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On the eve of the day she was to slay a great god-beast and earn her place among the kingdom’s legends, Ser Anne Lister, a newly sworn knight to Lord What’s-His-Name, did what any knight would do: she flirted with women, drank her weight in the kingdom’s finest ale, and gambled away a small fortune in card games.

The lord she served was unkind, unkempt, and unimportant. He was a steward of the small cluster of villages at the base of Serpent Mountain, tucked away in the far corner of the kingdom. His territory was harsh and unforgiving, caught in a nigh eternal winter. But he had one thing that mattered: a dragon problem. A nasty one.

Anne sought him out on her own, fresh from her separation with the woman who knighted her and was her first love. Half a dozen knights of skill far better than the lord deserved vied for the position, on the grounds that they would be the one to slay the beast and prove the truth of their newly christened knighthood.

Anne won, of course. Though a knight for barely a year, she was already one of the best, revered and feared in jousting circles throughout the kingdom. She’d caught the eye of King Walker himself. He complimented her skill with a lance, and she boldly replied, “My skill with a sword is even better, your majesty.”

While the other contestants and onlookers balked, he laughed.

He said, “I doubt I’ve seen the last of you, ser. Or heard, with a wit as sharp as that. And if your claim is true, I’ll have to see it for myself someday.”

That memory fresh in her mind, Anne held her smile back as she bluffed a good hand. The table went round and round, each player raising, folding, folding, then folding again. She flipped another coin onto the pile at the center of the table, caught her final opponent’s eye, grinning wickedly, and the coward gave up the game.

As she pocketed her winnings, a gorgeous voice wove its way to her from the stage at the far end of the tavern. The minstrel sang a traditional tune, the lilt of her voice slow and building, and Anne felt her heart swell with it, breaking with joy at the crest of her crescendo.

Despite the presence of this celestial creature in the dingy tavern, no one else seemed to notice her. While Anne stood enraptured by her voice, the conversations around her swarmed and faded, following their own separate, mundane melody. She began to wonder, terrifyingly, if she was hearing things, like the call of a siren in a stormy sea, and if this musical voice might sweep her under the waves and drown her.

Anne pushed through the crowd to find the minstrel. It was easy enough. She sat at the center of a makeshift stage, tables and chairs stacked behind her to make space. Men and women alike surrounded her, engrossed in their own conversations. They parted for Anne, who paused to stare at the rim of the stage, struck with awe.

The minstrel looked as lovely as her voice sounded. Long locks of brunette hair cascaded over her shoulder and down her chest, glowing golden in the bright candlelight. Her full lips were painted a delicate, rosy pink, matching the flush on her cheeks from the warmth of the hearth behind her. She was all curves and soft, tan skin.

Her instrument was lovely as well. It was lavishly dyed planks of oiled mahogany sanded to a smooth finish, and sounded as rich and as full as the voice it accompanied. It was worth more gold than any weapon in the tavern, Anne’s newly-forged sword included.

Anne caught her eye. The minstrel grinned, strumming her lute as though she knew Anne would follow the brush and pluck of her fingers.

“Anything in particular you’d like to hear, noble knight?” she called over the buzz of conversation.

Anne longed to know what the other sounds that came from her lips were like.

“I want to hear a story about a hero,” Anne said. She’d had more than a few drinks, and the fog of them emboldened her. “I’m going to kill a dragon tomorrow, and I want to imagine how my song will sound coming from your lips.”

Though the woman smiled, her expression fell, as if from pity. “Hmm, those stories are long, my knight, and often more tragic than romantic. I would sing one to you as a more private affair, perhaps at your table, when I’m finished here?”

“Your voice is sweet, and lovely,” Anne said. She plucked a dried rose from an arrangement nearby and offered it to the minstrel. “I thank you for the songs you’ve already sung tonight. And I would be honored to have your acquaintance in any capacity.”

The minstrel took it, and tucked it behind her ear. Brushing Anne’s hand with her own, she said, “I’ll see you later then, sweet knight. I’ll be heartbroken if you forget me.”

Her lips were close enough to kiss. Anne’s mouth went dry. Her gaze lingered on the pink of them, the fullness, and her brain buzzed with the desire to take the singer’s lips in hers and leave a delicate, playful bite.

When her eyes flicked up to ask permission, the minstrel had already pulled away.

Anne kissed her hand instead. Her nails were painted a matte pink, and a ring in the shape of a dragon curled around her index finger. It was silver, except where it refracted candlelight in a shimmering rainbow. Anne recognized it as a likeness of the great, fearsome dragon littered through the tales of children’s stories.

Anne pressed her lips to the ring and whispered, “I could never.”

***

The one thing every decent storyteller does is place themselves in the thick of things. From the chaos a trained eye can spot colorful, intriguing threads to weave together into a tapestry. Unlike tangled threads, a tapestry has a narrative, a purpose, something to say. Unlike the chaos of a bustling tavern—or even the world itself, where people die randomly, untouched by the romance of destiny or the poetry of fate—a story has meaning.

Months ago, when Serpent Mountain became the home of a beast that brought irony to its name, Maria travelled there in search of a story. She arrived before the droves of knights that came in wake of the news. It was just enough time to blend into the scenery and play the part of an observer.

