Lords and Ladies, commoners from near and far, hear my great tale about adventures fraught with peril, heroic deeds, dragons and knights in shining armour, villains and vile deeds, but most importantly about true love as you find it only in .... well fairy tales ... two fair maidens battling fate and overcoming all obstacles because their love was just meant to be and...
"Two maidens? What do you mean two maidens? Ahhh, I got it, like two sisters finding each other and then their true loves..."
Uhm, nooooo, not like sisters...two maidens...well, you'll see...
Once upon a time, there were two maidens, both dark haired and with brown eyes. Though they lived in two different worlds and knew nothing of each other, their destiny was linked and fate would bring them together as it was meant to be.
Caitlin was born as the daughter of a smith. Her family lived in a small village. They were simple hard working people but times were good, so Caitlin's childhood was happy, spent playing in the smithy or the fields around the village. When she grew older her parents, and especially her mother became slightly worried because Caitlin didn't care much for the things a maiden should be interested in, like cooking or embroidery, but still liked to roam through the woods surrounding the village dreaming of adventures and faraway places or practicing with her bow and arrow. But they loved their daughter and were sure that things would work out in the end.
These first years of Kiera's life were a happy time and she grew up to be a spirited (wild, according to her tutors) little girl. She didn't care much about being a "proper" princess, as her nurse called it, but the king loved her as if she was his own daughter.
Alas, when Kiera turned 14, the old king passed away and his eldest son, Actos, took over the reign. Kiera didn't care much for him and the arrogant royalty he assembled at court and that feeling was mutual. When she turned 16, her stepbrother tried to take a more active role in her education. No doubt to make sure she was fit to be married off should it be to his advantage. This led to many rather unfortunate events, and in the end he gave up on it. They tried to stay out of each other's way, apart from public ceremonies where her presence was required.
So she lived a rather secluded life and as she grew older, her heart filled with loneliness and often she thought about leaving and go on an adventure to find her own people. She only knew that her homeland must be far to the east. So from an early age she had spent many hours in the library, pondering over dusty maps and history books, whispering the exotic names, wondering which of the old Eastern kingdoms was her home. But no matter how much she wanted to leave, this had been her home for all her life and she was quite popular among the people of the kingdom. Leaving would have felt like deserting them. So she stayed.
So these were the first years in the lives of the two maidens, simple yet happy in Caitlin's case, tragic and often lonely for Kiera. But tragedy should befall Caitlin's life shortly after her 21st birthday. The nagging from her mother to find a nice young man and settle down had constantly increased since her 18th birthday. Pointing out that all "nice young men" in the area were mostly as nice as a dragon's butt had helped in the beginning, but now her mother was getting desperate. Caitlin didn't know what the fuss of the other village girls about boys and marriage was all about, she didn't care for any of that.
"Hah, I know, that's because she hasn't found her true love yet. She's gonna marry that prince who...hang on, did we have a prince yet?"
Well, not really but...
"Well, I pretty damn well hope there's gonna be one soon, I mean how can you have a fairy tale without a prince..."
Don't worry, good Sir, it'll work out. As I was trying to tell...
...it was shortly after her 21st birthday when a group of heavily armed soldiers, lead by an important looking knight, came to the little village. They had been sent by the ruler of the lands, a king who pretty much left people to their own devices which was just fine with them. He had unfortunately a little problem, actually it was a rather huge problem in the form of an ancient dragon living on a mountain near the sea. The beast was rumored to be hundreds of years old with a hoard as big as a ... well mountain. People said that in its youth it had been the scourge of the land, terrorizing all the kingdoms around its lair, but old age seemed to have taken its toll. So now it was content with just eating one virgin every year. Caitlin often wondered how a beast as big as a house could sustain itself with the annual eating of one scrawny maiden and had always meant to look into that matter some day.
Well, her wish had been granted because the knight, who was called Sir Roderick, informed them that the king had bestowed the great honour upon her to serve her country by being served to a hungry dragon. Caitlin's parents and their neighbors did not think much about this honour, but there's only so much you can do against armoured soldiers when all you're wielding is a pitchfork. Personally Caitlin thought that by the looks of them, most of the soldiers wouldn't be able to find the backside of their own horse without a road map, but unfortunately, not much intelligence is required to pull the trigger of a crossbow.
So she said goodbye to her desperate parents, whispering to them that she would use the first opportunity to escape.
After two days on the road with the soldiers, Caitlin had counted 83 possibilities for escape. Unfortunately, it had dawned on her that should she escape, she surely wouldn't be able to go back to the village and, what was more, her people might have to suffer for it. So there was only one possibility, stage her own death and make it look like an accident. Well, the perfect opportunity for this lay straight ahead, but unfortunately it would require her to get eaten by a geriatric lizard. She really wished she had her bow and arrow. Caitlin had asked Sir Roderick whether they would give her some weapons when they left her as dragon lunch. She really liked the look of the soldiers' swords and...
"AHA, now you're talking hehehehehe, she liked to look at their swords ..."
Good Sir, have you ever been told that you have a dirty dirty mind?
"Oh yeah, many times ..."
Good! Now where was I ...
...and maybe a crossbow bolt through the eye would be enough to finish off an infirm dragon. Sir Roderick had just gazed pitifully at her telling her in his deep, grave voice that it would be inappropriate for the sacrifice to commit suicide. So much for that.
Around noon on the third day the soldiers started getting jumpy, casting nervous glances over their shoulders. And wouldn't that rocky hill in the distance maybe qualify as a mountain with some good will? Caitlin's heart sank, they were getting close. If she wanted to escape from her fate as lizard food it had to happen soon.
