again, this time accompanied by a wave of subtle heat that washed over me. It was then I recognized the sound matched what I had heard when Emmas was breathing flames over her swords, only louder and more furious. In the antechamber though, it was difficult to tell from where the sound came what with the echoes reverberating all around me.
  985.  
  986. “Lady –“ I stopped short, shook away whatever sleep still clung to my mind, and shouted again, “Emmas? Where are you?”
  987.  
  988. I waited a moment in the complete silence that followed, and before I could call out again, she seemingly popped into existence, strutting out from what had just a moment before appeared to be a solid wall. I shifted a few steps and saw daylight coming from further back. That must have been the passageway she spoke of a weeks back, the one in which her foodstores were kept.
  989.  
  990. “What’s down that way?” I asked, motioning towards the unknown passageway.
  991.  
  992. “My bedchambers,” she said.
  993.  
  994. “You breathe fire in your sleep?”
  995.  
  996. “Of course not,” she replied. “As I mentioned before, my food is down that way as well. What you heard was me curing meats. I usually use salt but smoking better preserves the flavor short-term.”
  997.  
  998. “Curing what? The last thing you caught was days ago.”
  999.  
  1000. She paused before answering, and when she did her words caught briefly in her throat. “I went hunting while you slept – caught another boar.”
  1001.  
  1002. “You went hunting and painted me before I woke up?”
  1003.  
  1004. She froze in her tracks and her eyes locked onto me, and in her glare I saw confusion. “You saw that, did you?”
  1005.  
  1006. “It was difficult to miss; you left it on its easel in the middle of the antechamber.”
  1007.  
  1008. “I guess I did, didn’t I?” Her tail twirled about behind her, making corkscrewing motions in the air. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, and I’m sorry for moving your armor.”
  1009.  
  1010. “No, no, think nothing of it. A painter paints whenever inspiration strikes, I suppose. The empty space beside my head would have been distracting had you left it that way. It makes the piece seem crowded in a good way, like it’s busy and lively instead of empty and lonely.”
  1011.  
  1012. “Busy and lively,” she said, nodding thoughtfully at my appraisal. She paused at the painting on her way past it and looked lovingly at it, as though pleased at how it was progressing. She looked at me, then back to her painting, and then to me again, comparing her work to her inspiration. “Busy and lively.”
  1013.  
  1014. We made our way into the dining hall, where she had already prepared a helping of breakfast for each of us. The plating was different this time; it had more care in its presentation, looking like how a chef might arrange his dish. It was as inviting as it was delicious. We talked of art as we ate; I bestowed upon her what little knowledge I had absorbed from my father, knowing full well how amateur it sounded coming from me. I was a gifted illustrator, yes, but a painter? I hoped she realized how poor a teacher I would be in that respect.
  1015.  
  1016. “Emmas, may I ask you something?”
  1017.  
  1018. She idly scratched her right side with her rear leg. “Anything, Anan.”
  1019.  
  1020. “You and I speak highly of our fathers. Is there a reason why you don’t talk about your mother?”
  1021.  
  1022. She swallowed another generous hunk of sausage. “I never knew her. She was wounded in battle and gave her last to bring me into the world. All I have of her are memories given to me by my father.“
  1023.  
  1024. I waited for both of us to finish with our meals. While Emmas thought, I took our dishes and set them on the floor, by the entrance t the hall. “And what was she like?”
  1025.  
  1026. “Fiercely stubborn and stubbornly fierce, as father liked to say. He always liked to jest that he may have been king, but you never would have known it in her company.”
  1027.  
  1028. “How exactly did she…meet her end? Was it because of humans? Was it one of the knights you have interred here?”
  1029.  
  1030. A chill swept through the chamber. I had the sense I had stumbled onto a topic still not ready for open discussion. By the time Emmas had let go of a deep, long sigh, I began to regret my inquiry. As open as she now was with me, it pained me to inadvertently touch upon topics that seemed sacrosanct to her. She still had not answered by the time I sat back down in my seat; she simply looked with empty eyes at the empty space where her plate had been moments ago.
  1031.  
  1032. “I think we’ll skip Volume Eight, Anan. I want you to know exactly what happened.”
  1033.  
  1034. Skipping any bit of knowledge did not sit well with me. “What would I be missing?”
  1035.  
  1036. “Volume Eight deals mostly with the diplomatic relations of the realms – the specifics of various trade deals and military alliances struck between man and dragon. I told you of Kingsreach, Gandameid, and Jagutun. Far, far north, beyond what you know now as Highland, was Elwick. It was never meant to be home for man or dragon, but that did not stop a few nomadic tribes of men from calling it such. These tribes eventually coalesced into a single people. Faced with the reality that the land would never support livestock or plants and that they lacked the resources to migrate en masse to better territory, they lived off of raiding their southern neighbors. These people would eventually come to be known as little else other than barbarians.”
  1037.  
  1038. “I’m familiar with them; their blood has stained my sword on several occasions. I’m sure every knight of all the realms could say the same.”
  1039.  
  1040. She nodded. “They pressed southward for centuries, continually striking at Kingsreach’s northernmost territories. In order to prevent any further incursions, Kingsreach spaced its armies all along the northern border. It was a disastrous miscalculation that spread their forces too thin, and the barbarians swept across the border with their full strength, dismantling the Kingsreach armies piecemeal.”
  1041.  
  1042. Some of her words struck upon my memory, sounding vaguely familiar of the old accounts in the Highland Archives. As a squire, one studies and trains under the tutelage of a knight; one such lesson to be learned well was that of history, for one ignorant of it is doomed to future failure. We did learn of a great war thousands of years ago, one that could have rent the realms asunder had the forces of Norderlund and Ceferlund not united. The battlegrounds and tactical missteps matched what Emmas spoke of. Was that book now just more evidence of the erasure of Ariscorech? What other truths had I been told that were nothing but lies and cover-ups for the genocide of dragons? I had devoted my life to honor and duty; beneath it all, was I just a dragon-hunter unwittingly meant to keep the truth buried?
  1043.  
  1044. In my self-reflection I failed to notice Emmas had disappeared and returned with a book. She placed it into my hands. It was the thickest, heaviest one yet. A lone red stripe ran down the spine and bordered the top and bottom of the front and back covers, which seemed to be of black leather.
  1045.  
  1046. “When the army scattered, the barbarians laid waste to every single thing in their path. They slaughtered everyone, old and young. They killed and ate whatever livestock and crops they came across and burned what they couldn’t carry with them. Entire cities ransacked in days with not even a lone soul left alive to speak of the carnage.”
  1047.  
  1048. I opened the book to skim the first few pages and found it more or less repeated what Emmas was speaking of. I closed it again, opting instead to listen to her.
  1049.  
  1050. “Kingsreach appealed to its neighbors, but Gandameid and Jagutun were both too far and too small to provide useful aid. My father argued with his advisors on whether or not to get involved; he opted for action, but his council was not as enthusiastic. It wasn’t until my mother got involved that they changed their opinions; she came roaring into the throne room, singed the wings of every councilor present, and reported that one of the rivers which flowed from Kingsreach into the center of Ariscorech had been stained red. Father said that was the one time my mother had ever issued him an ultimatum: dragonkind would act together or she would act alone.”
  1051.  
  1052. I couldn’t help but grin at the mental image. “The thought makes me smile, too,” Emmas said. “With her encouragement, Father gathered up Ariscorech’s forces and made haste to Kingsreach. What was nearly a month’s journey on foot was just short of a week on the war-form wing. Dragons arrived to great fanfare and—“
  1053.  
  1054. “Wait, wait. I’m sorry to interrupt – what was that word?” I spread the book open and speedily skimmed through the first hundred or so pages. Sure enough, the phrase ‘war-form’ was mentioned a handful of times, and often a mention of ‘plain-form’ would be nearby. “If it’s Drachaeic, shouldn’t I know it because of your bewitchment upon me? Or is my mind just poorly translating it?”
  1055.  
  1056. Her face softened gradually until it was devoid of any emotion at all. Her wings flapped just once, as if to make sure they were there, and her tail twitched idly. “It’s just – just a phrase. A dragon phrase. It means…you know, the way in which we fight. Normally we are relaxed, you see. That’s what – that’s called plain-form, just as we are normally. See, and war-form is when we – that’s when we’re ready for a fight.”
  1057.  
  1058. “That’s seems an odd way to say peaceful and militant.”
  1059.  
  1060. “I don’t write the rules of my language,” she swiftly added, turning her muzzle up indignantly. “May I continue?”
  1061.  
  1062. Her hastiness to leave behind the plain- or war-form translation was amusing, but puzzling. It seemed a simple miscommunication. Why she had looked so blank, as though caught in the act of something, was beyond me. “Please do.”
  1063.  
  1064. “So Ariscorech’s forces arrived to great fanfare and ceremony. A force of seven hundred dragons flew out at fast as possible. They rallied the scattered remnants of Kingsreach’s armies and organized the men into disciplined regiments. Devising battle plans and directing the flow of the fight was trivial from the air; the barbarians could not hide their movements nor could they obscure troop concentrations for as long as any dragon remained airborne – and at least fifty were airborne each hour of each day.”
  1065.  
  1066. As she continued, my military mind grew curious of the minutiae of how dragonkind waged war and I found myself thumbing through the pages of Volume Nine once again. Within the context of this war, dragons operated more like as advisors, corralling the broken regiments of Kingsreach and instilling within them a stronger backbone and the will to fight. While airborne, a dragon would signal the regiment commander using an ingenious series of fire and smoke signals. Viewed directly from below, these flames the dragons spewed would have obvious shapes like cones, straight lines, or they might blossom outward on one end or thin towards the other. Sometimes the fire would be accompanied by a smoke pattern produced by zigzagging while flying.
  1067.  
  1068. Viewed from far off in the distance however, the shape of the flame and pattern of smoke was inscrutable to any barbarian observer. Faced with the insurmountable disadvantage of constant surveillance, barbarians would opt not to engage and continually retreat, pushed ever further until they hit some impassable terrain that would force them to stand their ground.
  1069.  
  1070. Each signal had an accompanying order, interpreted by the regiment commander: fan out, move the central column forward, swing the left column wide – things of that nature. The regiment commanders implicitly trusted these orders from on high even when their purpose was not immediately clear, for they surely could not know better than the dragon with the aerial view.
  1071.  
  1072. Very rarely would a dragon become involved in direct fighting; their value as airborne commanders was too great. Even when they were forced to take part in combat, they would almost never touch the ground, preferring to attack with near impunity from the air. From great heights they would dive until reportedly nothing but a blur to the human eye and rake the barbaric hordes with wicked talons strengthened by metal plates or blades.
  1073.  
  1074. Fire-breathing was, however, the foundation of all dragon combat. With their undersides armored by plates or mail, they would hover over enemy formations and simply incinerate every barbarian down to the last man. A windstorm carrying pounds of ash through the air – that became the grim calling card of a dragon’s actions.
  1075.  
  1076. “Is the book more interesting?”
  1077.  
  1078. Her voice so close to my ear startled me badly enough that I nearly flipped the book into the air; her tail had snapped to, ready at an instant to snatch it from the air should it have gone airborne.
  1079.  
  1080. “No, it’s – I’m sorry, I did not mean to ignore you, Emmas. I much prefer hearing your voice. I was simply trying to follow along in the book as you spoke.”
  1081.  
  1082. She pulled back with eyes wider than a moment ago, but she continued. “As the war turned on the barbarians for the worse, they attempted to flee back to Elwick. Harried the entire time by marauding dragons, their numbers had dwindled to perhaps no more than ten thousand. At this point Kingsreach appealed to the dragons to cease fighting as the enemy was beaten.
  1083.  
  1084. “Humans have comparatively short memories. Dragons knew how long the barbarians had been terrorizing settlements, pillaging, raping, and murdering as they went. Each time they were beaten, they returned just a little smarter and a little stronger, and soon enough they may even have felt emboldened enough to press directly upon the borders of Ariscorech itself.
  1085.  
  1086. “They ignored Kingsreach’s request for a figurative stay of execution. Dragons swept into Elwick and razed every structure they could find; from the biggest longhouse to the most insignificant branch hut. Such was their fury that glaciers which had stood for thousands of years cracked and fell under the onslaught of flame that scorched the ice and rock. Lands that had known permafrost for centuries were reduced to black patches of soot and ash.” She swallowed loudly before continuing, “No one was spared. The fleeing warriors were killed. So, too, were their families; wives, mothers, children. The dragons thought to be absolutely certain that never again would any of their allies be made to suffer the violent impulses of any barbarian. It was nothing short of genocide.”
  1087.  
  1088. Attempted genocide, I thought. Barbarians still roam the northlands even today.
  1089.  
  1090. Emmas stretched her tail out to take a painting from a nearby stack. She showed it to me, gauging my reaction; a blue dragon clad in armored plates weathered a storm of arrows to hover above an unending sea of spears. A bloody mess of body parts clutched tightly in its forward claws, it sprayed fire downward, disintegrating everything its flame could reach. I frowned; weeks ago I had expected a tapestry of my deeds to be woven after killing Emmas. Would I have looked so ghastly and bloodthirsty?
  1091.  
  1092. “This is what seven hundred dragons did to Elwick,” she said. She kept her voice empty and distant. Why? Might she feel pride of her people’s power? Or shame of what they had done? Perhaps she was ashamed of her pride, even. Either way, she would not clue me into her sentiments. “When all returned home victorious, word was spread by Kingsreach scouts of the violence dragons had visited upon Elwick. Ariscorech’s lack of restraint would sow the seed that would destroy it.”
  1093.  
  1094. I knew where this was going. Something similar had occurred in Soderlund two centuries ago during the reign of a mad king. “They made their allies fearful,” I said. “Dragons made it clear that should they choose, regardless of whether or not they actually would, they could obliterate any realm they wanted to.”
  1095.  
  1096. She nodded gravely, pausing to find her words. “While fear and discontent grew among the realms of men, dragons returning from Elwick brought with them a nasty breed of scale rot. Before, scale rot was immunized against; apothecaries would purposefully infect a single scale then locally treat the symptoms before they got out of hand. This made the victim less susceptible to it in the future. Whatever had been brought back from Elwick did not respond to any known treatments. Victims were bedridden for weeks as their shed cycle halted and their skin and flesh sloughed off; it was estimated that over the course of a century and a half, roughly a quarter of dragonkind died.”
  1097.  
  1098. Strike when an enemy is weakest, hinder their ability to fight back, and victory could well be achieved without any fight at all. After one hundred and fifty years, the armies of men must have replenished their ranks and then some. “And that,” I said, “is when Kingsreach struck.”
  1099.  
  1100. She shook her head. Her tail snaked its way to the top of one of the bookshelves and grabbed a scroll. Emmas unfurled it before me and it was immediately apparent what had happened. Lines signifying armies lashed out like whips not only from Kingsreach, but from Gandameid and Jagutun as well. All three realms had united against Ariscorech, and in their weakened state, the dragons must have been easy prey. I thought about the painting of the blue dragon; easier, at the very least.
  1101.  
  1102. “Part of me wants to say there was a valiant defense,” Emmas whispered, longingly looking upon the map. “A war-form dragon is worth a hundred men at the least. It did not make much a difference, if any; dragonkind was too weakened by sickness and Kingsreach had had one hundred and fifty years to replenish its ranks. Those too ill to fight attempted to flee, but they did not make it far before being tracked down and killed. At some point my parents abandoned hope of victory and fled. Ariscorech fell a week later. Over the coming years, the last of man’s erstwhile allies would be hunted down like animals. It was around this time that father lost track of who was still alive, and for all he knew he and mother were the last of their people.”
  1103.  
  1104. Part of me doubted Emmas fully grasped what her parents had done, but I would not challenge her version of the story. Had they in fact abandoned all hope, or had they fled to protect their unborn child? How long might a dragon be pregnant for anyway? It would have been a strange question to ask that moment, so I let it be.
  1105.  
  1106. “In the face of their total victory, Kingsreach and her allies felt nothing but shame over what they had done. Betrayal of the ones who had secured their survival twice, who they had known for centuries as friends – they would suffer no reminders of their own treachery. Scribes altered texts, scholars ignored established history, and royal families decreed knowledge of Ariscorech or its extinct inhabitants as heresy. Soon enough, the generation that had taken part in the destruction of dragonkind passed; with the original perpetrators gone, their tales were warped and history had forgotten Ariscorech and dragons in less than a thousand years. Humans have short lives, and like I said before – short memories.”
  1107.  
  1108. Her tone faltered and her voice withered to barely more than a whisper. I had the sense that she had finished her tale. What had begun as a minor review of Volume Eight had gone into something much more. I had no doubts that if pressed, she could recite Volume Nine entirely from memory.
  1109.  
  1110. I held the black book out for her to take. “You must have read this book plenty,” I said as she gingerly took it from me with her tail.
  1111.  
  1112. “Over twelve hundred years,” she murmured, “plenty would be an understatement. I’ve read this book more than any other in my possession. It was the last book my father wrote before he died.”
  1113.  
  1114. People replay events in their mind for two reasons: to relive the details or to wish something had gone differently. With such a tumultuous history and a violent end, I can’t imagine anybody would want to relive the loss of their home and people. That only left one other option.
  1115.  
  1116. “What would you have done differently, Emmas?”
  1117.  
  1118. She paused before she had put the book back in its place. Instead she pulled it back, staring glumly at it, like it still held some dark secrets she had not found in more than a millennium. “I don’t know, Anan. I’m not gifted with a military mind. I can’t imagine knowing what troops to put where or—“
  1119.  
  1120. “No, I mean – do you think things could have played out differently? How would you have done it?”
  1121.  
  1122. She thought for a moment longer, still glaring at the book. Before answering she scratched her right side. “Diplomacy, first and foremost. I imagine talking should always be the first option – oh, don’t give me that look; the irony is not lost on me. A barbarian would be a tough nut to crack, though. You would need someone sensitive to the plights of others, someone who chooses not to follow the rigid dogmas of the ruling class or get lost within deep-rooted prejudices. Someone kind and caring, strong and compassionate, someone that could melt away the barriers around another’s heart…”
  1123.  
  1124. Her words trailed off as she looked at me, her vividly deep blue eyes seemingly aglow with strange intensity.
  1125.  
  1126. And in the next moment her eyes were as wide as dinner plates. Both of her ears stood straight up, flicking one way and then another. Clearly she heard something I could not, for as her ears twitched her eyes remained fixated towards the cave entrance. Dread plainly washed across her features and the atmosphere of our friendly chat evaporated in seconds.
  1127.  
  1128. “Emmas, What is it? Tell me!”
  1129.  
  1130. “Men are coming,” she said, swallowing hard. The more she listened, the more apparent her terror became. “They speak of you, Anan.”
  1131.  
  1132. How is that possible? No one would have known – scouts! Fellow Knights of Highland, sent to find me in the absence of my reports. The last one I had written and left at an inn nearly two months ago; in it I mentioned a cave I had heard about, a month’s trek from that inn. They were shadowing my movements, expecting to find another report I had left behind – or a body. In the shock of finding an actual dragon and in the friendly times with her that followed, I had completely forgotten about my notes, about the scouts that would follow to see if I was successful in my mission or had died in the attempt.
  1133.  
  1134. I could not simply greet them; they’d expect an answer for why I was still here in the cave. Or they’d expect me to come back with them and face justice for cavorting about for two months. Or worse, Emmas may be discovered and she might get what she wished for, or maybe still wished for; I don’t know.
  1135.  
  1136. “I have an idea, Emmas.” She acted as though she had not heard me. So great was her fear that she – a dragon, easily more than twice the size of a horse and a match for a hundred men – had frozen like a deer sure of nearby predators.
  1137.  
  1138. “Not again,” she muttered over and over, her head dropping to the floor, “not again, not again, please, I can’t do this again! I don’t want to, I just can’t!”
  1139.  
  1140. “Emmas! Listen to me! Find me an old cloth – the dirtier, the better. Now!”
  1141.  
  1142. Still mumbling to herself and without even acknowledging me, her tail snatched a large brown tunic from somewhere in the piles of clothing that littered the antechamber. She tossed it to me and I threw it upon the ground, tearing gashes of all shapes and sizes into it with my knife. I balled it up and rubbed it on the floor to gather as much dirt and grime as I could.
  1143.  
  1144. “Breathe on it – fire! Lightly, though! Don’t burn it, just – singe it, make it look old!” She wheezed and a thin, weak flame rolled out from her maw, accompanied by a thick cloud of smoke. Some of the tunic caught fire, but I stamped it out; the black, burned edges completed the look well. I then unsheathed my knife and hurriedly took the blade to my hair, pulling handfuls out as far as it would stretch before dragging the knife across the taught strands. I threw handfuls of whatever dirt I could find over my face and any exposed skin, removed my gloves, kicked off my boots and socks, and wrapped myself in the shabby tunic.
  1145.  
  1146. “How do I look?”
  1147.  
  1148. She looked me up and down, unsure of what to say. “Like a maniac hermit.”
  1149.  
  1150. “Excellent! Stay here and don’t make a sound. Know that if this does not work, under no circumstances will I alert them to your presence.” She nodded slowly, as if struggling to believe or understand me. Regardless of her misgivings, I turned around and trudged out, taking on a hunch-backed posture and uneven gait. I thought to speak softly in order to make myself hard to understand, but decided otherwise when I realized they might draw closer to hear me; they’d see through my slapdash disguise with a little scrutiny.
  1151.  
  1152. The cave entrance opened up to the early evening’s overcast sky, and I just then saw two men cresting the cliff’s edge. They were certainly Highland Knights – even before I saw the insignia upon their belts and pouches, I could tell by the design of their armor. I was not familiar with the men themselves, however.
  1153.  
  1154. “Hail, old man” said one of them to me, pausing afterwards to pull his compatriot up by the arms. From a distance, my disguise must have been better than I gave it credit for. “I am Sir Waryn and this is Sir Dullowin of the Highland Knights, Fourth Company. We search for one of our comrades carrying out a mission given to him by the King. Have you seen him pass by? He’d be wearing armor like ours.”
  1155.  
  1156. “Never seen any the likes of you!” I shouted in some cockney, crazy accent that I immediately regretted; it pained my throat and made me cough. I would have to maintain the same accent throughout. So, too, did I regret to settle on fake belligerence; perhaps I could have eased them along if I had chosen to cooperate. “Never have before, never want to! This here’s my mountain, what rights to it have you?”
  1157.  
  1158. The one called Waryn sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “We come not to take anything from you, old man. We only wish to find our brother-knight. His last report indicated he would be coming by this mountain after he had heard about a cave,” he said, looking past me into the yawning black in which Emmas lived. “Is this the one which he spoke of?”
  1159.  
  1160. “One who spoke of what? Make sense, youngling!”
  1161.  
  1162. “The man we’re looking for! Are you hard of hearing?”
  1163.  
  1164. I was now. “Hearing what? I can only hear you!”
  1165.  
  1166. Waryn made to step towards me but Dullowin held him back. They whispered and hissed, throwing about muted accusations of daftness or insanity. I listened in on their conversation as best I could from afar; Waryn was quick to anger and already nearing the limits of his patience, for the next suggestion past his lips was to simply march into the cave. Dullowin instead reminded him that trespassing without sufficient reason is a grave offense, even for a knight. If Dullowin was the one with his wits about him, I would appeal to him. Perhaps through him I could walk back my cross old man persona and instead settle on something a little more conducive to the situation.
  1167.  
  1168. “You there, you big yellow-haired one!” Dullowin turned towards me without an ounce of impatience in his face. “The shiny thing on your arm – yes, that! I like it a lot, you know.”
  1169.  
  1170. “My vambrace?” He unclasped the belts and buckles holding it together and slipped it off. “It’s well taken care of. What do you like about it?”
  1171.  
  1172. “I said it’s shiny, aren’t you hearing me?”
  1173.  
  1174. He smiled calmly, like a parent teaching a lesson to their sulky child. “I have other things that are shiny,” he said in a sing-song, sliding his hand into one of the pouches on his belt. He made a show of his movements and exaggeratedly dug around, purposefully clinking and clacking the contents together. After a moment longer he produced two pieces of silver stamped with the Highland insignia. He tossed one my way; my first instinct was to catch it but I instead let it bounce off of my body and then snatched it from the ground.
  1175.  
  1176. “There’s one to illustrate our good intentions,” he said. “There’s a second for you if you’re able to help.”
  1177.  
  1178. I cackled to myself, bit the coin, and then held it up in the air. “Seen this symbol before,” I wheezed. “Fellow came by weeks – no, a month ago and left some fancy paper with this symbol!”
  1179.  
  1180. “May we have it?”
  1181.  
  1182. I spun around and hobbled back into the cave, shouting over my shoulder, “You just plant yourselves right there. Nobody allowed in my cave but me! You understand? Mine!”
  1183.  
  1184. “Just go get it!” Waryn shouted as I disappeared into the darkness.
  1185.  
  1186. The moment they were out of sight, I sprinted the rest of the way, sliding to a stop in the middle of the antechamber. Emmas was nowhere to be seen. Part of me wished to call out to her but I dared not for fear they might somehow hear me and wonder who I was speaking to.
  1187.  
  1188. I flung open my make-shift beggar’s robe and practically tore open the pouches on my belt. I found my quill, tiny inkwell, and the parchment with the Highland seal printed onto it. I wet the tip of the quill against my tongue, dipped it into the ink, and hastily wrote a note explaining how the old man of this cave spoke of a shipwright in Norderlund, just past Highland’s border, who claimed to have seen a dragon. I signed it, blew the ink dry, and then rolled it up and tied a ribbon around the whole thing. Swinging the gnarled robe onto my back, I made my way back out to my waiting brother-knights.
  1189.  
  1190. They both stood exactly where I had left them, arms folded across their chests. “Well?” said Waryn.
  1191.  
  1192. “Here!”
  1193.  
  1194. “No! Don’t throw it, you crazy—“ Before he had even finished, the scroll was sailing through the air, heart-stoppingly nudged while in the air this way and that by the fickle mountain winds. Waryn scrambled after it, just barely catching it before it was blown off the cliff. In hindsight it was a bad move for me to make, but a very in-character one. I was still an old, crazy hermit with trust issues.
