I woke to the sound of someone attempting to sneak up on me. I stifled a sigh. Knights - never as stealthy as they think. Pro tip - if you want to sneak up on someone, try leaving some of that metal behind.
Keeping my eyes slitted, I waited until my unwelcome intruder was halfway across my bed-cavern then lashed out with my tail, causing my would-be assailant to emit a surprisingly feminine grunt and also to go careening in the direction of the melted smooth tunnel that leads down to the Eternal Icy Wastes that lie to the north of my lair. Her swiftly fading yell assured me that I had, indeed, hit the jackpot.
There. Even if she survived - something I gave moderately good odds to - there was no way she was climbing back up here without serious (and loud) climbing equipment and if she elected to opt otherwise, it should take her a while to navigate back around the mountains to somewhere more temperate.
* * * * *
It was a couple of days later, when I was returning from the village with a dozen head of cattle, that I next saw her. I was in human form, of course - the dumb animals didn’t tend to respond well to seeing me in my draconic glory and the cattle didn’t like it much either - and she leapt out at me, sword extended. This was one of the reasons I really hated wearing my human skin on occasion - not only did I not have size, strength and armoured scales on my side, but as a dragon I would have smelled her coming and my hearing wasn’t exactly bad either. Still a decent set of eyes wasn’t a bad trade in some circumstances and I made best use of this form’s spindly limbs to jink behind the nearest cow and put it between myself and the intruder.
“Halt,” she said, ever so serious. She had dark hair, shorn short. Tall, nice physique, if you liked that sort of thing. Which, admittedly, I did. Not that it mattered in our current circumstances - I was far more concerned with not getting stabbed. It would hurt. “Is this your village’s tribute to the ravaging dragon who lairs above?”
“Is that what they’re saying nowadays?” I asked, a little annoyed despite myself. I paid good money to make sure enough cattle were imported to satisfy my appetite. It wasn’t as though the farmers from one small village would have enough, even if I had been the ravaging type.
The knight paused, looking a little confused. “Well… why else would you taking these up there if it wasn’t some kind of price the monster demands?” she asked, gesturing at the cattle.
Oh, goodie. The knight just had a bad case of assumptions. I wouldn’t have to go have words with them later. I have enough problems with so called heroes without the locals egging them on.
I raised an eyebrow haughtily. “Because your so-called monster bought them?”
“Oh,” she said and blinked. “And I suppose you’re not a virgin sacrifice.”
I couldn’t help it - I snorted. “I’m somewhat past eligibility for that particular honour. Besides, she doesn’t eat humans - claims they’re far too tough.”
She scowled. “That’s a lie - the beast ate the Princess Verity.”
Oh, I could not believe she handed me a line like that. And… and she probably wouldn’t appreciate it if I broke into some loud cackling. It would be undignified too. “Why don’t you take that up with her?” I asked, somehow managing to keep a straight face.
“Exactly what I was planning,” she said tightly. “Allow me to take your offering up the mountain. I insist,” she added fingering that sword of hers.
I backed away, raising my hands. “Be my guest,” I said, almost wishing her luck. Getting the stupid things all the way up to my cave was never exactly the highlight of my week. Though I was going to be most displeased if she was planning on the ‘smart’ plan of drugging me through my food. I might actually have to break my no-human diet.
Anyway, time to retire up the mountain before my uninvited guest arrived.
“You’re not the usual delivery person” I observed as she and the cattle wearily filed into the cavern entrance. Good time, I couldn’t help but notice. Certainly better than any *I* had ever managed.
Oh, but flying is *definitely* my favourite way to mountain climb.
“She fell ill,” the knight smoothly replied. “I was sent instead.”
Honestly, I was quite impressed by her disguise. Not that my eyesight was good enough to judge the look of it in this form, but I could barely smell the sword oil and other anomalous scents - if I hadn’t known what to keep a nostril out for, I might well have missed it.
“Look,” I rumbled. “Could we skip the part where you put your cunning plan to kill me into action and go right to the part where we talk like civilised beings with a minimum of maiming and bloodshed?”
She had good reflexes, I had to admit that. She managed to whip out her sword from where she had stowed it beneath a cow and had it between us almost before I could blink.
“Oh boy,” I sighed. But she didn’t immediately leap to attack.
“I am here to hold you to account for kidnapping and eating Princess Verity,” she said steadfastly.
I gave her the hairy eyeball. “That was years ago. Why exactly did you get that bright idea right now?” I swore that this if this was the end result of a romantic tale spun by some bard, I was going to drop her back down to the Icy Wastes and block the nearest five passes to give her enough time to cool off.