In the afternoon of the same day the first real possibility presented itself in the form of a large lake. The hill (or mountain) looked very close now and the terrain had gotten decidedly rocky. Boulders were strewn along the ridges of the lake. Its waters looked red in the light of the sinking sun, and more importantly they looked deep. Caitlin looked around surreptitiously, ever since her asking about weapons there was always one soldier near her. Luck was with her though, for the horses were now as jumpy as the soldiers and it was nearly impossible to bring them down to the water's edge to drink. When a splash sounded from the far side of the lake a few of them bolted and during the chaos which followed Caitlin sprinted towards water's edge, climbed up a boulder, and dove into the lake.
She made a spectacle of splashing and calling for help, then, after taking a deep breath, let herself sink a little bit and swam for the other side of the lake. In the cover of some scrawny bushes she carefully broke through the surface and looked back. As she had anticipated, some soldiers were frantically trying to get out of their armour, while others were holding back Sir Roderick, who obviously wanted to throw himself heroically into the water wearing full steel plate.
Suddenly, movement on the side of the lake between her and the soldiers caught her eye. The landscape itself seemed to shift, boulders stretched and lifted themselves into the air, the long rocky ridge curled and flexed. It didn't stop until it had transformed into a gigantic winged dragon. Caitlin had never seen one before, but there couldn't be a doubt about it, big as a house, spiked tail, teeth like spears and a scaly hide which looked like no sword ever made by man would be able to make a dent in it. And apart from that, the beast looked decidedly fit.
"Well, don't you want to go in and rescue her, you useless idiots?" it roared and Caitlin could feel its voice vibrating in her stomach. It seemed that most of the soldiers did not want to, as they already made a rather hasty retreat, leaving Sir Roderick who heroically stood his ground, or maybe he had just frozen on the spot. Whatever it was, Caitlin did not want his death on her conscience, so she splashed out of the water. Things happened very fast then, the dragon seemed to lunge and something grabbed her, then the air was rushing past her and the next thing she knew she was sitting on the ground in front of Sir Roderick who looked at her, eyes as big as saucers.
"There's your little water rat," the deep voice boomed again, "now say thank you and run along. Shoo!"
The knight made a squeaking sound and Caitlin realized he was trying to speak. Eventually he managed.
"Oh great dragon, we have come to honour the pact you made with our ancestors, presenting our annual offering to you and..." With that he gestured vaguely in Caitlin's direction. The gigantic head turned towards her and green eyes gave her the look-over then it snapped back to the knight and roared, "Oh no, it's you again. How many times do I have to tell you morons, I DON'T EAT MAIDENS! Humans give me indigestion, I haven't eaten one in ages. And it's ten years. TEN!"
"But but, the pact..."
The dragon roared again, blowing Sir Roderick off his feet. "I told you idiots, or your idiotic ancestors to bring me an offering every ten years because you just wouldn't leave me alone. Always sending some stupid knight or hero to finish me off. Alright, I have to admit, I ate one of them one day, but only because he annoyed me so much. And I lost one of my good chewing teeth on your blasted armour. So I told your people just send me a gift every TEN years and everything's peachy. I thought about gold or maybe a cake, but NO, it has to be a damn maiden. Every year! What am I supposed to do with them? Start a girl-group?"
Caitlin realized she probably should be scared, but the whole situation was just beyond ridiculous. While the dragon ranted she looked at the knight. His eyes were blank, she didn't think he'd gotten half of what was being said, but he seemed to realize that sitting on his butt while being lectured by a giant lizard didn't do much for his knight's honour.
He got up stiffly, and, to his credit, it has to be said that he was shaking only a little bit, so that his armour made a faint tinkling sound. While the dragon took breath for another round, Sir Roderick declared.
"I see that our offering displeases you. I have to admit she doesn't look like much..."
"...I am however sure that she will taste better than she looks and I will personally make sure that next year you will receive an offering worthy of your greatness or you may devour me instead."
With this heroic declaration he stalked off, armour creaking. Caitlin watched him leave, open-mouthed and furious. That bloody bastard ... She got up and looked around, bits and pieces of the soldiers' armour and weapons were still lying around. She grabbed a sword and made to run after him, when something caught her by the back of her shirt. She tried to pull free but it was like trying to pull a mountain. Of course. There was still the small matter of the gigantic dragon sitting behind her. Well, at least he (somehow she thought it was a he) had stated quite clearly that he didn't like to eat humans. He had said nothing about maiming, squashing or burning them to a crisp though. Caitlin stopped struggling, took a deep breath and turned around. The green eyes looked at her curiously and she found it was safe to concentrate on them, they didn't seem as deadly as the rest of the dragon.
"Hah, I get it now. The dragon is an enchanted prince, they'll fall in love and..."
No, it's not a prince...
NOOOOOO! And now please stop interrupting me!
Well, as I was saying...
...they didn't seem as deadly as the rest of the dragon. And to be honest, he hadn't really done anything threatening or violent, apart from existing of course, so maybe she would actually live through this whole crazy story. Adopting her most friendly smile she introduced herself, resisting the urge to extend her right hand. The dragon exhaled noisily, showing his teeth. Caitlin felt terror rising in her until she realized he was chuckling.
"Well met to you too. My name is Siegfried."
"Siegfried?!? Your name is Siegfried? Sort of ironic, isn't it?"
Siegfried narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
"Uhm, never mind. Sooo, you live in the mountain?" It was a pathetic start for a conversation but Caitlin was getting tired, the whole excitement catching up with her. And she was still soaking wet and started to shiver in the cool evening air.