  1195.  
  1196. “Stupid old fool,” Waryn muttered quietly enough that he thought I hadn’t heard. I let it go and turned my crazy eyes towards Dullowin, who looked at Waryn.
  1197.  
  1198. “What’s it say, Waryn?”
  1199.  
  1200. “Hang on – he went south towards Norderlund to see a shipwright.”
  1201.  
  1202. “Does it appear legitimate?”
  1203.  
  1204. Waryn fished two other papers from his belt and compared them to my newest report. His eyes flickered from one to the next half a dozen times. “I’d say so. Handwriting is the same, and the paper grain is, too. Except—“
  1205.  
  1206. My heart jumped into my throat. I had forgotten–
  1207.  
  1208. “His wax seal isn’t here.” With those words my breath caught solidly in my throat like a rock. As frantically as my mind raced for some solution, there was absolutely nothing I could do. After all, I was not Sir Anan – just an old crazy man who probably couldn’t even read or write. Fear flooded my veins and try as I might, I could not swallow away the metallic taste in my mouth.
  1209.  
  1210. Finally, after what felt like the longest seconds of my life, Dullowin said, “Maybe he ran out at the inn or lost his bottle in a river. I doubt he’d get any wax from this man’s cave. If everything else matches, I would say it’s fine.”
  1211.  
  1212. “Then I guess it’s fine, Dullowin.” Without a word or a second glance, Waryn stuffed the scrolls into a pouch and turned to make his way back down the mountain.
  1213.  
  1214. “Here, old man,” said Dullowin, flipping another silver coin off his thumb and into the air. It landed halfway between us. “For your troubles. The Highland Knights thank you.”
  1215.  
  1216. I watched them disappear over the cliff, with Waryn muttering to his friend about how everyone always seems less crazy when money is involved, after which Dullowin laughed. I inched forward to peer over the precipice, to watch them carefully descend down the mountain. As they vanished from sight entirely I felt my stomach drop, and my relief at their departure quickly evaporated and left behind a tempestuous whirlwind that made my blood boil and the bile in my stomach rise.
  1217.  
  1218. Storming back into the cave, my eyesight was partially obscured by tears I refused to let fall. I tore the ruined tunic off and threw it to the ground, stomping and spitting on it. When that did nothing to abate the disgust I felt, I looked around for another outlet. A goblet sat on a wooden table; with a shout I slapped it across the antechamber’s floor and it took torturously long to skid to a stop. Immediately afterward I heard a deep, impatient huff. Embarrassed and enraged, I fell to the floor, sliding down against an armoire beside a pile of clothes.
  1219.  
  1220. “Anan,” Emmas said. I looked up through watery eyes and saw her approach. She ignored the goblet I had thrown, though as she stepped over it her tail picked it up and put it pack in its place. “What troubles you?”
  1221.  
  1222. “I have betrayed my brothers. Led them astray.”
  1223.  
  1224. She lay down on her side next to me and listened to my sniffling and sobbing. Doubled was my shame, once for my actions outside and again for blubbering like a fool in front on Emmas. A knight should be loyal and stoic, feeling but not showing, distant but not absent…
  1225.  
  1226. “Please stop crying, Anan.”
  1227.  
  1228. “I don’t even know if I should call myself a knight anymore,” I whispered, wiping my eyes with my sleeve. “I’ve never been anything but. But I flaunt the orders of my king. I refuse to go home because I fear the consequences. I send my brothers on wild chases to hide myself—“
  1229.  
  1230. “To protect me, I think.” She slowly slipped her tail around me beneath my arms, lifting me just enough to slide me across the floor to lie against her. As when I had been sick, her scales spread their coolness across my face and neck. She pushed her muzzle into me, resting her head across my lap; it wasn’t as heavy as I had imagined. The weight was rather comforting, actually.
  1231.  
  1232. “You’re too good to be a knight.”
  1233.  
  1234. In my sour mood, I almost lashed out at her for those words. Then I recalled the hundreds of other knights she had met; ones that had tried to kill her, ones that had betrayed her trust in them. I suspect some had even tried to kill her when she was merely a child. And why? Because they had been ordered to? What man would forsake all sense of decency just to keep his title instead of following the morals and values which that title required?
  1235.  
  1236. Four hundred and twenty-six souls were her frame of reference. If I was nothing like them – that was good, wasn’t it?
  1237.  
  1238. “Too good to be a knight,” I whispered back with a trembling breath. After a lifetime of service, I still wasn’t sure how to be comfortable with that sentiment. Though I felt the skin of her face pull taught in a smile as she murmured her agreement. We sat there for a while; the rhythm of her breathing had a calming effect. The stress of the past hour had taken much from me, and I might have dozed off if not for a question persistently poking at my mind. Despite the situation, perhaps a chat would ease my anguish. Anything to get my mind off of my self-doubts.
  1239.  
  1240. “You were nearly shouting ‘not again’ when my brother-knights arrived. What was that about?”
  1241.  
  1242. She didn’t bother opening her eyes. “I knew a man called Sir Goldreck six hundred and forty-one years ago. He had grown friendly over the course of a few days and deliberated on whether or not to simply leave me be. When more of his company arrived, he turned on me without a second’s hesitation. As he raised his sword he kept shouting he was sorry, like his words meant anything at that moment.”
  1243.  
  1244. “You were afraid you were going to have to kill me,” I said. She frowned. “It’s all right. I understand. Twelve hundred years without meeting another decent soul – I can’t blame you.”
  1245.  
  1246. “I would never harm you, Anan.”
  1247.  
  1248. “You were hiding when I came back inside.”
  1249.  
  1250. “If you could not find me, I would not have to kill you.” She swallowed loudly; I felt the lump in her throat move through the start of her neck before it disappeared further down. “I’m sorry, that came out wrong. I mean…I know you wouldn’t hurt me, I would never think so lowly of you. It’s just – old habits. You know how the saying goes.”
  1251.  
  1252. “If there is even a modicum of doubt within you, please know I take no offense. I will say it plainly, though: I will do everything within my power to keep you from harm, Emmas.”
  1253.  
  1254. She swallowed again, and a few wisps of smoke rose from her nostrils. I think she tried to smile, but her expression faltered.
  1255.  
  1256. “Not that you need my protection. Look at you – twice the size of a horse and a fire-breather.”
  1257.  
  1258. Her throat rumbled with a chortle she held inside. When she spoke, her voice wavered with near-uncontrollable emotion. “Thank you, Anan. Your words mean more than you know.”
  1259.  
  1260. -Chapter 10-
  1261.  
  1262. It had been two weeks since those Highland Knights had shown up, asking about me. Outside of her hunting or gathering, there weren’t a lot of things to do. The chores that had occupied our time earlier in the month were done; the things she had let fall into disarray or disrepair were cleaned and fixed. More and more time was devoted to her hobbies.
  1263.  
  1264. There was so little for me to do, in fact, that I just began cleaning whatever I could to fill my time. With the same rag and solvent I used for my armor, I set to work polishing everything in her armory. I had blades and plates shined to a mirror sheen, I had scrubbed what soot I could off her tools, I had even swept the floor. Within a day I was bored out of my mind and saw I had not completed even a fraction of her collection; still there were countless swords and armor pieces with smudges or smears. I finished up for the time being by polishing the two suits of armor, as they seemed to be the centerpiece of the room.
  1265.  
  1266. I tried to gather and fold the countless piles of clothing scattered about the enormous antechamber, but Emmas stopped me when she saw. Controlled chaos, she called it; the floor was messy and cluttered, but she knew where everything was, down to the tiniest scrap of linen. She appreciated what I was attempting to do but ultimately shooed me away. I attempted to steel my nerves and go back to tidying up the armory, but boredom set in even quicker than before.
  1267.  
  1268. One evening I passed by her library, as I had done countless times before. With the gist of Emmas’ history in the open and the mystique of Fharer’s historic volumes now diminished, it was as if I was seeing the rest of her library for the first time. Not literally, mind, but with new eyes. There had to have been thousands of books on those shelves; if only four were important enough for her to mention by name, what on Earth were all of the others?
  1269.  
  1270. I tentatively reached out to take a smaller one from the shelf. Normally, Emmas would hand one to me, as if giving me permission to touch. Though I was clearly within her view, she ignored me in favor of her painting. Emboldened by her lack of concern, I grabbed hold of the rough leather binding and pulled it from its resting place, waving away some of the dust that came with it.
  1271.  
  1272. The book was very thin; I doubted it would take more than a few minutes to read it end to end. The covers were deeply crimson, immediately reminiscent of blood. Imprinted upon the spine and front cover in gold lettering was the title: “Unlucky Utro” written by Jevenas. I skimmed through its pages; the text was large and followed a sing-song rhyming scheme. The main character was a young dragon named Utro. All manner of ill fortune fell upon him; he lost his favorite toy, lost his parents, and lost his way home. Feeling distraught and despondent, he had the sense within him to sit in one place instead of wandering further and possibly becoming even more hopelessly lost. Eventually his parents found him, and they had found his toy as well.
  1273.  
  1274. “It’s a children’s story,” Emmas said. I turned to see her still focused on her painting. “All of the ones on that shelf are children’s stories. That one’s a lesson: if you get lost, don’t make it worse by continuing to wander.”
  1275.  
  1276. “I can’t agree entirely with the sentiment. You can’t always rely on good things to come to you. Sometimes you’ve got to seek them out.”
  1277.  
  1278. She looked at me with a smile as she shook her head. “It’s a children’s story, Anan. You’re reading too deeply into it.”
  1279.  
  1280. “Did your father write any of them?”
  1281.  
  1282. “He only wrote the historical texts which you read. Before Ariscorech fell, he would make as many trips back as he could, grabbing armfuls of whatever books he could carry.”
  1283.  
  1284. Ironically, the next children’s book I pulled professed the exact opposite of what I had just said. Utro was told to sit tight by his mother. Though tempted endlessly by his friends to play and feeling excluded because of his mother’s orders, he stayed put exactly as told and his mother later returned with some sort of cookie.
  1285.  
  1286. “Good things come to those who wait,” she said, her gaze lingering on me as I finished reading.
  1287.  
  1288. “You used to read these?”
  1289.  
  1290. “Up until I was thirty-seven,” she said. I nearly balked but I remembered the painting of her when she was twenty-two; dragons must have aged much more slowly than humans. “Father and I used to read them together. When he passed on, I lost interest in them.”
  1291.  
  1292. Tired of the simple children’s stories, I began to peruse the rest of the library. Though the lower shelves seemed sort of organized in that they held mostly children’s books, there was no such system in place for the rest of them. Books of all sizes and genres sat anywhere and everywhere with or without any similarity to their neighbors. I laughed inwardly; controlled chaos, she had said.
  1293.  
  1294. A bright orange cover on the very bottom shelf caught my eye. It lacked any title or author, but its pages were filled with diagrams and illustrations of the human body. The words on the right page would describe the picture on the left page, whatever it was. In fact, if memory served, this looked remarkably similar to a book within the Highland archives. I remember as a squire, my mentor would have me watch him combat straw-filled dummies in the fields behind the barracks. Afterwards, he would show me in a book like this one where it was he was striking to ensure a kill or to incapacitate. An artery runs through there, he would say, strike there for a quick exsanguination. This is a major muscle group, strike here to weaken their right side.
  1295.  
  1296. “I’m not so sure about that book,” Emmas said, snapping me out of my memories. “Father never said anything about it and I did not discover it until well after I was on my own.”
  1297.  
  1298. I had a hunch as to why – know your enemy. But without knowing what type of person Fharer was, I would never put such an assumption out in the open. It could very well have been for something more benign. Maybe he just wanted his daughter to have a well-rounded mind. Knowing how the other creatures of the world worked would certainly contribute to that. In defense of that idea, I was curious of dragons; not because I wanted to know how to kill one, but because…
  1299.  
  1300. My memory flashed in my eyes. She was in the field, ripping up the dirt to get at her harvest. A long neck which started the graceful curve down and over her back, limbs familiar with hard work bulged and relaxed as she toiled, the plates across her shoulders and neck and back that brightly glittered under the sunlight…
  1301.  
  1302. “What?”
  1303.  
  1304. I snapped the book shut and met her eyes with mine. “What do you mean, ‘what’?”
  1305.  
  1306. “You cleared your throat all of a sudden. Very loudly, too. Startled me enough to nearly ruin my painting.”
  1307.  
  1308. “Just an itch. In my throat.” I placed the book back where I had found it and quickly moved to another spot. Still I felt her gaze burning into the back of my skull. It made my hair stand on end. Before any other questions of hers or strange thoughts came to mind, a single book on the very end of a shoulder-level shelf grabbed my attention; it was bright green with a white ribbon draped over the spine. I took it down and opened it to a random page. A dragoness named Viti squirmed in the throes of–
  1309.  
  1310. “Not that one.” Emmas’ tail shot out and wriggled its way underneath both halves of the book, slamming it together before I could read another word. She took it from me and placed it high up, far out of my reach. I was going to ask a question I felt like I already knew the answer to, but she made a very conscious effort to avoid eye contact. I wouldn’t embarrass her any further. Besides, I imagined it was hard for her father to pick and choose what books he was grabbing as his civilization fell.
  1311.  
  1312. “You move very quickly when you want to,” I said. She kept silent but remained by my side, perhaps to police any other books I took from the shelf.
  1313.  
  1314. At about shoulder height was a book much smaller than the others. It was starkly black and had two gold stripes running perpendicular to the spine, bottom and top. I thought I recognized it, and when I saw the golden cross on the cover my suspicions were immediately confirmed.
  1315.  
  1316. “The Good Book,” I said, thumbing through its pages. “Are you part of the flock?”
  1317.  
  1318. “No,” she said, her expression softening. “That belonged to Sir Emile.”
  1319.  
  1320. The man present at her birth. The man she had wished not to speak about, for the tale of his death held some special meaning or unbearable sorrow. I wanted so badly to ask her if she was ready yet to tell me, but as with all things, I thought she would when she felt the time was right.
  1321.  
  1322. And as if sensing my thoughts, she said, “Do you still wish to know of him?”
  1323.  
  1324. “Yes.” She stared blankly, as if mulling it over. “What if I shared with you something that gave me pause as well? Just something that I keep close to my heart, something that I’m not quick to share either.”
  1325.  
  1326. “You don’t have to,” she said. “I was just figuring out where to start.”
  1327.  
  1328. “I don’t have to, but it’s what friends do, isn’t it? They share pieces of themselves with each other, their dreams and their nightmares. Things they wouldn’t easily tell strangers.”
  1329.  
  1330. A hint of a smile pulled at the corners of her mouth, exposing the tips of her teeth. “Very well.”
  1331.  
  1332. “I do have just one condition: ale. I wouldn’t mind a cup or two. It eases the tale for me just a bit.”
  1333.  
  1334. “Wait here.” She disappeared down her bedchamber corridor. Down there I heard a wooden commotion, the deep, dense sounds of barrels or crates being moved. After a few moments, she returned with an hourglass-shaped bottle about the size of my chest. Inside sloshed about a liquid as dark as midnight, and my throat began to tighten before she had even opened the top.
  1335.  
  1336. “What is that?”
  1337.  
  1338. “Ariscorech spirits – the last batch made before the fall. Have you ever drunk something fifteen hundred years old before?”
  1339.  
  1340. “Can’t say I have.” She wrenched the cork off using her tail and the room was immediately awash in scents I would never be able to place. The mustiness of age was all I could definitely identify; the rest of it, I wasn’t so sure. I thought I could smell a hint of cinnamon, and some sort of peppery scent that made my nose shrivel. She took a familiar goblet from nearby and poured herself a drink.
  1341.  
  1342. “Where’s mine?” I asked with a half-hearted laugh, reaching out towards her drink.
  1343.  
  1344. She playfully slapped my hand away using the tip of her tail. “You can have yours when your tale is being told. I’d rather not have you drunk beforehand.”
  1345.  
  1346. “Fair enough.”
  1347.  
  1348. She took a dainty sip, shook her head hard enough to move her whole body, and flapped her wings with such force that I thought she may have taken off right then and there. “Sir Emile was the first of many knights sent to kill any remaining dragons. I don’t know much about him; neither did Father.
  1349.  
  1350. "My parents had been on the run for about a decade. They had settled in an old keep still abandoned since the times of the barbarian invasion; they had knocked out a few walls for greater space. Here they lived day to day, flying out by night to look for food or supplies. My mother was expecting me soon, and knew her husband could not find all by himself what three dragons would require; she demanded to hunt and gather alongside him to ease his workload. Of course he acquiesced.”
  1351.  
  1352. “Fiercely stubborn,” I added.
  1353.  
  1354. “And stubbornly fierce. It would be her undoing. On her final trip out she was discovered taking livestock and subsequently struck by five spears in the skirmish that followed. Weak and flying low to the ground, she left a blood trail that was followed by the only man of his company brave enough to dare take a dragon on by himself. He tracked my mother for two nights and eventually stumbled onto the old castle where my parents were staying.
  1355.  
  1356. "Unbeknownst to him, the trauma Mother had suffered put me at risk and disturbed the natural process; whether she was wanted it or not, I was ready then. Screaming and shouting while her life poured from her wounds for her straining, she struggled with every bit of strength she had to bring me into the world. Father was beside himself, unsure of how to help or if he even could. While he was fretting, this lone knight charged into the keep and up the stairs to the source of the commotion, and after smashing through the rotted remains of a wooden door, stood frozen in awe of the scene before him.
  1357.  
  1358. "Father said it was as if every violent impulse in this man just melted away. His broad shoulders sagged and his arms fell until his sword and shield scraped the broken stone floor. His jaw hung lower and lower until fully agape. It was a wonder he was not killed the instant he set foot in that room, but I suppose my father had more important things on his mind. The knight dropped his weapons and paced around the outskirts of the room, as though still trying to comprehend what he was seeing. I don’t know if it was the miracle of life that swayed him, or perhaps he did not wish to kill a newborn or deprive it of its parents; I’ll never know.
  1359.  
  1360. "This knight – who I’m sure you’ve guessed by now is Sir Emile – immediately took charge of the situation. He ordered Father to fetch as much water as he could and if there were any stockpiles of medicines, to bring them as well.”
  1361.  
  1362. “He acted as a midwife?”
  1363.  
  1364. “Expertly so. Emile gave up his undershirt to be used as a rag, for Father to soak with water and cool Mother’s head. He also laid out his own cloak on the floor, so I wouldn’t touch the dirty floor when I arrived. While all three waited for me, Emile tended to Mother’s wounds, staunching the bleeding and dulling the pain with any medicines Father had found from his stockpile. I see it in my head: a I tiny man flitting about like an insect over its much larger queen. After some slow, torturous hours, I made my grand, though slightly early entrance, crying at the top of my lungs.
  1365.  
  1366. "Mother wasn’t much longer for the world. The time she had left was spent smiling and cooing over me as Father held me for her. I was told she slipped away quietly, still smiling.”
  1367.  
  1368. “And did this makeshift truce hold afterward?”
  1369.  
  1370. Emmas took a long draught from the cup then stared into the liquid as it settled again. “Sir Emile sat as far from Father and I as he could without saying a word, until he was addressed. He explained it was possible that I could have been lost without care – his wife was a midwife, and she had inadvertently bestowed upon him some knowledge of her profession through their chats. Father thanked him, and it was then Sir Emile broke down and cried over and over again he was sorry.
  1371.  
  1372. "He cried for a long while, only stopping when he heard the rest of his patrol rushing towards the castle grounds. He took up his sword and shield and made clear his intention to hold his comrades in the courtyard while Father did what he had to. As Sir Emile rushed downstairs, Father secured me with his tail and scooped up my mother’s body. He struggled to gain any altitude outside but eventually made his way skyward. As he looked back, he saw Sir Emile struck down by his own company.”
  1373.  
  1374. Now there was a man whose words meant something. But if his own men struck him down, how was it he was interred within the cave? Emmas must have seen the question in my eyes. “With me in tow, Father went back a day later to salvage what supplies he could from the stockpile. He found Sir Emile’s body had been left for the crows and decided that was no fate for him. He ended up taking the body with us; melted a sarcophagus out of rock, scratched his name into it above the circumstances of his death. He was the first knight whose body now resides in this cave, and the only one with a tomb made by my father.”
  1375.  
  1376. She finished off what remained of her drink, shuddering one last time before her long tongue came out to lick her lips. As she refilled the goblet, it struck me that wherever Sir Emile was, so too must her mother be. Unless it was possible they moved several times, I suppose. That seems like a lot of trouble, though, to be moving graves, bodies, and belongings. They must have settled almost immediately afterwards.
  1377.  
  1378. “A child of two worlds,” I said. I left the epiphany of her mother’s resting place in my mind. “One kept alive only in the pages of books, the other ignorant of you or praying for your death. The universe owes you more than it could ever repay, Emmas. By rights you should be spiteful, vengeful, and overflowing with rage.”
  1379.  
  1380. “I was at some point, but that’s another story.” The goblet was thrust into my hands, oversized and just barely half-full. “Now what tale do you have?” she asked.
  1381.  
  1382. I brought the spirits to my lips, pausing to smell it before drinking. It smelled like pepper and the remains of a freshly-burnt fire. The cinnamon was certainly there, as was the oak I assumed it was aged inside of. I barely drank it to start, preferring mostly to lick my lips after letting drink touch them. It was absurdly spicy and flavorful with things I couldn’t even begin to describe; my mind could only process what flavors I knew and the rest of it was like background noise.
  1383.  
  1384. “You remember I spoke to you of the Rider’s War, right? That was my first taste of action, after I was knighted barely past twenty years old. I was fearful but eager; they each temper the other, you see. The eagerness to prove yourself -- to protect your brothers, lands, and kingdom – weighed against the fear, the need for survival? It was a balancing act in the mind that made you sharp.
  1385.  
  1386. “Sometimes, one of those instincts gets the better of you. We were ambushed on a patrol along the northern border of Highland, nearest the barbarian lands. In the chaos, we lost a great number of our company. The enemy pressed their attack for a moment longer before fleeing, and I – too eager to prove myself – gave chase, failing to see that I was being led away from my brothers. Out in the woods and surrounded, I slayed two before being wounded. My brothers came to my aid before I was finished off and another skirmish ensued in which I was the only survivor, injured as I was; the last barbarian died on the blade of Sir Demetrius, who himself expired minutes later from blood loss. Surrounded by bodies, all I had to look at for what felt like lifetimes were Demetrius’ eyes, wide open and terrified. I had only gathered the strength to mouth the words ‘I’m sorry’ after he died.”
  1387.  
  1388. Shame welled up within me, slamming my heart against the inside of my chest. A swig of spirits dampened its effects. “I think I fainted several times, whether from shock or blood loss, I don’t know. I think it was hours, not days; I don’t remember night falling at all. But after a long time, a lone man came wandering by. He had only just begun to loot the corpses when he saw me, barely breathing and praying that he would just go away. He wore a wolf’s pelt and his beard was twisted into four different braids while a circle of runes decorated his right cheek; he was clearly a barbarian. He regarded me carefully, his gaze flickering intermittently to the carnage around him. I saw his fingers sometimes drift across the handle of the knife strapped across his chest.”
  1389.  
  1390. “He looked shameful, to be honest -- like he’d been caught in the act. That sat oddly with me at the time. You know, because he’s a barbarian; looting is what he would do. Everything was his for the taking – the finest armor and weaponry Highland could offer, the weapons and riches of his comrades. But he did not take any of it. In fact, the few trinkets he had taken from my brothers’ bodies, he ended up putting back before making his way to my side. He said something in his language and scooped me up; the pain from this movement was too intense and I passed out once again.”
  1391.  
  1392. Emmas rumbled with a bit of laughter. “Do you make a habit of fainting in front of strangers?”
  1393.  
  1394. I took another drink, using the goblet to hide my weak smile. “I woke up again inside of what I presumed to be his home. It was barely larger than the bedchamber in which I stay here. It was made of large sticks and logs, and the inside was as quaint as the outside. He had few possessions: a small table, a few blankets, some trinkets of some sort hanging from the wall, a pile of clothing and a washing tub. He had one bed, which he gave to me for the entirety of my stay. Over three weeks, he nursed me back to health, changing my bandages and giving me medicine. He even stitched me up using horse hair.”
  1395.  
  1396. I paused when I noticed the goblet was empty. Emmas hesitated, but she gave me another refill. She didn’t give me as much as before, but it would last me the rest of the tale. Though I was far from drunk, the borders of my mind were comfortably hazy and I found myself speaking louder than normal.
  1397.  
  1398. “After I was healed enough, I bid myself farewell. I still had all of my armor, my sword and its scabbard, my belt and all of its contents – everything was there. He watched from the doorway as I disappeared into the snowy forest. I looked back occasionally until the snowfall was too thick to see through.”
  1399.  
  1400. Sometime during my tale, I hadn’t even realized Emmas had moved me. At first I believed that she had sidled up next to me, but I realized my position within the antechamber had changed; I was looking at things with a slightly different angle, or something was closer or farther than I remembered it being a moment ago. Now I was leaning against her like I had before, only her tail curled around and behind me, like someone had their arm behind me, supporting me.
  1401.  
  1402. “I reunited with the main Highland army and gave my report, purposefully omitting the aid my supposed enemy had given me. I was reassigned to the First Company and life went on. Nearly half a year later, the war was won; the campaign ended with one last patrol through the northern borders of Highland as we sought to clear any straggling barbarians. It was during this final patrol that the company I was with came upon a small wooden hut in the middle of a clearing. I immediately recognized it and shrank as far back as I could into the ranks of my fellow soldiers and knights.
  1403.  
  1404. “The Company Commander hailed the occupant. The same man who had helped me months back trudged into full view, angrily wielding a long axe and in general looking nothing like the man I had known. He responded to the Commander’s orders with some choice, rude gestures. When the Commander broke rank to confront him, it made me briefly visible and the man locked eyes with me; it was instant recognition.”
  1405.  
  1406. I hesitated. It didn’t feel like long, but Emmas was either impatient or the drink had skewed my concept of time. “What happened?” she asked.
  1407.  