Stories about knights were Maria’s specialty. They stirred the air with romance, tenderness, and chivalry, embracing those things that poets, minstrels, and all artists alike desired from them. Just as a child could pick up a stick and transform themselves into a knight, Maria strummed her lute and turned a knight into a hero. Knights loved her for it, for it made their difficult lives worthwhile.

When a group of the local lord’s men arrived in the tavern accompanied by a knight fresh from squirehood, dazzling in polished armor and a matching grin, Maria knew where to focus her charm.

It was a stroke of luck that the girl sought her out. Perhaps the knight thought Maria was beautiful, or her voice was pretty, or they shared an appreciation of ancient Lidgatean folklore. She liked the ring well enough to kiss it, as tenderly as one might kiss their lover. Perhaps she knew only the children’s stories, where the dragon was a cunning, dastardly villain.

Oh, how the knight’s armor glistened! The steel looked like it had yet to see battle; no scratches, dirt, or blood scuffed its pristine polish. The newness of it only added to her arrogance.

The girl certainly saw battle. A thin white scar curled just above her left eye through the eyebrow, and her lips, cheek, and neck were marred with scratches only a day or so healed.

She looked like the heroine of a story. Dark-haired and handsome, a strapping young thing with the cockiness to take on a fully-grown dragon with less than ten men. Those arms certainly knew how to wield a sword, and those thighs could grip a horse, among other things. Epic poems and tales would no doubt be written about her, if she lived through her hunt. Maria would have granted her a knighthood on looks alone—not that she could do that sort of thing.

The rest of Maria’s performance passed quickly. Folks at the fringes of the kingdom were a more difficult audience to please; they preferred comedy over the tragedies and classics Maria knew well. She didn’t like comedies, but understood their value. People who lived hard, harsh lives struggled to derive joy from tragedy, but relished the ephemeral relief of a laugh.

Her knight sat at the end of a long table with her companions, laughing loudly and smacking her mug on the table in lieu of applause. As soon as the knight saw her, she stood from the bench and offered her her seat.

“Thank you,” Maria said with a dimpled smile, taking her hand. “And what is your name, handsome knight?”

The smirk came so easily to her. “Anne,” she replied.

A simple enough name. Those were the best for stories—anyone could fit themselves in, like pieces in a puzzle, or a soul in a vessel, and breathe their own life into the tale. Maria often changed the names in her songs to ones like these. Relief spread through her, for she hated to dissociate this lovely thing from her own tale.

Maria smiled. She smoothed the girl’s jaw with her finger. “Ser Anne…?”

“Lister.”

A name yet unsung. Excellent.

Maria purred, “Lister? I don’t recognize that one. Not quite of noble birth, I take it?”

Anne matched her smile. “No. But my family is old, and our heritage in this land is strong. I’m told that is enough to warrant knighthood without pleading to the king.”

Strong indeed. The girl was all muscle, tight sinew sewn on a field with a plow or scythe, most likely. Strength from working a farm often translated well to holding a spear or sword. One only needed to be taught the skill of swordsmanship to become a knight. Farm girls and boys made excellent protagonists, their rags to riches stories idealized by peasants and adored by nobles as charitable, feel-good narratives.

Maria said, “If that is what you are told, I’m sure it’s true.”

“Hmm,” Anne hummed, biting her lips. “You’re playing with me. What is it you want?”

“Why must I want something from you? Is that what you’re used to?”

“Not at all. I see the wanting in your eyes. The way you look at me. What is it you want, unnamed minstrel?”

“Maria,” she offered. “And I’d like to sing your story, of you and your eight men slaying that dragon in the fierce, whipping wind and freezing snow.”

She thought about winking, but deemed it too much. The knight seemed to catch on, regardless.

“Is that all you want?” the knight said, teeth gleaming in her smile. “For me to make you sing?”

Maria flushed. Odd. This kind of woman wasn’t her usual type—that’s what made singing their stories so easy—but she felt frustratingly captivated by her. As though she couldn’t help but be attracted—and by the knight’s wide grin, she seemed to know it.

“Well, you’ve got to show me something worth singing about.”

Flirting with her was like breathing. Magnificent, she thought. And terrifying.

“I’m going to slay a dragon tomorrow,” Anne reminded her. She leaned closer, resting on her forearms. “Isn’t that worth singing about?”

“Mmm, yes, if you live. That could be a good example,” Maria said. Her eyes followed the flex of the woman’s muscle from her wrist to the tendon at the inside of her elbow. Her mouth went dry.

Odd. But not unwelcome.

Anne whispered, “Was there something else you had in mind?”

The air between them hummed. Bits of Anne tugged bits of her in, her hands to Anne’s jaw and hair, her hips to Anne’s palms, her lips to Anne’s lips. Her tongue buzzed with the anticipation of it, their faces drawing close. Anne’s breath on her cheek warmed her ear and neck. Anne laughed.

“I fear I’m a bit drunk,” the knight admitted. “Have I misinterpreted this? Is this what you want?”

“And more,” Maria assured her. Perhaps she was a bit too eager, because the knight shrank back. She continued, “But if this isn’t what you want, mmm, instead, when you return from the mountain, I can sing your song to you.”