"Yes, I do. It's quite warm there by the way. You look like you could use some warmth."
Caitlin stared wearily at Siegfried. Following a dragon into his lair didn't seem the most wise thing to do, on the other hand what was the worst he could do to her there that he couldn't do here. And she really was freezing.
"Uhm, alright, thank you ... Siegfried."
"Good. You can leave the sword by the way, unless you want to keep it of course. Looks like you picked a good one."
Caitlin looked stupidly at her hand which still held the sword. It really looked like a fine weapon. She gave it an experimental twirl.
"Are you skilled with the sword?" Siegfried asked eying her curiously.
"No," she answered regretfully. "My parents didn't think it was appropriate. I'm mean with a bow though."
Siegfried looked at her thoughtfully, he was impressed against his will. He had met a few sacrifices in his life, actually every year for a while now. Some of them begged for their life, some adopted a tragic pose and asked him to "take" them--Siegfried shivered, whatever that was supposed to mean-but mostly they fainted at the sight of him. He usually sent them off with a little bit of gold to start a new life somewhere. But this specimen was different. He guessed that she was good-looking according to human standards, but apart from that she was nothing like the swooning maidens he was used to. She seemed practical and down to earth. And she liked swords.
Caitlin decided to hang on to the sword, she thought she deserved a memento of this interesting day. Looking around for something to wrap it in-it was sharp as a razor--, she spotted some of the soldiers' gear lying around. She went through it and took a few useful things, clothes, blankets, some food rations. She shoved everything into a big leather sack and, after wrapping it in a old leather coat, strapped the sword on top. She turned back to the dragon. It was funny really how easy it was to talk to him. In fact this was the first normal conversation she had for three days.
"I am ready," she said, then looking at the mountain which seemed still a few miles away "Do we walk there?"
"I'd rather fly if you don't mind, I'm not much of a walker. That is if you're not scared."
Caitlin hesitated, but it was getting dark now, and cold, and she was really exhausted.
"Well, I am sure it will be an interesting experience."
"It cost me a fortune I can tell you. Dwarves are greedy little buggers," he told her while they were standing in the central chamber. Caitlin looked around open-mouthed, this was the resting place of Siegfried's legendary hoard. The sparkling and gleaming was so bright she had to squint.
"Yes, I can see you're on the brink of poverty," she said exasperated, "It's a miracle you don't have to go beg in the streets."
Siegfried stared at her for a moment then he started to roar with laughter.
About half a year after Caitlin was escorted from her village by a squad of soldiers in the neighboring kingdom, something extraordinary happened in Kiera's life also.
She was sitting in her study, poring over a huge stack of papers. She was working on a new, more concise, efficient and also just tax system. Doing princessy things wasn't really enough to occupy her time, and this gave her an excuse to travel around the country. She sighed, to her numbers made a lot more sense than the fake people at court.
Suddenly there was a rustling sound in front of the window. She looked up just in time to see a colorful blur shoot towards her before it collided with her forehead and dropped onto the papers in front of her.
"Ouch! Phyr, watch it, you stupid feather ball!" Kiera scolded the little bird who was sorting his wings and feathers then immediately flew up again hovering excitedly in front of her face.
"Kiera! Kiera, you have to come with me at once. You wont believe what I just saw. You have to come to the roof with me!"
Kiera was still rubbing her forehead.
"What? The roof? Whatever for?"
"Oh, stop that, you giant wuss, I didn't even leave a mark. You have to come with me! NOW! You will regret it if you don't. Really."
Kiera sighed and got up, she knew Phyr would not leave her alone until she followed him. And he was so agitated that she was getting mildly curious.
"Yes, that's it. Now come on, out of the window, we need to get to the window to your brother's room."
"What?!?! Phyr, I really do not want to see what my brother is doing with that slut of a chambermaid. If that is your thing, fine, but leave me out of it!" she yelled at him over his protesting chitters.
"NO, it's not about that, I promise. Now please, will you come? Believe me, you don't want to miss that conversation," he told her seriously.
"Oh m..." Phyr's claws dug into Kiera's shoulder and probably saved her from getting caught. She stared open-mouthed at the man. He looked just like her.
"Ah, I see! It's her lost twin brother. She thought she was an orphan right, and now he comes and..."
That's it! Sir, would you kindly leave the premises!
"Hah, make me!"
Yes, I was hoping you would say that. I advise you to go quietly though. Our security trolls are not known for their good manners.
"What? Get off me you ugly... URGH"
Oh dear, I did warn you, didn't I. Well, I guess I can continue then...
He looked just like her. The slightly darker complexion, the eyes. There was no doubt, this must be a man from Kiera's homeland. Phyr's claws dug deeper which helped her clear her head a little bit and for the first time she actually managed to listen to the conversation.
"I must say, it was rather a surprise, although a very pleasant one, to receive the letter of your lord. We haven't heard any news from the old Eastern kingdoms for a very long time. But I'm delighted that this is about to change now," her brother said.
"Yes, most rulers in our realm tend to isolate themselves from outside influences, but my master has a more progressive mind," the stranger answered. Although his accent was pronounced, his command of the language was impeccable.
"I am glad to hear that. I had to ask our librarian about your country, unfortunately I'm not very versed in geography. But I am afraid our information about your homeland, Anghan, are limited."