  1408. “He singled me out immediately. He used his axe head to point at me, and the ranks of men parted to clear a path between him and I. The Commander didn’t even bother to stop and wonder why this barbarian would call me out specifically, and he called me forward to fight, saying it would be good practice for a knight as inexperienced as me. To this day I wonder if I could have stopped it. I could have spoke of the help this man had given me, or spoke of how he refused to take from the bodies of my brothers. I don’t know if that would have averted the entire situation, but I could have tried. But I was weak. Too weak to say no. Too afraid of whether or not I’d be seen as a traitor for accepting the enemy’s aid.”
  1409.  
  1410. The rest of my drink went down easier than when I had first started. My throat was numb, but my stomach burned pleasantly. The aroma and peppery flavors hung so strongly in the back of my throat that I breathed a little easier than usual.
  1411.  
  1412. “So we fought. His face was mostly devoid of emotion as we did. The most he would do would be to grit his teeth when blocking or throwing a ferocious blow. It wasn’t a long fight, though; he wasn’t trained and his technique relied mostly on raw strength. In the end, he met the tip of my sword and fell all the way down the blade, grasping at my armor as his breath escaped him and his life left him. The angry man I had seen stomp out of his home moments ago was gone, and again I saw the same person that had helped me. He kept repeating something in his language as he died.”
  1413.  
  1414. “Do you remember what he said?” I carefully tried to replicate the sounds that man had made, the words he offered with his last breaths. I was sure I ruined it – I don’t know any of the barbarian languages in the slightest – but Emmas’ features softened, and her tail tightly gripped my shoulders. She looked at me, full of pity, and said, “He forgave you.”
  1415.  
  1416. It felt as if it took a lifetime for her words to settle with me. A weight I hadn’t even known I was carrying for the past fifteen years vanished in that instant and my heart pounded harder than ever, as if testing its limits now that it knew what it was to be completely free. I hid my face in my hands, choking back the overwhelming cries that desperately wanted out. Emmas, her tail still draped over my shoulders, rocked me back and forth gently.
  1417.  
  1418. “You never thought to ask?” she gently said. “This whole time, you never went to your archives or found a scholar that spoke barbarian tongues?”
  1419.  
  1420. “It was easier not knowing,” I muttered, my voice cracking. “It was so much easier just imagining that he said he hated me.”
  1421.  
  1422. I sat there on the verge of tears, being rocked like a baby. Of course it was embarrassing, but I would be lying if I said it was not a comfort I sorely needed.
  1423.  
  1424. “Does knowing he forgave you change anything?” said Emmas.
  1425.  
  1426. “No. After that, simply following orders would not suffice anymore. Blindly doing as I was told was what made me weak. Despite whatever troubles I may have to deal with afterwards, I would not do it again.”
  1427.  
  1428. Emmas smiled and rested her head across my lap. “Lucky me,” she said.
  1429.  
  1430. I patted the top of her head, afterwards idly stroking the little fin that stretched out of her cheek and past the bottom of her eye. As I touched it, I discovered that both the fin and her ears would minutely twitch in unison. “Lucky me,” I agreed.
  1431.  
  1432. -Chapter 11-
  1433.  
  1434. A torrential downfall slammed into the mountain range. It was the first rain I’d seen here since I had arrived. Emmas said that the mountains further up the range would typically block any unruly weather from moving southward, but sometimes mother nature was just too strong.
  1435.  
  1436. We sat just inside of the cave’s mouth, watching the sheets of rain cascading down onto the Earth. Occasionally it would let up, and the sound of water crashing into the rock would lessen to a muted rush, not unlike the sound of wind when I went flying with Emmas. We made idle chatter, comfortably in the way of the cool, damp air that rushed and eddied just inside of the cave. We preferred mostly to remain quiet as we watched the weather, though. It reminded me much of my days alone in the field, sitting beneath my lean-to or under a boulder after a hard day of tracking and hunting, listening to the noisy silence only rain could bring. That Emmas took solace in the same sounds and feelings…it was nice.
  1437.  
  1438. We did speak at length, however, of the two statues guarding the entrance to the antechamber, the ones with human bodies and dragon heads. She finally finished the left one, which previously had sat in a state of half-completion. When I had first set foot inside the cave, the left statue had its legs and lower torso carved and chiseled, but everything above the waist was clearly left undone. In one of her bouts of activity, she decided to finish it, and now two complete statues stared back at me every time I entered or exited the antechamber.
  1439.  
  1440. When I asked why – what inspired her to throw dragon heads on human bodies, she shrugged her wings and said it was merely artistic license. I scoffed at her explanation, having the vague sense that I was still being toyed with about something, but what exactly? I couldn’t begin to imagine. My patience had always been rewarded up to now; as was usual, I would let her tell me when she was ready.
  1441.  
  1442. “The rain is letting up,” she said, lowering her head to look beyond the upper lip of the cave.
  1443.  
  1444. “It was pleasant while it lasted, though.”
  1445.  
  1446. “Would you mind doing me a favor, Anan?”
  1447.  
  1448. “Anything, Emmas.”
  1449.  
  1450. “There’s a group of bushes on the opposite side of the mountain,” she half-shouted over the rain’s weakening roar. She nervously looked over her shoulder into the cave for some reason. “Green leaves with a black or dark brown trim. It has green berries that hang from it; they’re plump and fresh after a good rain. Would you mind gathering some while I tend to some chores? There’s a pouch about your size near the two statues we were speaking of.”
  1451.  
  1452. I was hesitant at first. Though most of the mountain was gently sloping rock, I feared the heavy rain may have weakened some of the soil enough to knock it loose. “Are you sure that’s prudent? Could a landslide not occur after a downpour like that?”
  1453.  
  1454. “Why would a landslide – oh, that’s right, you haven’t been down that way. Through my bedchamber corridor is another tunnel I melted out ages ago. It takes you straight through the mountain. You’re right, though – I would never ask you to climb around outside after a good rain.”
  1455.  
  1456. That settled that, then. We walked back into the cave together. On our way past the statues, I found the pouch she spoke of. I slipped it over one of my shoulders and found that it hung nearly to my knees. It was clearly large for me, but too small for Emmas to wear around her body. Maybe she would wear it around one of her legs, or her tail would carry it.
  1457.  
  1458. Emmas disappeared down the tunnel I was familiar with. First she turned into the bathchamber, then a short moment later exited and went into her armory. She poked her head out and looked about, then ducked back in. A few seconds passed and she went back into the bathchamber. She wasn’t spending any time in any of the rooms to actually be doing anything; I wondered if she was simply preparing something or moving things around. Every time she exited a room though, she cast a glance back towards the antechamber – back towards me. Either wondering if I was still there or wondering why I was still there. I couldn’t tell which of those questions was on her mind, but I certainly did see a question in those eyes of hers.
  1459.  
  1460. I shouldered the pouch more comfortably and made my way down towards her bedchamber. Past the pile of clothing and trinkets that hid the entrance, the tunnel opened up as largely as the others. On the right side were her foodstores. I could plainly see closed barrels stacked upon barrels, crates arranged in pyramids, and specks of dried blood on the floors and walls. Salt was scattered everywhere, and innumerable jars of fruits and vegetabels and everything in between lined the shelves that seemed to stretch on forever.
  1461.  
  1462. Opposite her larder was her bedchamber. My conscience told me not to peek as I walked past, but it must not have spoken loudly enough. Her room was largely as plain as the one I stayed in; a very, very large bed dominated most of the space, books piled high on either side, a messily-made blanket. A moment longer and my imagination saw her asleep there now, a handful of open books scattered about, her tail curled protectively, gently around me–
  1463.  
  1464. Berries. Going for berries.
  1465.  
  1466. I thought it would be another tunnel branching off, but it seemed there were no other passageways to be taken besides the one in which I was in. The main corridor must have simply fed into the one that she spoke of, so I just kept going and going, deeper and deeper down what could no longer have been the main passage.
  1467.  
  1468. Eventually all similarity was lost between this passage and the rest of her cave. First of all, it was poorly lit; there was perhaps one candle for every fifty paces. The ceiling turned more and more alien to me, for it looked as as though pieces of it grew out and downward, as though reaching for me as I passed beneath them. Puddles of water speckled the floor; some of them deeper than they looked. Whereas the walls I was familiar with were melted so well they were smooth as glass, these walls were uneven, rough, and full of nooks and crannies stuffed with cobwebs. Nothing about this tunnel seemed at all like to the ones Emmas and I walked each day.
  1469.  
  1470. As I kept going I noticed the candles stopped. Behind me was a broken trail of soft light, but ahead was total blackness. After pausing on the border between the last candles light and the cave’s unyielding dark, I marched on, completely blind and relying on my sense of touch. Progress was slow as I was careful not to catch my ankle in too deep a puddle or knock my head against low-hanging rock formations.
  1471.  
  1472. After trudging onward for a total of nearly half an hour, I came to an impasse. The entire tunnel was closed off by what looked almost certain to be a cave-in. As jagged and textured as the walls were, it was clear they had been melted in some places. None of those tell-tale signs existed on this pile of rock and dirt in front of me; nobody had touched this mound of earth but mother nature herself. Further, it must have been from a ways back. The cave-in was dense and compacted – it didn’t look recent at all.
  1473.  
  1474. None of this sat well with me. I had either been sent on a non-existent errand or Emmas had not been down this way for a long while. The latter seemed a probable idea; maybe she would sooner fly to the other side of the mountain to get these supposed berries, or she might have eschewed this errand altogether while in the depths of her former depression, and hadn’t known the tunnel had caved in at all. But if she hadn’t been down this way in so long, how were these candles still lit?
  1475.  
  1476. The more I considered the possibilities, the more I leaned towards the idea she had sent me away for some other reason. I recalled her looking at me as she passed from the armory to the bathchamber, as though to see if I had left yet. But again, the candles! I don’t understand, she must use this tunnel. Did she cave it in herself and not tell me? Did she forget somehow? How could that be when she could perfectly remember where exactly she had placed each book, dress, sword, or whatever else she had? She didn’t seem the forgetful type in the least.
  1477.  
  1478. I turned around, using the trail of candles as my heading and steadying myself by leaning against the wall. All of my thoughts bothered me. If she had merely sent me away, she had done it in a suspiciously deceptive way. Why make up some story about berries? Why not simply ask me for privacy? This was the same dragoness who pinned me to the ground and shouted in my face a few days after I met her; I don’t think she would ever do that again now that we were friends, but the fact remained that I did not think for one second she would be capable of such a round-about falsehood.
  1479.  
  1480. Guided again by glowing candlelight, I heard something vaguely familiar. The sound of fire. It was harsher, louder, and accompanied by a moaning roar. I stopped to listen, and for just the shortest moment I thought I heard the beginnings of a painful shriek.
  1481.  
  1482. “Emmas?” No reply came. I was still too far or too quiet. Again the fiery roar, and once more accompanied by a pained shriek. “Emmas!”
  1483.  
  1484. I tore down the tunnel as fast as I thought safely possible; some of the puddles were easily deep enough to cause a tumble and a broken bone. In the rush to help another soul, the worst thing you can do is make yourself incapable of helping at all. The sounds I heard coming from the main chambers drove me on, but instinct dictated I keep my wits about me. All in all, as I saw the stronger light of the main chamber passage, I guessed I had returned twice as fast as I had gone out.
  1485.  
  1486. Before I could shout for her again, the roar was clear as day, as was the pain with it. Even with the echoes throughout the cave I could tell clear as day where it was coming from, as loud as she was. I sprinted to the bathchamber, nearly taking a spill when a dress caught around my feet.
  1487.  
  1488. “Emmas!”
  1489.  
  1490. She laid within the crater-turned-bath, the water just up past her belly. She had a wild look to her eyes as she kept one twitching wing stretched out, as if covering herself up from prying eyes. Behind her, a large mirror rested against the wall, and in her tail she tightly clutched a bloodied sword.
  1491.  
  1492. “What are you doing here, Anan?” she angrily hissed. “I told you to go to the other side of the mountain.”
  1493.  
  1494. “The way was caved in after a thousand paces, maybe less, so I turned back.” I let the other questions in my head concerning that tunnel remain there for the time being. My dread overrode all else; not too long ago she had been looking for someone else to end her life for her. Here she was wielding a sword, and just beneath the bottom edge of her wing I saw a thin trail of dark blood running down her side to touch the water, looking like a never-ending red string caught in the current.
  1495.  
  1496. “Tell me what’s going on here.”
  1497.  
  1498. “It’s none of your concern. Please, just – just rest in the antechamber, I’ll be with you shortly.”
  1499.  
  1500. A drop of blood fell from the sword’s blade. Despite the gentle though constant sound of flowing water, I swear I somehow heard it hit the ground. “Show me what’s under your wing.”
  1501.  
  1502. “Anan, please,” she begged, her voice quiet and weak. She could stand to meet my gaze for no longer than a moment. “Just go.”
  1503.  
  1504. “Not until I know you are well. Show me where the blood is coming from.”
  1505.  
  1506. She shot me a black look but the anger disappeared just as quickly as it had come, replaced by a frown that twitched the corners of her mouth like she was trying to keep it suppressed. She slowly lifted her wing. I expected the worst: a small cut that purposefully nicked some artery that would see her bleed out, or a deep puncture that could have pierced an internal organ. As the wing folded into its normal position and I followed the blood trail all the way up her side to its source, my fear turned to confusion.
  1507.  
  1508. “What in God’s name is that?”
  1509.  
  1510. I walked along the edge of the bath to get a closer look. One of her scales was propped up, as if on a hinge. Beneath it sat a little thing resembling a pustule or a boil -- relatively little, anyway; to me it appeared half as big as my head. Tiny, stubby protrusions lined the boil on opposite sides. It seemed to pulsate randomly, and every time it did another fresh rivulet of blood would spill down Emmas’ side. With my attention focused on that nasty business, I had nearly failed to notice she had several of these blemishes scattered across her right side. It looked like an infestation or infection.
  1511.  
  1512. “Is this scale rot? What can I do to help? Tell me I can do something!”
  1513.  
  1514. “You can calm down, first of all,” she said, craning her neck around to finally look me in the eyes. “It’s not scale rot. If you insist on helping, you can grab a green bottle about the size of your arm from the main chamber. Thirty paces past the library, on a red wooden table next to a pile of red and green dresses. It has medicine in it.”
  1515.  
  1516. I flew out to grab what she needed. It was heavier than I imagined. Even through the cork, the watery-looking fluid had a familiar though foul, acrid scent that stung my nose. Upon my return she took it from me and splashed a drop on each of the wounds. The boils let loose with tiny hissing noises, like from the smallest snake imaginable.
  1517.  
  1518. “What are they?” She ignored me as she set to work again, adjusting the mirror laying against the wall and used it to see what she was doing; she carefully stuck the sword near the edge of the boil, the part closest to her scale, and attempted to wedge the blade between it and her skin. She grimaced the harder she dug, until the sword slipped and produced a small cut that had her spewing fire with pain. The walls bore several black scorch-marks already.
  1519.  
  1520. “Stop! Stop, stop, for heaven’s sake. That’s not something – here, give me the – forget it, I’ll use my knife. What is it you’re trying to do? Cut it open?”
  1521.  
  1522. “They’re…they’re parasites,” she stammered, tripping over her words as though they were stones in her throat.
  1523.  
  1524. “Ugliest little things I’ve ever seen.” Still standing on the lip of the bath, I leaned over to prop myself up against her body as I took the blade to the parasite. I softly probed with the bladepoint beneath the edges and then all around until I felt the blade against something hard, near where her scale attached to the skin. “That bottle – is it a numbing salve? Hand it here.”
  1525.  
  1526. Her tail dropped the bloody sword and handed me the medicine. “Somehow they always flair up after a rain. I wonder where they come from, or if they remain dormant until I walk by.”
  1527.  
  1528. “Could they live in the soil? You were flinging dirt everywhere when we were harvesting your crops.”
  1529.  
  1530. “It’s certainly possible.”
  1531.  
  1532. “Is it a bloodsucker?” I said, still probing. She nodded. Her soft skin had far more give than her scales, but I couldn’t depress the flesh enough to free whatever it was this thing had embedded into her. It would have to be pried out. Despite the size of this parasite, I still felt compelled to ask, “Can humans carry them?”
  1533.  
  1534. “No, I don’t think so. Human blood is too cold for them, I imagine.” She sucked in her next breath when she felt the tip of the knife dig into her skin. I had to in order to free what I guessed was a piece of the beastie’s mouthparts. A bead of red welled up at the knife’s tip, but I did manage to separate part of the thing from Emmas’ flesh. The parasite’s body pulsed angrily and a fresh red drop boiled up near where it had pierced her skin.
  1535.  
  1536. “Are you not repulsed?” I thought her question was rhetorical, honestly, and I was too focused to even reply; I was still positioning the knife to more easily pry away what ailed her. She repeated her question when she heard no reply.
  1537.  
  1538. “Are you serious? Do you know how many nasty things I’ve had in or on my body in all my years in the field? Bloodsucking flies, leeches, worms that siphon your blood away from the inside – I guarantee you this does not phase me, and the only hesitation I showed earlier was for lack of knowledge of this particular specimen.” I stabbed the knife forward, piercing what must have been the mouthparts, and leveraged the blade by pressing the handle into Emmas’ body. The thing let out a tiny hiss, like a drop of water hitting a hot rock, before I was able to totally lift it from Emmas’ body.
  1539.  
  1540. The legs, made useless by how fat the body had grown, twitched about in circles. I tossed it in front of Emmas, and she immediately turned it into ash with a thick pillar of fire shot from her open jaws. I wondered to myself why she couldn’t just wash herself in flame, but then I recalled the story of her mother burning the wings of the King’s advisors. As I silently laughed to myself over the irony of being firebreathing without being fireproof, I realized the sound of Emmas dispatching the pest sounded familiar.
  1541.  
  1542. “So that’s what I heard weeks ago,” I said with a smirk, having finally figured it out.
  1543.  
  1544. “Beg your pardon?”
  1545.  
  1546. “The day I woke up in front of the library – there was a painting of me nearby – and you were nowhere to be seen, remember? I heard you roaring and firebreathing like you are now. You weren’t smoking meat, you must have been trying to get rid of these things, right?”
  1547.  
  1548. She stared blankly before her pebbly brow furrowed. It was clear she did not remember or understand, but before I could further elaborate she suddenly had her memory jogged. “Oh! Uh, yes. Yes, that’s what – I was doing just that. Yes, you – you’ve caught me.”
  1549.  
  1550. “Why not ask for help?” I splashed the salve against her skin before prying another one of the bloodsuckers off of her. It met with the same fate as the one before. I set to work on the remaining two.
  1551.  
  1552. “It’s embarrassing.”
  1553.  
  1554. “I understand – really, I do. Like I said, I’ve had all manner of ill-makers attach themselves to me, inside or out. But they’re not always things that can be dealt with alone. In my instance, a visit to the apothecary would solve my troubles. He’d give me some foul-tasting concoction, I’d be bedridden for a few days, but every little crawlie that did not belong would end up falling off. Or out, whatever the case may be.” She wore a slightly disugsted grimace as I spoke, but I felt approaching it casually would ease her mind. Living in the wilds carries with it these challenges – it was nothing to be bashful about. How better to dispel embarrassment than to render it unwarranted?
  1555.  
  1556. But beneath the grimace she wore, I could tell she already knew the truth in my words. She still was not being honest with me. She made a minimal effort to avoid my gaze; she turned her head, but still cast me a sidelong glance. “So what’s the real reason, then?” I asked, peeling the third bloodsucker from her body. I tossed it, still hissing, and Emmas disintegrated it before it had even stopped rolling. “Don’t tell me it has to do with another of the knights in your care.”
  1557.  
  1558. She sighed and her tone went flat. “I was only one hundred and two. Maybe the size of a deer. He saw me in a similar state as you do now and said – the things he said to me…I felt disgusting. It wasn’t enough he tried to kill me, but to–”
  1559.  
  1560. She swallowed and went on, her voice wavering under the stress of barely restrained anger. “He heaped insults upon me – upon these stupid little things! How monsters feed only on monsters, how vile, disgusting – how grotesque I was! Like – like I myself was a parasite! Me! Barely north of a century, all I’m doing is trying to survive, and I’m no better in his eyes than a bloodsucker!”
  1561.  
  1562. The last one popped free under the knife’s leverage, hissing as it went. Before I could grab it, Emmas snatched it midair with her tail and hurled it against the wall. It burst partially open, leaving a gruesome red splatter on the rock before it slid to the floor. She stared at it, snarling silently, before blasting the scene with all the hellish fury her body could muster. In the blink of an eye, the blood and dead parasite were gone, completely evaporated as if they’d never been there at all. The only thing that remained was a hotly glowing patch of rock that slowly cooled into another pitch black scorch mark.
  1563.  
  1564. Emmas seemed for a second to almost admire her handiwork with a weak, devious smile, but that was shortlived. Her neck went limp and her head sank partway into the water; her nostrils were submerged but she breathed through the corners of her mouth.
  1565.  
  1566. I stripped off my leather vest and jumped into the waist-deep water; it was freezing and the shock immobilized me for but a moment. As I waded over to her, she never even once looked in my direction. Her stunningly blue eyes, just a moment ago so full of rage, were now empty and lifeless. I slipped my hands beneath her chin and tried to lift; I think despite her melancholy, some part of her was amused by my struggle, for she let it continue a little while before she finally decided to pick her own head up.
  1567.  
  1568. “That was more than a thousand years ago, Emmas. Surely what he said no longer means anything to you.”
  1569.  
  1570. “Of course it does,” she sniffled. A thick string of black smoke flowed from her nostrils. “I’ve carried the weight of his words all this time. Nobody has ever told me differently.”
  1571.  
  1572. “Then let me,” I whispered, wiping away the tears welling in her eyes. “You are not a monster by any stretch of the imagination. You are the strongest, gentlest, most gifted person I have ever known in my life; alone for almost your whole life of twelve hundred years, living off the land better than I could have ever done, doing the work of a hundred peasants. After everything the world has taken from you, after everything it continued to throw at you – you are the gentle soul that checks the branches for birds’ nests before trimming them, that cares for an ill man who initially came to kill you. You are the person so averse to conflict that you were willing to give every knight that came to you the benefit of the doubt, only defending yourself when the need arose. You are the person so gifted and dedicated that you possess the skill for so many different arts and trades; never have I met anyone that could smith and paint and sew and farm and sculpt and whatever else it is you can do.
  1573.  
  1574. I wasn't sure she believed a single word past my lips. Her eyes flickered, looking for some indication on my face that I was putting her on or simply trying to be nice. For as hard as she looked, she would not find anything but honesty.
  1575.  
  1576. "And…and you’re not vile or disgusting. You have – you are –” I momentarily struggled with my words, wondering what bounds I – a knight – might be overstepping. But I still had to say them. I still wanted to say them. “You are beautiful beyond reproach. A body so gracefully made not even a master sculptor could hope to imitate it, scales like river stones, wings so majestic they leave me speechless every time you unfurl them, a neck and tail that move in such a mesmerizing fashion. When we were in the forest harvesting your crops, you were right: I was staring directly at you. Watching you work had me so enchanted that I lost myself for so long that I never even realized you were staring back with those eyes of yours that always seem to glow the deepest shade of blue I've ever seen."
  1577.  
  1578. She remained deathly silent. I could not tell if I was embarrassing her or myself. I just closed my eyes as she continued to glare at me, for I feared it was actually the latter and not meeting her gaze lessened the shame I felt as I continued to speak. I touched my forehead to her snout, futilely wishing for just one second I could transfer knowledge just like she could, so she would know beyond any doubts I said only what I meant. "You are beautiful."
  1579.  
  1580. We stayed as we were for what felt a long while. As close as she had been to crying before, I perhaps expected a more intense emotional outburst from her now. She kept her stony silence, however, and when I opened my eyes to peek at her, saw she kept her intense gaze trained on me as well. Then, what started as a low rumble grew quickly into growl that seemed to shake my bones, and the breath from her mouth seemed hotter than it had been a moment before. I feared I had angered her somehow -- did she still think it all a jest? That I was only saying what she wanted to hear?
  1581.  
  1582. "Your clothes are soaked," she flatly said, either barely trying to change the subject or simply unable to process what I had just said.
  1583.  
  1584. My worry grew each passing moment. "I'm sorry, I did not mean to embarrass you."
  1585.  
  1586. "No, I'm not embarrassed. It's just -- that's a lot to process. I barely remember half of what my father would say to me, I was so young when he passed. Since then, nobody has ever thrown a kind word my way, let alone given me a list like you have." Her wings drooped and her sadness was immediately evident in her eyes. She had just tacitly admitted to a nearly a lifetime of verbal abuse, of no one telling her she was worthy of praise, of life of or love. "I want to say something, but thanks seems a little formal, does it not? And we are well past the point of formality, what with you picking parasites off of me."
  1587.  
  1588. "None of my words were said with any expectation of thanks, Emmas."
  1589.  
  1590. She smiled gracefully, wrinkling the bottom edges of her eyes such that a tear or two ran down the sides of her face. "I know, Anan, I would never have thought that. I just want to -- the things you said, I want you to -- to know what they mean, how they sounded -- how they made me feel. I'm not a poet, clearly, but -- simply put--"
  1591.  
  1592. She shook her head of any conflicting thoughts, craned her neck downward to my level, and softly pressed the tip of her muzzle into my lips while her tail-tip coiled around my hand, gently squeezing.
  1593.  
  1594. I imagine in that moment the color of my face matched that of Emmas' upper scales. After standing dumbfounded for a second, I spun around to hide my surprise though I felt her looming over me, like she was purposefully observing the results of her actions. In her forwardness, a shameful though crossed my mind that I quickly wanted gone.
  1595.  
  1596. "So! That tunnel you sent me down -- did it ever actually go anywhere?"
  1597.  
  1598. She wore a shy grin that slowly grew a little more crooked, like she knew what I was doing. She chose to indulge me, however. "It did go to the other side of the mountain, like I said. It was the first time I ever sought to make a passage in this mountain. I was young and inexperienced, and was not able to properly control the strength or intensity of my flame, so the walls are cracked and jagged, and the ceiling is littered with formations of cooled molten rock. As I went deeper I would take some of the candles my father had enchanted to light the way--"
  1599.  
