by Chris Miller
She reached the edge of the forest just past dawn. With the sun climbing behind her she sat on her horse and watched the morning spread, made out the hazy outline of the tower at the base of the hills on the horizon. Her breath came in thick puffs through the face-grate of her helmet and the leather straps of her saddle and her kit creaked in the early cold. A cloud of mist and steam shrouded the tower. She had thought it would be taller.
Past the last tall pines of the forest the ground was blasted and burnt-over in a semi-circle, with the tower in the center of the crescent. Piles of white and gray ash covered the ground like a quilt. Black stalks of destroyed trees poked through here and there over the empty expanse. A handful of exposed rocks and boulders, charred from fire, dotted the landscape. She noted a big boulder cracked and cleaved in thin rivulets, the skeleton of a tree like a post. Thin plumes of ash, stirred up by a weak wind, whispered by, and the ground smelled acrid and burnt. She tipped up the visor of her helmet, scanned the ruined piece of land, and sighed.
She wore the greenish, shingled armor of the kingdom’s knights. Grieves buckled up over her shins and over the insteps of her clay-caked boots, and a set of dented, intricate bracers protected her from her knuckles down the backs of her hands and wrists and up past her elbows, where they ended in sharp points with cutting edges. Her helmet was mashed in at the right temple, and the metal ridge that ran from the center of the face-plate up over the forehead and back to the crown was chipped and broken in several places. The wolf’s-tail plume that had hung down her back from the nape of the helmet when she had left the capital was reduced to a fuzzy stub.
On her breastplate the silver wolf’s head with ruby eyes of her father’s house was soldered over the heart. The head was tarnished now from the journey and one of the eyes was gone. Her horse, a tall roan mare, whinnied and shook its buttery mane. Deftly she leaned forward in the saddle and patted its thick neck. At her left hip her long sword flapped against her thigh.
It had taken her several weeks to travel to the red tower from the capital, through the farmlands and the lakelands of the kingdom and out into the wilderness. Even clearly marked as a knight she had been attacked by highwaymen, then harassed by a bear, and finally delayed by an ambitious wizard. The empty plain and the cool sunny morning seemed an unusually quiet ending to her journey. Except for the burnt ground the place seemed quiet and still and peaceful, not the home of a dragon she had imagined.
She had seen the dragon attack, however, outside a village called Hammen. Hammen was the last settlement of the kingdom before the woods began, and she had rested there and restocked before traveling into the woods. Her brothers, the villagers said, had passed that way but had not returned. She said she intended to follow and they frowned at her sadly, resignedly, until she had described the peculiar nature of her plan.
The dragon had come to Hammen’s outlying farms on a cloudy night. First lengths of gold fire streaked down onto the fields, then the silhouette of the dragon had appeared, flying low on its massive wings and yanking up cattle and goats two or three at a time and biting them in half as it flew, dropping the uneaten parts sizzling and still kicking to the ground. From the village square she watched the fires burn high and bright.
The day after the attack survivors from the farms came into Hammen singed with soot and with burnt hands, feet, and faces. Their raggedy horses wreaked of scorched hair. They said after the dragon had destroyed their herds he had fanned the flames with his wings, moving the fire in different directions like a game. First he steered the blaze towards a grain silo and a henhouse, then abruptly turned the flames on a cottage. One family had run into a creek, the survivors said, and the dragon had boiled them alive where they huddled together in the water.
She took off her helmet and tucked it under her arm. It was painful for her to sit in the saddle now for any length of time, and she kept herself rigid in the stirrups. Across the back of the saddle a bow of bone, sinew, and horn was strapped next to a half-emptied quiver of arrows. A knife with a blade as long as her wrist and as wide as her palm was stuffed, hilt out, into her bedroll, and a shield with a heavy iron boss set in the center of a circle of rusted and dented studs covered her back. The items of her kit—a skillet, a wedge of cheese, a few mouthfuls of meal, flint and steel, some scraps of tinder, a roll of bandaging, and a needle and thread—clinked and jangled as she dismounted with a grunt. She took a swig from her canteen, rinsed out her mouth and spit the water onto the ground, wiped her lips with the back of her hand.