The knight leaned toward her again, this time touching her lips to Maria’s forehead.

“Dragons are violent, dangerous beasts. I can’t say I’ll come out of the fight unscathed. It would be shameful and dishonorable, not to be able to pleasure you fully,” Anne said, fingering the button of her vest. “Very un-knightly of me.”

The brush of a finger on her clothing shouldn’t undo her, but Maria already felt a hot heat between her legs. No matter where she begged her mind to wander, it always circled back to the knight’s finger, stroking her soft, then hard, rubbing lovely, teasing circles, loosening her like a thread. She nearly took the calloused hand and guided it between her legs in the middle of the tavern.

However, she summoned the remnants of her willpower to reign in her wayward thoughts and preserve her dignity.

Maria said, “I have a room.”

“Show me.”

They ascended the stairs holding hands like a pair of young girls, giddy with excitement and clumsy from drunkenness. Maria pushed Anne against the wall of the hallway. Anne arched an eyebrow, staring while Maria gripped the handle of the sword at her waist, running her fist up and down the rough leather grip.

“Is this what you do for the men you seduce?” Anne asked, a laugh on her lips. “Tease them by—by—”

She choked on her words when Maria’s index finger brushed the tip of the pommel. Maria honestly didn’t know if this would work on the knight, but she was transfixed, and moved her hips as though she were growing uncomfortable.

“Are all you knights so attached to your swords?” Maria teased.

“I just...like your hands,” Anne said, her eyes fixed on the sword. “It has nothing to d-do with the sword.”

Maria gripped the sword hard, tugging the knight toward her. Anne groaned.

“You sure, Ser Lister? I’ll bet your fingers make a fine enough sword. Or your tongue. Unless you prefer my hands?” Maria tugged at the leather ties of her cuirass. “As you say, dragons are dangerous. I could take care of you tonight.”

Anne swallowed, fumbling for the door handle.

Once in the room, the knight immediately spun, gathering Maria’s tunic in a fist and pushing her against the door. Maria raised an eyebrow, thinking it playful until her throat seared from the touch of cold, hard steel. She raised her hands, showing the knight that she could do no harm. Blankness replaced the warmth and longing in Anne’s eyes.

How interesting. Though fear leaked through Anne’s façade at the corners of her lips and in the gleam of her eye, she held the blade still and true at Maria’s throat. The knight would kill her, given a reason. Like she’d been wronged before.

“Who are you?” Anne said. Her grip tightened. “Or what are you?”

“Exactly who I claim to be. I collect stories,” Maria answered. She had so many questions for the knight. Who had wronged her? What was she afraid of? She decided to risk asking one. “Who do you fear I am?”

Anne searched her face, as though she had the impossible talent to detect lies from the twinkle of an eye or the curl of a lip. There was nothing to find. Her grip on Maria’s chest relaxed, though the knife remained firmly pressed against her flesh.

“No one,” Anne finally answered.

“That can’t be true,” Maria said. She grew bold as the knight’s resolve weakened. “You’re holding a knife to my throat in a private room, my knight. There’s something you’re afraid of. An assassin? A shapeshifter? A sorcerer from children’s stories? If you’re going to kill me, at least give me the satisfaction of knowing which I have become at the hour of my death.”

Surprisingly, the knight sheathed the blade.

“My journey here was difficult,” she said, scratching the back of her neck. “Long. Creatures I once associated only with stories and tales, things I accepted only as fiction—I don’t trust anything now. I grew up on a farm, where life was simple and hard. I served in the army, where my world grew larger, but my day was rigorously scheduled. And now, well. You must think me a child, for being swallowed suddenly by the vastness of the world.”

Maria only smiled, and caressed her cheek. She murmured, “On the contrary, I feel a kinship with you. That vastness is why I became what I am.”

“A minstrel?” Anne said shyly, as though asking her one last time if this was a lie. How cute.

Maria giggled. “Yes, a minstrel. A poet, sometimes. But singing is my strength.”

“Hmm,” Anne hummed. She stared at the floor, ashamed. “Will you forgive me, then?”

“Oh, for putting a knife to my throat?” Maria laughed. “That was rather exciting! I’ve forgiven much worse, my knight. Though your apology reveals how honorable you truly are.”

“As I passed the ocean, I was—” Anne blushed, then continued, “I was at my most vulnerable. My heart was broken. A fisherman took me out to sea, and I thought foolishly I would find relaxation in the adventure. We met a siren, of course, and she—well. You reminded me a bit of her.”

“I’ll try not to take that the wrong way,” Maria said, laughing.

She rested her arms on the knight’s shoulders, jerking impatiently at the ties of her armor. Anne was just as ravenous, untying her bracers and boots while Maria stood behind her, tugging off the backplate. The steel hit the floor with a clunk. Their heavy breaths and clumsy kissing filled the silence, and both were soon out of breath from frustration and impatience.

“This is absurd,” Maria complained, throwing the chainmail shirt to the ground. “So much clothing and armor, I feel I’ve aged decades. This is the last time I’ll make love to a knight, I swear it."