Kiera wasn't sure, but she had the distinct impression the stranger, he must have been some sort of ambassador, was rather happy about that. She could tell her brother was impressed by the stranger, his clothes and manners spoke of wealth and noble ancestry. But Kiera didn't care much about all that and her instincts told her the man was a rather shifty character. His next words only emphasized that feeling but left her also stunned.
"Well, like I said, we tend to keep to ourselves. However our merchants still travel far and so my master learned about a beautiful princess from the old kingdoms living here in your land. He was curious and also felt for her, he thought she might be a little bit lonely so far from her people," he said. Kiera couldn't believe it, this was all about her? Did the stranger have some information about her origin? He had called her a princess, did that refer only to her adopted title? Thoughts were running wild in her head, and she was not the only one. Phyr, still sitting on her shoulder, was positively shaking with excitement.
She suspected that her brother had similar thoughts. "Well, yes, she never seemed particularly happy here, I have to admit," he said guardedly.
Yes, that's true, but you're one of the reasons for it, you little bastard, Kiera thought indignantly.
"In his message your lord stated he had a proposition for me. Does this concern my stepsister?" he carried on.
"Yes indeed. You see, my master hasn't found the right bride yet. And since he wishes to open our country to the outside world, he believes a marriage with a foreign kingdom would be of great benefit. For both kingdoms of course. An ally so far away might not be of much military use you might say, but we possess a great amount of ancient knowledge. Secrets and wonders which might be of great use to you. And of course exotic goods from the east," the stranger answered smoothly.
Kiera had the impression he was watching Actos, who was visibly trying to make up his mind about something, very carefully. Obviously her brother had decided to go with the truth, for he said finally, "I have to ask you, Ambassador J'iang, do you know anything about the origin of my sister then? I assure you she was raised as a princess of this realm and possesses the same claims and rights any daughter of my father would have had. But she was a foundling and we do not know how she ended up swimming in the ocean near our coast."
"No, no we have not heard of any princess going missing in our neighbouring kingdoms. We are aware that her origins are a mystery. But as you said, your father took her on as his own and isn't ennoblement the privilege of a king?" J'iang was quick to say, a little bit too quick Kiera thought. She was sure there must be something more to it. Actos however just looked slightly disappointed.
"Should you, or better to say your sister accept, though I am sure you as the king will be the final judge of the worth of our offer, she can inquire further into this matter as much as she likes of course," the ambassador carried on.
Kiera's brother nodded, still looking thoughtful and then rose from his seat. "Well, you have done well in presenting your lord's offer, ambassador J'iang. You will understand that we will have to think carefully about this matter although I can assure you that a union of our kingdoms seems to be worthy cause to me."
J'iang also rose and bowed. "Of course your majesty. I am off on another mission for my lord and will return in maybe two months to receive your answer if that pleases you."
Actos nodded graciously and the ambassador left. Kiera quickly ducked down for her bother had turned to the window, probably looking out to watch the ambassador leave. She crept stealthily away, her own mind reeling over what had just transpired.
Soon they were back in her chambers. Phyr had been silent all the way, a clear sign that he was just as dumbstruck as she felt. They looked at each other.
"You know, this sounds all like a load of dragonshit to me," Phyr finally said. Kiera couldn't help but grin at her little friend. She thought the same though she probably would not have used the same colourful language. But she found his blunt honesty refreshing.
"Why are you grinning at me like that?" he asked suspiciously.
"Oh, nothing, I was just reminded of why I decided to keep you."
"Ah, you mean my sweet singing voice," he said and seemed to grin too, an admirable feat since he only had a beak to work with.
Phyr had been a gift for her 16th birthday. A king from a neighbouring realm had presented him as the best thing since the invention of fire. Supposedly his kind was very rare, only found on some remote island. They had a splendid blue and golden plumage and a singing voice which was said to be as sweet as a siren's song. And what was even more wondrous they could speak and were supposed to possess some intelligence.
The whole court had gawked at the little bird, waiting with bated breath for it to sing. Finally it had opened its beak- the king who had presented the gift breathed a sigh of relief- and then started swearing like a sailor. It had been an outright scandal, a dozen ladies of the court had fainted and Kiera could hardly stop her brother from declaring war. She thought the whole episode was brilliant, she hadn't laughed that hard since the day her obnoxious teacher for princessy conduct had found her underwear dyed red and hanging from the battlements (Kiera did have an alibi of course).
So she decided to keep the little bird. She soon found out that it-or better he- possessed in fact more than human intelligence and a tongue sharp enough to slice your head off. But he was also loyal and the best friend one could ever have.
"Yes, your sweet sailor's voice," she answered smiling. Her insides were still in turmoil, but she felt better already for the fact that whatever would be happening, she wouldn't have to face it alone. "Come on," she continued "I need fresh air. Let's go for a ride." Phyr, who was always keen to escape the bounds of the castle, nodded happily.
Kiera was watching her brother very carefully the next few weeks, but whatever his thoughts were, he seemed not inclined to share them with her. He didn't mention the stranger, nor showed any sign that something was going on. This of course did not endear him further to her. She hadn't thought much about him before, but now her opinion had reached an all time low.
Kiera and Phyr discussed the matter extensively of course and both were convinced that there must be a lot more to the whole affair. But the only lead they had was the name of the country, Anghan, the ambassador hailed from. Or at least claimed to; at this point Kiera was inclined to take nothing at face value.
The name was familiar to her, she remembered it from her library sessions pondering over old maps and atlases. Of course she tried to find out more, but realized that her brother had been right. There wasn't much to go with. And she couldn't enlist the help of the old librarian. Kiera didn't want to raise suspicion. Fortunately her presence in the library wasn't anything out of the ordinary, she liked reading and could be often found sitting in the great hall, near one of the windows.