A large chest with an iron lock was strapped securely to the horse’s rump. The chest was waxed against rain and inlaid with silver filigrees, reinforced with iron ribs across its top and bottom. The wood was lacquered a light shiny red, almost pink, and feminine fairies and flowers were etched into the lid. Unlike the rest of her gear the chest was clean and undamaged, as if it been carefully cared for as well as unused. She put her hand on the chest’s clasp and patted it like a pet.
With several yanks she ripped her fingers through the tangles of her long dark hair until it hung frizzily over her shoulders. She scratched at her scalp while she dug around inside her kit for the piece of cheese. As she ate she walked her horse out onto the ashes. The ground sank softly with each step. She spit out a pungent wad of cheese and belched. Slowly the red tower came into focus.
The tower stood among the rocky outcroppings at the base of the hills. Wisps of steam and smog rose from the cracks and fissures in the stones, climbed in a thin steady sliver of black like smoke from a chimney. The blocks of the tower’s upper parapet were crumbled, gone entirely in places, and the whole structure, no more than three or four times her height, slumped on one side as if it could not support its own weight. Dead vines, all of them blackened and none with any leaves on them at all, twisted round the tower like veins and near the top she could make out where centuries of bird droppings had left calcified streams down the stones. The wide gates that had guarded the entrance to the mines below were gone. A soupy square of darkness was all she could make out of the inside through the portal. She fed the last palmful of cheese to her horse and tied her helmet to the bridle.
As they walked across the waste she kept one hand on the pommel of her sword and the other on the reins of her horse, checked the sky every few steps or whenever the shadow of a cloud passed by. She realized there was a splatter of blood across the rim of her shield and wondered absentmindedly if it was hers. She noticed a stream, gurgling out from a crevice in the rocks not far from the base of the tower, and she cut for it.
The banks of the stream were, like everything else around the tower, blackened and burnt. However the spring was clear and fast and she cupped her hands and drank deeply. The water was cold and it braced her as she splashed it up over her face and on her natty hair. Alongside her her horse dipped its head to the water and sniffed at it, began to drink. The water had a slight sulphuric tinge, she noticed.
She stood up from the bank and studied herself in the reflection of the water. Her sword hung at her side and her armor, although in poor repair, was still sturdy and solid. Staring up at the tower she stepped to her horse and checked her kit. Her bow was taut, and her shield, although showing splinters and rents in several places, was still sound. She thought of her skill, her prowess as a knight. In her palm she gripped the hilt of her sword and drew it halfway, felt the weight of the armor on her shoulders and down her arms.
Then she felt the sting inside her and looked back at the blasted, destroyed land. No green sprigs poked through the ashes. There was no sign there had been any life there at all. She thought of the survivors at Hammen, and of her brothers. She also thought of the list of villages and towns destroyed by the dragon, a list so long that the end of the scroll dropped to the floor when the vizier read it before her father. She imagined the last thing her brothers, both of them knights as skilled and powerful as she herself, felt was the steel of their helmets melting onto their skulls. She let her sword slip back into its scabbard.
She removed the lacquered chest from the saddle straps and set it down gently by the stream. Then, deliberately, she took the saddlebags, her bedroll, her canteen, and all the rest of her equipment and piled them on the ground. Then she cut the saddle and the bridle and the reins from her horse and tossed them aside. She cut a thin string of leather and tied it loosely around the horse’s neck, attached a small tube with a cork top from her belt to the strop. Her horse stared at her confusedly but patiently with its dark eyes.
On a small square of parchment with a stub of charcoal she scribbled out a short note: Father, I have reached the red tower. No sign of Pitor or Mattias. But the woods here have been unnaturally burned and I am sure this is, as you suspected, the lair of the wyrm. I go now to fulfill my duty as a Royal Protector of your kingdom. I pray that when this message finds you vengeance has been granted to our great house. She paused and read what she had written. She added: To anyone finding this message, please care well for this horse, who cared well for me. Princess Kathrina Tantris, Knight of Lachlanan. After marking the outside of the note with the wolf’s head crest she added the cross-and-star sign that designated the message as royal correspondence. She rolled the note into a tight cylinder and dropped it into the tube slung on the horse’s neck, popped the top on. Gently she turned her horse away from the tower, back over the scorched land towards the woods. She stroked the horse’s flank one last time. Then she smacked its rump.