Anne held her waist and kissed between her breasts. Her thumbs brushed the inside of her hips, and her skin prickled at the touch.

With a sloppy grin, Anne said, “Aged decades in minutes, and still so beautiful. You’ve aged well.”

Maria shoved her onto the bed. “You’re an ass,” she informed her.

“And you like that, don’t you?”

Anne was on top of her before she could answer, and kissed her with surprising ferocity. She used more teeth than tongue, nipping her lip, licking the bite, sucking gently. One hand scratched the back of Maria’s neck while the other wandered, loosening the strings of her skirt and shirt. The fabric slackened, brushing her skin, gathering at the folds of her thighs and elbows before slipping off of her.

Usually it was Maria in Anne’s place, playing the strong, ravenous role. But this knight—well, she could do whatever she wanted, and Maria would be a fool to protest.

Finally they tangled together, naked and bare. Maria brushed her fingers through the knight’s dark hair and tugged her into a kiss. Anne gasped from the pain. While Anne’s hands wandered the length of her body, Maria kissed the soft skin behind her ear. She scraped her teeth gently there, then sucked, and the knight’s pulse fluttered under her fingers.

Maria curled her hands on Anne’s chest, her fingers absently brushing her collarbones. Save for the nicks and raised scars, her skin was delicate and soft. The fresh, woodsy scent of Anne’s musk sent her senses spinning.

Anne’s ravenous kisses melted her into the mattress. With all she took, the knight would never again starve for affection. Maria gave it willingly to her, twirling her braid in a finger, singing sweet nothings on the inside of Anne’s mouth with her tongue.

The knight pushed gently into her, her long fingers sinking deep. Anne was attentive, curling and rubbing inside of her, somehow divining pleasure from every twitch of her eyebrows and sharp gasp from her throat. Her mind left her body, and she thought only in colors and sensations, muddling and mixing them until pain and pleasure were the same, and the only thoughts in her mind were of the heavy, building pressure between her legs.

She surfaced when Anne’s breath brushed her lips, asking, “Do you want to touch yourself? Or do you want me to?”

Such a noble thing. The knight in full armor flashed behind her eyes, then the lovely, thick muscles in her arms, then the soft, brown tendrils of her hair, and her handsome cheekbones. Her brain buzzed from the question, barely managing to grasp its meaning.

“I can,” she managed.

All the intellectual, physical, and emotional bits of her peeled away, except the instinct that wanted release. She rubbed wantonly, her body shuddering with rapture. Anne was somehow deeper within her then before, teasing a radiating warmth from her body, swelling from the core of her in a blood-deep rush.

All that mattered was Anne. Maria’s hand wandered the knight’s body, too weak to do anything except rub the smooth bulge of her shoulders, the soft curve of her breasts, the quick nicks of her scars, and the hard, round shape of her bicep. She nearly burst when Anne added a third finger, choking on the slick shock of warmth.

It unlocked something that was closed before—broke a swollen dam—some silly, foolish metaphor that didn’t matter. She came. Maria tried desperately to keep control over herself, but the strength of release overpowered her. Her trembling hands found Anne. She curled against the knight’s chest, unsure of what sound spilled from her lips.

When she surfaced, she gasped. She was slick with sweat and arousal and Anne’s kisses, wrapped snugly in the knight’s arms. Anne kissed her ear, her cheek, the corner of her mouth. The tip of her tongue traced cruel, dizzying shapes on her neck.

Maria had not expected such a kind lover. Romance took many forms, but Anne caressed her as though she were made of glass, delicate and new, and found that she never wanted to be touched any other way. Perhaps it was her youth, or her station, or guilt welling in her gut when Anne held her close, and kissed her too tenderly for their casual connection.

It was the kind of kiss that preceded “I love you,” and for a moment, Maria feared the knight would say it. Their lips unstuck at the gentlest of nudges, and a thin string of saliva linked them until Anne licked her lip. She grinned, opening her mouth to speak, but Maria hushed her with a finger.

“Good luck tomorrow,” Maria whispered. “Come back to me, my knight, so I can spread this story across the kingdom. I want everyone to know your name.”

The knight chuckled against her finger. She kissed it, then said, “I appreciate the luck, darling. But I don’t need it—I have something far greater.”

Despite herself, Maria blushed.

***

The beast was foul and wicked, nothing like the colorful and cunning reptiles from the stories. Large, imposing, and covered in curling, slate-gray scales, it could have been its own castle. It gripped the side of the mountain with jagged claws, each as long as Anne was tall. Pinkish saliva glistened over its black gums and milk-white teeth. The wind carried its putrid stench over to their hiding place, a blend of burnt feces and rotting, swollen flesh.

Anne pinched her nose, but could do nothing for her eyes, which welled with tears from the thick stench permeating the air. Her men did the same. One of the boys heaved, but quieted himself as immediately as he started, recoiling from her sharp glare.

When Anne told the lord she could slay the beast with eight men, she didn’t have a group of glory-starved, untrained, gutless boys in mind. The heaving one was the lord’s eldest son, and his brother stood beside him, looking on with terror. Anne held out hope that the captain of the guard had some amount of skill with a blade, but he was a coward. The other five were handpicked by the lord himself, and looked on quietly, their breath curling like smoke into the air.