However, so far she hadn't been able to gather much information. Anghan was the smallest of the six old eastern kingdoms and was reigned by a long line of kings and, interestingly, also queens. There was a long history of war between the rest of the five kingdoms, but for some reason Anghan seemed to be excluded from that. It really wasn't much to go on.
After one month she got fed up with it. Her anger at her brother reached boiling point and so she confronted him. Still, in the beginning she had tried to stay calm and talk reasonably with Actos. Surely he must see that this ambassador character must have a hidden agenda. He did not and it had turned into an enormous row. He told her that whatever it was he decided she would follow it. He was the king after all. She told him unmistakably that no matter what he decided she would have a saying in it and not "come quietly". She was still a princess of the realm after all.
Afterwards she felt a little bit better, but in the long run she hadn't really gained anything by it. She didn't like the prospect one bit, but at the moment she couldn't much apart from waiting for the stranger to return. She'd talk to him herself then and she be damned if she didn't find out more from him than her idiotic brother.
Well, back to our other heroine. Siegfried the dragon had offered that, since Caitlin did not think it wise to go back to her village immediately, she could stay with him for a while if she wanted to. He looked rather hopeful when he had made the offer and Caitlin suspected he was pretty lonely in his mountain lair. He did get visitors from time to time, but not many.
Caitlin thought about it for a while and then decided it wasn't such a bad idea. The prospect to do whatever whenever she wanted sure was tempting. So she said yes and sent a letter to her parents explaining everything and promising to visit them soon. Siegfried seemed to be very happy and he told her to pick any chamber in the guest rooms and take whatever clothes she wanted.
"Guest rooms? You have guest rooms?" she had asked incredulously. "Whatever for?"
"Well, for guests you know," he had replied haughtily. "There's the odd dwarf or elf coming over to visit. Would you build a home without guest rooms?"
Caitlin couldn't argue the logic in that. So she picked a room which was to her liking. It had a nice view of the valley, which she soon set out to explore. It was glorious, roaming around the whole day without anyone telling her to behave and not get her clothes dirty. She'd found some nice sets of practical clothes in her room, probably elf made, and happily traded the skirt and blouse marking her as a farm girl for a typical hunter's outfit made from fine dark brown leather. Siegfried had looked impressed.
After three days Caitlin had nearly run out of food rations, so she asked Siegfried where she could find a bow to go hunting. She had no idea what the dragon was eating (and she wasn't sure she wanted to know, well, at least she knew he usually didn't eat humans). Siegfried gave her his best toothy deadly looking smile - thankfully she'd gotten used to it by now - and told her to follow. The dragon led her to the central chamber again, then started rummaging around in his hoard. After a few minutes she heard a triumphant snort and he turned back and gestured her forward. Caitlin moved closer and gazed curiously at the item he pointed out. It was a long plain wooden box. She opened it and gasped. Inside was the finest bow she had ever seen. It was short, so probably a rider's bow, but looked very strong. She did not recognize the wood it was made of, it was red-brown and there were fine carvings on the limbs. She looked questioningly at Siegfried.
"Go on take it, it's yours if you like it," he said grinning.
"If I like it? Like it?" she said with a slightly squeaky voice. She took the bow out of the box and looked at it admiringly from all angles. Then she bent it, put the bowstring on and drew it experimentally. It was tough, but with a little bit of practice it would be no problem. She carefully released the tension from the string then looked at the dragon open-mouthed. She wanted to hug him. But where did you hug a dragon without impaling or cutting yourself? She settled for the nose.
"Okay, I have to know, what exactly are you eating?" Caitlin asked finally.
"Cow mostly, or the odd monster wandering around. Or humans if they really piss me off. But I don't need much, I'm magical after all. One cow per week is enough," he informed her.
"Aha, one cow per week. I was wondering how you could survive on one scrawny maiden every year."
She also kept the sword she had taken. She suspected it must be Sir Roderick's. It wasn't very long and they were about the same height. Well, he seemed to be a moron, but at least he knew how to pick a good sword. Caitlin just wished she knew how to handle it properly.
Before she realized it, nearly half a year had gone by. It was the best time in Caitlin's life, and the most interesting. For example, there was a rather unfortunate event involving an overzealous knight who wanted to liberate the people from the dragon's tyranny, whatever that was supposed to mean. Caitlin thought he was a pompous ass. By the end of the episode Caitlin was the happy owner of a huge black war-horse, formerly known as Black Thunder, but poor Siegfried had a stomach ache for nearly two weeks.
She also secretly visited her parents a few times. They missed her terribly, but were happy that she was safe.
She said goodbye to them and made to leave.
"Be careful, I saw a group of bandits on my way here," Marla yelled after her.
"I'll be careful then. But no horse is as fast as Inky," she yelled back as she left the chamber.
"Inky?" The black unicorn looked at Siegfried questioningly.
"Don't ask," he answered rubbing his belly.
Around five weeks after the mysterious visitor, Kiera was traveling through her kingdom. She was on official business. She hated that, for it meant she had to wear a frilly dress, not her sensible travel clothing and she had to use the official carriage. The thing was ugly as hell and uncomfortable. And you could spot it from one mile off because the damn thing was blinking and gleaming like a Christmas tree. And it was drawn by not less than eight horses, which looked beyond silly. Of course, since it was official business, an escort of the finest knights was also required. They were in full armour, which meant you could hear them from two miles off. Kiera would have traded them happily for a squad of less shiny but more experienced soldiers. There were a lot of capable officers in the military, but unfortunately they all seemed to have their day off. Of course she knew the chances of anything happening were slim to none. The roads in the kingdom were mostly safe, she was just in a bad mood because she had to travel looking like a psychotic flamingo. So she decided to let it go.
