I awoke in bonds, hanging from my wrists. I lifted my head, taking my bearings; the inside of a cabin, perhaps a peasant dwelling. No tapestries, no trophies, no portraits, the furniture all made of unadorned wood. The wood wasn’t local, and though plain, the craftsmanship very good. A silver cross on the wall. Perhaps not a peasant’s home, but a tradesman’s, or a priest’s. Simple, but not poor.
My armor, which I had been wearing while out riding, lay piled on the table along with my sword belt. I twisted to look behind me – I had been tied to a support column, and there were cuffs of metal on my wrists, secured by a tightly fastened bolt. I could cry out, but would anybody hear me? I heard no horses or carriages, no sounds of human civilization.
Best not to alert my captor yet, if I could help it. I crouched, bracing my feet on the floor, and pushed back against the support column as hard as I could; perhaps I could break it. I strained against it with no luck, then lifted away, and slammed my back against it. “Don’t bother dear, the house is very sturdy.” I snapped my head up, and a familiar face came out from deeper within the house.
“Princess Ravencort? Karina? What the hell is going on here? Quickly, get over here and loose these shackles.”
She looked at me, a little surprised, then giggled, a sound like pure crystal. “Oh, Prince. Don’t fear. I kidnapped you.”
I scoffed at her – she probably weighed under a hundred pounds soaking wet. “It’s true, dear. I know you like me; I saw the way you looked at me. We can be together, instead of your father forcing you to be with that muscle-bound lummox who pretends to be a warrior.”
“My father would marry me to Genevieve for an alliance with her father’s, to protect our western border. I would marry her because she has honor and a mind like a whip, and because I like muscle on my women.” I watched her as I spoke, as every barb cut her heart. Her expression darkened quickly.
“No. No. I saw how you looked at me. You say this for honor. I saw you; your eyes held desire!” Her voice was less gentle now; I heard a vicious and hysterical edge to it. I knew that edge – it was the voice of a person about to break.
“Any man’s gaze will linger on the curves of a female form. You’re pleasant to look at, but you are shallow, vapid, and weak. I would no sooner roll you than I would –” Her hand shot out, and something pure black struck my brow like a hammer blow.
“Shut up! Shut up shut up shut up! You will not finish that sentence if you wish to live!” Her voice was wild, now. I tried lifting my head to look at her, and my eyes didn’t want to focus. Her eyes were wild, her hair floating around her strangely, her hand cloaked in some black energy.
“What have you blackened your soul with, Princess? Power like this isn’t granted to men, not by forces that love us.”
“That doesn’t matter! What matters is that the priest will arrive soon, and he will marry us, and you–” Suddenly my spine straightened, and I couldn’t even turn my eyes to look at her. “–will tell him we’re in love, and need to be married immediately.”
When she began unfastening the shackles I tried to strike at her throat. My body didn’t even twitch. As she spoke, she drew me a step forward, my body following her lead like a clumsy dancer being led to the floor, her voice filled with a new, spiteful malice. “Don’t worry, my darling. Once the priest is done, I’ll take you somewhere lonely. I just know you’ll change your mind about me.”
“You cannot do such a thing.” I began to worry though that she might be capable of such a thing. I knew a few things she could do – but I was uncomfortably aware that I had no idea what she could not do.
Before she could make her reply, a voice boomed, like the sound of stone grinding on stone and formed into words. “This priest, I wonder?” I could feel the deep vibration of that voice through the floorboards; I wondered if the source of the Princess’s power had come to collect on its debt.
She rushed to a window, throwing the curtains open, and there stood a dragon – it had a priest in one hand, and my Genevieve in the other. True to her nature, Genevieve was cursing at it. “Damn you, you careless beast; we told you no killing men! You promised it! On your honor! Now put him down, and for the love of all that is holy, put me down!”
The dragon had the grace to look a little embarrassed, setting them both down, the priest turning and running as fast as he could. I looked back to Katrina, who was standing at the closed door, blackness gathering around her in clouds. She drew back as if to–“Genny, look out!”
The dragon and Genevieve looked up as the power blasted through the closed door. The dragon slammed his tail down, shaking the earth and shielding them both; despite their legendary resistance to such forces, I caught a glimpse of molten scales and bloody flesh. It lowered its head, neck bent like a snake about to strike, and growled. “I will break our deal. That human is going to die.”
Genevieve looked up at the dragon – I could feel the hate coming off him from here. Genevieve apparently knew better than to deny him and nodded her head once. “That one human may die, and our deal will hold.”
“Excellent.” The dragon’s voice was filled with malice and pain; I suspect his kind was not used to taking injury from humans.
At this, the princess began to laugh. Not the clear silver bell I had heard before, now she was cackling, ugly and spiteful. “You! Kill me! You haven’t seen the least of what I can do!” Darkness began to gather around her, and all over the sky around them. I turned my head to try and get a look at the scale of the danger and–
I turned my head. The realization of it struck me. She must be dividing her attention too much – I could move, though slowly and stiffly. The dragon was spitting fire, trying to defend itself as blasts of blackness began soaring towards it. It helped – the fire disrupted the energy hurtling towards him, and he blew great fans of flame, defending great swaths of space. Gen’s ancient shield resisted them as well, proving the legends about it true; but there was no way they’d last. He was too big a target. She couldn’t close the distance without exposing her back. They didn’t have the experience working together to cover each other’s weaknesses well.