Anne would have given a fortune to have any of the soldiers from her unit on the hunt. They were people she knew well, and trusted with her life. These men were children, and worse, children who thought of themselves as fully-trained soldiers, each capable of slaying a dragon on his own.

And upon seeing the beast, they shit themselves. Only Anne would be cursed to command a band of cowards on her first career-defining mission.

“Let’s get that trebuchet up the hill and armed before the beast notices we’re here,” Anne said. She pointed at the eldest lordling, whose name she had already forgotten. “You. Watch the others wheel it up, and see that it isn’t damaged. If that thing is destroyed, our job will be a lot harder, and it’s already going to be difficult. The captain and I will keep an eye on the beast.”

“Yes, lady-knight, ser,” he said, nodding furiously. It relieved her that the boy at least accepted orders.

While the others readied the machine, Anne turned to Ser Hardcastle, the lord’s head guard.

“You know these b—men better than I, ser,” she said. “Do you think they can do this?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “His grace thinks so, ser. But as for me—the beast is rather large. It stinks unbearably, and it’s at least a league away. We’ve never—we don’t often fight things like this around these parts. Fanged cats, wolves, and lesser monsters, sure. But dragons—well, they’re different, aren’t they?”

“Yes, quite different,” Anne said, eyeing him. “What was your first dragon like, ser?”

“Oh—small. Stung a bit, but not as bad as they say. And we didn’t smell it until we got close,” he said.

“How many did you take?”

“Fifteen. And like I said, ser—it was small. I told his grace that my experience might not aid you as much as he wished, but…”

“—but he’s not a very bright man. Don’t look so shocked, ser, we’re allowed to speak ill of a man who sent boys on a mission meant for men. He’s got more children, I trust?” Anne said, looking pointedly at him.

Ser Hardcastle blinked. “Er—yes. W-why do you ask?”

“Just curious. Oh!”

Anne gasped as the dragon spread its wings. They were massive and feathered, spanning twice the length of its body from tip to tip. They flapped once, twice, three times before lifting the beast from the mountain, each beat sending a dull hum through the air.

“Faster!” Anne bellowed to the men. “It’s on the move.”

“Has it seen us?” Ser Hardcastle asked, as though she knew better than he. “S-smelled us?”

Anne ignored him, dashing to help the men. They wheeled the trebuchet into position, then lay stones around the wheels as breaks. Anne’s heart beat wildly as the creature glided toward them. The men scrabbled and slid, loading the bolt into the machine with great difficulty, the stones under their boots slippery with mud and sleet. Anne screamed an order to take cover as the creature suddenly dove, spraying their hiding place with blue fire.

The attack was only a warning. Flames licked the sides of the trebuchet and singed some of the boys’ hair, but all were otherwise unhurt.

“We should have brought more men. How are we going to kill a thing like that?” Ser Hardcastle whispered. A faint trickle followed his words.

Anne rolled her eyes. She said, “We have enough. We need to use the trebuchet to ground it, before it comes back. When it lands, our next move will become clear.”

The boy next to her trembled. He stared up at the dragon as it wheeled around the mountain, a grey, gloomy shadow against the clear blue sky. Anne shoved him, knocking him out of his stupor.

“Aim, boy!” she screamed at him. “If it comes again, we all die.”

Together, they pointed the machine to the left of the mountain, where the beast circled the sky in a wide figure eight.

“We have one, maybe two shots,” Anne informed them, yelling over the shrieking wind. “So whomever pulls the lever better be a damn good shot.”

They looked at each other, and the youngest of the lord’s sons stepped forward. Anne nodded to him. While the lordling waited, holding the lever with shaking hands, Anne’s heart thudded in her ears. With a grunt, he released the first bolt.

The wind caught the bolt, veering off course before it even neared the dragon. Anne growled at the boy, then threw him off the machine and into the snow below.

“Load the bolt!” she bellowed.

They scrambled to load it as the dragon again dove toward them. Anne kept one hand on the lever while the other gripped the crank, spinning it quickly while the dragon approached. It swallowed the sky like a vast shadow, turning the day into night. She steeled her gaze, and the chaos around her faded. She waited until the last possible second, ignoring the desperate, muffled pleas of the cowards around her.

When the dragon’s jaw unhinged to release the burst of searing flame, Anne pulled the lever down. The bolt tore through a wing and dug deep into the right thigh. The creature screamed as it spiraled toward a ground, a terrible, guttural shriek that shook Anne’s bones and sent her stumbling to her knees.

It crashed into the trees half a league away, snapping pines whose trunks were three men wide in its wake, the crack of wood reverberating in the air. Dirt and snow sprayed the mountainside. The ground shook from the force, and the rumble of an avalanche echoed in the distance. In the aftermath, there was only the panicked cawing of displaced crows, and then a booming roar.

The nine of them stared at each other, breathing heavily. Anne rounded on the lordling, stabbing his chest with a finger.

“When I ask for someone skilled, I’m not looking for bravery,” she spat. “I’m looking for wit, for strategy, for thoughtfulness. You can’t strongarm your way to glory. You can’t bend death under the force of your will. Thinking otherwise is foolishness, and will get you and everyone who relies on you killed.”