“Go!” she shouted. “Go! Go home!”
The horse jumped, sprinted out away from her, and galloped back across the ashes. She watched the mare go, faster now that it was unloaded. She realized she had expected the horse to pause, at least to look back at her, but it did not. After a few moments it was only a shape among the pines, then only the soft clomp of its hooves on the needles reached her, then nothing at all. For the first time since she had left the capital she felt fear. A hollow formed in the pit of her stomach and she thought she might vomit up the cheese but instead the lump moved to her throat. She swallowed it back down and waited a long second for the feelings to pass through her, as she had been trained. When the fear disappeared all that was left was her strength, will, and a sharp rage. She glared at the tower.
She unlocked the lacquered chest with the key tied around her neck. Raising the lid she peeled back the red velvet lining, and sweet, soft smells floated up at her. Inside a pair of scented soaps wrapped in pastel papers lay on top of textured washing cloths. Vials of perfume, jars of ointment, tubes of cosmetic clays and powders were all packed neatly under the soaps. Silver bracelets and necklaces, including a comb and pins for her hair, were coiled together in a corner of the chest and a dainty pair of slippers with pointed toes rested on top of a mirror with a gold handle. On the bottom of the chest was a long, light-green gown of sheer satin with a silk hem and cuffs and silver threads sewn into the gown’s curves. She picked up one of the soaps in her gauntleted fist and sniffed at it.
She undressed. First she unfastened the straps of her bracers, then the clasps of her shin grieves. She had to sit down to pull off her boots and was amazed at how moldy and rotten her feet smelled as she wiggled her bruised and grimy toes. Finally she twisted herself around enough to reach the fasteners and hooks of her breastplate, shook it off with a series of clangs. Her undergarment had not been washed since she left Hammen and it was filthy with sweat and grime. Ovular holes were worn through the fabric in the small of her back where she had sat in the saddle and along her side where the armor had rubbed.
She stacked her armor camp-style next to her kit and equipment, the sword across the top of the breastplate. Trying to lift the undergarment over her shoulders the fabric came off in clumps in her hands. She shrugged and tore it off completely and threw it up into the air where it sailed over the stream before crashing a few paces away against a mound of ash.
Naked at the bank of the stream she let the soft wind blow over her. Her body was bruised and scraped in many places and a nasty scar ran up the back of her left calf. Black and blue marks dotted the small of her back and her skin was thickly calloused at her ankles, elbows, and knees. Worse was the stench that came up off of her body, a mixture of smoke and sweat and something rotten.
In the cold water of the stream she washed herself. She used up one entire bar of soap and much of the second, turned the washing cloths black with the dirt that came up from her skin. Leaning back on the pebbles she scrubbed at the scum and lint that had formed a thin film along the backs of her arms, down the insides of her thighs, and over the bottoms of her feet. She soaked her hair in the water and combed it out a hundred times with each hand. Once satisfied that at least there were no more lice or twigs in her mane she considered trying to trim her bangs with her knife but decided against it. Then she washed herself again entirely until there was no soap left at all and her skin was glowing pale pink.
When she was finished cleaning herself she sat on a rock by the bank. She rubbed into her calluses a couple of the vials until the cracked, hardened skin softened some. Gingerly she yanked out her dead toenails and bit down the jagged tips of her fingernails, smoothed them down on the edge of a stone.
As she had been taught by the palace courtesans, she lifted her hair away from her face and used the silver pins to clasp it at the nape of her neck. She powdered her face and shoulders, even used a little to mask the scar on her leg. With her fingertips she applied shadow to her cheekbones and color to her lips and her eyelids, started to pluck her eyebrows but then gave up after seeing the results in the mirror. She did like, however, the way the pins and combs accented the bright blue of her eyes.
She daubed herself with perfume, again how the courtesans had taught her—along the ridge of her collarbone, on the insides of her wrists, at the backs of her knees, around her ankles, and with just a touch at the base of her spine. When she was finished she sniffed herself and thought she smelled like a fruit pie.