  1600. "Enchanted candles?"
  1601.  
  1602. "Besides the ones I make from beeswax, most of the candles and lamps here were enchanted by my father. The wicks never burn out and the oil never needs refilling. They stay lit forever," she said, continuing as I more closely inspected the few candles within the bathchamber. I might have been more impressed were it not for the talking dragon who could gift knowledge through mere touch. "Anyway, the tunnel I melted out was poorly made, and it caved in eight hundred years ago. I've never used it since, but I was much smaller back then. As such, my memory is apparently skewed, for I thought it would take you much longer to travel the tunnel's entire length. Everything's bigger when you're a little one, I suppose."
  1603.  
  1604. "And the berries?"
  1605.  
  1606. "Those do exist! I was not making stories. I have some stored away, if you'd like to give them a try."
  1607.  
  1608. I hauled myself out of the bath; I was heavier for as soaked as my clothing was. "Well, I'd sure like to try them, for all the trouble I went through not to get them."
  1609.  
  1610. She laughed before climbing out of the bath herself. Before I could walk away with her, she grabbed me with her tail and placed me back into the water. "You can stay here. It's been days since you've bathed. You're not in the field anymore, Anan; you have all the clean water you need here. Strip down -- for heaven's sake, don't give me that look, I stripped you myself when you took with fever; here, I'll turn around -- strip down and give me your clothes. They will be drying in the room beside your bedchamber and should be done by the time you are."
  1611.  
  1612. She was right, honestly. I should be bathing every day in a place like this. I did as she instructed, throwing my clothes up to her, and they wetly slapped against her tail as she caught them before they even touched the ground.
  1613.  
  1614. "In the meantime, I'll be making dinner. I've got a few things I'd like to try adding to your leek stew; I'm positive you'll love it."
  1615.  
  1616. -Chapter 12-
  1617.  
  1618. Throughout the following weeks, the mood throughout the cave was so markedly different that I sometimes questioned if I was still living with the same dragon I had first met.
  1619.  
  1620. She was always busy with something she wanted to do -- an important distinction, I feel, compared to things that previously felt like they had to be done. Dishes had to be cleaned, yes, but she would hum to herself while doing them and neatly stack them away in whimsical patterns, where the outermost stacks would be short and they'd gradually get taller towards the center. Meals had to be cooked, but her tail would swish about behind her to some internal, upbeat rhythm. She even reorganized some of her library, finding space on the shelves for some of the piles of books on the floor; I guess her controlled chaos had its limits, though plenty of books remained scattered about the cave.
  1621.  
  1622. She'd return from a hunt and even with her quarrel clamped between her jaws, I could still see the smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. A few days ago she came back from who knows where hauling a decent load of minerals or ores or something in her shoulder-slung pouch. She was as dirty as I'd ever seen, absolutely covered head to toe in black dust and grime, pebbles irritatingly caught beneath her scales -- but for the look on her face, anyone might have easily assumed that was just her happy, natural state. When I asked what it was all for, she only chirped that she was making something new.
  1623.  
  1624. And nearly every time she and I crossed paths -- which is all the time, mind -- she would do something or other completely unprovoked. She would spread her wings as I walked by, almost involuntarily, like she was trying to impress me. When cleaning or reorganizing she would stand or sit in such a way that accentuated the curve that ran along her whole body when her neck and tail were arched in some fashion. At some point I began to believe that she was purposefully displaying to me all the things I would compliment her on.
  1625.  
  1626. "You know", I said to her with a wry smile, watching her stretch her wings while painting another picture of her library, "part of me is beginning to think you're doing this on purpose."
  1627.  
  1628. "What?"
  1629.  
  1630. "You keep showing off. The wings, the tail -- pretty sure I caught you two nights ago polishing your scales like I would my armor, or something."
  1631.  
  1632. She folded her wings and swayed her tail, spilling a drop or two of paint. "Thinking awfully tall of yourself, aren't we?" I think she was teasing; I could hear the smile in her voice. Whether or not she was trying to hide it was a different question. "Maybe I'm just taking better care of myself."
  1633.  
  1634. She fell silent. As she continued her painting, her body began moving differently. Her wings and tail would twitch, her shoulders would shrug. She clicked her forward claws together once or twice which was new to me. She wasn't showing off now. It seemed more like she was holding something in.
  1635.  
  1636. "And so what if I am showing off?" She jerked her tail with her speech, like someone who would gesticulate with their hands. She splattered herself with paint as she did, though she took no notice. "There's nothing wrong with it, I can do what I like. It's like I said, I've just...just never..."
  1637.  
  1638. Her voice, previously tinged by playful irritation, shrank to where I could only just hear her. "I've never felt like I had qualities worth showing off." She trailed off entirely, dotting her painting with color. Her ears folded down against her head, flicked once, and sprang up again. "What were they again? If you wouldn't mind refreshing my memory, I mean."
  1639.  
  1640. I could do nothing to stop the bellowing laughter that rose up from my chest. "You don't have to fish for compliments, Emmas. If you wish, I'll gladly repeat them every day for you. Majestic wings, graceful curves and a strong body, scales like river stones--"
  1641.  
  1642. "That one -- what does that mean? The others are straightforward: majestic, graceful, strong. Scales like river stones seems rather subjective." I stared at her, as if willing her to meet my scrutinizing gaze. She only turned to look at me when I did not immediately reply and, when she caught my foolish look in the corner of her eye, quickly turned away again. "I'm not fishing! I just -- I'm really not sure that one strikes the same chords the others do."
  1643.  
  1644. I wasn't exactly sure how to go about my explanation. I gathered my thoughts before speaking so as to avoid rambling. "I like river stones. They're round and almost perfectly smooth, pleasing to see and to feel. But they only get that way after a lifetime of trouble, of crashing and tumbling about the riverbed, smashing into other rocks undergoing the same process. They're made the way they are by how time has tested them. In that way, they remind me a lot of people -- of life. Everyone's life might yet not be as perfect as they want it, but through whatever tribulations they must endure, it inches closer and closer to where they want to be."
  1645.  
  1646. She stopped painting. "So when you look at me -- are you saying you see life?"
  1647.  
  1648. "I guess," I said with a hesitant shrug, "in a roundabout way, yes. You and I are big, walking river stones -- the product of our troubles up to now."
  1649.  
  1650. "It seems strange to you, but -- I want you to know that means more to me than you could possibly imagine. For twelve hundred years, I've only been a killer. Everyone that I've ever crossed paths with has died by--"
  1651.  
  1652. "Now wait a moment, they brought that upon themselves when--"
  1653.  
  1654. "I know they did, but it doesn't matter. After twelve hundred years, after being directly responsible for four hundred and twenty-five deaths -- it wears on the soul, Anan. The first time I defended myself -- it dragged me into the deepest despair I'd ever known, and for as bad as that was it only got worse every time I was forced to do it again. To have people come and look upon you like you were the reaper himself, and then to have to prove them right...that was part of the reason, you see," she said, her tail twitching, "that I was prepared to give you my life. I was tired of it. I did not want to do it again. I wouldn't."
  1655.  
  1656. The smiles were gone. I felt the mood grow heavy; I swear I felt it pulling on my body like a full suit of armor. "Part of the reason?"
  1657.  
  1658. She regarded me with a weak half-smirk that disappeared as quickly as it came before her gaze fell to the floor. "Part of the reason," she emptily repeated. She left my implied question in the wind. Whatever it was she still hid from me filled me with dread. For her to speak openly before  -- about not being seen as a killer -- would imply she no longer feels that way, or at the very least that my presence alleviated that sentiment. Whatever the other part of her despair was, the part she would not speak of -- that scared me out of my wits, unknown as it was. Did she no longer feel it and was only too embarrassed to speak of it? Or did it still haunt her even now?
  1659.  
  1660. "But enough of that," she chirped. She seemed gifted with a sort of premonitory sense, something that told her to shift the conversation to a subject more her liking when she felt I was about to dig too deeply in places I shouldn't, or in places that she did not want anybody at all. Did she yet still have more magic hidden in that mind of hers or was she just naturally perceptive? "What do you think of the book?"
  1661.  
  1662. "Which book? I've been going through a number of them as you've straightened them out."
  1663.  
  1664. "The one I explicitly told you not to read. The green one with the white ribbon that I snatched from your hands a ways back."
  1665.  
  1666. I straightened my posture and felt heat rush towards my face. "I'm not sure I've even--"
  1667.  
  1668. "Anan, please," she said, lolling her head backwards, her long neck falling into an arch that had her staring at me nearly upside down. "I knew you would read that book the moment I took it away from you. It's the insatiable curiosity of the forbidden that everyone has. Your father tells you not to go somewhere, or your teacher forbids you from doing something -- the natural reaction is to do it, whatever it is. I'm not mad, I promise."
  1669.  
  1670. I locked my hands together and twiddled my thumbs about. "What gave me away?"
  1671.  
  1672. "When I took it down to reorganize, I noticed it would end up facing a different direction each time I saw it. You would put it back in the same spot but it would be upside down, or the ribbon would be wrinkled, or the book had somehow rotated in my absence." She laughed when she noticed my scowl. "You forget I know exactly where everything in this cave is, and exactly how it is supposed to look. Tell me, then -- did you enjoy it?"
  1673.  
  1674. I had the faintest sense I was being led into some sort of conversational trap, but I couldn't tell what sort of trap it was, if it even existed at all.
  1675.  
  1676. The book had been a short read. Titled "Winged Whims" by a dragon named Kelvo, it read as if adapted from a play. There would be long stretches of narration, and the dialogue was presented like from a script; the characters' names would be listed, followed by their words. It starred a dragoness named Viti, who proved too proud and too unsociable to show any consideration for the suitors her father had chosen for her. Convinced none of them were worthy of her time or attention, she would ignore them as they vied for her affection, sadly ignorant of their truly admirable qualities. Endlessly frustrated, she would fulfill herself night after night to the thought of her idealized husband. It wasn't until the very end, when she saw other dragonesses enjoying the company of the males she had turned down, that she saw all of her former suitors for the fine individuals they were. By that point her father had given up and her reputation of being impossible to please had sealed her lonesome fate, and she took her own life.
  1677.  
  1678. I was acutely aware of my words, given the play's ending. I wasn't entirely sure if there were eggshells to be stepped on, let alone avoided. "I first want to say I think having a character kill themselves at the end is a cheap way to make the audience or reader sad," I said, pausing as she nodded her agreement. "I won't speak for dragon playwrights but humans have this awful habit where they think suicide adds this gravitas to a scene by mere nature of it happening. It gets very tiring when half the plays you read or see end up with someone thinking the world is not for them -- and the whole time, you can just imagine the playwright patting himself on the back for the masterpiece he thinks he's created!"
  1679.  
  1680. "It's not just humans," Emmas said, snorting fire with her laughter, "but dragons, too! I swear, all playwrights must have some disturbed love affair with tragedy."
  1681.  
  1682. "And that brings me to my next point -- the act of taking one's life is obviously inherently tragic, but it completely lacks any substance if the character doesn't first understand why she's doing it. Take Viti, for instance; she drinks poison because she believes she is no longer desirable. The character had no introspection whatsoever. She doesn't explore how her fantastical expectations destroyed her ability to perceive reality, she doesn't at all consider the possibility that she's just seven hundred years old and love still has plenty of time to find her -- she just up and kills herself!"
  1683.  
  1684. "Listen to you!" she said with a wide smile. "I never would have taken you a theater critic."
  1685.  
  1686. "The people my father would paint would give him all sorts of gifts; he brought home books all the time, and some of them were plays. And I served as the King's guard more than a few times while he would attend theater." She grunted her acknowledgement and resumed her painting. The subsequent silence began to weigh heavier and heavier; the atmosphere of our earlier conversation seemed not to have fully dissipated yet. I was tired of it. If I had to say it outright just to dispel this foul air, I would.
  1687.  
  1688. "Would you rather I hadn't read it because...she killed herself? Was the book too on the mark?"
  1689.  
  1690. Emmas snapped her head around, her eyes wide with confusion and her ears held flush to her head. "What? No! Heaven's sake, no. Viti's issues were a different breed entirely. I just didn't want your first exposure to my people's fiction to be so...salacious."
  1691.  
  1692. "I don't think 'Unlucky Utro' was as salacious as you remember."
  1693.  
  1694. "Ah, yes," she said, wisps of flame crawling through the gaps of her teeth as she chortled, "I can't believe I had forgotten you read those."
  1695.  
  1696. "I wish I could have read Viti's story earlier, though."
  1697.  
  1698. "And why is that?"
  1699.  
  1700. "I would have had a better idea on what to say to you while dealing with your ailment," I said. She cocked her head in response, her smile frozen upon her face as if waiting for more. "That your teeth are white as snow, your claws as black as onyx, your eyes as vibrant as--"
  1701.  
  1702. "Stop, stop!" she sputtered, shaking her head and waving her tail about to cut me off. "If you're about to say sapphires, I'll stop you there. Don't say sapphires."
  1703.  
  1704. She had me so spot on I erupted into laughter, nearly falling over as my breath became harder to draw. "Nothing but vitriol thrown your way for almost twelve hundred years and now you dictate what compliments you want? Since when are beggars choosers?"
  1705.  
  1706. She turned bashful, looking down as she clicked one of her claws against the floor. "It's just -- there are a few hundred books here with some sort of love story in them. So many of them use gems as a comparison -- rubies, sapphires, emeralds, what have you. It's old. And...and most of all, I don't want my life to be my books. I want it to be something else. So please, don't say sapphires."
  1707.  
  1708. The grave tone she took threw me off considerably; I had no idea how important this was to her, and what bothered me most was that I did not understand why it was so important. But I would indulge her as best I could. I sat up cross-legged, my elbows on my knees and my chin atop my hands. "Come here, then," I said.
  1709.  
  1710. She took a step my way and then leaned down, using her long neck to cover the rest of the distance. Her face hung directly in front of me, so closely I could smell the fiery air from each of her breaths and see every minute movement of her eyes, from how her oval pupils darted this way and that to how her eyelids seemed to flutter the longer she waited for my words. Blue, blue, blue...what else could I say? The sky was blue but otherwise plain or scattered with clouds, blueberries were a strange thing to compare to eyes...
  1711.  
  1712. "Your eyes remind me of the ocean."
  1713.  
  1714. She pulled back only slightly, like she was surprised. Her pebbly brow creased as she considered what I said. "How so?"
  1715.  
  1716. I had been sailing once in my life. Immediately after I had swore to myself I would never do it again, and that anyone who called themselves a sailor had an inherent death wish. Later in life I had been forced again to take to water during my service, and the fear I had so readily adopted regarding the ocean had been replaced over time by a very healthy respect. The long, deep blue that could so easily take life would treat you well so long as you respected its capabilities. I wasn't exactly sure how to fit the feeling into words befitting the current context, but I endeavored to try.
  1717.  
  1718. "Your eyes are deep and calming, belying a potent strength that will never be tamed. A man knows -- he thinks he knows where he's going when crossing the unending blue, but he's more apt than he knows to lose himself." Her smile slowly faded. In the ensuing silence I felt utter shame and fell to mentally berating myself. I was not a poet, I never would be! Those were not the words I had in my head -- I couldn't even recall what I had been thinking after that sorry explanation. The angry blush that washed across my face must have been indicative enough of my embarrassment.
  1719.  
  1720. But she stared at me for a good while, seemingly dumbfounded. With a deep, bone-rattling growl, her expression intensified in the blink of an eye. Her head still held in place, she drew the rest of her body forward, her wings stretching as she did. Her tail coiled twice around my waist before slipping underneath the bottom of my tunic. She wore a look I knew but had never grown familiar with myself. It was unmistakably one of eager hunger.
  1721.  
  1722. "Emmas--"
  1723.  
  1724. "Please let me," she sighed. She tightened her grip and slipped her tail further up my tunic, letting it linger for a bit all across my chest. The heat spreading within me made the cold of her scales sharp and exhilarating. The tip of her tail poked out the bottom of my collar and kept climbing, taking the rest of my shirt with it. I lifted my arms up so it wouldn't simply be torn off me. When it finally came off she hesitated, stopping to look at my bare chest; she scrutinized my skin and its myriad scars for what felt like the longest moments of my life, moments in which I could have said wait, stop, don't, let's talk, cease and desist...
  1725.  
  1726. But I didn't.
  1727.  
  1728. "Emmas, hold on," I stammered. It was only when her long, snaking tail wrapped back around and down to pull upon the waist of my pants that I had found my voice again. A part of my brain I had never known told me to keep my mouth shut and get on with it. ""I -- I've never...with a dragoness, obviously! But, you know, with, um -- with a woman. At all. I'm celibate, is what I mean to say."
  1729.  
  1730. She drew back, a cock-eyed look and sly grin clearly speaking to her disbelief. "Don't toy with me, Anan. You're a knight! Why, you even mentioned lusting after your king's daughter!"
  1731.  
  1732. "I'll admit some knights do not adhere as strictly to their codes as I might, but I never said I lusted after the King's daughter!"
  1733.  
  1734. "You did! You were hoping you'd be offered her hand upon report of my being slain!"
  1735.  
  1736. I recalled that conversation, but she had grossly misinterpreted it. Looking back, how could she not have? I simply hadn't offered her enough information when I mentioned it all that time ago. "No, no, that's not -- it's a ceremony! A knight comes back from a great deed and the King offers his daughter's hand, but the knight refuses as a symbolic show of his dedication to the defense of the realm. That's it -- no lust involved. Highland knights are supposed to remain celibate for the duration of their service." She appeared crest-fallen. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to make things...awkward."
  1737.  
  1738. "Are you still a knight of Highland?" she asked, her grip around my waist tightening. Her question may as well have been a stone thrown at my skull. It was an excellent question, to be honest. What was I now, at this very moment? My entire time here with Emmas had been in defiance of my Company Commander, in defiance of my King and the oaths that I took upon being knighted. If my actions here were no longer in service of them -- were they in service of Emmas? Of myself? Was this -- was I living for myself? Emmas could see that I was getting caught up on the question, and cleverly substituted with another statement any simpleton could understand.
  1739.  
  1740. "I'll stop if you wish," she said.
  1741.  
  1742. Again, to my consternation I remained silent.
  1743.  
  1744. "Then," she muttered, "we can be awkward together."
  1745.  
  1746. It took half a moment to grasp what she had said. "You as well, then?"
  1747.  
  1748. She looked away. "Living alone in a cave for my entire life where the only visitors were would-be assassins is not as glamorous as you may believe."
  1749.  
  1750. I had no idea what to say afterwards. Emboldened by my reply of silence, she put a firmer grasp on my pants and pulled slowly down, exposing me inch by torturous inch. She paid no attention at first, but once I was fully disrobed her gaze was inevitably drawn downward. Despite my apprehension, my body responded in what I imagine was the only way it could have, given the situation. She tentatively reached out with her tail and poked the underside of my manhood; it bobbed in response. Encouraged, she explored a little more, using her tail to rub and to poke, all the while noting my reactions to every single one of her touches. I audibly swallowed, and she darted me a timid glance.
  1751.  
  1752. "Just let me know -- say something if I do anything wrong."
  1753.  
  1754. I wasn't sure what she meant, but I did not have long to wonder. She pressed forward until my entirety was within her mouth, the tip of her muzzle touching my stomach. Awash in intense heat, I was cognizant again of the fact -- having somehow forgotten the moment I was naked -- that she could breathe fire. Though no sooner had I begun to worry had she put her tongue against my length, and every ounce of anxiety and fear I harbored seemed to just drift away. I never paid much attention to her tongue whenever she spoke, but now it was impossible to ignore how broad and smooth it was, how it effortlessly folded and wrapped and pressed and glided over every inch of me. Her tail curled around one of my legs and pulled, spreading me wide. All I could do was lean back onto my hands and stare at the ceiling, as if that would help me maintain the tenuous grasp I had upon my mind. Even that began to slip away when she rolled her tongue against the underside of my manhood; she must have heard me groan, must have seen my legs straighten in response because she repeated that movement more and more.
  1755.  
  1756. In the recesses of my mind which seemed further and further away each second, I could barely recall the unsavory stories some of my brother-knights would tell about grateful damsels or lonely maidens. I don't remember any real details, as tasteless as they were, but many of them would speak of seeing stars in their eyes. I doubted them then, but now, as every muscle in my body pulled itself taught and my senses dulled until the only thing I felt was Emmas lavishing her attention upon me, I too, saw specks of white dancing in my peripheral vision.
  1757.  
  1758. It all climaxed into a bolt of pleasure that shot up my spine, persisting for a lifetime before another one just like it struck again. So strong was it that I tried to hold onto Emmas' muzzle, as if for dear life, while she took everything I had to give; I gripped the sides of her maw with my thighs, I fell forward and tried to grab something with my hands besides smooth scales. When my hands found no purchase I simply collapsed atop her, my weight supported entirely by her enormous head. Relief pulsed throughout my entire body, alternatively coursing up and down my spine. I throbbed within the folds of her tongue as she guided me through my ebbing pleasure. She snorted hotly against my stomach, and I felt her wrap around my entirety one final time before sliding her tongue off. She pushed me gently back to roll me off of her muzzle and I fell languidly sideways, drained of everything mental and physical.
  1759.  
  1760. "Was that, um, satisfactory?" she whispered, that devilish tongue of hers sliding along the edge of her bottom jaw before disappearing again. I think I tried to say something but with my heart hammering inside of my chest and the blood rushing in my ears like whitewater, I wasn't sure if any sound came out of me at all.
  1761.  
  1762. I sat there for too long -- breathless and lost in a haze -- until my strength, my wits, and my manners came back to me. "Tell me there's something I could do for you."
  1763.  
  1764. She smiled giddily and the tips of her dagger-like teeth peeked out; I couldn't believe I had forgotten those existed. In a singular motion she spun in a circle and tucked her wings to her body, rolled onto her right side, and lifted her left leg into the air. The tip of her tail stretched out and around to hang in front of my face, then it curled towards itself over and over. Still empty-headed after her attention, it took a moment to understand that she was beckoning for me. I looked down to make sure my feet were actually still beneath me, then stood and followed the direction of her tail. I guess I was too slow, for a moment later she wrapped it around my arm and tenderly tugged me along.
  1765.  
  1766. She led me to her hindquarters, on display as they were with how she laid. I had seen her rear plenty of times before as she walked away or as I moved about the cave but I had never actually noticed anything was there. Now, with the skin beneath swollen with blood, her scales gave away what lay hidden beneath. Though I was expecting something more exotic or unknown, it was with mild surprise and relief that her nethers appeared familiarly human; somehow I thought that would make my inexperience less noticeable. Its edges made puffy with what I hoped was arousal, clear liquid dripped from it, running down her scales to pool on the ground beneath her. As she had done with me, I looked at her as if asking for permission -- and for help -- but imagine my surprise when I saw her hiding her face behind one of her paws.
  1767.  
  1768. "What's this? Are we having second thoughts?"
  1769.  
  1770. "It's embarrassing! I feel like you're inspecting me."
  1771.  
  1772. I had to laugh. "Did you not just do the same thing?" She didn't reply but her body shook with silent laughter, and through her claws I could see her teeth exposed by a broad smile. "Though as I said, I've never -- tell me, show me what you wish for me to do."
  1773.  
  1774. She picked me up and placed me in front of her nethers. Still using her tail, she pulled me forward and placed each of my hands on either side of her opening. "Just start slowly. You may touch wherever -- but gently. At first."
  1775.  
  1776. Her skin was very hot, and even the nearby scales had lost some of their coolness. The edges of her opening seemed to throb or twitch, as though eagerly anticipating whatever it was I was about do. Just as she had instructed, I'd start slow. I leaned fully into her, using my weight to press and knead along the edges, every so often pausing to slickly trail my fingers just inside the inner lip. She growled as deeply as far-off thunder when I did, and I repeated that action often without relying on it. As I probed more deeply, I found her tail would slap the ground. It wasn't until I spent a minute or two stroking her inside walls I realized her tail would move with a mind of its own the further I plunged my arm inside; her insides were nearly scalding, and I had to slow my advance to better acclimate myself to her heat. I was just up past my elbow when she stopped me.
  1777.  
  1778. "Please, wait. A moment, just a moment. Keep that hand there," she panted, flame rolling out through her teeth like a furnace gate, "and put this one here." She wound her tail around my left wrist and placed my hand on a fleshy little bump I hadn't even noticed at the top of her sex.
  1779.  
  1780. I began slowly again, as if starting all over, but she reached the same feverish pitch she had before much more quickly. The little bump I squeezed and pushed beneath my left hand held more sway over her than anything else I was currently doing. She furiously jerked her tail to and fro, and though I feared she might just take me off my feet with it, she always managed to keep it clear of my person despite her frenzied state. Her hind legs tucked in heels to haunches and her mouth pulled back into a wicked snarl as she let go of a throaty, moaning growl that made my hair stand on end. As I continued to press forward with her wordless encouragement, I found myself nearly shoulder-deep within her, and I was finally able to reach what must have been a special spot that made her whole body shudder and her insides grip upon my arm so tightly, it may as well have been within a vise.
  1781.  
  1782. She let loose a bone-shaking roar and a gout of flame, then curled her entire body around me, softly trapping me against her body. In the sensory overload of her hot skin and cooler scales pressed against every inch of my person I failed to realized she had wrapped her tail around my waist, then held me against her as she rolled over onto her back. As she had done for me, I kept at it, guiding her through whatever madness she was feeling. It lasted far longer than mine did, for even minutes afterwards I felt her pull my arm back inside every time I attempted to extricate myself from her depths.
  1783.  
  1784. Finally she released me and her body straightened out. The both of us utterly spent at the moment, we opted to simply lie there together, though alone with our own thoughts. I didn't know about her, but I certainly couldn't muster a thought to save my life, except--
  1785.  
  1786. "Was, um -- was that satisfactory, Emmas?"
  1787.  
  1788. She smiled widely and her body shuddered with a noiseless laugh. She slipped her tail around me and moved me further up to lie across her heaving chest, where the scales were still cool. Though she didn't say anything in return, I felt I had her answer when she touched the tip of her muzzle to my head before collapsing again.