She laughed harshly. “You really think a father would forget his daughter’s murder after a few short years?”
“So King Henry charged you with this quest? Personally?” Because, if so, I was going to be quite annoyed.
She nodded. “I won his yearly tournament.” I winced internally a little. Henry wasn’t exactly fond of women who were too competent at fighting. “As a reward he offered me a title and lands if I slew the beast who killed his daughter.”
I love the draconic shape. It is a form of glory and terror. That being said, there are definitely drawbacks. For instance, such as when you really feel the need for a good face-palm.
“Verity isn’t dead,” I said.
The sword wavered slightly in her hand. “What?”
“I said Verity isn’t dead. Is your hearing really that bad? I don’t exactly have a gentle voice.”
Her face wrinkled in what might be irritation. “I heard you just fine.” Definitely irritation. “I meant, what do you mean Verity isn’t dead?”
“It’s quite simple. Verity didn’t exactly want to follow her parents’ plans for her life.” Verity had wanted to conquer a kingdom with sword and flame rather than inherit one, and last I heard had made fairly good inroads on that goal. “I… expedited the process.”
“Helped her escape from her father’s castle and then put it around that I had eaten her.”
“Out of the goodness of your heart?” the knight asked sardonically.
“Well, she did manage to liberate some of her father’s treasury before she left and she has sent me some nice gifts since, but…” I gave a draconic shrug. I’m not sure it translated very well. “I do count it towards my pile of good deeds.”
“Even assuming I buy this, you have to see why I was sent here to kill you. If the king thinks you ate his daughter…”
I snorted rudely. “I can’t imagine he does. Given that he ‘slew’ me twenty years ago to win the hand of his bride.” Also I was fairly sure that Verity had sent word back since. Also some of the heads of her enemies, for decorative purposes.
There were times I really missed Verity.
“Hang on a minute,” she said, holding up a hand. “The dragon King Henry slew to prove his devotion and valour to Queen Isabel was *you*?”
I nodded. Only a little smugly.
“When a princess wants to marry someone who her parents don’t quite approve of, she gets word to me. I stage a dramatic kidnapping, whisk her off to my cave and defeat all challengers until the right suitor arrives, stage an equally dramatic death, exit stage left a little richer for my work. It’s a time honoured tradition.” Okay, it’s a time honoured tradition I started, but who’s counting?
“Huh. If this is all true, why would the King send me to slay you?”
“Best guess - he wanted to get you killed. You’re female and you won the tournament. Though I imagine he’s still holding a grudge about Verity making her own life decisions. I doubt he’d cry if you somehow managed to finish me off.”
She lowered her sword. Still kept it out, I noted. Maybe she believed me. Maybe she was just trying to lull me into a false sense of security. “Huh. So what do you suggest we do now?”
“Weeeeeeeell, I am somewhat peeved about Henry using me in this fashion. So what would you say to a good old fashioned dragon-slaying?”
I could sense the scepticism radiating from her. “And by that you mean…”
“We put on a show. I wheel around dramatically a few times at dusk, spraying fire visible from the village. I pin-wheel down, silhouetted against the blood red sunset and make a grand landing. After a hard fought battle, I retreat into my cave. When you pursue me, the renewed battle sets off a cave-in and my bloody body is buried by rocks, sadly unrecoverable.”
“A lot of battles against dragons seem to end that way.”
“I know,” I said smugly. “I’ve made it a classic.”
She face-palms. “I can’t believe that I’ve fallen into a centuries old reptilian scam. I can’t believe that I’m considering *buying into* a centuries old reptilian scam.”
“Draconic, please. And why wouldn’t you want to add your name to the list of legendary heroes?”
She pulled her sword belt and scabbard out from under her trojan cow, tied it around her waist and sheathed her sword, which I could only view as a good sign. “Honestly, it just doesn’t feel right.”
“So, no epic dragon fight?”
“No epic dragon fight,” she confirmed. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got a long trek back,” she said, and turned away.
“Huh. An honest knight,” I muttered to myself. “An actual honest knight. I haven’t met one of those in… well, decades.”
“Maybe you should consider the kind of people you tend to associate with,” she tossed over one shoulder.
“Wait!” I said. “Wait wait wait wait wait! You’ve got nothing to go back to, right? At best Henry is going to say that you’ve failed him, and force you to a minor position you’ll never get promoted from. At worst, he’ll banish you or even have you killed for breaking your word to him.”
“I know,” she said and kept walking.
I skittered after her. “I have… not insignificant mercantile concerns,” read: I run the merchant guilds for seven kingdoms. Hey, a girl had to *something* with the accumulated treasure of several centuries, “And, as such, there is always a need for decent fighters. Bandits to put down, caravans to escort through brushfires, that sort of thing.”