“Y-yes, ser. I’m sorry,” he sputtered.

The dragon roared again, as if beckoning them to fight. It pierced Anne’s ears like a baby’s cry. She drew her sword, and motioned for the boys to follow.

They tiptoed through the woods, unsure how injured the massive beast was. Snow crunched under her boots. The sun hung low in the sky, lengthening the shadows of bare birch trees and towering pines. After fifteen minutes, they arrived at a section cleared by the falling beast, trunks of old, massive trees cracked at the center or entirely uprooted, piled on top of one another.

The dragon was just farther in, resting on its side. The beast’s stench grew as they approached, the smell of rotting meat and bloated corpses creeping in under the cloth covering their mouths and noses in preparation. It heaved heavy breaths, shuddering and shuffling as Anne and the men closed in. She directed them to surround the beast. Five aimed crossbows at it while Anne and three others waited behind the trees, ready to strike.

At Anne’s signal, the crossbows fired in synchrony. They aimed at its softer underside, three of the bolts digging in to the chest and drawing blood. The creature gnashed its teeth.

Anne signaled again. Each of them let loose a sharp cry, charging the beast from all sides. She rushed for the head, which hovered over the ground, its vastness nearly knocking her to her knees.

It blinked one filmy, reptilian eye, the vertical pupil widening while it stared at her. Anne’s face reflected in the blackness. Her image was murky and warped, a stark white figure among the licking flames of its own blue fire and the orange of her soldiers’ torches. Beneath it all was the glimmer of life, a thing grander than Anne could ever have expected.

She forgot to swing.

The beast snapped at her, but she dodged, the clap of its teeth reverberating in the air like thunder. Anne fell backwards from the force, then clamored to her feet, holding the sword in front of her. It felt fragile and useless, like a toy.

To her right, one of the boys tore a gash in its thigh. It whipped its head around to spit a jet of fire toward him. Anne jumped at the opportunity, dashing toward the pointed bones jutting from its cheek and taking hold. It didn’t notice her until she heaved herself atop its head, clutching the base of its horn as she drove the point of her sword through its eye.

The creature shrieked, then thrashed its head erratically, tying to shake Anne off. Anne let go of the sword to hug the horn with both hands. She squeezed her eyes shut until it was through.

After seconds or minutes, the thrashing ceased. Perhaps the beast dizzied itself, or thought it was rid of her. Anne opened her eyes. It flapped its good wing in a desperate attempt to escape.

“Ser!” one of the lordlings called. He waved his longsword to get her attention, and once he had it, tossed the weapon to her.

Anne caught it by the handle, then plunged it as deeply as she could into the other eye. It squelched and then crunched, silver, stinking blood spurting onto her arms and face. A guttural cry hissed from its mouth, drowning them in the high-pitched moan of a dying thing. Anne threw her hands over her ears. The sound faded, the dragon shuddered, and, finally, stilled.

Mist rose from the corpse in lazy strings. The tendrils of mist gathered into the rough shape of the dragon. Anne and the boys watched with wide eyes, but Ser Hardcastle backed away.

“Watch out!” he shouted, as the phantom dragon rushed at Anne.

The spirit tore through her with a fervor that could shred her insides. She was awash in flames licking everything but her flesh. It ripped a scream from her throat with the desperation of a great, dying beast claiming one last thing before dissipating from the universe. It sang in her blood for seconds, hours, or days, blinding her senses with hot white heat.

And then it was gone.

Anne’s breaths came quickly. She hunched over, shaking from exertion, as though she’d run a great distance or ascended a mountain. Her heart and breath thundered in her ears. She had slayed a dragon. With eight men. She turned her head to meet their eyes, grinning, then the remnants of the spirit shuddered through her, and the world went black.

***

The knight was everything she claimed she was, and more.

The cockiness was for show, mostly, but the confidence it exuded lived in her heart.

Maria wrote that down, using the flat side of a giant boulder as a surface. The knight put on a captivating performance, truly. Maria always preferred to see the events for herself, rather than hearing the hero’s own narrative. She would get that too, of course, but witnessing the slaying of a dragon was rare. She had never been present during one.

Maria frowned. In all the stories, the dragon-phantoms appeared after the death of the beast to haunt their slayers in a final act of vengeance. Sometimes that was when the knight died; always so tragic, the hero successfully slaying the beast, but not alive to see the world saved. She’d always assumed that was part of the drama of the genre, a piece of literary canon included to emphasize the greatness of the giant, smelly lizards. But it was true.

She longed to run out of her hiding place and kiss the knight. That desire disturbed her. She shoved it down, ignoring that it would make for a rare happy ending.

Instead, she huddled near the rock and wrote. She glowed with a different kind of warmth, knowing the story she wrote would spread across the kingdom, and the knight that now struggled from the effort to stand would soon rise above the rest.

Chapter Text

Ann mostly thought about it in the dark, when no one could see her face. She was especially self-conscious about it. Her mother often quipped that Ann’s face mirrored her thoughts more plainly than a book, and all of her words were twice as loud when they both left her lips and played on her eyebrows. She urged Ann to be more like her friend, who remained withdrawn even when it was just the two of them. 