  1789.  
  1790. -Chapter 13-
  1791.  
  1792. Everything afterwards was a whirlwind. Some days I wondered why I had even bothered to put clothes on. We were relentless, taking every opportunity to touch each other regardless of what the other was doing. I slid my hands down beneath her tail to startle her as she painted, splattering paint everywhere. She would toy with me beneath the table as we ate our meals. She especially delighted in once scaring me half-to-death; I was on my way to bed and as I passed by the bathchamber, her tail shot out, rolled me up, and dragged me inside. One evening, I couldn't even remember if we had eaten breakfast; when I asked Emmas, she began to wonder as well. Neither of us seemed to recall, so we had a larger dinner than usual. Then it was right back to being all over each other.
  1793.  
  1794. Perhaps a week later I was made painfully aware of the limits of my physical ability, much to Emmas' disappointment, though I wondered if she felt as sore as I did. Constant stimulation is intensely physically draining, apparently. Without the continuous assault on my senses, I was able to reflect on just how...strange everything was.
  1795.  
  1796. The open intimacy was a foreign concept to me in every way. At all hours and at the slightest provocation, I'd have my hands on her and she'd have her tail or mouth on me. Alone in the cave, we were free to do as we wished, but it didn't stop me from feeling as if there were rules I had been breaking this entire time, my orders notwithstanding. A knight was meant to be stoic, distant but not unfeeling, and here I was with my heart on my sleeve for a dragoness every minute of every day. The emotional...vulnerability was totally unknown to me. Even amongst my brother-knights, we were all rather serious and taciturn in our friendship. Apart from a few friendly outliers like Sir Vacher or Sir Rigard, the most we would offer to one another would be a brotherly hug or a warm hello.
  1797.  
  1798. Even as a child I couldn't recall a relationship as visible as the one I had now. My parents loved each other, yes, but I rarely ever saw them express this love in front of me. They would only kiss when they thought I wasn't around, and when they knew I was nearby they'd simply hug. As a page, the ladies of the castle looked after me and the other young boys destined for knighthood, but they were strict and emotionally distant, and I had no opportunity to play with the other boys or to speak to girls my age. This social isolation was only exacerbated from the moment I became a squire at fourteen. It was always studying, training, cleaning -- I thought I had led a fairly blessed life, but now I questioned what sort of life it had been, or what sort of blessings I had been given.
  1799.  
  1800. Emmas was happy. Or, rather, happier than when I first met her -- she still harbored something deep in her heart which she wouldn't yet share. I was happy -- I think, anyway. It was disconcerting how difficult it was to quantify my state of mind. As a Highland Knight, happiness had been fulfilling my duties and service, protecting the realm, bringing rogues and bandits to justice. But here I was not doing any of that and I still felt the same way, I still had the spark of gratification in my mind and heart. Was this normal life? Was this what people were naturally predisposed to? Before today I never asked for anything beyond the opportunity to serve Highland and my King, but now...
  1801.  
  1802. "Something troubling you, Anan?"
  1803.  
  1804. I took my elbows off the table and sat up to look at her. She paid me no attention with her question, but kept herself occupied by washing a light flame over the aromatic pork and venison. A bowl of vegetable broth boiled furiously, having just been fully heated up. As I stared at the rising steam I slipped partway into thought once again, but when she turned her blue eyes my way I was reminded of her question.
  1805.  
  1806. "No. I'm -- no, just thinking."
  1807.  
  1808. "You don't say," she quipped, her sarcasm all but dripping from her jaws. "What about?"
  1809.  
  1810. "What you asked me, before you and I began to carry on like this -- am I still a Highland Knight? It's been deeply troubling trying to wrap my mind around the question, let alone figure out the answer." I had an overhwelming urge to fidget, to kick my feet or bite my fingernails, and it took no small amount of willpower to remain still.
  1811.  
  1812. "It's a good question," Emmas said, placing my breakfast in front of me. The pork smelled sweetly of honey while the venison was sharply seasoned with spices unknown to me. She laid down opposite me with her much larger portion and paused before taking her first bite. "Don't leave it unanswered for too long, or you'll go mad."
  1813.  
  1814. "That's it? No sage words of advice from the twelve hundred year old dragoness?"
  1815.  
  1816. Half of her plate was gone before I had even taken my first bite. I dug in earnestly as she spoke. "I may be as old as a sage but I'm certainly not one. I'm only saying you should decide on your answer, or the constant weight of indecision will turn your mind sluggish." I frowned at her. "Look, I'll make it very easy for you. Are you currently acting against the interests of Highland?"
  1817.  
  1818. "That is a very easy question, but the answer does not sufficiently satisfy me. I'm not acting against Highland, but neither am I acting in its interests, nor have I for the past, what -- four, five months? In that time I've broken my oaths, I've refused my orders, turned my brother-knights aside--"
  1819.  
  1820. "Let's not forget what began our relationship in the first place," she said. I choked down another morsel of venison. "You were sent out here to slay a beast. In your appraisal, you said I was equal in all respects to man save for appearance. That because I was unarmed and passive, you could not kill me by your own code. You face two possibilities here, Anan. The first being that your king was mistaken, that his orders were to kill a wild beast, and with no beast found it was not possible for you to fulfill your orders. The second is that your code conflicts with the King's orders, which seems very odd because any reasonable person would believe the first line of any knight's code would be to obey the King."
  1821.  
  1822. Even as she looked accusingly at me, it took me a moment to see where she was going with her words. In my contemplation I had the faint realization that most of my body had tensed up; I stopped chewing, I sat up straight, I found it hard to swallow. All of this time I hadn't seen it, but she figured it out just like that. Because there was the truth. For so long I had operated under my own morality, under the suspicion that those above me would not always know the best course of action, that perhaps my values had been inextricably entangled within the actual words of the code of the Highland Knights. Emmas was right; I had warped the code over time, probably beginning with the barbarian man who had cared for me. Since that day, I had never had an opportunity to openly question any orders given to me, but my resolutions to conflicts, the justice I meted out to the rabble, or the way in which I fought -- so imperceptible were the changes that they probably looked more like common sense or refinements of technique, and I never once mistook them for actual alterations to the code. But after all of that, meeting Emmas was the first test of my up-to-then hidden, internal struggle -- the first time I felt obligated to stop myself and say something simply wasn't right.
  1823.  
  1824. She must have been able to tell how closely she had hit upon the truth, judging by how I had frozen like a statue. "And if it should be the latter, then the only question you have to ask yourself is this: at the moment of your death, would you regret not following your orders or not following your heart?"
  1825.  
  1826. "My heart," I said without a second's hesitation. Some part of me cried out in vain against my response. Emmas' glowing smile made it very easy to ignore.
  1827.  
  1828. "And that would be the man I..." She trailed off, her features softening almost to the point of impassiveness; her bright smile slid slowly from her face, replaced by the confused realization of some sudden epiphany. She got to her feet and her tail swept around the table's edge to slip around my waist. I knew then she was about to pick me up, so I practically inhaled what remained of my breakfast. No sooner had I choked down my last bite and taken a final drink of the vegetable broth did she gently squeeze and lift me from my seat, carrying me through the air as she walked.
  1829.  
  1830. "Come with me," she half-giggled, knowing full well I had little choice in the matter.
  1831.  
  1832. We passed through the main chamber and continued onward into the other tunnel which branched from it, the one that housed her larder and her bedchambers. There was no reason she would bring me to her food, and so with a drying throat I began to wonder why she would bring me to her bed. Well, one part of me wondered, anyway -- a different part seemed pretty sure of what was about to happen.
  1833.  
  1834. But just before we went inside, she placed me on my feet at the entrance to her room and regarded me sternly. "Wait here," she said, "and do not peek inside. Understand?"
  1835.  
  1836. I nodded. As she turned her ears began to flicker. Over time I had learned such body language would signify anticipation, more often than not. She went inside, dragging her tail purposefully against the wall as she disappeared from view. Alone with my thoughts, I couldn't help but puzzle over her behavior. What was there to hide? Even after we became physical with each other, she still walked around in nothing but her scales. Sometimes more was on display than she meant for there to be, but I would never complain.
  1837.  
  1838. A fiery roar echoed through the tunnel and bounced back again, making it sound like there was more than one dragon. Along with a constant clicking sound, like someone cracking their knuckles, there was an intense wave of heat which flowed from her room, pouring out with such force that it fluttered my hair as it passed by. The urge to look inside was overpowering, but the opportunity to disobey her was lost when she called out for me.
  1839.  
  1840. "Anan?" Her tone was shaky and unsteady. Somehow, she sounded further away than she really was.
  1841.  
  1842. "Yes, Emmas?" I shouted back.
  1843.  
  1844. "Please don't -- I don't want you to, um -- you're not afraid of me at all, are you?" Her question and the change in her voice made my hair stand on end for some reason. I couldn't think of any reason why I would be afraid of her, but my mind was desperately trying to tell me something was different.
  1845.  
  1846. "Not in the slightest."
  1847.  
  1848. "Come in, please."
  1849.  
  1850. I swallowed and steeled myself for whatever was ahead, and turned the corner into her bedchamber. Standing just inside made it look vast, far bigger than it looked the last time I had merely passed by and seen it from afar. A large changing screen and a few piles of clothes taller than me sat by the right wall, and three great mirrors standing on thick wooden legs lined the opposite wall, each of them reflecting the bed that sat in the center of the far wall. The bed itself was absolutely massive, large enough to actually fit a dragon laying atop it, and the plush red blanket that covered it all was large, heavy, and had a glossy shine to it that reminded me of satin. For as large as all of these items were, my mind must have been playing tricks on me; Emmas was supposed to be inside. To say her absence was easily noticed would be a colossal understatement.
  1851.  
  1852. "The bed, Anan -- pay attention." My eyes snapped to the source of her voice and I nearly had my breath stolen away by shock.
  1853.  
  1854. I was so caught up in looking for the enormous dragon than I failed to see what looked like a woman sitting on the edge of the bed, facing me. Clearly it was not a woman and even in my bewilderment, my mind recognized it for the only person that it could possibly have been: Emmas. She did not look like a dragon -- in some respects. In plenty of respects, actually. I couldn't even begin to understand in the slightest what was happening. Where before Emmas towered over me and her domain with a massive body and a long neck, now she sat like a human would on the edge of the bed, shyly looking my way before averting her eyes, like she could only bear to look at me for so long. Her arms, her legs, her tail curled protectively around her ankles, even her face -- such was my confusion that I suddenly had two separate parts to my mind, one saying this was Emmas and the other saying it couldn't be.
  1855.  
  1856. "Anan?" she squeaked in a shy voice. I did not want her to think I was afraid -- though some part of me was -- and I drew closer to her, each footstep a little shakier than the one before it. Her relief was apparent; had she been expecting me to run away?
  1857.  
  1858. Up close, the transformation was even more jarring. She stood, as if to allow me a better look at her. Her shape was most assuredly human, though she still possessed some features of her original body. No longer a quadruped, she had arms and legs, hands and feet -- she had fingers and thumbs, each tipped by the black claws I knew. While she did have two legs beneath her, they were bent oddly, like she was simply walking on dragon legs instead of having human ones; so, too, did her feet still appear dragon-like with their three toes each and the black claws. The familiar rosy red scales covered most of her body now as they had when she was a dragon, and the creamy off-white belly scales stretched down her neck, across her flat chest and abdomen, before they dipped partway around the inside of her thighs.
  1859.  
  1860. Her figure was shapely and immense; though no longer two or three times the size of a horse, she easily dwarfed my height by several heads. Her neck was just a little longer than mine and a tad thinner, and fell down into her slightly sloped shoulders. The curves I knew kept going down, down into a slender waist that grew out into a generous pair of hips and ample thighs. Her tail would follow my gaze across her body, as if subconsciously blocking it from my view despite how she displayed herself to me.
  1861.  
  1862. "Anan." Her face and head had changed as well, now proportional to her new, smaller body. Though her muzzle still protruded outward, it was shorter than before and gave her a flatter face than what I had grown accustomed to. Her eyes were smaller but about the same distance apart -- perhaps they were a little closer together. Now her ears actually were about rabbit-sized in comparison to the rest of her, and the fins coming from her cheeks were smaller as well. Everything was smaller. Even her teeth. Everything about her was still unmistakably dragon, just on a more human form.
  1863.  
  1864. "Anan," she said a little more sternly than before. "Is this okay? Is it -- are you okay? Are you afraid?"
  1865.  
  1866. Yes, I was. Immeasurably so, in fact. But as when she had bewitched me with her language, I said, "I am far more curious than anything else."
  1867.  
  1868. "It's an ugly process. It sounds a thousand times worse than it feels. I didn't want you to think I was in pain." She huffed out a hesitant little laugh and spun around. Her wings were insignificant -- far, far too small to be of any use -- and held flush to her back. She still had those glittering plates at various points on her body, and her lower back seemed to protrude ever so slightly, most likely on account of her tail. She had a backside, though prominent as it was I think most of it was muscle -- again, because of the tail. When I reached out, she shrank from my touch almost reflexively; she looked ashamed, as if she had offended somehow.
  1869.  
  1870. "I'm sorry, I don't -- it's different for me. This is...it's so different for me. This is the first time in a very, very long time I've done this." I immediately understood; she felt vulnerable. I easily saw why. Though she was still quite large, she would be far more evenly matched with any would-be killers in this new form.
  1871.  
  1872. Her new form. That was when I realized.
  1873.  
  1874. "Plain-form," I breathlessly muttered, "and war-form. This is what you meant."
  1875.  
  1876. She nodded timidly and said, "All dragons are born with it; it's an innate gift, one we learn to control with help from our parents." The little smile she wore vanished and her gaze sunk to the floor. "I'm sorry for lying -- about not knowing anymore spells. I'm still -- after twelve hundred years, it's a struggle to open up, you know. In all honesty, you've been a first in more respects than you know. For what it's worth, I promise you this: I have no more magic hidden from you. Everything I know, you now know as well."
  1877.  
  1878. War-form. She had felt at war for the past twelve hundred years. From the moment she was even able to, she still never let down her guard. And why would she? Time after time, her decision to maintain her fighting form was proven sound. Every visitor to her cave a reminder of the conflict she was born into, of some shameful war and its consequences that should never have been hers.
  1879.  
  1880. "Plain-form," I said again, sitting on the bed to steady myself. "The statues you sculpted, the chairs too big for a man and too small for a dragon, the dresses and armor suits with holes near the backside -- it's not decorative at all. Even the enormous swords! Never meant for a man's grip, were they?" I laughed, taking one of her new hands into my own. She clasped her other on the back, effortlessly enveloping my hand in hers. Despite her new look, her scales were just as smooth and cool as I was used to. That familiarity was soothing. As comfortable as I felt around Emmas, this sort of power, this spell -- I could not begin to understand it. Shape-shifting was something reserved for fairy tales. To know that it existed for real?
  1881.  
  1882. The small eastern man that could punch clean through a cuirass -- I hadn't known that sort of power existed either. Emmas' transforming ability was far more extraordinary by an order of countless magnitudes, but the underlying principle remained the same: how much of a hypocrite would I be to say I was fine with his power and not with hers? Especially after she had once already tested my resolve with her bewitchment.
  1883.  
  1884. "What now? You say this is the first time in a long time you've been like this. What do you want to do with it?"
  1885.  
  1886. I did not realize how ribald my question had come across until after I had said it, but to her the meaning was immediately clear. Though for as fast as her mood intensified, it just as quickly brightened in the glow of some other idea. "Wait here a moment," she said with a smile, her tail squeezing my waist before sliding off -- her version of a hug when in war-form. She could actualy hug me if she wished, but she had spent so long in war-form that her behaviors persisted even when smaller. It was sad, in a way.
  1887.  
  1888. Emmas sprang up from the bed, stumbling for a step or two and her tail swaying behind her as she walked, before grabbing a random piece of clothing from one of the nearby piles and disappearing behind the changing screen. "The last time I did this, my father was still alive. I was far too small for any of my mother's dresses then, but it didn't stop me from trying. It made me feel like I knew her and it would make him laugh as I trounced around the cave in a dress ten sizes too big."
  1889.  
  1890. She came partially into view, shyly peeking out from around the edge of the screen. She hesitated a moment longer before fully emerging in one swift stride. She wore a stately-looking orange dress, what appeared to be accents of gold adorning the sleeves and swirling up her arms before culminating into a brightly colored collar that made it look like she wore a choker. When she turned, I could see two lines that stretched from the golden choker down either side of her spine before they each spiraled around the hole her tail went through, after which they continued down and veered off into different swirling patterns that extended all the way down to the bottom of the dress. Part of me thought the orange was a little ostentatious, but then again -- dragons. Fire was probably a common motif for a lot of their crafts; the warm colors and an eye-catching golden accent certainly evoked it well.
  1891.  
  1892. "Well?" she prompted, striking a reserved pose with her hands locked behind her back. She practically glowed, and I did not mean just the dress.
  1893.  
  1894. "You look amazing, Emmas." She grinned and vanished again, reappearing in what had to have been a ball gown, for I immediately saw her on the floor of the King's court during one of his royal functions. The dress itself was a deep blue that complemented her eyes, and the hems of her sleeves and dress were dominated by a white, ruffled fabric. Most strikingly, the outfit stretched out across her tail all the way to the tip, a half-sleeve that left the white under-scales visible to match the ruffled cuffs. I never even had to say a word; the moment Emmas looked at me I smiled as widely as she did and she must have known exactly what I thought. She went back behind the screen to try another dress.
  1895.  
  1896. This went on and on. There was the black dress, a red one, three more blue ones. Most impressive was an absolutely regal gown that I could only imagine royalty wearing; it had the glossy shine of golden satin, with alternating black and red accents down the chest and sides. What stuck out most was that it included a headdress or tiara of some sort that gave Emmas the appearance of horns. As much as all of this was to our amusement, something told me it meant a little more to Emmas than she was letting on. She seemed genuinely happy, either reliving memories she'd never had but always imagined, or finally reveling in getting to share them with someone else. Or maybe she was finally getting to explore a side of herself she had never before.
  1897.  
  1898. "This one," she said before coming into view, "I finally finished just last night. Silk is very delicate to work with."
  1899.  
  1900. Emmas showed herself and I froze on the spot. She wore some white, see-through, lacy thing that barely went past her hips. The ends of the very short sleeves and the too-short skirt were frilled and opaque, making it seem like they were framing her body. I could not think of anything to say, nor did I have the faculty to change my slack-jawed expression. How on Earth could a woman that already walks about naked appear more alluring for feebly attempting to cover herself up?
  1901.  
  1902. "You made that?"
  1903.  
  1904. She nodded as a proud, tight smile played across her face. "It's the silk from when we went harvesting." She daintily spun in place, flaring the frilly bottom out such that it revealed more of her than before. I noticed something quite curiously absent from this piece she wore compared to the others.
  1905.  
  1906. "There's no hole for your tail." With no hole in the back of the waist, the silk sat all bunched up atop the base of her tail.
  1907.  
  1908. "It was never meant to go past my tail."
  1909.  
  1910. She sauntered over to me, her walk itself seemingly signalling invitation. "Can I do something for you, Emmas?"
  1911.  
  1912. "You feel like you have to ask?" she said, extending her hand. I took it and pulled her down beside me onto the bed, gently pushing her onto her back. The silk offered no resistance and was so thin it felt like it didn't exist at all.
  1913.  
  1914. "Well, now that you're more my size, perhaps, you know -- what you do for me, with your mouth; might I do that for you?" Her eyes widened and she visibly tensed, drawing in her arms and legs. Dread? Anticipation?
  1915.  
  1916. "Oh! Um, yes. Yes, you could. You can! I mean -- I'll allow it." Anticipation.
  1917.  
  1918. "Oh, you'll allow it, will you? How gracious," I said, laughter rumbling in my chest. Her teeth showed in a nervous but glowing smile while she covered her eyes with her hands.
  1919.  
  1920. "Don't tease me," she pleaded, "I'm just nervous."
  1921.  
  1922. "You, nervous!" I grabbed onto her hips and struggled to drag her closer to the edge of the bed; she helped herself along, wiggling and squirming to where I wanted her; her rear ever so slightly hanging off the foot of the bed, her legs spread and her tail fallen across the floor between my legs as I kneeled. Even as large as she was, she was much heavier than she looked. Despite her slender-looking frame, she must be mostly muscle beneath her scales. "I don't have teeth as sharp as daggers, nor do I breathe fire!"
  1923.  
  1924. She laughed heartily, then went deathly silent the moment I knelt down. Her tail wrapped itself entirely around my waist, as if anchoring her to me. She smelled faintly sweet and earthy, like she had just come back from harvest, and with every breath I let go of she shuddered almost imperceptibly; she could probably feel my every exhalation. Her nethers looked the same as before -- dripping and swollen, pushing up and away the scales that would normally cover them -- but certainly much smaller. Could I still use my arm if needed? It would be a much tighter fit, if it would fit at all. And there was that little bump from before, though now I could manipulate it with a finger or two instead of my entire hand. Is that where I should start? Or would she--
  1925.  
  1926. "Anan," Emmas said, snapping me out of my hesitation. "What you do with your hands -- just do that, but with your, um, lips and tongue. Just start slowly, remember."
  1927.  
  1928. I licked my lips, whether to wet them as they dried from anxiety or to make them ready for what I was about to do -- I have no idea. I nestled my head between her thighs and told myself I would not come up until Emmas felt what I felt every time she did this for me.
  1929.  
  1930. I began exactly as the first time I had ever touched her, licking slowly up both sides, applying gentle pressure as I did. The skin beneath was hot, and my tongue would graze across the edge of a nearby scale. She tasted oddly metallic, which I did not understand but thought fitting for her blacksmithing. I think I was torturing her -- inadvertently at first, but then I realized how incredible the anticipation and uncertainty must feel; I would hover around that little bump that made her squirm, edging so close to it without ever actually touching it. Her tail would tighten around me the nearer I got, sometimes so much so that I would struggle for a half second to breathe. I trailed my tongue everywhere I could, lightly to start, then harder when gentle touches were no longer having the effect they once had. Her breathing was raspy and sometimes forced, as if she was holding her breath without realizing it.
  1931.  
  1932. I slipped my tongue partway into her and immediately drew back; her insides were nearly scalding, and for as hot as she had been when I had my arm in her depths, she felt twice as hot to my tongue. I probed very slowly into her sex, acclimating myself to her temperature. As I did, I used my fingers to keep her from getting bored, still playing with the space around her sensitive little bump. Soon enough I was plunging myself as deeply as I could into her, reaching as far back as I could as I grazed my tongue against her walls or toyed with the places where her folds met. By this point she was absolutely dripping, and her ragged breaths urged me onward.
  1933.  
  1934. I still remembered that certain spot within her that made her tail twitch, but disappointingly, I could not go much further with just my tongue. I drew back, slipped in my fingers as far as I could to probe for said spot, then suckled eagerly on her sensitive bump that I had neglected the entire time. Her reaction was immediate and awe-inspiring, to be honest. Her tail's grip tightened across my waist and abdomen, making my breathing shallow and strained. Her legs folded themselves behind my head and I felt at any second I might be crushed like a melon between her thighs. Her clawed feet dug into my back through my tunic and her hands kept me exactly where I was, desperately pressing me into her, grinding my face into her nethers. I heard fire spilling from her mouth but strangely nothing else, as if she was caught in a soundless scream.
  1935.  
  1936. She finally released me after some long moments, her legs and arms falling to her sides like they were made of liquid, leaving her spread all across the bed and her feet dangling from the edge. She took a single, deep breath and I realized that was the first clear breath I had heard her take since I had been on my knees. I thought the evening was done -- or at the least she might have wanted a rest -- but when I stood, I did not feel my pants come up with me. I looked down and saw her tail had clutched them tightly, keeping them against the floor as I had risen. I stepped out of them and lifted my tunic over my head before crawling atop her. In her eyes I saw the words she had stopped short of saying before we had ventured together into her bedchambers. And in her eyes I saw my own worry reflected back at me.
  1937.  
  1938. "Wait." My anxiety had been building as I pleasured her, and only now was it too overpowering to ignore. I realized it was not because of my inexperience, not because I had an inkling of what was coming next, but because of something more pernicious. "I want to know that you want this -- want me. Is this because you can't stand to be alone any longer? After twelve hundred years, am I just...convenient? Would a dragon and human even carry on like this back in the days of Ariscorech?"
  1939.  
  1940. She half-smirked, her grin showing only half of her teeth. "It was not as rare as you might believe for a human and dragon to, uh, enjoy congress," she said as her look softened. The smirk was gone, replaced by that clear serenity I had seen from her just once or twice before. "Please do not misunderstand me, nor should you look so poorly upon yourself as to ever even think that you are merely convenient. After all this time, I had resigned myself to solitude, playing reaper to scores of men who had only the prestigious orders of their kings on their minds. Why then should I not grow to love someone who sees a soul in what everyone else saw as soulless? Why should I not grow to love someone whose heart weighs heavier on his mind than do the words of his king? Someone who is kind and compassionate, wiser than his age should allow, someone able to melt the rock and stone I had built up around my heart like a fortress..."
  1941.  
  1942. She trailed off, her vividly deep blue eyes now seemingly aglow with a familiar intensity. "I have known four hundred and twenty-seven men, Anan," she whispered, cradling my face in her hands, "but only one ever asked to know me."
  1943.  
  1944. She touched her muzzle to my lips and every anxious thought, every doubting voice in my mind was instantly silenced.
  1945.  
  1946. Her hands slid down my face, down my neck and to shoulders. She pushed me slightly to better align me with her entrance before gripping my hips with her thighs. It was nearly disorienting, to be with someone so human and yet to be so much smaller; I was in the right place, but as tall as she was, my head was barely up to her flat, creamy-white chest. The tip of my manhood touched the right spot and, wet and hot as it was, my immediate reaction was to indulge myself. I was not foolish, however. For as scorching as she was to my tongue and lips, she'd probably be even hotter now. She must have easily seen and understood my apprehension.
  1947.  
  1948. "Slowly, Anan." I pushed forward just a little bit to test her depths. It wasn't the heat which I noticed first, but the sheer pleasure of it. Delighted by the lack of pain, I suddenly pressed my hips further much to her gasping surprise, but I immediately regretted it; she was much hotter the deeper I went and I was forced to withdraw. "I said slowly!"