Carefully she unfolded the gown and flapped it out a few times in the fresh air. The garment felt so unsubstantial in her strong hands it seemed almost ethereal. She slipped it on over her long arms, unrolled it down over her hips, and tugged the shoulders down. The material was translucent and light, showing the outlines of her body clearly through the fabric but, she saw, hiding the blemishes and bruises nicely. Although the cloth was warmer than she expected she felt as if she was still naked and glanced longingly at her armor. She clasped on the bracelets and necklaces, finally stepped into the slippers and thought they felt like little pillows around her feet.
In the mirror she studied herself. Her legs looked lean and shapely, her backside luscious if still somewhat flattened from the saddle, her breasts small but nicely cupped by the gown. The column of her neck was firm and smooth as marble, and her face looked vibrant, with full red lips and her bright eyes. Her straight nose, accented by the cosmetics, looked inviting and defiant at the same time. Even her hair, festering for so long under the helmet, shined. She practiced her expressions in the mirror for a few moments: coy, alluring, charmed.
Her preparations complete she turned and faced the tower. During her bath the sun had moved over the top of the hills and the tower cast a long shadow. With a last look to her weapons she strode confidently towards the portal, remembered only with her final few steps to walk less like a warrior and more like a killer.
* * *
Inside the tower the sun disappeared. Ankle-deep smog rolled over the ruptured flagstones of the floor and a wet, pungent heat permeated the air. The shapes of broken beams and what she imagined were the debris of ancient tables, carts, and barrels were strewn about. Walls separating the individual rooms and alcoves of the tower had collapsed and half of a stairway to the upper levels hung in the air, its bottom steps gone. She blinked away tears brought on by the smoke, worried that the heat would make her powder run. From a passage across the floor a hazy red light glowed and she made her way towards it. The heat grew hotter and the glow grew brighter until she saw a stone stairwell, leading down. A sound like a lit hot stove rumbled from below. She gritted her teeth as she descended, tripped once on the hem of her gown, and forced her face into the most becoming smile she could manage. The heat intensified with each step.
At the bottom of the stair she stepped out into a huge hollow with a wide expanse of floor and high, domed ceiling cut from the rock. The same eerie red light as above glowed here, but much brighter. Smog made a false sky against the roof of the cavern, roiling like storm clouds with their undersides lit a gruesome red. In the flickering shadows along the bases of the walls she could make out piles of rubble where the mine tunnels had fallen in, but also several still open, with one or two wide and high enough to accommodate a dragon. She sensed the danger in the place and instinctively reached for her hip. Not finding her sword there, she took a breath and smoothed out her gown, walked slowly to the center of the room. A hint of hot slime wafted through the air.
She saw a pile of gold, much of it melted together in a shimmering puddle, in a clump at one of the mouths of the collapsed tunnels, realized that the pile was only a slight spillover and the entire tunnel behind the pile was packed with a solid mass of gold, silver, and gems all melted together. Across the cavern not far from the steps to the first level she saw a spiky mass of swords and spearpoints glittering malevolently in the red light stacked loosely on a foundation of hammerheads and wrecked shields and armor. She squinted at them closely, spotted one triangular shield bent in half but with the wolf’s head still visible, another cracked down its center like an onion slice with the same iron boss as her own shield. She whispered her brothers’ names and swallowed a mouthful of quiet fury.
The reptilian stench grew around her until it was all she could smell. The heat rose. The puff and hiss she had heard at the top of the stairs rose loud as a forest fire. Then the walls themselves seemed to squirm and slide as if they might melt. She felt a warm wind come at her from all directions at once.
The dragon’s head was massive and red-scaled, with two huge gold eyes. Dripping flames poured from nostrils as big as her thighs. Two curved horns like scimitar blades protruded from the flat, ridged forehead and a wall of teeth, each as long as her entire body, formed a terrible smile that shined wetly in the hot glow of the dragon’s body. As the dragon sniffed her his eyes rolled over her from head to toe and his nostrils flared. She braced herself. The dragon’s leathery lips rose the corners amusedly. His voice boomed over her like a bell.
“You smell somewhat familiar,” he said. “Do I know you, perhaps, little one?”
Calmly she batted her eyelashes and folded her hands at her waist demurely. She made her voice husky but smooth, smiled at him with her eyes as she lowered her chin.
“I do not think so, great one,” she said. “I am sure I would remember you.”