Around midday they reached the edge of the big forest and the knights started to look around warily. Kiera remembered that at the edge of it there was a small mountain, where the mighty dragon Siegfried lived. She was not worried about the dragon though, for her father had been on good terms with him and always insisted the old fellow just wanted to be left alone.
For some reason though she had an uneasy feeling in her stomach and wished she had Phyr with her. The little bird could have kept an eye on the road ahead. But he was indisposed. He was moulting and refused to be seen by anybody during that time. So she had left him brooding at the castle. Shaking her head at herself Kiera forced herself to calm down, she had been rather paranoid the last weeks.
Suddenly there was a strange whooshing sound next to her right ear. The carriage stopped. Kiera looked up and opened her mouth to ask her coachman what was wrong, but then closed it abruptly. The man was hunched over on the coach box and from the crossbow bolt sticking out of his back it was very evident that he wouldn't answer questions anytime soon; maybe never. She uttered a few choice swear words, Phyr would have been proud, and the knights started yelling all at once. Some were pointing at the road behind them, and Kiera spotted a few men on horses.
"Do not worry, your highness, we'll get those bastards." Before Kiera could reply the captain of the knights ordered four men to stay with the carriage then the rest of them charged down the road.
"Stop it, damnit," she yelled after them but it was too late.
"Please stay calm, your highness," one of the four knights addressed her, "You are quite safe with us. We will protect you with our lives." She just looked at him incredulously. Kiera prayed to all the gods that she was wrong, but this looked like the perfect setup. Unfortunately she wasn't, for a moment later a hoarse voice sounded from the woods to the left of them.
"Well good Sir knight, your wish has been granted." They started to raise their shields, but it was too late, a loud metallic twang sounded and the knight dropped off his horse. Kiera looked at him and swallowed hard at the sight of the crossbow bolt sticking out of his body. It was not easy to hit the weak spots of a full body armour.
"Now the rest of you, drop your weapons and get off your horses," the voice sounded again. The remaining knights looked at Kiera. She nodded. No use getting them killed also. A few moments later about 20 men appeared from various hideouts in the woods around them, several had crossbows or bows trained on them. Kiera knew the situation was grim, those were cold blooded killers, not the usual "give me your spare change" sort of highwaymen you usually got in these parts.
"Now look at this, I think we've caught us a nice little princess. An an exotic one to boot." Kiera recognized the hoarse voice. "Heh, if we play this right we'll get a fortune of ransom for the little bird."
"Now listen you blo..." It was probably a good thing Kiera got interrupted before she could tell the bandit in detail what she thought about him. The coachman in front of her stirred, he wasn't dead, yet. Kiera started to move, maybe it wasn't too late at least for this one.
"Don't bother," the bandit leader sneered, then he turned towards one of his men, "Kill him! And the rest." The man grinned and drew a vicious looking dagger. Kiera started to protest but a dull thud interrupted her. The bandit with the dagger collapsed, a thick black arrow sticking out of his chest. Another thud and another bandit went down. They stared at them for a moment, then total chaos ensued as more arrows hailed on them.
"Damnit! More soldiers!" The leader shoved one of his men who had been scrambling for cover onto the coach box. "Get her to the camp before those idiots chasing the others come back." The bandit, realizing that the coach was probably the fastest way out of there, kicked off the coachman, grabbed the reins and off they went. Kiera tried to hop off but her frilly dress caught in a spring standing out from the upholstery and she was thrown backwards into the seats. Just great! If she survived this day, the inventor of frilly dresses would have to die a slow and painful death.
When the company had been ambushed she had acted without thinking, she didn't really have a plan. It was not the first time she had to deal with bandits but so far she always had a dragon for backup.
But now the coach was racing off and she had to decide what to do. The remaining two knights had grabbed their weapons again and were fighting back. Caitlin had evened the odds considerably with her bow. She cursed again, and ran back to where she had left Inky.
She had tried several times to crawl to the front now to kick that idiot off and take control of the carriage. But with every bump she'd been knocked back again.
"Unkkkkk!" There was another one and Kiera was nearly completely airborne this time. When she looked up again the bandit was gone. Her joy over this was short-lived though, for she realized that now there was nobody steering the blasted thing. The horses seemed to take that as their cue to go even faster.
Suddenly she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Someone on horseback - one of the bandits?- was nearly level with the coach. Damnit. This gave her new motivation though, and she lunged again desperately for the coach box. This time she succeeded. Not that it did her a whole lot of good for she saw now that the reins had fallen forward, together with the unlucky bandit who was dragged on the ground. Kiera howled in frustration, she really thought she would have deserved a little bit of luck by now.
Suddenly the coach jerked sideways, the rider had managed to jump on board. From the cursing that ensued now, he probably realized this hadn't been the smartest idea. A small part of Kiera's mind registered that he sounded awfully young. She turned round, determined to kick him off. He looked awfully young too, with long dark brown hair in a ponytail, and he was staring wide eyed to the road ahead.
"We have to jump," he yelled. "NOW!"
"JUMP? Are you insane?"
"There's a bend ahead, and at this speed this ridiculous excuse for a carriage will fly out of it like a cannonball."
Kiera couldn't argue with the logic of that. So before their minds could think about it and conjure up images of broken bones and being smashed on a tree, they jumped over the edge.