  1949.  
  1950. I laughed out an apology and to my relief, she laughed with me. I was embrassed, sure, but this was new for both of us -- some mistakes would be made. I treated the entire thing like I would a hotspring in the wilds. If you jump right in, you're bound to end up with some nasty burns. The body needs time to adjust, and no matter how badly you just want to immediately submerge yourself in the hot, soothing water, you've got to go slowly; a toe at first, then a foot, then a little bit of your leg at a time. Patience was the order of the day, and it had always paid off before.
  1951.  
  1952. I finally slipped my entirety all the way inside and felt her fiery breath rustle through my hair, while a shiver coursed through my whole body that seemed for a moment to rob me of my faculties. We fit snugly together, though I was under no pretense of pride; there was no way I filled her as much as she probably liked. It was hard for me to tell, though. The look on her face was undoubtedly one of bliss, and from where I lied on her stomach I could see her chest sporadically heave and hitch as she breathed.
  1953.  
  1954. "Is this -- are you all right, Emmas?"
  1955.  
  1956. She looked as if she wanted to say more but only had the presence of mind to utter a single word. "Yes." Her gaze was  urgent, her eyes wide and deeply penetrating. She folded one arm across my back, pressing me into her, and ran her other hand through my hair. Her unsaid message was clear as could be: keep going.
  1957.  
  1958. I started slowly, as frustrating as it was. Every time I pulled out I just wanted to thrust again as deeply as possible, to hilt myself in her depths -- almost like it was instinctual, and I truly had to fight to control myself. I wanted to go faster, but I would look up at her as if for her say-so, and somehow I always found her already looking back at me, her permission given through the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard. Little moans and chirps that would rush out of her throat every time our bodies met, a vibrating growl that would strengthen and deepen enough to cause us both to quiver -- sounds she hadn't ever made while she was in war-form. She drove me on like that, but as my pleasure increased with my speed, I had to slow it down or I would reach my peak well before she would hers.
  1959.  
  1960. When I slowed, she suddenly found her voice well enough. Faster, harder, right there, she would say -- all accompanied by the chorus of noises I loved. I did as she asked, eventually working myself into a hot sweat that had her cooler scales sticking to my body every time I wetly slapped into them and pulled away. I felt that familiar tightness in my groin, the tingling sensation that began to prickle the base of my spine; I realized I had to get creative if I wanted to bring her up to my speed. Even in my building ecstasy I still had my wits about me; I remembered that little bump that made her tail slap and her roar fearsome.
  1961.  
  1962. I pumped my hips as fast as I could, every time driving home all the way and angling my body such that I would grind against the top of her sex every time our bodies slammed together. That was what pushed over the edge.
  1963.  
  1964. Her tail came up to wrap my ankles together while she locked her legs behind me, pulling me towards her. She arched her hips upwards, furiously grinding as hard as she could as she held me so tightly against her body that I could scarcely breathe. I felt pinpricks of warmth where her claws dug painfully into my back, but that did not last for long. In the throes of her madness, what must have been every single muscle in her body clenched at once. Above the pain in my back, I felt her insides seemingly grab hold of my length, like she was pulling back on me every time I withdrew. The heightened friction, the pain, her borderline screaming, the hot and cold of her scales and body -- it was all just too much for me to endure any longer, and I hit my peak immediately after she did hers.
  1965.  
  1966. The lightning strike down my spine was a hundredfold as intense as any I'd felt before, and as I throbbed within her depths I strained against her to somehow go even deeper. I grabbed hold of her sides to steady myself, hastily bunching up her silken attire, and buried my face into her taut stomach to muffle myself; I felt like a fool for all the nonsensical noises I was making. With the blood thundering through my ears and my heart crashing about in my chest, I gave Emmas all I had as she wrapped herself around me and we fell sideways together. It took ages for the pleasure to recede, and in its wake was a simple, glowing satisfaction we both shared.
  1967.  
  1968. Emmas was the first to recover her voice again. "I think I heard you curse," she said, somehow managing to find it in her to laugh as she spoke.
  1969.  
  1970. "You must be mistaken," I panted. "A knight would never use such foul language."
  1971.  
  1972. "I'm fairly certain; you were pressing your face into my stomach."
  1973.  
  1974. "Let me know when you're absolutely certain. Until then I maintain my innocence."
  1975.  
  1976. She curled herself entirely around me, still holding me against and inside of her. Her tail snaked through and about my legs before draping itself across my thighs.
  1977.  
  1978. "I said it in a roundabout way before," she whispered into my ear, "but I want it to be clear, Anan: I love you."
  1979.  
  1980. There was nothing to think about, no subtext to analyze or tone to consider. My response seemed as foregone a conclusion as any. "I love you, Emmas."
  1981.  
  1982. We stayed in bed for a long while. When we had recovered, we made love again. Over and over, until we were both sated, sore, and exhausted, and we fell asleep wrapped up in each other.
  1983.  
  1984. -
  1985.  
  1986. I watched from afar as a bustling city was burnt to the ground by a voracious fire. The flames crawled and climbed to gather at the top of all the buildings until it looked as if I gazed upon a sea of candles. And then, suddenly, they were candles, and Emmas stood in their midst, plain-form and naked, a liquid inferno pouring from her jaws like she was a wellspring of fire. Pieces of armor materialized from thin air and attached themselves to her body, bit by bit, until she looked like a confusion of parts I knew and some I did not. Somehow the air around me grew hot, and I woke up.
  1987.  
  1988. Emmas was still asleep. Curled around me as she was, it was as if she looked down upon me, her jaws ajar. Her breath was far too warm for me at that moment. Uncomfortable and sweaty, I disentangled myself from her limbs and tail and sat up on the edge of the bed. As much as I wanted to stay with her, I was just so hot that I had half a mind to sleep on the cold stone floor. Before I could give the matter any further thought, I felt a pleasant and relieving draft wash across my sticky skin. I only enjoyed it for a moment before I began to wonder just where a draft would be coming from in a cave built this deeply into a mountain. Wandering around naked seemed a little foolish to me, so I slipped into my pants before investigating further.
  1989.  
  1990. The draft was strong on the side of the room that had the three giant mirrors, but I could only feel it every time I passed by the gaps that separated the middle mirror from the ones on its sides, on my bare feet as it rushed out from the space between the mirror's borders and the floor. I peered behind said mirror and saw a pitch black that anyone could mistake for just another dark wall, but I could just barely hear a haunting wail from deep within that made my blood run cold. To some deeply buried part of my mind, it felt like I was being called.
  1991.  
  1992. I turned back to look at Emmas; she was still asleep, just as I had left her. My heart heavy with shame for snooping about her room, I briefly though about just climbing back into bed beside her. But again that wailing sound called to me, and my mind was made up.
  1993.  
  1994. I crawled beneath the mirror, taking a moment after standing on the opposite side to dust myself off. The floor and walls were as smooth and featureless as the rest of the cave, and I was certain then that the passage had been melted out by dragonfire. As dark as it was, I kept my bearing by leaning against a wall and I took to shuffling my feet to avoid any pitfalls or obstacles. The intermittent wailing seemed to be coming from above as it became louder. As it sounded like I was drawing ever closer, I rounded a slight bend in the tunnel and saw a sliver of moonlight being cast at an angle from a single hole in the mountain. Like someone blowing across the top of an empty bottle, the wind outside swept over the opening to produce the ghostly sounds I heard.
  1995.  
  1996. I followed the moonlight down to the floor and nearly fell over backwards in surprise.
  1997.  
  1998. An enormous pile of metal and leather sat shrouded in darkness, only barely visible and eerily lit by the moon's alabaster glow. In the jumble of it all I could immediately make out the shape of a dragon's head, more or less; there was a piece that looked like it might cover the top of Emmas' muzzle in war-form, and a segmented scale mail that would have followed the curve of her neck. Beyond the head and neck armor, I could not discern for certain what the other pieces were. The leather straps no doubt meant to hold the armor in place.
  1999.  
  2000. I approached slowly, for some strange reason an atmosphere of reverence permeated this room. I put my hand upon the neck and kept walking, trailing my touch across the large metal scales as I walked, feeling the segments between them like the cliffs of a mountainside. I eventually came across what must have been the breastplate; it was large, thick, and heavy, molded into a v-shape to cover both sides of a dragon's chest while still allowing the neck to dip down should it need to. My hands glided across the metal, sometimes skipping over a dent or a pit worn into it by use. One spot felt far too scratched up compared to the rest. I squinted and saw by moonlight a tiny, four-line inscription upon the breastplate's left side that read: 'This is All, and all for This, without this All, I'd be amiss'.
  2001.  
  2002. "Anan?" Emmas' voice in the darkness behind startled me enough that I stumbled. I only fell all the way to the ground when a row of candles that encircled the room suddenly lit all by themselves, bathing the chamber in warm light. I shielded my eyes to allow them time to adjust, and when I peeked out from behind my hand I saw two gargantuan stone tombs behind the empty armor shell I had been touching. The armor itself seemed moderately well cared for; some dust and cobwebs clung to it, but as a whole it looked remarkably well given how old I guessed it could be.
  2003.  
  2004. "Don't panic," Emmas said, sitting down beside me. She was still in plain-form and had a large black blanket wrapped around her. It followed her like a train to some royal gown. She gathered it up beneath her legs and sat on it instead of sitting on the cold floor. "More of my father's enchanted candles. They only light when I enter this chamber."
  2005.  
  2006. I had an eerie shiver rush up my spine. I had surmised that the tombs belonged to her parents. "So he was ready, then -- made his own grave."
  2007.  
  2008. "He was always ready. He made a second tomb the day he interred Mother, and it always waited for him, the lid off and leaning against the side. Like he had made his bed and was just waiting for the day he could crawl into it and finally rest."
  2009.  
  2010. "What happened?"
  2011.  
  2012. "I don't know," she breathed. Her eyes glazed over, her voice distant and dull; she was somewhere else. "He came home one afternoon after a hunt, a sword buried up to the hilt in his left breast -- just above the armor -- and two bleeding gashes at the base of his neck where the scale mail ended. He could barely walk; with tremendous effort he made his way here to his final resting place, with little tiny me crying and bawling at his heels. He collapsed inside, pulled the lid partway over him, and just fell asleep. I was not even the size of a deer and it took me until nightfall to nudge his limbs and tail all the way in. I exhausted myself the next morning by completely pushing the tomb's cover into place."
  2013.  
  2014. Silence filled the space between us, as if pushing us apart. What could I have even said? In the presence of both her parents I just felt tiny and insignificant, not only because of their literal size but for how immense the void they left behind was. With no parents at such a young age, what's a child to do? Who's to teach them about life and the world at large? Who's to tell them of right and wrong?
  2015.  
  2016. "Anan," she said. I only turned and looked, sensing a question on her mind. "A while ago, when you said that you saw life when looking at me...what sort of life? Did you see anything specific?"
  2017.  
  2018. There was, actually. "I see adventure every time I look at you. I see us in the wilds together, living off the land; hunting, gathering, falling asleep beneath the stars while listening to the the rain and crickets. Every day, another discovery -- maybe we head east across the infinite lakes and rivers and the Korripin Mountains, or even west across the ocean to lands unknown. I look at you and just...I see everything that I love about life; the independence, the thrill of self-sufficiency."
  2019.  
  2020. She wore the beginnings of a smile for just a moment, but it quickly passed and her gaze fell to the floor. She loosed a heavy sigh. "I want you to know that I can't leave this place, Anan."
  2021.  
  2022. "And why not? You've spent long enough here already. Will you spend the other half of your life still puttering about this cave?"
  2023.  
  2024. "This cave is my home and my station," she hissed, her temper flaring. "This is my burden. Everything here is all that remains of my people, of my father's reign. If not me, who else will preserve the last vestiges of dragonkind? Who is going to remember Ariscorech or the treachery of the three human realms then? Who will remember the techniques of dragon smithies or the fashions and designs of our seamstresses? Who will remember the tomes of our writers and philosophers?"
  2025.  
  2026. "You think your father so vain that he would curse his only child for eternity to watch over a cave full of -- just things? Of a people already forgotten by history? Ariscorech would be better remembered with a dragon traveling the realms than it would be with its last remaining dragon spending her final years in a candle-lit cave. What father would tether his daughter to a past she never knew in some misguided attempt to keep his glory alive?"
  2027.  
  2028. She shot up, towering over me and boring holes into my skull with her glare. "Choose your words very carefully when speaking of him. Or better yet, do not speak of him at all. Who should know more of his final wishes? I spent infinitely more time with him than you, Anan, and I will not argue with you over what his final wishes were. With his blood pooling beneath him as he lay in his tomb, he said to me 'this is all'. This is all there is -- this is all that's left! What else could he have meant?
  2029.  
  2030. She was shouting now. I don't know if my ears were deceiving me or if her voice began to split into two, like her deeper war-form voice was screaming at me alongside her plain-form one. My mistake was shouting back. "He meant this is all for you! All of this history and culture -- everything around you was meant for you, meant to give your life context because he knew he wouldn't be around to teach you when you needed him most! You are his legacy, not these possessions!"
  2031.  
  2032. "Enough!" She screamed, brusquely turning to leave. The candles snuffed themselves out when she passed over whatever invisible threshold her father had placed so long ago. "I will not stand here and listen to you defile my father's wishes. You may sleep--"
  2033.  
  2034. "Even if you are right -- about his final wishes -- you already defiled them the moment you offered your neck to my blade."
  2035.  
  2036. She stopped dead in her tracks. Bright flames licked past her jaws and silhoutted her head to me; I had crossed a line, and no matter how truthful it was, she was barely able to hold her rage.
  2037.  
  2038. "Emmas, I'm sorry. I overstepped, but please -- that's the other part of the reason, isn't it? I get it now; the other half of the puzzle of why you wanted to die -- you can't do this anymore. Apart from defending yourself, you can't bear the thought of spending another day alone here, can you? Is that the kind of father you think Fharer was? That he would degrade his daughter's existence to nothing but a glorified steward for so long that she'd be begging someone to end her life?"
  2039.  
  2040. The ensuing silence was more troubling then the previously fiery evidence of her barely restrained anger. She did not growl, snarl, her tails nor ears twitched in the slightest -- she wouldn't even look at me. When she spoke, the two voices were gone, and she was as calm and sincere as when she had told me hours ago she loved me. "I want you to leave, Anan."
  2041.  
  2042. "Emmas--"
  2043.  
  2044. "Get dressed. Take your sword and armor, and leave. If you need provisions you may take what you require from my larder."
  2045.  
  2046. I swallowed so loudly I thought it echoed. It was not a request; she made a very conscious effort not to speak out of anger, nor did it sound as if it were some open-ended thing to be argued over. All I had ever offered her was honesty, and tonight it had been my undoing. She remained as still as a statue, not even flinching as I walked past her to gather my things.
  2047.  
  2048. "You have a choice, Emmas. You can choose to believe that your father wished for you to die in this cave, or you can choose to believe that he loved you."
  2049.  
  2050. I left her in the dark with those words, to make preparations to leave as she wished. It took more than I thought I had in me not to rush back to her when I heard her crying.
  2051.  
  2052. -Chapter 14-
  2053.  
  2054. I had been tracking this particular pack for nearly a week now. I had found them at the base of the mountain as I had descended, and oddly enough must have been skirting their range as I traveled. There were six of them: the two parents and their four pups. The pups could not have been more than a year old; they were probably just learning how to hunt. I sometimes spied them still engaging in the way young wolves did, playing and yipping while their parents looked on, as if wishing they would pay more attention to what was going on around them. The patriarch was a good looking wolf by any hunter's measure. He was well-built and able-bodied; the only thing wrong I could see was a bald spot on his left thigh, caused by a scar. Everywhere he went, he was flanked by the matriarch of the pack, and she was always scanning the forest with an icy gaze that -- that reminded me of...
  2055.  
  2056. Food was a bit scarcer than I had imagined down here. Then again, I don't know what I had imagined; even on the way to the mountain, I had not seen much game at all. As such, competition was either at an all time high or prey animals had been nearly depleted. The wolf pack I shadowed -- or perhaps they were shadowing me -- was always on the move and could never afford more than a minute's rest, as if stopping for any longer would put every piece of prey outside of their reach and they'd all die of hunger.
  2057.  
  2058. For all I knew, they just might. The first frost was nearly here. I could feel it in the air.
  2059.  
  2060. It wasn't long until my provisions had begun to run low. I wish I had taken more when...but there was no time for regrets when faced with a potential starvation situation. As much as I tried to compose myself, frustration was setting in. My snares were catching nothing. The streams were all empty since the fish had already migrated for warmer climes in the face of the approaching cold. Edible plants had already dropped their fruit and begun to turn brittle. The forest was preparing itself for the winter months and everything that lived was either leaving or shriveling itself up into hibernation. I could not stay in one place for too long; if there was no food, I had to keep moving. But where?
  2061.  
  2062. I began to seek out this pack, hoping to perhaps scavenge a kill from them. I had no misconceptions about challenging them, however. Armored as I was, there were plenty of soft spots around my joints that a plucky wolf could sink his teeth into. If there were no pups to contend with I might have been able to kill or injure one adult enough to drive the other away, but with the other pack members as back-up, I knew it just wasn't going to happen. I was sure I could kill one, but I'd never survive the other five.
  2063.  
  2064. I had used my knife to sharpen a long, thick branch into a spear, for a sword was never meant to be a hunter's weapon. Together with my knife, I felt comfortable enough to venture closer to the wolves. Part of me thought they were used to human contact, or at least familiar enough to avoid me. They would cast me wary glances every so often, but never once did they make a move towards me or attempt to box me in as if I was their quarrel. I saw them take two rabbits in as many days, and they somehow happened upon a fawn on the fourth day. After each kill they'd wander off and I'd see what was left. Predictably, nothing; such little things would not satisfy six hungry mouths, and they left nothing edible. Even the crows would pass by, completely uninterested in the carcasses they left behind.
  2065.  
  2066. It was the eighth day I had set out on my own. I ate the last of my provisions by the campfire before trying to settle in for the night. Every night out had been dreadfully lonely. Not only for what I grown used to, but also for what I had imagined before I had been cast -- before I had left. With no one else, I was left alone with thoughts that did their best to keep me from sleep. Where was I going? What was I doing? Should I wander the wilds as a self-made ranger? Should I go home? What would happen? What questions about my absence would I be forced to answer? Was there honor in going back to face exile or death? Such was my doubt and madness that I did not even remember falling asleep, for after that last thought I opened my still-tired eyes and saw morning's light. Groggy and tremendously irritable, I got up and set out for what was sure to be another wasted day of hunting.
  2067.  
  2068. It was not too long until I happened upon the pack's trail. A patch of dirt crisscrossed by claw marks and paw prints -- the boisterous pups. On either side were tracks made by the larger parents, each facing in a different direction until all the paws suddenly faced east in unison. I followed them closely, though kept my eyes up to avoid any surprises. Their strides were short judging by the distance between tracks; they might still be close by.
  2069.  
  2070. But after only a minute or two of following their path, I saw their strides grew enormously. I could tell exactly when they had taken off at a sprint; the dirt was darker where their claws had dug deeper into the earth for better traction, and they had kicked up leaves more decayed than the top layer of forest detritus. I followed their path for a while longer and saw it caught up to a seventh pair of tracks. It was clearly a hoofed animal. My first thought was a deer, but the imprint was too rounded and too deep; a deer wouldn't weigh enough to make such a mark. It must have been a boar.
  2071.  
  2072. All seven tracks took off. Every so often they'd come to a halt and turn about in circles. The boar must have stopped at several points in an attempt to fend off its attackers before taking off again; even for six wolves, a wild boar was a foe to be taken very seriously. My pace quickened. The soil turned up by the chase was still cool and a little damp; it was only recently the hunt had occurred. If I were to hurry, I might happen upon the remains. A boar could grow to enormous proportions. It's entirely possible that even six hungry wolves might leave a little on the bones.
  2073.  
  2074. I trekked onward, my stomach grumbling its impatience. The tracks went over the top of a small hill, and as I crested it my heart sank.
  2075.  
  2076. The patriarch of the pack laid on his side, alone in a small clearing. The dirt around him freshly turned up, and the tracks of his prey and his pack still continuing past him. Even from this far I could tell he was injured; his breathing was intensely labored, his chest shuddered and heaved with every panting breath. Despite my first instinct to see if he needed to be freed from his misery, I waited. I did not know how close by his pack was. Perhaps they thought he was merely tired and lagged behind, and they would return for him later. What might they do if they saw me with him?
  2077.  
  2078. When the other wolves failed to show after a minute or two, I made my way towards him. The worst thing one can do to a stressed animal is surprise it, so I stepped on a few twigs and rustled the leaves beneath my feet, talking softly as I approached. He did not stir or take notice of me in even the smallest way. When I was upon him, I saw why.
  2079.  
  2080. A boar's tusks are capable of terrible damage. He had a deep puncture wound in his left breast. The outer edge of it extended into an ugly gash that ripped down his side. It was as fresh as could be; blood still poured freely down his side. Judging by his breathing, I ventured a guess that one of his lungs had been punctured or otherwise rendered useless. Curiously, he had a bit of boarflesh and skin hanging in his teeth. He may have made his mark on the beast, but there was no way he'd survive, nor was there anything I could do for him besides end his suffering -- something I think he somehow knew because when I unsheathed my knife, he finally flicked his eyes in my direction. It was like he knew what was coming, perhaps even welcomed it.
  2081.  
  2082. "I'm sorry." I angled the knife and pressed the tip of it against his skin and waited for some reason, like he might give me his permission. I then quickly drove it forward and it slipped cleanly between his ribs all the way up to the hilt, to pierce his heart. He whimpered for just a moment before the rest of his life left him, and his entire body relaxed afterwards. His face still half-frozen as if panting, like he wore a faint little smile that exposed the very tips of his upper teeth, just like...
  2083.  
  2084. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I kept saying. After a little while I did not know who I felt sorry for: myself, the wolf, or for Emmas. But I just kept saying it, thinking the answer would reveal itself in time.
  2085.  
  2086. Movement drew my eyes upwards towards the other side of the clearing, towards the treeline. The pack was staring intently at me, their faces stained dark red by the fresh blood of the catch. The pups appeared uncertain, but the matriarch knew what had happened. She knew what I did. She squinted her eyes and turned back, presumably towards the dead boar. Her pups followed.
  2087.  
  2088. Maybe the patriarch's last act had secured the kill for them. Maybe without his sacrifice, his mate and offspring would have starved.
  2089.  
  2090. It was something I dwelt heavily upon as I carried the wolf's body back to my camp. The wolf may not have meant to get himself injured to feed his pups, but the fact was he put himself at risk to do so. I have no doubts his mate would have done the same. What are parents for, if not to ensure the survival of their offspring? Among animals, this is little more than an instinct. I don't really believe there's much sentimentality in the animal world; I've seen deer leave their fawns behind to escape predators, mothers slay their ill young to focus on the healthy ones. If the wolf had known he was bound to suffer injury, would he still have gone after the boar? But that sort of calculating callousness was not typical of man.
  2091.  
  2092. And that was the difference. Animals struggle at their basest to ensure their own survival, with the preservation of their bloodline a secondary concern. Meanwhile people will sacrifice everything to give their child a fighting chance. But it wasn't just survival -- they wanted happiness for their child as well. And if Fharer was as loving and caring as Emmas described him, why would he ever deny her any happiness for her entire life?
  2093.  
  2094. These thoughts plagued me until nightfall. I had cleaned the wolf and hung the carcass over the fire by stringing it up over a tree branch. The smoke would preserve it for a little while, but there was no way I'd make full use of it before it spoiled. In the meantime, I began cooking portions closer to the fire. Despite the fact I was not high up on the mountain, I would take no chances; I decided to cook the meat just a little longer than usual. I did not want to become ill again, like months ago.
  2095.  
  2096. The stars glowed brightly above, even brighter than usual with only a sliver of moon to compete with them. My lean-to caught the warmth coming from the fire and kept it nearby, as though I was wrapped in an actual blanket as the crickets played their ceaseless songs. Everything about this night was something I adored, but I imagined how much better it would have been to share with someone...
  2097.  
  2098. My thoughts stayed with Emmas as I ate. There was no way she was happy, not for as long as she remained in that cave. And I was not conceited enough to believe I was the thing that brought her temporary happiness. I may have had a hand in it, but I firmly believe her joy was in simply having a person to talk to, another soul that sought not her head on a pike but the histories in her books and the stories in her heart. Her happiness lay all across the world, in every place except that cave.
  2099.  
  2100. My father foresaw a similar situation. Despite his station as the royal court's painter, despite the favor his artwork earned him from the nobles -- he would never be a noble. Nor would my mother, raised from birth to be a royal servant. Both of them might have enjoyed a number of privileges the common folk would never have on account of their proximity to royalty, but they still lived a difficult life where sometimes good meals were hard to come by or the week's expenses were just a little more than they could handle. While these hardships were frequent, my mother still found the time to teach me to read and write like a noble, and made me strong by having me work with her in the small plot beside our home, planting and harvesting.
  2101.  
  2102. The truth was, I never should have been a knight at all. Knighthood was reserved for the sons of nobility, something I was not. But my father saw the makings of an opportunity to get me out of the cave, so to speak -- out of the just-passable cottage that we lived in. Rarely -- about once a month -- the King would visit the cottage with his guard so that my father could paint him sitting in the wildflowers that grew nearby. I handled myself quite well thanks to my mother's teachings, and the King came to see me as if I were one of his nephews. Impressed by my manners and my physical and mental acuity despite my tender age, he mentioned in passing that I might make a fine squire later on -- an idea my father instantly seized upon, and he took every chance he could thereafter to subtly and politely remind the King of it.
  2103.  
  2104. Not long after, I was put on track for the Knighthood by the King's own orders. I was just a child at the time and didn't know what that meant; all I knew was I barely got to see my parents from then on, and how deeply unhappy that had made me. But I was never at a loss for a warm bed or a hearty meal. I learned things my mother never would have been able to teach me. I was made stronger in ways fieldwork never would been able to. I even had a small monthly stipend as a squire. More often than not it was spent on supplies to clean my mentor's armors and weapons or repair my clothing, but the fact remained that I had a steady source of income, something my father didn't always have.