The dragon chuckled. It sounded like trees falling and echoed through the cavern.
“Yes,” the dragon said. “I’m sure you would, at that.”
He circled around her, staring and sniffing at her flanks, her haunches, and her legs as each of his steps shook the floor. She pushed her breasts out, slightly, against the gown. The dragon paused behind her and she watched the spiked tip of the tail twitch in front of her as she felt the noxious breath move up her spine.
“So,” the dragon continued, “I am sure you know who I am, at least. But you are?”
“I am Kathrina,” she said. Then added, “My lord.”
“Well, Kathrina, and why have you graced my chamber with your lovely form this afternoon?”
She tried to make herself blush, as the courtesans had shown her.
“I am here for you, my lord.”
“For me? Whatever do you mean?”
“Yes, my lord. For…” she paused for effect. The tail flicked before her, curved around the wall. The logistics of the situation suddenly occurred to her.
“Go ahead,” the dragon said.
“For your pleasure,” she said. “If you would only spare my village, great one.”
“Hm. Yes. How noble. I suppose you’re a virgin then. Too bad. I have no real interest in virgins. So dull, really. Perhaps I’ll simply devour you. I so rarely consume human females.”
She cocked a hip, looked over her shoulder at him, and shot the dragon a smoldering glance.
“I am,” she cooed, “not quite so inexperienced as you might think, my lord.”
The dragon’s head whipped around back in front of her, fast enough that it blew the fabric of her gown taut against the back of her legs. His face, so malicious and so close, made her want to scream. The dragon’s fangs arrayed themselves in a smile.
“Oh, really?” he purred. “Do tell.”
“I have been trained, great one, in the arts of the night. These skills, I am told, are sometimes of interest to more discerning dragons?”
The head and the sharp face dipped and weaved through the haze and smoke as the dragon studied her with this new knowledge. She put all of her weight on her back leg and pouted her lips, dipped her chin.
“Do I please you, perhaps just a little, great one?”
“Yes. But still…”
“But what my lord?”
“Something about your scent. Tell me, Kathrina, you are from this piddly little kingdom?”
“Yes my lord. I am from a small village, just beyond the wood. Hammen, it is called.”
“Yes my lord.”
The dragon chuckled again. She winced.
“I can’t ever remember the names, you know. They come to me—mages, knights, priests, mayors and elders—decked out for battle or offering bribes. They say the names so proudly: I represent this or that vale or hillock or grotto or league or guild! Then they promise me death or tribute. As if, as if. I often try to recall where exactly they said they had journeyed from after I’ve destroyed them. I never can.”
He laughed again.
“However none of them,” he hissed. “Have been as original as you, Kathrina.”
He paused and looked at her. A steaming red tongue slashed across his scaly lips.
“Let us see if I will remember the name Hammen, shall we?”
With three thundering steps backwards the dragon disappeared into the shadows and mist. Kathrina caught her breath and relaxed slightly from her performance, saw again from the corner of her eye the remains of her brothers’ armor. Then, through the smoke where the dragon had gone, bursts of silver and golden sparks blazed. The sparks outlined the dragon’s form, demarcated his tail and horns and claws with fizzles and little pops of flame. Then there was an explosion of white light, and the sparks reappeared in a roughly humanoid shape. Slowly the sparks dissipated and the darkness and smog returned. She waited.
After a moment a soft, almost human voice emanated, a low groan from the shadows. She watched as the smoke parted and a thin, naked man stepped to her. He had long, fiery red hair and a sharply angled face, skin pale as a pearl, and beautiful golden eyes. Despite herself she found him attractive until he smiled at her and she saw the row of razor-teeth curled behind his thin lips. He stepped to her and touched her cheek with the back of his hand. His fingers were hot. Then he kissed her and steam rose from his lips. His hands were smooth but firm as they slipped the gown from her shoulders.
They made love in the center of the cavern on the stone floor. He was deliberate and attentive, and in the red light his body, however unnatural, was beautiful. Kathrina had expected a rougher, more monstrous experience, but remained focused on her mission. She kissed the dragon repeatedly and deeply, held him close to her, and coaxed him along. She jangled her jewelry and used the tips of her fingers to stroke his flanks, nibbled on his earlobe, and gyrated her strong fighter’s hips. All of the strokes, caresses, and kisses the courtesans had taught her she employed. She lost track of time, was impressed by his stamina. He turned her body about in his strong arms and she let her limbs go slack as he twisted and contorted above, below, and behind her. He held her tightly against him, his breath pouring down her neck like the contents of a hot pot spilled.