A sound beneath her told her she should probably find out on what exactly she had landed so she opened her eyes experimentally. And found the princess looking at her from very a short distance. A small yet persistent part of Caitlin's mind noticed she had beautiful dark brown eyes. And very nice full lips. Unfortunately she failed to notice that her own hands, which were resting very comfortably on the body beneath her, were located on two rather inappropriate spots.
Kiera couldn't believe it, she had been shot at, kidnapped, nearly broken her neck and now she was being groped by a smelly dirty bandit. Then her mind finally caught up with what her eyes were seeing. It wasn't a bandit, it was a young woman. With interesting fawn brown eyes. Dressed in dark brown leather. And she wasn't smelly, in fact she smelled rather nice and... Kiera irritatedly pushed those thoughts away. Woman or not, she was being groped and worst off all, she had to go through that whole ridiculous ordeal while wearing a frilly dress. Keeping your personal dignity looking like that was just impossible. With her luck the next minute some shining hero would probably appear trying to rescue a damsel in distress. And she'd be damned if she'd let that happen to her.
Kiera brought her right knee up sharply, was rewarded with a muffled Ooof! and then used the momentum to flip them over. The woman was obviously so baffled she didn't offer any resistance. In one smooth movement Kiera drew the dagger she always carried with her - it was quite a feat really considering all the frills - and pressed it against the woman's throat who was just staring at her with big round eyes. Hah! Things were looking up now.
Caitlin spread her arms slowly in a gesture of surrender. Sheesh, it seemed exotic princesses were easy excitable. "Now, to make things perfectly clear. I don't appreciate being kidnapped and I don't appreciate being nearly chased to death. And most of all I don't appreciate being groped by strangers," she spat at her. Caitlin was confused for a moment, then she realized where her hands had been a moment ago and she blushed a deep crimson red.
Kiera thought it looked rather cute, which irritated her even more. Fortunately they were both rescued at that moment before any further embarrassment could occur. A horse neighed nearby. Caitlin craned her neck and smiled.
"Inky! Good boy!"
The black horse ambled nearer and started to nuzzle Caitlin's outstretched hand. Kiera looked at it and spotted a bow and arrow hanging on the saddle.
"Oh my," she said, dropping the dagger. "It was you who shot the bandits."
"Uhm, yes. I'm Caitlin. Nice to meet you, uhm, your highness."
"Oh, yes, well please call me Kiera. I don't like titles. But how did you..."
Caitlin grinned when she found her assumption to be correct. She had rescued a princess. A beautiful exotic princess.
"Well, the carriage and all. And the uhm..."
"Hideous dress?" Kiera asked with raised eyebrows.
They looked at each other for a moment then started laughing hysterically. When they had calmed down a bit both suddenly realized they were still very inappropriately close together and hastily got up. And regretted that immediately when sharp pain informed them of the many bruises on their bodies. It was a miracle really they hadn't broken all their bones while rolling down the steep incline. Kiera had a bloody scratch on her arm and their clothes were torn, but that was the worst damage. They considered themselves very lucky.
"Very nice horse you have there," Kiera said, eying the black stallion. "Looks a little bit temperamental though." Caitlin nodded. "Yes very true, in the beginning he had quite an attitude. Didn't you?" she said scratching the big horse behind the ears.
"Well, you must be a very talented rider then." Kiera was impressed.
"Oh, not really. I just told him I'd let my dragon eat him if he didn't behave."
Kiera started laughing, then stopped at the dangerous grin on Caitlin's face.
"That wasn't a joke."
They decided it would be wise to stay off the road and scout back through the woods to where the fighting had taken place. Kiera wanted to see whether the men had survived. Caitlin agreed, she felt rather bad for leaving them. And they needed to find out what had happened to those idiots who had chased after the bandits.
So they carefully made their way through the woods, Caitlin was leading Inky on his reins. The undergrowth was thick and walking through it was taxing. They didn't speak. Kiera would have loved to hear all about her savior but they suspected the bandits would be looking for their prize. Soon after though they heard voices from above them where the road must have been. They looked at each other wearily, then went to hide behind a boulder.
"I'll sneak to the road and see who it is. If I don't come back in a few minutes, take Inky and get out of here," Caitlin whispered.
"I can do that too," Kiera protested.
"I'm sure you can, but you're not wearing the most practical clothes for the occasion."
Kiera cursed soundlessly. She knew Caitlin was right. She already had torn off part of the skirt, but the damned thing still caught in every bush and bramble.
"Alright, go ahead. But be careful," she whispered, laying her hand on Caitlin's arm, who smiled at her and crept off.
Caitlin was lost in thoughts while she carefully made her way to the road. She was quite fascinated with Kiera, though her own gut level reactions to the princess were rather confusing. When Kiera had torn off part of her dress, Caitlin's mouth had gone quite dry and she had had to actively keep herself from staring at the pair of nice shapely calves which had been revealed in the process. It was quite embarrassing really. And damnit, she should really keep her wits about her now and find out who was at the road ahead. She shook her head at herself and tried to concentrate on the task at hand.
Kiera had watched Caitlin sneak from tree to tree, admiring her sure movements, until she had disappeared from view. Clearly she was used to creeping through the undergrowth. Her tan skin also was a testament to spending a lot of her time outdoors. Well, that was not unusual for most of the working people in her kingdom. Kiera just didn't know what to make of her, she clearly was no simple farm girl, but she wasn't a bandit either. Where did she live and what about that dragon? Did she really mean old Siegfried who lived not far away. Maybe it had been a joke after all. Kiera smiled, at least she had a nice sense of humor. She couldn't help it, she liked her. A lot. And she desperately wanted to know more about her.