“I would have thought you would have been more than capable of settling those kind of problems yourself,” she said dryly, but at least she’d stopped moving away.
“Firstly, there’s only one of me, no matter how fabulous I am. Secondly, well, if a ravaging monster started making sure that trade flowed smoothly…” I trailed off.
“People might start smelling a rat. A big fat scaly flying rat.”
“I wouldn’t have put it quite like that,” I said, a little huffily.
“So you want me to, what, sign up to be a caravan guard?”
“Not quite. I have shared interests and hence a certain amount of influence with the Knights of the Crossroads. I could certainly put in a good word for you with them.” I didn’t actually run them, sadly. I was still kicking myself about backing the wrong side in the War of Thirty Towers. But influence, yes, that I had managed to claw back. Mostly figuratively.
She turned around to face me. “The Knights of the Crossroads? Really?”
She did something with her mouth. “I gave my word to King Henry to undertake this quest. I’ll report back to him and then… Then I’ll see.”
“As you wish,” I said, investing my words with all the scepticism I could muster. “Just in case you decide to accept my offer - what’s your name?”
She did something else with her mouth. “Bridget of Millerstead. My name’s Bridget of Millerstead." Her tone made it sound like she was smiling.
“Best of luck, Bridget.”
* * * * *
“So,” I said, peering into the dimness of the cell. “How’s the whole ‘keeping your word’ thing working out for you?”
Bridget looked up at me from where she was sat against the wall. “Did the dragon send you?” she asked.
“Something about the blithe perkiness of your manner. If I go to work for her, am I going to take lessons in that or something?”
“It’s purely optional,” I told her. “But I highly recommend it.”
She stared at me with an air of disbelief. “So, are you here for something in particular, or were you just planning to annoy me?”
“Does it just have to be one?” I asked philosophically and was glared at for my trouble. “Fine,” I said, producing a key. “Want to get out of here or are you planning on sticking out your sentence?”
She got to her feet. “King Henry did dismiss me from his service for failing to slay the dragon.”
“Good,” I turned the key in the lock and opened the cell door. “Here, you’ll need to wear this,” I said, throwing her some servant’s clothes.
“Thanks,” she says, stripping off her rags and pulling the clothes on. “What happened to the guards, by the way?”
“Oh, they’ve been bribed. Henry really needs to start paying his jailers better.”
“Good. I wouldn’t have wanted anything to happen to them.”
“I was told that you were honourable to a fault.”
“Not that honourable. I am escaping from prison after all.”
I gave her a half smile. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“So, after this you’ll be getting me to the Knights of the Crossroads?”
I hesitated. “Actually… I was hoping to go into this later, but given the expense her trouble her royal scaliness went to in order to get you free…” For one, attending to said prison break personally. Though, really, that was more the pleasure of tweaking a king’s whiskers personally.
“She wants something from me,” Bridget said resignedly.
“Oh, you *are* sharp,” I said, patting her cheek. “I’m going to enjoy working with you.”
Bridget groaned. “Fine,” she said then followed me out of the dungeon.
Oh, I love getting my way.
* * * * *
“Hold,” Bridget murmured whilst peering through the slit in the shutter. I didn’t know how much she’d actually be able to see in the darkness outside. “Hold.”
Personally I was huddling in the corner. As unafraid of fights as I was in my draconic form, I was all too aware of how vulnerable my pink soft skin was like this. Why was I here? Well, partially to see how Bridget actually performed under stress. Partially, it has to be said, because I just enjoy getting my hands dirty every now and again.
We are all slaves to our natures, after all.
“Hold,” Bridget said again. By now even the humans in the room could surely hear the clink of approaching metal.
We were holed up in Kilcastra, a currently independent village in the Free Marches. Nothing particularly special, in my opinion, though doubtless the inhabitants would disagree.
Humans. They always have such a limited view of things. I couldn’t really blame them, though. Such short lives and so very fixed to the ground.
Still, they had their good points.
“Fire!” she yelled and all the villagers in this huts and others flung open the shutters and let fly with arrows from what bows they had. There were screams and yells from the men outside, followed by the sound of approaching feet.
The battle for the village was on.
Bridget whipped the door open and led with her sword. From the resulting grunt at least person outside didn’t appreciate her approach.
“To me!” she yelled and moved outside with purpose.
I followed her out more cautiously.
The battle for the village was, quite frankly, a mess. The invading soldiers hadn’t expected resistance, so the flurry of arrows had caused their formation to fracture. Good news - they were now in clumps of two or three. Bad news - they were still much better at fighting than the farmers that were surrounding them.