At one point he lay stretched out underneath her, his red hair a blaze on the glowing stones. The golden eyes were shut tight and his mouth, smoking slightly as if he held a hot coal under his tongue, was a screwed-up grimace of pleasure. A fine sheen of sweat glistened on his limbs. In Kathrina’s mind combat postures and fighting techniques raced and the possibilities of her situation, her position, seemed too perfect to ignore. She was, she thought, doomed to die one way or another, and preferred to take this last chance at glory than to waste away. In an instant her hands were locked tight around the dragon’s neck.
As she pushed her thumbs down hard against his windpipe she locked her knees against him, shoved all her weight down through the muscles of her arms, and pressed onto the vulnerable throat. She let out a growl that rose into a scream, filling the cavern with a single note of rage. Under her thumbs she could feel the windpipe begin to give. She was amazed at how easy, how simple, the destruction of the great dragon, seemed to be. She howled in triumph.
Then the dragon opened his eyes and she saw the fire flicker there, and as he opened his mouth she saw the teeth. There was no fear on his face and he did not even lift his arms, just sucked in half a breath and let it go. The last thing she felt as the dragon loosed his flames over her body was a heat hotter than anything she had ever imagined. A final scent of burnt hair reached her and then there was nothing.
With an effortless shove the dragon smacked Kathrina’s blasted body off his waist and onto the stones, where her torso, crisped and smoldering, broke into several black chunks. Drips of fire poured over his lips as he morphed, slowly, back into his true shape until again he filled up the cavern with his scales and claws and tail. He exhaled a noxious cloud. Lowering his head to Kathrina’s remains he gobbled most of her body in a series of quick chomps. He noticed something gamy about her flesh, where it was not burned through. He ascribed this to so rarely eating human females. When he was finished he looked at the little pile of ashes and bones that was all that was left of Kathrina. A few filaments of her gown floated through the air like dust.
“A shame,” he said. “You looked so much better than you tasted.”
A few ingots of silver were scattered where her jewelry had melted and he swiped at them with one of his front feet, nonchalantly knocked them towards his treasure piles where they bounced and rolled among the pools of gold and baubles like marbles. A charred legbone lay on the floor and the dragon picked it up in his claws, snapped it in two, and cleaned his teeth with the tip.
* * *
Some days later attending to his toilet the dragon admired himself in the shine of a huge mirror he had fashioned from the armor of a tall knight he had killed carefully, so as not to melt the plates. He turned his head to the left and to the right, admired the ridges of his jaws and flared his nostrils. He extended his wings and checked them for any blemishes, then inspected each claw for cleanliness. He posed in front of the mirror. He narrowed his eyes menacingly and then grinned at himself.
“Dashing,” he hissed. “Simply dashing.”
Putting the mirror down the dragon paused to relieve himself down an empty mineshaft. Neatly he tucked his wings along his spiked back and whipped his tail out straight behind him. Then, as his water began to flow, he felt a sharp, bright pain move through his groin. The pain was more intense than any spearhead or sword that had ever managed to pierce his hide, more consuming than any spell he had been subjected to. In agony he screamed as the mine shaft flooded below.
Panting and feeling raw through his groin he staggered backwards. A sting settled in there and did not fade. Glancing about the cavern as if he might spot an invisible enemy there he spied the splintered legbone he had been using of late as a toothpick, next to scrap of green satin gown coiled on the floor. At first he ignored them, then something in his ancient genius brought him back to them. Brusquely he snatched the bit of gown up on the tip of a claw and sniffed at it carefully and repeatedly. Just barely, veiled by the soaps and perfumes, he made out the scent of the fatal infection left there from Kathrina’s loins.
The dragon howled out in a mad rage that carried up through the tower, across the burned-out plain, over the pine forest, and reached the little village of Hammen, where the farmers’ wives at work in their huts and fields glanced towards the sound first with surprise, then with devious smiles. A few of the men shuddered at the handles of their plows.