One step. Two. I silently drew a knife from the knife block. Another step, and another. Blackness cloaked Melinda, and I waited – then she flung it to strike again, and I moved, slowly. An arm around her waist, not touching her, poising the knife. Then I pulled her to me, pushing the knife inward under her arm.
“What–my prince?” Then she felt the point of the blade. It was too late, then. I couldn’t move quickly, but I was strong, and the blade didn’t have far to go. Through the armpit, straight into her — then I was frozen again. She had re-focused her will upon me, before I could kill her.
I saw tears pouring down her cheeks, felt her sobbing, felt blood on the hand that held the knife, like hot grease. Her words were a wail, broken by sobs. “I didn’t want to kill you! I love you! I still love you!” But blackness was gathering in front of my face, and I knew, instinctively, that this wasn’t going to be as kind as the hammer blow I received earlier.
Then there was an arrow in her breast. Then another, impacting with such power that it seemed to just sprout from her chest. I was free suddenly, and I drove the knife home. Another arrow impacted, and I could feel the tip striking the knife, both lodged in her heart. Genevieve was still marching forward. She took a step and drew an arrow, took a step and nocked it, then stepped into a kneel, exhaled, and fired. Through her military precision, I could taste her hate. She would march forward an empty her entire quiver into this woman if she could. Another arrow struck, and I held up my hand for her to stop.
Gently, I laid Katrina down, and walked out to Genevieve. She rushed forward to meet me, and I hugged her fiercely, clutching her to my chest. “Gen. Damn, it’s good to see you. You were fierce! How in the hell did you get a dragon to help you?”
She smiled up at me, bashful – I’d never seen this lioness shy, except in my arms. I liked it. “The king . . . he knew he would be taking the Ravencort family lands in punishment for this. He offered the land to the dragon for his aid here, and his promise not to kill humans outside the land he was granted.”
I looked up at the dragon and raised my voice to be heard. “You, sir, I don’t know your ways, but is it impertinent to ask your name?”
He lowered his head to nearly my level, to hear me better. I could tell he was trying to subdue his voice, but it was still painfully loud. “It would be. Names have power. But you may call me Gentle Red.”
I laughed, but cut it short when his eyes narrowed. “Sorry, but I saw you fight. Gentle doesn’t seem to describe you.”
“I didn’t burn her alive, did I?”
“You had a deal not to kill me. That might have killed me, too.”
“The fire that it set might have killed you, eventually. Not me.”
That gave me pause, and a little insight that, though we had common ground, our minds did not necessarily operate on the same principles. “Gentle Red, then. May I visit your lands when you settle in? Without being killed?”
He lifted his head, looking down at me until I began to wonder if I’d given offense. “You may. Bring no more than two other humans, and I will not kill you or them.” The earth seemed to shake as he kicked into the air, the downdraft from his wings nearly taking me off my feet.
I looked at Genevieve, and cupped her cheek in a hand, smiling as her head tilted to nuzzle into my palm. “That . . . is something I’ll tell stories about for the rest of my life.”
She looked up at me, her eyes shining . . . then over my shoulder, her expression turning to stone, the look most people knew. “What do we do about . . . that? Burn her? She doesn’t deserve a burial.”
“We will bury her, without dishonor.” Genevieve looked up, her furrowed brows and narrowed green eyes demanding an explanation. “Her father, when he hears, will expect dishonor, loss of lands and title, perhaps execution for him, as well.”
“And he may get all of that!”
“I won’t permit it. She was a good person, once, corrupted by something that turned love to greedy desire. And though her father will lose his lands, he still loves his daughter. You know he’s a good leader. If we earn some favor, and perhaps he can still be useful to the kingdom. Perhaps even redeem himself.” Genevieve looked down as I spoke, her jaw muscles working, and I touched her cheek where I could see them bunch up. “Don’t grind your teeth. You know it as well as I do. Mercy is a strength, not a weakness.”
“I know it. I know it, damn it, but I’m not as strong as you are.”
“Genny, you are the toughest human being I know. But she struck your heart. I understand.”
She looked up at me, her eyes beginning to tear up, then she moved forward, her face burying itself in my chest. I took her helmet off, and dropped it, ran my fingers through her hair, letting her cry against my chest. Every time I went to war, it was like this – the danger I was in made her miserable, and when I was safe, the dam broke. I said not a word, letting her pretend it was just a hug, even though she had to know that I was aware of her tears. She was a warrior. Such things were important.
With time, she stilled, and I cupped a cheek, lifting her face, and kissing her brow – she grabbed my hair, pulling me down further, giving me a fierce kiss on the lips instead. I looked into her eyes, feeling a grin on my face. “When we get back . . . want to spar to see who takes charge?”
She grinned back at me, taking her gloves off to slide her hands up my chest. “My warrior prince . . . we’ll have to lock the doors to the training room if we did that.” I winked at her, glad that she understood me immediately.