Bridget was busy evening the odds, her sword parrying blows and slipping past guards almost as quickly as lightning. I had surmised that she was good. I hadn’t quite realised that she was *this* good.
I, for my part, helped out as best I could. Not getting into the bloody mess of melee combat, of course. I had far too much respect for my wellbeing for that. But I knew more about alchemicals than most alchemy guilds and I was a fairly dab hand at throwing vials in this form. And, let’s face it, choking, gasping and having their eyes tear up did a lot to even the odds between the trained fighters and the villagers. One soldier stumbled his way in my direction, but I dispatched him with a swift dagger to the ribs.
Within a few minutes, the soldiers that were capable of it were running. Those who couldn’t found no mercy. Life in the Free Marches didn’t come with much appreciation for giving second chances.
The headman of the village came over to Bridget. “Thank you so much for saving the village,” he said and hugged her.
“It was my pleasure,” Bridget said a little stiffly and had a flagon of beer pressed into her hand by the grateful man.
In all honesty, saving the village was probably a little inaccurate. It wasn’t as though the soldiers were planning on killing everyone in the village after all. Killing the headman and anyone else who showed defiance, sure. But with this defeat the local lord - for which read ‘thug with enough soldiers to subdue the land around them’ - wouldn’t try and reach out this far again for a while.
Which was just as well, given that was the point of the exercise. I had no intention of letting anyone unite the Free Marches unless I had a good grip on them, and certainly no intention of letting this thug control the trade route that ran through this village. *My* trade route. Thankfully, he was barely keeping onto his current lands as it was, and he’d needed the extra money that controlling this village would have granted him to solidify his reign. And that was before tonight’s losses.
All in all, not a bad few days work. Granted, the whole thing would have been a lot easier if, say, I could have gotten the Knights of the Crossroads to handle it, but, alas, the politics of the Free Marches made it impossible.
“Is this what this is going to be like?” Bridget asked later, wrapped up in a blanket and softened by the ensuing celebration and the additional drinks that she’d been plied with. “Is this the kind of thing she’s going to want me to do?”
I looked over at her. She really was quite good looking for a human. “Some of it,” I said.
“It’s not so bad,” she said. “It’s not so bad at all.”
I reached over to her, touched the side of her face with my hand. “And neither are you.”
Her eyes sharpened. “I’m still not sure I like you. Or trust you. Let alone her who you work for.”
I smiled crookedly. “I’m hurt. After everything we’ve done for you.”
She gave me sceptical look. “For your own reasons.”
“For our own reasons,” I agreed. “Still, does that matter for just one night?”
She paused, studying me. “Okay,” she said. “Just one night.”
“So glad we could come to an agreement,” I whispered and moved over to her.
* * * * *
“There you are,” I said to Bridget as I led her into the courtyard. “A military unit, especially for you.”
“Mercenaries,” Bridget said, like it was a curse word.
“I tried my best to hire people who would be up to your exacting standards,” I said lightly. “Free free to get rid of anyone you don’t approve of, as long as you complete your assigned objectives.”
“And what will those objectives be?”
“So distrustful,” I sighed, then quirked my lips at her. “I thought you would have learned by now. She is aware of your particular moral constraints and there are plenty of tasks that could be to her benefit in this world, so why would she waste you on orders that you might well refuse to do?”
“It’s that simple?”
I flashed her a sunny smile. “Honestly, a lot of people seem to delight in making life more complicated than it has to be.”
“Speaking of which, this is all looking a little more permanent than I was expecting. Wasn’t she going to be getting me a place in the Knights of the Crossroads?”
“Maybe she’s decided that she wants you all to herself.” I let my smile turn mischievous. “Maybe *I* want you all to myself.” I saw her start to balk, but continued smoothly over her objections. “More appositely, the Knights aren’t anywhere near as squeaky clean as they’d like you to believe. Just like any human lord. Just like her,” I added before she had a chance to. “The difference being that the Knights are far more likely to give you orders that will bruise your precious conscience, I assure you, and be far less understanding if you disobey.”
“This all seems a little too good to be true.”
“Well, it’s not as though you’ll get any honour among humans for being in her service. You impressed me - and by extension her - with how well you organised the inhabitants of the village. And,” I preened a little, “I might have had something to do with your favourable terms.”
Her body language softened. “You, huh? Are you really that important to her?”
I smirked a little. “*I* certainly like to think so.”
“So will you be riding with us to the Merdowns?”
I made a moue of discontent. “Sadly, no.” I smiled. “But I’m sure we’ll meet again.”