“Catherine is perfect,” her mother gushed whenever she could. “You should aim to be more like her.” 

Ann agreed. Probably too enthusiastically. 

Catherine was beautiful, in a classic way. Her high cheekbones, full lips, and exquisitely styled hair inspired Ann to draw whenever she sat before a blank page. She longed to act on that inspiration. However, it would be strange to draw a portrait when all of her other subjects were landscapes, flowers, and bugs. Even worse, what if the likeness was poor, and it offended her?

In the dark, Ann’s mind traced the full curve of her lips. Ann filled in the lines with baby pink and a glimmer of softness. She touched her own lip, wondering if Catherine’s felt the same.

Ann didn’t know what was wrong with her. Her idle mind thought only of girls. At the forefront of her mind there was Catherine, with her gentle, coy smiles and perfect fashion. Ann wanted to look like her, but, oh, how she wanted to kiss her, too. The thrill of touching her was for art only—she touched leaves before dabbing greens and yellows on the canvas, and felt the warm sun on her face before adding light to her landscapes. It made sense to want to touch the sharp, full planes of a human face to capture it fully.

And then there were those she hardly knew, strangers that came, unbidden, in her dreams. Dashing Ser Lister, whose masculine swagger excited Ann when she knew she should be revolted. Ser Lister was her father’s newest addition to the kingsguard, and the only one of them that wasn’t a crusty old man. Each of the women filled her thoughts: Catherine’s curls and playful shyness, Ser Lister’s strong, perfect hands and dangerous smile—Ann yearned for them. She wanted to be both so badly, perfect in their own, separate ways, and ways which she always felt short, caught between. 

Catherine tossed and turned beside Ann in the bed. The sheets rustled, growing louder with her frustration. Finally, she huffed.

“What’s wrong?” Ann whispered. 

The dark was so immediate, she wondered that it didn’t whisk the words away from her mouth, like snuffing a candle out. She hated the inner rooms of the castle. With no windows to let in starlight and thick, heavy doors blocking the flicker of torches in the hallways, they felt like prisons.

“I can’t sleep,” Catherine admitted, her voice scratchy with exhaustion. 

“Why?” Ann said. She tried her best to not sound completely awake.

“Oh, this castle. It’s still new to me, I—that’s why I asked you to sleep in my room tonight,” she admitted, embarrassed. 

Ann’s brother began courting Catherine last spring. If they married, that would make them some kind of family, she supposed. Her stomach churned with both excitement and dread at the thought. Ann was related to everyone: dukes and lordlings with meaningless titles all claimed a connection to the royal bloodlines, and that made them happy. And loyal. The Rawsons were a powerful family. Ann’s friendship with Catherine wasn’t a powerful enough bond to sustain their loyalty. There needed to be a greater connection, preferably one that supplied heirs for the throne.

Ann knew why, yet her gut churned at the thought of Catherine and her brother touching hands, kissing, sleeping next to each other. Ann wanted that with her instead. She was Catherine's friend since childhood. She had always admired her beauty, listened to her murmur at length about what she learned in her classes, and brushed away her fears. Ann loved her brother, and thought he was kind and sweet, but knew he didn't care for Catherine as much as she did. 

Catherine continued, “The b-boys have been s-saying there are spirits. It’s silly. But sometimes, in the dark, I think—I mean, I wonder if it’s true. Then I get scared. I haven’t seen anything.”

“Oh, Catherine. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Ser Lister—my father’s new knight—is stationed at the end of the corridor tonight. She’ll keep us safe,” Ann said.

Ann’s thoughts drifted to what the knight looked like beneath her armor. Arms and back knotted with muscle and sore from standing guard during the wee hours of the night. Ann dreamt of charming her, playing with her fingertips, and leaned into her pillow pretending it was Anne’s chest as she held her close—

“Ugh,” Catherine scoffed. Though Ann couldn’t see her, she knew Catherine rolled her eyes and curled her lip. “I don’t like her. Too arrogant. Knights are supposed to be, I don't know, romantic. She’s always showing off.” 

“Father seems to think she takes it seriously enough,” Ann pressed. 

“You just think she’s attractive,” Catherine teased. “I see the way you blush when she says something—ugh. Annoying.”

“I don’t! It wouldn’t matter if I did. I’m a child, and she’s—” Ann searched for the word, and, failing, sputtered, “—not. And she’s a kingsguard.”

Catherine agreed, “Yes, those things are true. But that’s not what I asked—you’re still attracted to her. You always talk about how you don't like knights, but you stop talking in the middle of what you're saying just to watch her pass by, like you like her.”

“I do not, ” Ann said, pushing her shoulder.

Catherine pushed back. They giggled, wrestling in her dark, a mess of hands, hair, and legs. Catherine collapsed beside her. She rested her head on Ann’s shoulder and trapped her arm under her body. 

“Are you still scared?” Ann asked, breathless.

“No!” she sputtered, giggling. “But being close to you is nice.”

Ann’s heart pounded more fiercely than the clock ticked. Catherine still smelled of her bath, like a lick of floral perfume and fresh soap. Stray wisps of her hair tickled Ann’s lips and cheek. Her single, overwhelming thought was of how close Catherine’s lips were to hers, and if she only needed to tilt her head to fulfill her fantasy. 