  2105.  
  2106. It wasn't until I was older that I realized what my parents had done for me. Yes, I had been separated from them during my childhood years, but they never had to worry if I was hungry or if I had a roof above my head. Humorously, the training I had received made it so I wouldn't have to worry much about food or shelter no matter where it was I found myself. But I knew they had done it for me out of love; I could see it in their eyes when I was finally knighted. My father could barely hold back his tears as he painted my induction portrait. He had ensured my life would be better than what he and my mother could have given me. Some might argue that I had been made a war-fighter, but I would say that ignores everything else. At his basest, yes, a knight was a warrior, but the ideals and morals behind him made him so much more. I was also a defender, a keeper of the peace. If I was only a warrior, I would have taken Emmas' head the moment she had offered it to me.
  2107.  
  2108. That was the basis of my deduction of Fharer, and as I sat there eating I realized that was where Emmas' views diverged from mine. I felt a parent's sole purpose was to give their child a better life, but Emmas saw Fharer as a king looking to preserve his kingdom's legacy. I had looked incredulously upon Emmas' interpretation of her father's wishes. Perhaps in my disbelief, that incredulity had come out as offensive and venomous to her. She believed she had been given a sacred task -- the preservation of her people's memory -- and never considered any other options. I had asked her if her father was so great, why would he have condemned her to such a wretched life, with my implication being that he loved her too much for her to spend her life in a cave and that his final words meant something else. But because she already had a wretched life and because she thought she knew already what his final words meant, she inferred I was actually calling Fharer vainglorious and awful.
  2109.  
  2110. My parents made themselves a means to my happiness. According to Emmas, her father had made her a means to his end -- the crushing responsibility of overseeing all that remained of dragonkind. No loving parent would ever heft such a weight upon their child's shoulders.
  2111.  
  2112. "Are you speaking to the dead wolf?"
  2113.  
  2114. I knew the voice, but so honed were my reflexes over my years of service that I instantly snatched up my sword, sprang to my feet, and whirled around before my brain could tell me there was no threat. I saw in her eyes mild surprise at my quick reaction, or perhaps at me brandishing my weapon at her. When my reflexes relinquished control of my body, I immediately relaxed and allowed my sword to fall to my side.
  2115.  
  2116. "I apologize," I said, hoping she took no offense to my actions. Given how we parted ways, it could be reasonable to think she might believe I was more than a little belligerent towards her.
  2117.  
  2118. But she said nothing as I spun back around and sat by the campfire. When the silence persisted, I turned to look at her; she was in war-form, only just now folding her wings back into their natural position.I must have been so lost in thought that I hadn't even heard her flapping wings during her approach, nor the sound of her heavy footsteps through the dead leaves and brush. I could not believe I had been so oblivious. Death would always find those who were slothful or inattentive, especially in the wilds.
  2119.  
  2120. She kept quiet still. Not because I believed she was upset or anything, but because she appeared deep in thought, as if trying to parse the maelstrom of thoughts in her head that must have plagued her since I left. At least, that was how I felt. What was there to say? What should I say? Who should speak their mind first? It was then what she said struck me.
  2121.  
  2122. "Was I speaking aloud? How much did you hear?"
  2123.  
  2124. "Enough." Enough, enough -- such a vague word. Was that good or bad? Could she be angry? Perhaps convinced, even? Her tone told me nothing, nor did her expression, which hovered on the border of anger and sorrow.
  2125.  
  2126. "You never--" she stopped short with a sigh and blinked hard, like she could see her words suspended in the air before her. "I don't have to choose anything. I know for a fact that my father loved me beyond any earthly measure. I was -- I still am upset that you boiled it down to just two outcomes, when the reality -- when I know now the reality is far more nuanced."
  2127.  
  2128. "Emmas, I'm sorry, when I said those things--"
  2129.  
  2130. "Let me finish. I imagine most children are heavily concerned with material things, things they can touch or see. Symbolism is lost on young minds, deeper meanings go over their heads. As a child, almost everything I saw my father do had to do with our possessions; I always saw him writing, painting, cataloguing, organizing. Naturally I thought it was because all of our things were important, and after he died I thought I knew why: because it was all that remained. Like he said, this is all. And after all this time -- after twelve hundred years of solitude, deprived of any meaningful contact --"
  2131.  
  2132. She was stopped mid-sentence by sobbing, and the tears that had been threatening to spill over finally did. "If you were right, then that meant it was all for nothing. I could have left that cave whenever I felt I was able. If you are right, I've wasted half my life -- half of what you say my father had died to give me! Caring for the library, keeping the armor from rusting, making sure the moths stayed away from Mother's dresses -- all in vain, because you say Father never meant for me to care about them."
  2133.  
  2134. I motioned for her to come sit by the fire. She did, sniffling the whole way before curling herself behind and around me, as if we were reading from her library again. "That's not entirely true. Of course you were supposed to care about them. Like I said, Fharer gave your life context by means of those books and paintings and everything else, even after he died. Without it all, what may have happened? Without any connection to a people, you could have grown up in that cave as nothing more than a feral beast, concerned only with your next meal and nap. He gave you culture and civilization. Those were your father's dying words cut short. He meant to say that it was all for you, that his dying wish was to give you a life. And look at you! Master of a hundred crafts, you can read and write, live off of the land -- you're a survivor! He succeeded!"
  2135.  
  2136. "If you're right," she said, curling her neck around to lay her head beside me.
  2137.  
  2138. "I know I am."
  2139.  
  2140. "How can you be so sure?"
  2141.  
  2142. I wasn't sure at all. I only had my feelings to go off of, my own life and all the experiences within it. I had never known my parents to be anything other than supporting, loving, doting, so they were my template of what all parents should be. I wasn't so naive as to think they all actually were -- sadly, some children end up victims of abuse or neglect -- but nothing about Fharer seemed to fit him into that category. I leaned back, resting my weight on Emmas' side, and could hear her thundering heartbeat even from there.
  2143.  
  2144. "Your heart is in your left breast, right? Like mine?"
  2145.  
  2146. "Of course."
  2147.  
  2148. Her father's armor came to mind again. The bruises, the scratches and dents, but clear as day, that little inscription over the left half of the breastplate...
  2149.  
  2150. "This is all, and all for this--"
  2151.  
  2152. "--without this all, I'd be amiss," she chimed through her crying. "My father's favorite poem. He always liked how short and to-the-point it was."
  2153.  
  2154. "You are all, Emmas. Imagine that. Would Fharer have been beside himself without the paintings, the dresses, the armor suits, or the books? Or would he have been lost without you?"
  2155.  
  2156. She thought only for a moment before she began wailing, her cries carried out and echoed back on the cold night's air, silencing the shrill chorus of crickets. She thrust her head into my lap, dousing me with enormous tears as I laid my arms atop her head, patting her as she sobbed and sniffled. With every gasping, shuddering breath her body would expand or contract, pushing me outwards or falling inwards behind me. I thought with such an outpouring of emotion a flame or two might show itself, but there was nothing but black smoke rolling out from her jaws. As acrid as it was, I suppressed my coughs and held my breath; I didn't want her to concern herself with me.
  2157.  
  2158. Part of me wondered if there was perhaps a bit of resentment in her heart for her father. That would put into perspective her questions during our little sword-fighting game all those months ago. Instead of asking about the world at large, she asked about my parents. Did she know then how impossible a task she thought her father had given her? Did she want to know what it was like to have parents that actually cared? Maybe she wished her father had managed a few more words with his final breaths, or that he had left her a note of some kind.
  2159.  
  2160. Her keening intensified despite the catharsis that I thought was occurring as we spoke. Something was still troubling her. This close to having her free of her cave, I would not wait for her to grow comfortable enough to tell me; best have it out now. "I can tell something still bothers you, Emmas. What is it? Tell me, please."
  2161.  
  2162. She collected herself and craned her neck upwards to look at the star-scattered sky. She choked back one last sob. "Even if you're right...I can't leave it all, Anan. I just can't. Maybe it wasn't what Father would have wanted for me, but it's what I devoted myself to. As much as that cave may look like prison to you, it still houses my people and history. I -- I want to leave, I truly do, but I am not so callous as to leave the memories of dragonkind to rot into dust."
  2163.  
  2164. I'm not sure I would be able to do that either. I was so focused on her happiness, on her future, that I completely neglected to think of what would happen to the history her father had worked so hard to accumulate for her. Not even I could bear to think of leaving everything for the elements and insects; I shuddered to think of that library being destroyed. Thousands of years of history, of her father, her father's father and everything before, scattered to the wind. I understood her apprehension. Even if she sealed the cave with a boulder or a small landslide, mother nature would eventually find her way in and wreak all sorts of havoc on everything inside. If it could be moved, taken to another place and cared for...
  2165.  
  2166. "Emmas, do you trust me?"
  2167.  
  2168. She sniffled one last time, then turned her royal-blue gaze my way. She wrapped her tail around my waist and gently squeezed. "Implicitly, Anan."
  2169.  
  2170. "I think you and I should go talk to the King of Highland."
  2171.  
  2172. "I take it back."
  2173.  
  2174. -Chapter 15-
  2175.  
  2176. She had flown us back to her cave to spend the night. The distance I had apparently gone in almost a week was not too far at all, and for her it was only about an hour's flight. It felt like I had traveled farther; I wondered if my anxiety had prevented me from straying too far from the home I had grown familiar with. Still afraid of the consequences of my return to Highland, might I subconsciously have stayed close to Emmas' cave?
  2177.  
  2178. As late as it was, we ate a light dinner before attempting to fall asleep. We settled in front of the library, too tired to make it all the way to her bed or mine. She had curled her war-form self around me, propping me up against her belly, her tail draped across my legs like a fleshy blanket. Despite our short time apart and the feelings a reunion brought, I was not kept awake by any amorous thoughts, and I knew for certain neither was Emmas -- she was already fast asleep, her thundering heartbeat slowed to a fraction of what it normally was and her slumbering respiration so sluggish that I found myself sometimes counting the seconds between her breaths and feeling like they were minutes.
  2179.  
  2180. I was wide awake, vividly imagining what the view might look like as I hung from the gallows, or how clean the executioner's axe would look as it sliced my head from my neck. Would it be brightly gleaming, cleaned meticulously the night before to look presentable during its sole duty? Or did it sit in the armory, the blood on its edge left to rot until the blade was encrusted with the sickly old brown of past judgments? Or might I view Highland forevermore from afar, exiled to wander the wastes and wilds with only thoughts of home to comfort me?
  2181.  
  2182. But regardless of whatever end awaited me, there was a distinct calm beneath all of the fear and fretting. I would finally know my fate; no longer would I live in perpetual fear of the potential consequences of my actions.
  2183.  
  2184. Or would I? How much truth should there be in what I say? Should I say anything or should Emmas speak for herself? Even if it were the latter, my own King would no doubt ask for my input. Should I even breathe a word the intimacy Emmas and I shared? Should I speak of her magical abilities? What if they attempted to slay us both on the spot for some reason? How many knights would be flanking the king with a dragon in his court? If things went poorly, could Emmas escape? Would she be forced to burst through the ranks, taking many lives in the process? Could she crash through one of the stained glass windows in the throne room?
  2185.  
  2186. Part of me wondered if I would want to go with her. Might she wrap me up in her tail before she took flight? I wonder if she still would even if I told her not to. Would I tell her not to? And for god's sake, there was that persistent doubt again that kept me awake; I was ready to accept the consequences but at the same time contemplated an exit strategy. I went back and forth in my head over and over again until my mind, made unbearably weary by the same stress that kept me awake, finally succumbed to sleep's inexorable pull.
  2187.  
  2188. We both awoke around the same time; no sooner had I opened my eyes had Emmas begun to stir as well. We sat together for a silent moment, thinking about the days ahead, so fraught with uncertainty. For her, anyway -- I was certain my punishment was finally at hand.
  2189.  
  2190. We shared a small breakfast, though half of our plates remained uneaten for the tension in our minds and bodies. We bathed to look presentable, the strain of our immediate future chasing away any thoughts of passion or playfulness. She shined her scales to appear glowing and regal, and filed her claws to make them less intimidating. I trimmed my beard and polished my armor and sword until I could see my own reflection worry back at me. I still wasn't sure what the exact reason was for my anxiety. Did I worry over my fast-approaching fate, or was it for Emmas'? No reason it could not have been both, I guessed.
  2191.  
  2192. "Anan?" She had been tying a thick leather strap across her chest, belly, and back, but stopped when she looked at me.
  2193.  
  2194. "Yes?"
  2195.  
  2196. "You look as though you've seen a ghost."
  2197.  
  2198. "I could very well be one soon."
  2199.  
  2200. She snorted once, forcing a hint of a smile as black smoke crawled through her teeth. Her demeanor hardened again, and she wore a frown that shifted to one side as she lost herself momentarily in thought. "Have you given any thought to your plan? How are we to go about speaking to your king?"
  2201.  
  2202. I had given absolutely zero thought to any sort of plan, too consumed by thoughts of my own death. And even now, with it creeping closer and closer and the pressure mounting to think of some bombastic scheme that would ensure Emmas' survival -- and my own, perhaps -- I could think of nothing. I vaguely felt the beginnings of a tremor take my hands. I had trained nearly my whole life to stare death in the face in the wilds or across the scarred battlegrounds of my time, but to feel it so close -- like the reaper's stinking, bony fingers were already tapping me on the shoulder? That triggered the deepest instincts no amount of knightly training could ever suppress: those of survival. Run, hide, do anything except march through the castle gates, into what was sure to be certain death for me and probable death for Emmas.
  2203.  
  2204. "I don't really have a plan," I admitted, feeling the shame redden my face. I had no idea how to go about this, and I did not have it in me to suggest turning back now; this was probably the closest she'd been her whole life in getting out of her cave. I had opened a door for her, and no matter how improbable, I would not shut it in her face. If she wanted to forget this entire ordeal, it would be on her to speak up about it.
  2205.  
  2206. "Really? We just show up at the gates of your king and plead your case, hope you're not executed, and in the same breath ask if he'll look after my people's history?"
  2207.  
  2208. "You don't have to make it sound any more foolish than it already is," I said. "And it's not all hopeless. Our current king is the son of the man that made me a knight. Before that, he was a knight himself, one that I served alongside of. He was always an earthly man, more concerned with knowing other people instead of fighting them. Highland enjoys friendships with lands far and wide based solely on his and his father's enthusiasm for people and culture. I don't know about my fate, but I have a good feeling your plight will be heard."
  2209.  
  2210. "Have you forgotten that I must touch my snout to his head to speak to him?"
  2211.  
  2212. That I had. I'm sure his guard would react none too favorably to those dagger-sharp teeth so close to his head. "We'll come to that bridge when we must. Until then, just let me do as much talking as possible. And stay in war-form; dragons have a legendary image about them -- best not to shatter expectations by showing up in plain-form. Don't mention the magic, and don't mention how you and I, uh -- you know."
  2213.  
  2214. She shifted uncomfortably, throwing the leather strap over her back again. Her frown had only grown wider as I had spoken.
  2215.  
  2216. "Whatever it is, Emmas, say it now."
  2217.  
  2218. "I just -- I need you to know that should the worst happen, I will not allow any harm to come to you."
  2219.  
  2220. "Emmas--"
  2221.  
  2222. "No. That's final, and I won't have any discussion about it. Should it come to that, I will do my utmost not to harm any of your countrymen, but you must understand my priority is your life."
  2223.  
  2224. She stared so long and hard at me I swore I could feel heat coming from her eyes. As long as she had lived, as many men as she had met -- perhaps she couldn't stand to lose the first man to ever show her kindness. Or had my ego been bigger, I may have thought she believed me an oddity in the world, the only one of my kind. The one man in more than a thousand years to look a dragon in the eyes and not wish for its immediate death--
  2225.  
  2226. "I love you, Anan."
  2227.  
  2228. "I love you, too, Emmas." Or it could be something as simple as that. I sighed and said, "I can't stop you from doing as you wish. There are plenty of stained glass windows in the throne room, more than large enough to fit even you. Grab me, take flight, and smash through one. Given your speed, I would guess we'd be gone in the blink of an eye, and be clear of any castle archers after a few more moments."
  2229.  
  2230. She nodded, finally tightening and then tying off the straps she had thrown across her body. "What are you doing?" I asked.
  2231.  
  2232. She coiled her tail around my waist and hoisted me atop of her, placing me between her shoulder blades, just forward of her wings. "It would not do for me to carry one of Highland's knights back to her in a sack," she said, placing the single loose strap in my hands.
  2233.  
  2234. Even then, seated upon her as I was, it wasn't until I instinctively slipped each of my legs beneath another strip of leather that ran down her sides that I realized what was going on: I was a dragon-rider! Despite being exposed atop her back instead of safely in that leather pouch she had carried me in before, I felt magnitudes more comfortable. The position and view reminded me of riding a horse, exactly where a knight should be in ceremony or where he would want to be in battle.
  2235.  
  2236. "If you so much as utter anything about a horse, I'll toss you while we're airborne." I could not reply without giggling like a fool, so I just kept my mouth shut. Still, she could see shudder as I barely held it in. "Fine then, out with it. What's so funny?"
  2237.  
  2238. "I was only thinking that strictly speaking, this is not the first time I've ridden a dragon."
  2239.  
  2240. She turned away to hide the beginnings of a smile. "A knight should not be so crass."
  2241.  
  2242. "You thought it funny as well!"
  2243.  
  2244. "Did not."
  2245.  
  2246. "I am literally sitting on you! I can feel you shake with every laugh!"
  2247.  
  2248. She flapped her wings high and hard a few times, knocking me this way and that as I kept laughing, making sure nothing on my belt was knocked loose by her playful abuse. The two of us having our fun, the clear blue sky above, the endless expanse of wild beyond the mountain's base just begging to be explored -- it felt like this was how things were meant to be. For a moment our troubles seemed distant and inconsequential, and all life had in store for us was each other and the world and all its promise.
  2249.  
  2250. But I knew better. We both did.
  2251.  
  2252. "Let's be on our way, Anan."
  2253.  
  2254. I pulled the makeshift reins taut, and felt my legs secure within the straps. The flight would be long; we would camp at least once or twice. Whatever time I had left in this world, I would enjoy spending it with Emmas. "Let's".
  2255.  
  2256. -
  2257.  
  2258. In the air, with a clear view of the ground below and travel unfettered by nature's obstacles, I could see just how arduous my journey had been. I saw the forests I had trekked through, the rivers forded and the streams I had waded across. I saw in all their majesty the Etrian Hills that separated Highland's wilds from her civilization. I could see the scattered villages and cottages as we got closer to the Kingdom's northernmost point, where the capital was. The broad strokes of grassland and scattered forests gave way to a patchwork of fields left fallow before the coming frost, or farmers toiling like mad to scrape up everything they could of the last harvest. Some even looked up and saw us, then ran inside to presumably bolt the doors and shutter the windows, for what good that might have done against a dragon.
  2259.  
  2260. And even this far away, I could see the grand central spire of the castle that stabbed into the sky, as if blocking our path. A moment later and the city outside of the castle walls came into view, marked by lazy fingers of smoke from chimneys and marketplace fires. The dirt paths and stone streets came into focus, as did the people who walked upon them. They were scattering indoors. It was the beginning of a panic.
  2261.  
  2262. Emmas looked back at me with a worried glance. I was thankful the sallet covered my face, for if she saw the terror in my eyes then she might have turned back in an instant for the safety of her cave. I pointed at the castle gates and signaled her to set us upon the ground as quickly as possible. If I could make it to the gate before the panicked people, I could perhaps avert the situation entirely by name and rank alone. I would have to be quick -- the castle archers were already repositioning themselves. I saw lines and lines of them flowing from the northern turrets towards the southern ones which overlooked the gate.
  2263.  
  2264. Emmas touched the ground with a hard jolt, nearly knocking me off of her back. The gate guards formed up into a shield wall and advanced at a worryingly quick pace. In my own haste, I tumbled off of Emmas' back; before I hit the ground, she broke my fall with an outstretched wing and dipped it low to unceremoniously roll me to the ground.
  2265.  
  2266. I sprang to my feet, tore off my sallet and screamed, "Halt! Stay your weapons at once!"
  2267.  
  2268. Their formation faltered, and some of them lost pace as they felt their comrades hesitate. They must have seen the insignia upon my armor, seen that my equipment could only be of Highland make. Any bit of confusion or delay served me well. "I am Sir Anan, son of Alexander and knight of Highland. Seven months ago, I was given a task by the king to slay the beast that killed livestock and people alike near the southern border. I must be allowed to make my report immediately."
  2269.  
  2270. I wasn't sure any of them heard a single word I said. In their eyes I still saw the fear, the instincts that had told them to immediately take up arms. They still held their weapons ready and their shields up, but none of them were so sure anymore on a proper course of action. They would look quickly to the man beside them, as if someone else might have a better idea of what to do when faced with an enormous dragon. Far behind us, a group of cityfolk had gathered to gawk from a safe distance. Above, I saw the first of the archers taking their positions.
  2271.  
  2272. "I said hold, archers!" I bellowed, pointing at the one or two bold enough to nock an arrow. Emmas saw them as well and kept calm, to her credit. Unsure if they'd be swayed by my authoritative voice or by Emmas' glare, I thought they might instead hesitate if I brought one of the gatekeepers closer to me. "I demand to speak to whoever is in charge."
  2273.  
  2274. "That would be me, Sir Anan," said the man closest to the middle of the shield line. He stutter-stepped forward, keeping his eyes on Emmas at all times, even while addressing me. "Captain Elias of the castle guard."
  2275.  
  2276. I folded my arms and leaned in, as if eagerly awaiting anything else he had to say. When he kept silent, I pressed him. "So? I demand you open the gate so that I may make my report."
  2277.  
  2278. "I'd be happy to, but, uh -- well, Sir Anan, I'm not sure what to -- how exactly should I..."
  2279.  
  2280. "Just open the gate and allow a knight to make his report to his king. It's that simple, Captain Elias."
  2281.  
  2282. If he had not been scared out of his mind he may have grown angry with me. I saw it flash for a moment in his eyes, how his brow quickly furrowed and his face was overtaken for only a moment by an indignant grimace. But he just swallowed, traded glances with his men behind him, and looked up again at Emmas.
  2283.  
  2284. "Right this way, Sir Anan." Honestly though -- how could anyone have said no? I know for certain there are no guidelines for dragons. And I also know that any knight tasked by royal decree is obligated to report directly to the king. Following an inspection, any persons or objects the knight brings with him must be admitted as evidence or reference. I guess I just never stopped to think that Emmas would fall under that purview. Or maybe she didn't, but none of the castle guard wished to argue, nor did I think they wished to get closer for a thorough inspection.
  2285.  
  2286. I heard the giant wheel being turned, wood groaning under stress and metal impacting metal as the locks disengaged and the huge iron bars behind the gate retracted. A seam split down the middle and grew wider and wider until fully open, and the castle was laid bare before my eyes. The wildflower gardens the previous king had planted inside the courtyard were still vibrant and well-kept, neatly trimmed to not extend past their white stone borders. A winding cobblestone path looped around each plot of flowers, then split into eight different paths around the courtyard, with the widest leading straight to the main door. Servants and groundskeepers were everywhere, busy tending to their duties. Or, they had been, before a dragon walked past the gates. Everyone quickly made themselves scarce.
  2287.  
  2288. I thought I'd be happy to see this all again. Instead the deeper we went, the deeper my stomach sank and the harder I felt it twisting into knots.
  2289.  
  2290. Our guard detail led us through the main door, which was just barely large enough for Emmas to fit through. Inside, she took great care not to bump into anything. She tucked her wings to her back as closely as possible, she stepped lightly to avoid pressing her claws too hard into the glossy red carpets that lined the hallway. Even surrounded by men with weapons, she kept herself impressively level-headed. Separated twelve-hundred hundred years from meaningful civilization, where before me her only experience with men was at the end of a sword -- she carried herself with surprising aplomb. Perhaps the mere possibility of getting out of her cave filled her with confidence.
  2291.  
  2292. When we came to the portraits of knights past and present, I knew we were close to the king. While the throne room has sometimes changed with the kings to symbolize a new perspective on the realm's problems, each time it was preceded by the hall of the kingdom's defenders. The older the knight, the closer to the throne room his portrait hung on the wall. We even passed mine, which Emmas took a moment to smile at. She was careful not to show too much of her teeth, but some of our guards still saw the flash of white in her mouth and noisily tried to gulp down their fear.
  2293.  
  2294. We reached the largest doors inside the castle at the end of the hall, ornately decorated with swaths of polished steel and silver filigrees racing up and down the cherry wood. On either side of the hall, the portraits of Sir Brandegan and Sir Foley stared disapprovingly at us. Two guards each pushed a side of the door in, and the chamber swallowed us up as we made our way in.
  2295.  
  2296. The throne room absolutely dwarfed the hallway we had been in moments before. It could have easily fit two companies of knights; Emmas would have no issue in here with her size. The entire hall was lined by huge stained glass windows depicting various moments throughout Highland's history and important religious or noble figures. Suits of armor holding swords, along with huge decorative columns stood along either side, situated between the windows, the columns lined by a single stripe of red that coiled all the way from the bottom to the top. The floor was white marble, starkly accented by the long red carpet that continued all the way up to the oaken throne, itself polished to such a fine sheen that to this day I believe it is the only piece of wood I had ever seen my reflection in. Behind it sat a library of the kingdom's laws and protocols, as well as a smattering of some of the king's favorite books and plays. From the ceiling hung brightly colored tapestries like ribbons, nearly touching the floor. On each was the familial coat of arms of renown knights.
  2297.  
  2298. "Sir Anan! My father's favorite almost-nephew, I was just told you had arrived! What--"
  2299.  