* * * * *
“I need more men, more resources,” Bridget said, pacing in frustration.
“You’ve achieved your objective,” I rumbled down at her. “Congratulations! Now is the time we get your arse out of there.”
“You mean I smuggled the people who could afford to pay to somewhere safe before the armies burned the land down.”
“You’ve saved people! Doesn’t that give you a warm glowing feeling inside?”
“People are dying in the Merdowns as we speak. Innocent people!”
“Humans are dying *everywhere* as we speak. Some for even more ridiculous reasons than disagreements about what some other human said a few centuries ago. We can’t save them all and, frankly, I’m not minded to try. We’ve saved who we could and I’m richer for it. Doing anything more,” I said, then affected a deliberately airy tone and made the best disgusted face I could in my draconic form, “Is the kind of reasoning that leads to dragons of any age being so rare on the ground.”
“That and your kind’s tendency to eat humans,” she said then made a scrunched up face, which I loftily ignored.
“Greatly exaggerated and, honestly, humans seem to get more riled up at the amount of cattle we eat without paying for them.”
“Stop trying to distract me,” she muttered. “So that’s your final answer? You’re not going to do a thing?”
I brought my head down so it was almost level with hers. “I’m sorry, but no. Have some time off. Enjoy the money I’ve paid you. You look like you need it.”
“Fine,” she said then turned and walked stiffly out.
I sighed. Maybe I should have known that Bridget would get too involved with the situation in the Merdowns, but, truly, it had seemed tailor made for her. A chance to ride in as a hero, do what she could, and get out of there before things got too messy. Not that I was exaggerating about the amount of money and favours that I’d acquired for the foray, but still.
I assumed my human form and followed her out through a hidden exit to my cave. I found her huddled up outside staring down at the valley below.
“Hey,” I said. “A little birdie told me that you’d come to visit the boss.”
“I knew it would useless, trying to appeal to the better nature of a *dragon*.”
“Hey!” I interjected, feeling the need to defend my honour. “As lieges go I can’t think of many humans I’d prefer to serve.”
She spared me a glance that was both angry and bright with tears. “I’m not surprised to hear *you* say that.”
I gave her an irritated look back. “No need to take your anger out on me. I’m on your side here.”
“Are you? Are you really?”
I could just leave her to stew. I probably should. But something impelled me to stay, instead. “Why don’t you tell me what’s actually wrong, instead of lashing out at me?”
She looked back out at the valley. “The skies were black with smoke as Valledorne burned. At night the clouds were red. Where the armies passed, they didn’t leave anyone alive. Much of the time, they didn’t even burn the bodies, just left them to bloat and decay where they lay. Men. Women. Children!” she almost yelled, swallowed then continued in a whisper. “Children. Over ‘doctrinal differences’. I’ve seen battle before, but nothing like this. And I couldn’t do a damn thing. Not enough men. Not enough supplies. Not enough transport. Just… not enough.”
At some point during this, I’d found my arm circled around her. I wanted to tell her that it was nothing I hadn’t seen before. Nothing that I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to see again. Humans are so terribly good at killing other humans.
It didn’t seem enough.
“Look,” I said, swallowing past an unexpected lump in my throat. “I can’t promise anything. But maybe I could talk to the old reptile. Get her to see some sense.”
Bridget leaned into me. “Can you just hold me for a while first?”
“Sure,” I said. “I can do that.”
Oh hell. I could always build up another mercantile empire if it came down to it.
It might even be fun.
* * * * *
“I would just like to point out, for the record, that I was completely right about how much of a bad idea getting involved with this utter mess would be,” I told Bridget with a certain amount of asperity in my voice.
“We did a lot of good getting here,” she said, then winced a little and reached over to grip my arm. “Though I’m sorry that you got caught up here with me.”
I looked around at the walls of the castle that we were sheltering in and shivered. I really did not like the sensation of being trapped, even if logically I knew I could fly out of here pretty much any time I wanted. I put it down to bad experiences in my youth. “That makes two of us.”
“You should have left with that last convoy of refugees.”
I raised my eyebrows. “And leave you behind? You’d be lost without me.”
Her lips twitched. “I’m sure I’d find a way to cope.”
“Enough lies,” I said. “I guess I’d better get back to organising this place.”
“You never did tell me how you managed to convince Lord Stephen that you should take over the office of castellan from the previous holder of the office.”
“I have my ways. I’m almost upset you doubt me,” I said airily. “Besides the man was an incompetent. In addition to being a pig.”
“Regardless, I appreciate it.”
“Have fun on the walls., sweetie. Hope you don’t mind if I visit you up there later.”