Ann was painfully aware of Catherine’s shirt riding up her back. Her fingertips rested on a sliver of smooth, warm skin. Catherine was softer than anything she’d touched before. She longed to touch more of her. She ached to slip both of her hands under the light cotton shirt, trace the gentle curve of her spine, grip the planes of her shoulder blades, and press her friend close.

“Mmm, that feels nice,” Catherine hummed into her neck.

Ann realized with horror that her hands started to brush  the shape of Catherine’s exposed skin, her fingertips tracing lines that dipped and rose with the curve of her body. Trembling, she lay her hand flat on Catherine’s back and teased the hem of her shirt. Catherine sucked in a breath.

She said, “That really feels good, Ann. I have an itch, right in the middle of my back. Could you…?”

Ann stopped herself from saying, “ Gods , yes.”

Ann smoothed Catherine’s back under her shirt. Catherine was soft and perfect, the delicate planes of her body more gentle and lovely than the most expensive velvet. She circled a dimple on the back of Catherine’s shoulder with a finger. She swallowed to stifle a groan building at the tip of her tongue. 

Ann realized too late that Catherine meant to scratch above the fabric, but instead of remarking on the mistake, her friend let out a deep sigh into her shoulder. 

“Ann.”

“Hmm?” Ann said, and turned her head.

Their lips touched. Catherine’s mouth was as warm as the first touch of sunlight and as light as a feather. Ann held her breath, concentrating all her willpower into not moving her lips, in case it was an accident. She held her breath.

“Sorry,” Catherine murmured. 

But Catherine didn’t pull away. Her lips brushed Ann’s when she spoke. The movement was too much. Ann cupped Catherine’s cheek in her hand, and her friend leaned in at her suggestion. Their bodies pressed together, impossibly close. Catherine rested her hand on Ann’s waist. Ann kissed her.

They melted into each other. Catherine’s lips and tongue wet her mouth and her hot, panting breaths moistened Ann’s cheek. Ann buried her hands in Catherine’s lovely, impeccable curls and held her close. Catherine groaned in surprise.

“Touch me, Cath,” Ann whispered.

“Where?”

“Under m-my—”

Ann gasped when Catherine’s hand gripped the inside of her thigh. Ann’s arousal wet her underclothes, clinging the light fabric to her thighs and to her swollen clit. She nearly screamed when Cath traced a finger lightly over the length of her clit, a radiating sensation building and flourishing through her body. Catherine laughed into their kiss.

“You’re so sensitive, Ann,” she teased.

“Please don’t stop,” Ann begged.

Ann had never been touched before. She always imagined what it might be like, but never expected this. She struggled to give Catherine control, yet melted and purred with each gentle ministration. They mostly kissed, the sensation so new and their hunger so fierce that it almost felt like nothing could fully satiate it. Catherine's curls tickled her cheek. Their mouths were wet and slippery, and once or twice, their teeth clashed. They giggled at themselves. 

Yet the ache between Ann’s legs could only be satisfied by strong hands. A firm, bulging bicep, a muscled shoulder marred by years of battles. Gripping the folds of Catherine’s nightgown, Ann fabricated those things in her mind while her friend rubbed her swollen clit with light, clumsy strokes. Behind her closed eyes, Ser Lister smiled at her. A warm mouth bit her delicate flesh. She could only imagine Ser Lister’s teeth scraping her throat.

The word left her lips before she could stop it. 

“Oh, Anne…” she sighed.

Words aren’t the kind of thing one can take back once they slip. The kissing and nipping stopped, and Catherine withdrew her hand from between Ann’s legs like she’d been burned.

“What?” Catherine said.

The dark allowed Ann to exchange Catherine’s lovely, vibrant femininity for Ser Lister’s arrogant demeanor. Catherine was too gentle to be a knight. Ann’s stomach sank with shame.

Knights were stupid, ridiculous, and glorified. They were arrogant when they should be humble, violent when they should do everything in their power to avoid conflict, and valued the titles bestowed to them by men and not gods. She hated their inflated sense of self-importance. Yet, there was something in Ser Lister’s smile, something in her strength, that persisted despite her dislike. Ann didn't want to like her. She didn't want to dream of her, yet the word slipped from her mouth despite it. 

“Sorry,” Ann said immediately. “I just—I meant to say—”

“No. It’s fine,” Catherine said, though it clearly wasn’t. “Let’s just pretend this never happened. It was weird. I’m—I’m about to be betrothed. To your brother . This shouldn’t have—no one can ever know.”

“Right,” Ann said. 

Ann crept into the cold, stiff sheets, still flushing from embarrassment. Catherine shoved a pillow under the covers between them, and lay with her back turned.

The universe caved in on itself. The small prison of a castle room had all the air sucked out. Ann struggled to breathe, gasping air from the darkness like it only had so much to give. She felt like she was dying. She was dying. And through the darkness, Catherine snored, finally asleep beside her. She was dying, and no one knew, not the lovely girl beside her on the bed, or strong Ser Lister in the hallway, who hardly knew that she existed.