  2300. His Highness, King Morgan, was a man just about my age but with a younger face and fairer skin. There was a dash of grey in his beard that lent him the look of a much older, wiser man; in private, he was never fond of it, but the stress and responsibilities of his station had caused some unavoidable signs of premature aging. He was kind and often jovial with his subjects -- well-liked the whole realm over, just as his father was. With his knights he was equal parts stern and caring -- he used to be one after all, before his father passed -- and like a father, he wanted us to succeed at everything we did, in personal matters or those of the realm. When we might fail in the former, he was understanding and encouraging. Where we failed the latter though, he was brash and unrelenting, never at a loss for words of disappointment, or even anger in the most serious of circumstances.
  2301.  
  2302. But now, for the first time in my life since I had known him as a knight and as a king, I saw him completely dumb-founded as Emmas squeezed herself past the door to follow me in. His blank stare and slack-jawed expression continued through my bow and my greeting, and only changed slightly when Emmas bowed as well. For as silent as the whole room was, one could only have imagined that all of the air within had been sucked out.
  2303.  
  2304. "What in god's name is this?" he said, his gaze frozen on Emmas. The castle guards bowed and left us be before falling in beside the king. They defaulted to a rigid stance, as if they were there to look good in the presence of a royal guest.
  2305.  
  2306. "A dragoness, Your Majesty. May I present to you Emmas, daughter of Fharer, last of her kind and heiress apparent to the dead realm of Ariscorech." I saw him look strangely at me and silently mouth the name of the forgotten dragon kingdom, feeling it pass his lips, as if tasting something long since forgotten. He did it once, twice more and then I suddenly had his full attention despite Emmas' larger-than-life presence. He fell backwards into his throne. "If you would have my report on the task I was given..."
  2307.  
  2308. "Uh, please. Yes, I would like it very much, Sir Anan."
  2309.  
  2310. I stood straight up and took a deep breath, initially unsure of where to start. After a few moments I thought it best to simply start from the moment I set out of the castle. I told him of my initial investigation of the stolen livestock, of the bandit's bodies out near the village of Rudredge, on the edge of the wilderness. I told him of the inn I stayed at, and how the folk there spoke of a cave and a mythical beast in the Thesca Mountains.
  2311.  
  2312. I spoke candidly of my first meeting with Emmas, and of the conflict I felt within regarding my orders and the pitiful thing that had laid itself out before me, begging for death. From there I explicitly described nearly every day I had spent with her, only omitting the spells she and her kind knew and anything pertaining to the exact nature of our relationship. A lie of omission is still a lie, and to do so to my king was not easy to stomach, but I felt it necessary to protect Emmas; I was secondary to her.
  2313.  
  2314. "In short, Your Majesty -- I thought I had been sent to kill a beast, and instead I found a queen."
  2315.  
  2316. "What of the livestock," he said, captivated again by Emmas, "and the bandits?"
  2317.  
  2318. "If your highness would examine Her Majesty as I have, I think you will find it difficult to believe she had anything to do with either crime. As I mentioned in my report, she has a larder well-stocked with wild game. Moose, boar, deer, elk -- no farmer in Highland raises these animals. Further, I witnessed for myself how able a huntress she is. She would have no need to steal from others. As for the bandits, I do not believe the bodies would have remained in once piece if she had been involved. She breathes fire, her claws are nearly the size of my leg, and her teeth are sharp as daggers. Were she a violent individual, I doubt there'd be anything left of the bodies but ashes or tattered shreds. It is my belief that Her Majesty is a local legend, and unexplained disturbances would be attributed to her. Given the damage I saw, and even in the absence of obvious tracks, I am inclined to believe these crimes were committed by a large predator, such as a bear."
  2319.  
  2320. I looked at the floor to avoid His Majesty's gaze, and even still I could feel it like unbearable weight on my shoulders, beating me down into the floor until all that would remain of me would be dust and metal. His silence was unbearable, and in the absence of noise my mind raced with thoughts of doom that made my heart thunder. I wished I could whisper to Emmas, to tell her to get ready because the worst was about to happen, but to even dream of escape before he officially decreed I be executed somehow felt more cowardly than before. My head was pounding and the first beads of sweat began to coldly prick my skin.
  2321.  
  2322. "I never believed it would have been an actual dragon," he said, reverent wonder in his voice as he got up from his throne. "May I approach her?"
  2323.  
  2324. For him to make such a request of me was confusing, to the say the least. Why would he ask for permission -- for my permission? "You may ask her, Your Highness."
  2325.  
  2326. "She speaks?"
  2327.  
  2328. "Yes." I don't know what I had been thinking before answering -- if I even had thought at all. It was a simple question, yes or no, so quick to consider that my response was just automatic. From the corner of my eye I saw Emmas cast me a worried look without moving her head. "But, uh, as is customary for her people, she -- she must formally greet all who would hear her."
  2329.  
  2330. "How?"
  2331.  
  2332. "She would touch the tip of her snout to your forehead."
  2333.  
  2334. At that suggestion, Captain Elias stepped forward to whisper loudly into the king's ear. "Your Majesty, I strongly advise against such action," he hissed. "I saw this thing's teeth in the main hallway; this entire situation reeks of deception."
  2335.  
  2336. His Majesty shooed him away with a wave of his hand. "I trust Sir Anan with my life, as I trust all my knights. Should he say it is safe, then it is safe," he said, turning back to me. "It is safe, isn't it?
  2337.  
  2338. "I assure you, Your Majesty."
  2339.  
  2340. His Highness approached with a spring in his step, then turned cautious the closer he got to Emmas, as if the full picture of what he was about to do suddenly hit him. He pressed forward still, his mouth continually agape in fascination. Once close enough, Emmas leaned down, slowly so as not to alarm anyone with sudden movements, and touched her snout to His Majesty's head. He closed his eyes and exhaled deeply, perhaps feeling the same sort of erudite lucidity I had experienced when she performed this bewitchment upon me. He looked relaxed and carefree as Emmas reared her head back up, then took again to staring at her like she was a wonder of the world.
  2341.  
  2342. "Greetings, Your Majesty," he said to her. She slightly cocked her head, then aimed her muzzle at the castle guards.
  2343.  
  2344. "Why won't she speak?"
  2345.  
  2346. "All who will hear her must be greeted."
  2347.  
  2348. His Highness whipped around so quickly that his red and purple cloak flared out around him. "All of you, line up down here! Hurry, hurry -- don't give me that look, Elias, you just saw there is nothing to fear! Stand there -- yes, excellent!"
  2349.  
  2350. Emmas leaned down to greet the first guard, who grimaced and shrunk away from her as she approached. The moment she touched him, his demeanor changed almost instantly. His obvious fear was gone, replaced by a cautious sort of respect. Though still leery of her, he was noticeably less tense as he again took his place nearby the throne. All of the guards reacted this way -- even Elias. As Emmas would greet them, they would all take their place by the throne; the entire scene reminded me of children lining up for a kiss from their parents before being sent off to bed.
  2351.  
  2352. "That's everyone, then. Will Your Majesty speak now?"
  2353.  
  2354. "I will," Emmas said, much to His Highness' obvious delight; upon her utterance, it was as if his breath had been stolen straight from his lungs. Her voice was serene and graceful, sort of like before she and I had grown familiar with each other. In contrast to our king, the guards seemed uneasy over the prospect of something other than a man speaking their language. "May I say that I take issue with Sir Anan's presentation of me; though royalty by blood, I have no kingdom and no people. I do not truly consider myself a queen."
  2355.  
  2356. "Then in my court you will enjoy the benefits of nobility, even if only by blood! Good god, let me look at you -- not to be rude, I'm so sorry, but an actual dragon! My whole life I thought -- everyone thought you were only stories and myths! To know you actually exist! Look at that tail, those -- those obsidian claws and rosy scales! And you can talk! This is absolutely beyond incredible, I can scarcely believe my eyes -- may I touch you? Please?"
  2357.  
  2358. She snaked her tail up to him and he hesitantly poked it with his finger before rubbing his hand across it, smiling the whole time like a child. "Cold and smooth as glass! Imagine that!"
  2359.  
  2360. "While I am happy to be met so enthusiastically," Emmas said, pulling her tail back, "I have not come here without reason. I am in desperate need of a favor, and Sir Anan believed you may be agreeable to my request."
  2361.  
  2362. "Yes! Good heavens, yes, anything."
  2363.  
  2364. "As Sir Anan mentioned, I am the last of my kind, but I have a veritable treasure trove of historical artifacts and texts from before my people were lost. I dedicated my entire life to safeguarding it, regardless of the detriment to my mental well-being. I was perhaps wondering if I -- if I could, maybe --" She stopped. I could hear the lump in her throat, how it seemed to enlarge and threaten suffocating her. This is what we were here for. Was she afraid of the answer? Afraid of change? Might she simply be loathe to let go of twelve hundred years of her life, or is she just scared to entrust it all to someone else?
  2365.  
  2366. She swallowed hard and shook her wings, something that delighted His Majesty. "I was hoping I might be able to leave my belongings in your care. Sir Anan mentioned you were a worldly man, a man who's curiosity and ardor made him a friend to cultures far and wide. Might you wish to be a friend to all that's left of dragonkind?"
  2367.  
  2368. "Of course!" he said, throwing his hands up, smiling ear-to-ear. "A thousand times, yes! Anything at all you need, I will assist you. Do you want guards posted by the cave? Do you want it all moved here? Ah, here then -- excellent! I have enormous storerooms containing gifts from emissaries from all across the lands. Trinkets and fabrics from the east, ceremonial weapons and dresses from the southern tribes across the ocean -- anything you entrust to my care will be looked after with the utmost diligence. Your books and clothing will need to be closely watched for insects and temperature variances, meanwhile..."
  2369.  
  2370. His Majesty and Emmas became lost in the minutiae of their arrangement, animatedly talking and gesturing as they poured over every little detail, down to the last thread on the smallest dress. Emmas was as bright and cheerful as I'd ever seen her, happy to have finally found a way out of her cave, regardless of what anxious misgivings she may still harbor. Not to blame her, as I'm sure I'd be wary of parting with something I had guarded for my entire life. So what then was bothering me at this moment? Emmas was getting exactly what she wanted, the king was over the moon to meet and help a dragon...
  2371.  
  2372. My fate still hung in the balance. How selfish of me to say I was secondary to Emmas, to be so despondent when she was getting everything she wanted. In my mind I still saw the gallows, I still saw the executioner's axe. To see his Highness so exuberant, so alive and happy, all while waiting for him to wipe the smile from his face and grimly turn to me and order I be taken into custody... I was ashamed of the dread I felt for that moment, for it overrode the joy I should have felt for Emmas and her imminent freedom of that cave.
  2373.  
  2374. "If I may interrupt Your Majesties," I said, careful not address Emmas as casually as I had grown accustomed to. I steeled myself before turning my attention to my king. "I can't bear the wait any longer, Your Majesty. Please, tell me when -- if I am to be executed."
  2375.  
  2376. His expression instantly turned grim and mirthless, like he had just seen some horror show up at his door. "Heaven's sake, what on earth for?"
  2377.  
  2378. "I disobeyed my orders, given to me by royal decree. My explicitly stated task was to slay a dragon. Upon finding her, I did no such thing. In fact, I outright refused to do it."
  2379.  
  2380. "Never in a thousand years did I believe it was an actual dragon! Oh, Anan, Anan -- that order was written to let the villagers know I had done it. I tell you, every month they came to me saying a dragon did this, a dragon did that. I was so tired of it because I knew there must have been some other explanation, but I just wanted to be able to say that I had dealt with it, so they would stop bothering me. They wanted someone sent to kill an imaginary dragon, so I sent someone to kill it. Never did I think a dragon existed, and only when you walked her into my throne room did I believe even for a moment that maybe it was a dragon that did these things."
  2381.  
  2382. To say I was confused was an understatement. I had been sent on a wild chase? Tasked to an order that he himself believed would never be fulfilled?
  2383.  
  2384. I did not know if it was anger or puzzlement on my face, but he must have seen it clearly. "Sir Anan, you did not disobey any order, because the order was not given in sincerity. I'm so sorry to have deceived you -- I truly, truly am -- and I'm sorry to have deceived the village," he said, gently grasping my shoulder. "I just want you to know how utterly irritating they were. A dragon smashed my window, a dragon loosed my horses from their pasture, a dragon ate one of my hens -- come on! A dragon would have to eat fifty damn chickens at least! I have barbarians constantly probing from the north, peasants driving prices down because they harvested too much, relief going out to the coastal villages hit by the storms -- I had more important things to deal with than an imaginary dragon that would steal a single chicken."
  2385.  
  2386. "So...I won't be executed?"
  2387.  
  2388. "Absolutely not! Just as a knight should be celebrated for slaying the realms enemies, he should also be celebrated for extending the hand of friendship in the realm's name! God, it pains me to even think that you had the opportunity to slay her. I simply cannot express how glad I am to know dragons are real!"
  2389.  
  2390. Maybe that's what was bothering me this entire time. Separate from the thoughts of ignoble death was the realization that His Majesty was taking this all comfortably in stride. A Beast formerly confined only to legend walks right into his throne room; he showed very little fear, no compunction to envelop himself in the protection of his guards or reinforce them with knights. In fact, everything had given way to child-like wonder. Like he had known, had wished all this time...
  2391.  
  2392. "Your Majesty, I feel like I must say this: you're taking this all quite well. You believe everything I've said? You trust Her Majesty implicitly, even when faced with the fact that she has slain before, even if in self defense?"
  2393.  
  2394. At this he instructed his guards to return to their posts; they obeyed, of course -- even Elias, who still wore a sour look as he passed by us and closed the door as he left. The moment they were all gone, His Majesty darted up to the library behind the throne and pulled a single book from its shelves, bound in gnarled black leather and held together by what looked like an old thin rope greened by mildew. The pages were as yellow as the sun, and the care His Highness took with handling them spoke to their possible destruction at even the slightest touch.
  2395.  
  2396. "This book," he said, "has been passed down in my family for generations. Farther back than anybody knows -- the date on the first page has long since faded. It was given to my uncle by his father, who got it from his father and so on, so forth. My uncle failed to produce an heir, and when I was a young boy he decided to give the book to me. I always thought it was fiction, or the ramblings of a daft man confused about reality, but there was always something in me I couldn't pin down that heard the faintest ring of truth to the words."
  2397.  
  2398. Emmas craned her neck down to peer over our shoulders as he delicately turned the pages. The few pages still legible described a land called arid, scorched earth, after a great atrocity committed there by three realms.
  2399.  
  2400. "That's what they called it," Emmas whispered, "after they burnt it to the ground. Ariscorech was turned into arid, scorched earth."
  2401.  
  2402. The author lamented the decision of his king, and those of the other kings to erase the dragons from the world. Pages and pages dedicated to praising them, from their arts and crafts to their friendly demeanor and graceful soaring dances. He described the land before it was razed to ash, trying to recall the beauty before all he could remember was flames. A land of verdant hills and clear streams, lush forests filled with game. There was even a page dedicated to a list of dragons that author had personally known as a child. There was one with green scales called Trimir; a golden one named Eskas, fairer than all her friends; even one with scales as blue as the sky, named Kobolo. Absent was any mention of war-form or plain-form, nor was their a single mention to be seen of any magic, and the final page had on it a description of a dragon he was tracking that had been wounded by five spears as it had tried to take livestock. But below that, still just legible under the right light, was the author's name: Sir Emile, Son of Theodore.
  2403.  
  2404. If Emmas could have gone pale, I figured she just may have. I know I did.
  2405.  
  2406. "Your Majesty," she said slowly, still searching for the right words, "I believe I may have quite the story for you."
  2407.  
  2408. "Later, please!" He said, smiling, as he placed the book back on the shelf. He bounded past us and made for the door, motioning for us to follow. "I'll have the kitchen prepare a feast immediately. You can tell me as many stories as you like while we're sitting for dinner! And you, Anan! A model knight, all around. I'll have your family's coat of arms hanging behind my throne -- hell, you'll have your own company for making a friend like this for Highland!"
  2409.  
  2410. "If I might ask something more of you, Your Majesty," said Emmas. He stopped in his tracks and spun around, eager to hear whatever else she had to say. "Sir Anan was, and continues to be instrumental to my well-being and my education regarding the world at large, and it is difficult to imagine being apart from him after all he has done for me. Would you grace me with his continued presence? I beg you, give him to me as Highland's diplomatic attachment to what's left of Ariscorech."
  2411.  
  2412. "Oh, yes, that -- absolutely brilliant, I love it. What say you, Sir Anan?"
  2413.  
  2414. They both looked at me. A life spent away from Highland, traveling about on the war-form wing, passing the nights in the wild as the crickets sang and the stars and moon glowed above. How could I possibly respond?
  2415.  
  2416. "As Her Majesty wishes, and by your permission."
  2417.  
  2418. "Goodness, a knight-emissary -- you'll be the first of your kind, Anan. This is a little informal, but I promise we'll do it properly tomorrow morning," he said, grabbing a sword from one of the nearby armor suits. Knowing what was coming, I bowed my head and fell to one knee. I heard the sword tap against my right pauldron before he spoke. "Sir Anan, son of Alexander, I dub thee Knight-Emissary of Highland, loyal servant to both my throne and to the throne of Ariscorech. May you always hold our realm in highest regard, but Her Majesty Lady Emmas is your ward now. I release you from your duties to Highland and bid you to do as the throne of Ariscorech wishes for as long Her Majesty requires, and for as long as your new duties do not betray the interests of Highland. So it is decreed by I, King Morgan the Second."
  2419.  
  2420. I thought I heard my heart beating louder than ever before. Then I realized it was Emmas'. I wondered if the king could hear it as plainly as I did. "So it will be," I said.
  2421.  
  2422. -Chapter 16: Epilogue-
  2423.  
  2424. It had taken Emmas the better part of a month. She would fly back and forth between her cave and Highland's castle nearly non-stop, delivering shipment after shipment of Ariscorech's belongings to the king's care. In addition to her large pouch that she had once carried me in, she had used her paws, or even her tail to carry everything. For particularly bulky items, she would sometimes lash them to her back using rope or leather straps. If there was something especially fragile -- a book in rough shape, or an important dress that she did not want to be torn at the bottom of the bag -- she would have me hold onto it as I rode on her back, sat between and just ahead of her wings like before.
  2425.  
  2426. My king had offered his assistance, but she was reluctant to let anything travel by ground, where it may have been in reach of bandits. It all must have been a labor of love for her, anyway. Regardless of whatever sorrow guarding these items may have caused her, they were still the only connections she had to dragonkind. To that end, she treated them with the same reverence and respect she had been giving them since she he had been a child. She wasn't exactly glad to be rid of it all -- happy to leave the cave, sure -- but as she once said, they were the things she had devoted her life to. To have it all suddenly gone, to feel that great weight of responsibility lifted from her shoulders but by someone she had only just met? I could not begin to imagine the storm of thoughts in her mind.
  2427.  
  2428. "That was the last of it," Emmas said as she came out of the cave's darkness. Her new breastplate gleamed brilliantly in the afternoon's bright sun. She had graciously bestowed her collection of handmade swords unto the king and in return asked that the royal blacksmiths help to reforge and refashion her father's armor into something that would fit her. For as new as the armor looked, it still bore Fharer's favorite poem upon the left breast. How fitting it was for her to actually wear that poem now.
  2429.  
  2430. "Even the books?" I said with a little laugh, recalling how protective of them she had been during my first few nights here.
  2431.  
  2432. "Even the books. All the scribes and historians who will look at them unwittingly know Drachaeic now, so they'll be able to copy it all into English. What about you? You mentioned wanting to speak to your king one last time before we left. Did you get that sorted out?"
  2433.  
  2434. "Oh, yes. I asked him if he would split the pay I would have accrued during my time with you between Sirs Waryn and Dullowin, seeing as I needlessly sent them all the way to Norderlund."
  2435.  
  2436. "How thoughtful of you," Emmas said, still gazing longingly into the darkness of her former home. She sighed wistfully, and for a moment her wings sagged almost to the ground.
  2437.  
  2438. "The cave's empty then?"
  2439.  
  2440. "Not completely."
  2441.  
  2442. "The tombs," I guessed. She nodded. "What will happen to them?"
  2443.  
  2444. She picked me up and placed me behind her. "Keep your distance," she said. It almost looked as if she wore a frown, and from deep within her I could clearly hear a rushing, roaring sound that I had never heard before. A moment later and she split her jaws as wide open as possible, and a focused stream of flame shot forth, straight as an arrow. She kept her fire trained on the rock and soil above the cave entrance until it glowed orange, then red, then turned white-hot and began to flow like honey as it melted. Impressively, her flame kept going for what seemed like minutes, and before long the entire entrance was filled with rapidly-cooling molten rock. Just like that, she had put an end to a chapter of her life that had gone on for far, far too long.
  2445.  
  2446. "Not even Sir Emile will be moved?" I said as I vainly attempted to wave away the hot air all around me.
  2447.  
  2448. "King Morgan was not immediately convinced Sir Emile was a distant uncle. The book could have been taken by one of his murderers. There's just no way of knowing, unfortunately. As for the rest of them, neither of us were quite comfortable disturbing the knights' final slumber."
  2449.  
  2450. I had not thought of that. I've seen men take trinkets from bodies and pass them down to their children as some sort of heirloom -- the blade of an enemy or a piece of armor -- but who would take something as personal as a journal? Or what if whoever had taken the journal had given it to his wife upon return? Questions that surely could not be answered now, so no use in fretting over them.
  2451.  
  2452. "You're satisfied to leave your parents here?" I said, in as placid a tone as I could. I did not wish for her to think I was judging her for her decision.
  2453.  
  2454. "Not even I could move those tombs any distance," she said, looking back into the cave. "Besides, I think it sort of fitting they should stay. I've lived with them my entire life. When it's a child's time to strike out on her own, she leaves her parents behind. I'll always have them in my heart, but as you say -- Father never meant for me to stay here."
  2455.  
  2456. I gazed at her in a dreamy sort of way. When she noticed, she recoiled her neck and looked funnily at me. "What?"
  2457.  
  2458. "I was just thinking of when we first met. Eager to die, atrophying amongst your belongings, dragging your belly across the ground as you walked -- and now? You're wearing a breastplate made from your father's armor, you've entrusted all the contents of your cave to a man, you hold yourself high and move with grace and purpose. Sometimes it's difficult to believe you're the same dragon I met so long ago."
  2459.  
  2460. "In many ways, I'm not. I have you to thank for that -- no, I mean it, Anan. If not for your even temper and your propensity to think even upon your orders, my head would likely be hanging above your king's throne." She straightened up and pricked her ears, as if suddenly realizing something. "I nearly forgot in all the excitement, but I have something for you. I had finished it just before that night we had laid together, but then we had that disagreement..."
  2461.  
  2462. She thrust her tail into the pouch hanging from her side, delicately feeling around until, with giddy realization, finally seizing upon whatever it was she was looking for. From that pouch she procured a radiantly-shined sallet, and she placed it into my hesitant hands. It was so clean, so absolutely immaculate that I was honestly loathe to touch it. A gold trim ran along the edges of the bevor, and the hinged visor had three slits compared to my current sallet's one, which gave a much greater field of view. Another gold trim bordered the visor and looped around both hinges, from where thin branches of silver stretched out across the top and around the back of the helmet before meeting in the middle. Despite my fear of dirtying it, I felt some odd impulse to run my fingers across it all, as though to make sure it was real. The silver filigrees were raised, giving it all a level of depth and detail I'd never known before in a piece of armor. Even the inside had been bestowed with luxury I had never fathomed -- she had lined portions of the inside with a thin layer of velvet for comfort.
  2463.  
  2464. "For you, in case it's not clear enough," she said with a laugh. "Remember when you saw me carrying all those rocks? This is what it was for. I had to start over several times; I'm not comfortable smithing in plain-form, and working on something so small while in war-form was a challenge all its own."
  2465.  
  2466. "It -- I cannot -- how am I supposed to wear this? This sort of thing should be on display!"
  2467.  
  2468. She used her tail to take my old sallet from my slackened grip, as I was still too enamored by her work to notice much of anything, and placed it in her pouch. "There. Now you have to wear it."
  2469.  
  2470. I slipped it over my head, feeling it fit snugly in all the right spots while the liner kept it from rubbing uncomfortably against the places that had the most friction. It was, beyond any doubt, the best-fit helm I had ever worn. And I could not recall her taking any measurements, would would have meant she sized me up entirely by eye, which was impressive on its own.
  2471.  
  2472. "I don't know how I could ever say thanks enough, Emmas."
  2473.  
  2474. A crooked grin crept across her face, but she rolled her eyes to shyly look the other way. "I have an idea or two."
  2475.  
  2476. "Ideas that could wait until we camp for the night?" I asked, knowing full well what she was getting at. Not that I would ever disagree.
  2477.  
  2478. "Maybe. Speaking of which, where to?"
  2479.  
  2480. "Wherever you wish. Westward lies a vast ocean, with unconfirmed stories of lands beyond that. Go south from here and we'll find ourselves in the arid tribal lands after a few months, as the crow flies. In the east, we'll find the Korripin Mountains, endlessly threaded by rivers and streams that flow into and out of one another. Beyond that -- you remember the story I told you? About that man who could punch through armor?"
  2481.  
  2482. "I do! His people are out that way?"
  2483.  
  2484. "Yes. Shin -- Shen? Heaven's sake, I'm going to butcher this -- that place translates as God's Kingdom, or, um, Shin-dee Day Wango?"
  2485.  
  2486. "I don't even know that language and I can tell you've butchered it."
  2487.  
  2488. "Well, I'm clearly not a native speaker," I sneered. "But there you have it. West, south, or east. Take your pick."
  2489.  
  2490. She thought for a moment, turning her head in each direction as if she could already see each destination. Her wings flapped once, then again, as if to feel the winds crisscrossing through the air this high up on the mountain. She lifted me with her tail and sat me in my usual spot, my feet secured beneath her armor's harness and my hands holding a loose strap as if it were a rein. I felt the muscles in her body bulge as they tensed, as she prepared to spring up and catch the winds to glide. Based on our orientation to the sun, I felt I knew where we were headed.
  2491.  
  2492. "East it is, then."
  2493.  
  2494. "Come, Anan," Emmas said, heaving her body off the ground. I held my breath and gripped the reins more tightly. "Let's go exploring."
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