She gave me a look. “Maybe we can hold out long enough that our employer will send aid.” Her voice didn’t contain much in the way of hope. I’d almost be insulted if it wasn’t for the fact that she was completely correct. I mean, I’d performed well above and beyond the call of duty. I doubted anyone could fault me, even if I’d let them.
Still, I found myself saying to her, “Maybe she’ll surprise you.”
* * * * *
It wasn’t hard to find a quiet part of the battlements. The siege had yet to start in earnest, so there were just enough guards to make absolutely certain the enemy without didn’t try anything whilst everyone else got some rest. It didn’t hurt that we were saving anything flammable for when we really needed either.
No one was looking for anyone jumping off the wall.
My form unfolded and grew wings, and I easily pulled out of the dive before I hit the ground.
And then I hunted.
First on my list was the siege machinery I’d spied being set up during the day. I had no idea how well the castle walls would hold up against it, and I didn’t care to find out. Luckily, whatever they’d been expecting, fire from a fully grown dragon apparently hadn’t been it. Then I started going after supplies, partly by remembering what I’d seen during the day, partly by using my superior sense of smell in this form.
It wasn’t that difficult as long as I took the elementary precaution to strike and fade before an organised attempt to concentrate arrow fire in my direction could be made. It helped a lot that it took them to realise what was happening in the first place.
Over two dozen pyres burned by the time I judged it wise to return to the castle. All in all, not a bad night’s work. Not nearly enough to turn back the horde but certainly a start. A quick burn forced the watchers on the wall to seek cover and gave me enough time to change form without being seen, and from there it was a short walk back to the room Bridget and I had been quartered in. It was empty when I got back there, so I settled myself in the bed and waited.
I didn’t have to wait long. Bridget entered the room, closed the door behind her and just stood there in the darkness. I couldn’t make out her expression in what light was filtering through the window, but I could feel her watching me.
“Are you actually going to come to bed?” I finally asked. “Because I doubt that staying up all night is going to help you defend the walls tomorrow.”
“I’m stupid, aren’t I?” she said tonelessly.
I felt like swallowing, but didn’t. Stupid human telltale. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“I looked for you earlier, after ‘she’ appeared and started setting fire to the enemy camp. I thought you’d want to know. But I couldn’t find you anywhere. Then ‘she’ approaches the castle and disappears in a burst of flame and you reappear.” She shuffles in the darkness. “I’ve always known that you speak like her, but…”
Before I’d gone out that night, I’d known that this was a possibility, that Bridget wasn’t stupid, that she might well figure this out. I’d thought that I had accepted that risk, but the fluttering nervousness in my stomach was telling me otherwise. “It isn’t like that,” I protested.
“It isn’t like what?” she asked bitterly. “It isn’t like you’ve been lying to me consistently about who and what you are ever since we met?”
“I’ve never lied to you!”
“Not telling me you’re a damn dragon is a lie! Do you really think I’d ever have slept with you if I’d known? Do you really think I’d have-“ she cut off and shuffled again. “It doesn’t matter. Do you really think any of this would have happened if I’d known you really were?”
Suddenly I was coldly angry. “I guess not,” I bit off as I got to my feet. “And I wouldn’t want to do anything that you weren’t comfortable with, like sleeping in the same bed as you. I guess it’s just as well that dragons like sleeping on cold, hard surfaces,” I added as I marched past her.
I’d done everything I could. Everything. But, naturally, it was never enough.
I didn’t sleep much in what was left of that night. I’d like to say it was just anger, but, sadly, although dragons may not have a problem with cold hard surfaces apparently dragons in human bodies do.
It didn’t matter. None of this mattered.
* * * * *
I wheeled high over the enemy camp, silent as a ghost and invisible against the night’s sky. Honestly, I wasn’t sure why I was still doing this. I wasn’t sure why I was still here. It wasn’t as though I was invested in this group of humans in any way beyond my relationship with Bridget and I hadn’t spoken to her in weeks, ever since that night. And it wasn’t as though I was doing much good out here anyway. The enemy had set up squads of archers, ready to shoot at me if I flew low enough then revealed my location by breathing fire. Not that any one squad would have that much chance of injuring me, but it only took some lucky shots to do enough damage to a wing to bring me down and from there it would be hard to get to safety.
I hated fighting armies in places not of my choosing. Give me some mountains and valleys that I could use rockslides and avalanches to kill people and divide forces and I was happy. Even the appropriate terrain to cause forest or grass fires would work for me just about now. But, no, I was stuck in the damp, flat Merdowns.
I released a tree that I’d managed to knock down and carry up with me and listened to the cries as it impacted a trebuchet below, interrupting the pounding on the walls. Well, at least my presence here was forcing the enemy to scatter their archers and keep them up all night to dissuade me from attacking, as well as making sure they couldn’t have too centralised a supply system lest I take it out. Again.
Still, a working dragon needed her food and a castle under siege was not exactly my best supply of that. Luckily I hadn’t forgotten how to hunt just because I’d been foresighted enough to organise my own easy supply of food for the last couple of centuries. I let myself glide downwards and away from the castle, and just let the night time scents fill my nose.
It didn’t take long for me to smell out the cattle. Doubtless more supplies for the besieging forces. I took the risk and breathed a burst of fire from high enough that it wouldn’t cause any damage - but would get the cattle to stampede - and wheeled upwards as fast as I could. A few arrows still rattled off my scales, but thankfully didn’t hit anywhere vital.
I waited a few minutes, tracking the progress of the cattle through the camp, before plunging down and breaking the back of my selected target before dragging it back up with me. A few miles further on, I dropped down and tore into my prize.
It took about four large mouthfuls before I realised my mistake, before I realised what the odd under taste to the meat meant. Dragonbane. Somehow they’d managed to find enough dragonbane to feed to all their herds, unless they’d just gotten lucky.
Not that it mattered. I cursed the draconic inability to regurgitate food. And - given the rather sizeable difference in masses - I’d probably already absorbed too much of the poison to transform back into my human form where I *could* vomit without killing myself.
I hooked my claws into the corpse and leapt upwards, dragging it with me. The burning took hold within a few minutes. The trembling took a bit longer. Then it was the turn of the blurring of the vision. Just as well it was night - I wasn’t using it that much.
I just concentrated on taking as few wing beats as I could, gliding as much as possible. Somehow I managed to make it to the castle before my strength gave out, sending me crashing into the courtyard. I lay there on the cool stone, drawing air into my lungs, letting it out, one breath at a time. The molten lead running through my veins, as slow as molasses, was the whole of my world.
It took me quite a while before I realised that someone was hitting me, beating on my scales, shouting at me. Not killing me, which at this point I was almost regretting. It smelled like… Bridget. I managed to flick open an eyelid, but I couldn’t make out a thing.
I think she was saying something about a stupid lizard.
I concentrated on moving my mouth. “Hey,” I said. I wasn’t quite sure whether I was greeting her or objecting to her description.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, and there was something wrong with her voice.
Maybe if my senses weren’t so fogged, I could tell what the problem was.
“Didn’t think you cared,” I muttered and was rewarded with a thump to an eye scale. “Poison,” I amended.
She mumbled something.
“Are you going to die?”
I bared my teeth. “I’m not dead yet, so maybe not? Not going to be flying around any time soon.”
She made a choked sound and wrapped her arms around my neck. “You idiot. What did you fly back here for?”
“…That’s a really good point. Why did I do that?” I would have been far safer finding somewhere that *wasn’t* a besieged castle. But the thought had never even occurred to me.
“I’m glad you did.”
“Thought you weren’t speaking to me.”
Even if I couldn’t see her, I somehow sensed that I was being glared at.
“Feel free to have some of the cow. Dragonbane’s harmless to humans.”
“Thanks,” she said then slumped down next to me. “I’m staying here for the rest of the night. I hope you don’t mind.”
I didn’t mind at all.
* * * * *
The thumping on the walls had become so rhythmic in the days since I’d stopped destroying siege engines that I barely noticed when it spread to the inner gate as well. It wasn’t like I could do anything but stay in the courtyard anyway. The worst of the stabbing pains had subsided, but I hadn’t had a proper meal in over two weeks.
If I changed into human form and threw myself off the walls, I could probably keep in the air for a while, but I doubted I could do much. And the thought of assuming human form had only just stopped my stomach giving an awful phantom lurch.
On the bright side, the inhabitants of the castle had taken to my presence surprisingly well. I hadn’t even heard one serious death threat. Though I guessed the presence of Bridget and her soldiers may have had something to do with that.
Bridget. I couldn’t help casting a glance down towards the pile of blankets that had become her de facto resting place. Despite the fact that she had a perfectly good bed that was undoubtedly better for her. Every time I’d pointed that out, she’d just given me a look.
If I’m being honest, I hadn’t tried that hard to get her to leave me.
“They’re almost through,” Bridget yelled from the battlements a few hours later.
I showed my teeth. “I’ve got this.”
I might be half starved and weak from the poison, but I was still a dragon.
With a splintering noise holes started to appear in the inner gate, despite the best efforts of the defenders raining hell down on them. I started to take as deep breaths as I could, letting the fire curl inside me.
They broke through.
And I unleashed the fires of hell on them.
Some of the invaders managed to stagger through, protected by wetted cloaks and the combined bodies of the comrades. Bridget and her men met them, cutting them down before they could recover and form up.
The fighting seemed to take hours.
And I breathed. And breathed.
I was going to fight for as long as I could. But barring a miracle, it wasn’t going to be enough. There were just too many of them.
Suddenly, horns sounded from outside the walls and the enemy stopped flooding through the gate.
“They’re retreating,” someone yelled from up on the walls.
Bridget wearily flicked the worst of the blood off her blade and trudged up there. “Another army’s marching up behind them,” she said. “I can’t make out the banners.” She turned back towards the courtyard. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s take this reprieve to make the best barricade we can,” she said and people hurried to carry out her command.
The rest of the day passed in an almost dreamlike fashion. For the first time in what seemed like forever, there weren’t almost constant attacks. Some people even organised an impromptu dance in the courtyard near to me. Despite the still present stench of burned human lingering from the battle. Which was making my stomach rumble.
It’d probably be bad manners to break my fast right at the moment though. Even though the dead soldiers weren’t exactly using their bodies anymore, and it wasn’t as though anyone in the castle was attached to them anyway.
Humans. Who could tell what went through their minds?
The reports from the battlements continued in, slowly.
“The new army has attacked the one encircling us.”
“The enemy have been routed.”
“The new army bears the banner of the Iron Scythe.”
Silence. People looked around as if they were unsure about whether or they’d prefer to still be under siege by the army that had been intent on exterminating them all.
And I laughed, long and loud.
“What is it, lizard?” Bridget asked in an extremely unamused tone of voice.
“Kiss me,” I rumbled as quietly as I could.
“What?” Bridget asked, staring up at me as though I had just gone insane.
It was times like this that I really missed the superior flexibility of a human face. There was simply no way to glare at her for emphasis.
I tried my best anyway.
“Kiss me,” I repeated.
She looked at me for a moment more, before leaning forward and pressing her lips to my scales.
I gave a dramatic screech and then, concentrating, assumed my human form for the first time in weeks. As I completed my transition, I stumbled as a wave of nausea hit me and caught myself by wrapping my arms around Bridget’s sturdy shoulders.
She waited for a moment, then asked, “Are you pretending to cry on me?”
“Mostly trying really hard not to throw up down your back,” I replied through gritted teeth.
“Ah,” she said. “Very good. Carry on.”
“It’s no problem, really.”
“I guess it wouldn’t make that much difference, though,” she said, thoughtfully. “I mean, there’s probably a bit there already.”
Oh yes, the messy business of killing up close and personal with bits of steel. I clenched my teeth as a new wave of nausea hit. “Thank you,” I muttered sarcastically into her shoulder after it had passed.
“It’s no problem, really,” she mimicked.
“I hate you.” I pulled myself together and stood upright. “My saviour!” I exclaimed to the crowd. “Thank you for breaking my dreadful curse with your kiss.”
She glared at me, but responded gamely. “It was my pleasure, fair lady,” she said, falling to one knee before me. “Is there any other service I can provide you with?”
“Yes,” I said, looking appropriately tragic. “I fear I must face the Iron Scythe before this matter can be done. Will you accompany me?”
“Of course,” she said, her hand going automatically to her side. There was sporadic clapping and cheering from the other people in the courtyard, probably as much because someone else would have to go and face the army outside as anything else.
“What was that?” Bridget murmured into my ear as we walked through the remnants of the gatehouse.
“Surprisingly, I’m not a big fan of people learning I can turn into a human. Together, with a little judicious bardic management, I should be able to get the right story out.” I smiled at her, all teeth. “Congratulations! You’re going to be a knight out of legend now, breaking curses with your kiss and everything. I can only imagine dear Henry will be spitting teeth when he hears.”
“And do you have a plan for dealing with the Iron Scythe? They’re not exactly known for acts of charity wherever they turn up.”
My smile widened and I tightened my grip on Bridget’s arm. “Let me introduce you to Verity. She’s going to have a blast when I explain what we’ve been up to. And I’m sure we going to just have a blast repaying the favour we owe her for pulling our irons out of the fire.”
“Is it going to be as much fun as this assignment?”
“More, I’m sure. Verity’s always been such an imaginative girl.” I tugged her along. “Come on. We have more deeds to be done.” Bridget groaned. “My hero,” I couldn’t help adding and she groaned louder then followed along behind me, towards the sea of people in front of us.