Minutes passed and Kiera got worried. The thought that something might have happened to her new friend unexpectedly made her stomach clench with nausea. Then she spotted a movement and breathed a sigh of relief. Caitlin had appeared at a spot halfway to the road and was waving at her. It seemed the path was clear.
The three survivors however were extremely grateful and one of them even fell on his knee in front of Caitlin, offering his services to her. She had blushed, and, ignoring Kiera who was snickering behind her back, had told him kindly that this wasn't necessary.
Kiera had decided that they would make their way back to the last village they had passed, the sun had already started to sink, and regroup there. She hoped that Caitlin would come with them, however since the immediate danger was over, there was really no reason to. But the thought that she would disappear from her life just as quickly as she had entered it, deeply depressed Kiera. She was still thinking about how to breech the subject with Caitlin, when they had realized they were one horse short now. One knight was dead, but they had lost a horse during the fighting.
Caitlin immediately offered to accompany them, and suggested the princess could ride on Inky with her since they were both lightweights. Kiera thought she looked rather hopeful but maybe that was her own wishful thinking.
So now she was sitting on the black stallion, Caitlin's arms safely wrapped around her. Of course she had to ride side saddle and normally she hated that, but for now she didn't mind. She knew she shouldn't feel so comfortable being that close to a total stranger, but she was sore and tired. It was getting dark and the mists started rising out of the grassy fields lining the road now. At the moment she didn't want to question the warm nice feeling being close to Caitlin evoked in her. And it was a good opportunity to talk to her. Kiera finally found out that Caitlin had spent most of her live in a kingdom on the opposite of the mountain. However when asked about her current home, the young woman seemed reluctant to answer. Kiera suspected she did not feel very comfortable to talk about personal matters in front of the knights who were within earshot. To keep the conversation going the princess started to talk about her own kingdom and Caitlin seemed keen to learn more about her, asking many questions. Kiera also told her about her personal history, she had no qualms talking about that. Everybody in the kingdom knew the story of course.
"So you do not know where you came from or who your parents were...," Caitlin said after she had heard the tale. It was more of a statement than a question.
Kiera hesitated a moment. But mentioning the strange ambassador and all that was really out of the question here. She would have liked to hear Caitlin's opinion on the matter though and fervently hoped there would be a chance for that in the future. Kiera had already found out that her new friend did not talk much, but what she said was worth listening to.
"That must be really lonely," Caitlin continued.
"It is." Kiera answered quietly.
She felt Caitlin's arms go tighter around her for a moment. The rest of the ride they spent in silence.
Finally they saw the lights of the village gleaming in the distance. One of the knights spurred his tired mount into a gallop and rode ahead, probably to announce the arrival of the princess. Judging from the relieved murmurs around them, they were all glad for the prospect of a warm bed and food. The only thing Caitlin could think about was that it meant she probably would have to say goodbye to Kiera. And she did not want to. She had never felt that comfortable and easy with someone she had just met. And the feeling of holding Kiera in her arms filled her with something that was beyond rational thinking. It felt warm and safe. And right. She did not want to let that go.
Much too soon they were riding into the enclosure that marked the borders of the village. The knight had come back and informed the princess that despite the late hour, the mayor of the small community was "honoured and overjoyed" to put his own house at the princess' disposal. When they reached his house, which was more of a manor, a welcoming committee was already assembled. Kiera sighed, and with Caitlin's help, managed to get gracefully off the black horse. Caitlin supposed it wouldn't do for a princess to just hop off like a commoner. She put on an obviously well-practiced smile and graciously accepted the village's hospitality. Caitlin was impressed how easily Kiera slipped into her official role as princess, projecting a regal aura despite her torn and dirty clothes.
She herself felt definitely out of place and led Inky to the side, pondering about what to do now. The rest of the company were seeing to their horses, leading them to the village's stables. She didn't really want to stay, feeling very uncomfortable with the surroundings now, even if it meant spending the rest of the night on horseback. She did that often enough. And Siegfried would be worried too. But she couldn't just leave, that would be rather rude and, more importantly, she desperately wanted to see the young princess again. If she could just talk to her in private for a moment, but that seemed rather impossible at the moment. The mayor was fussing over her, sending servants in all directions and guided her through the entrance, all the while lamenting vocally the misfortune that had befallen the company.
"Well, I guess that's it," Caitlin said forlornly to Inky, who neighed back sympathetically. She gratefully leaned against the black horse, feeling the exhaustion and excitement of the day finally catch up with her, leaving her drained. Suddenly all she wanted to do was get out of there. She sighed, patted Inky again and started to get up when a voice sounded behind her.
"You know, that's rather rude leaving without saying goodbye." Kiera was standing there, a long overcoat drawn close around her. She looked stern, but Caitlin saw the smile in her eyes. Still, she couldn't help but feel a little bit irritated.
"Well, I thought my presence wasn't required anymore," she said stiffly. Kiera's face fell and Caitlin immediately chided herself for acting like a child. "I'm sorry, I just didn't feel very comfortable with all this," she explained, gesturing around vaguely.
"No, you are right," Kiera quickly said, "It was wrong of me leaving you standing there. Believe me, I am very grateful for what you did today. But I couldn't get rid of that old busybody anytime sooner. And I thought you might not be comfortable with being the center of all that attention."
"Yes, that is definitely true," Caitlin said with feeling. They both smiled.
Suddenly they were both tongue-tied and just looked at each other. Unsurprisingly, it was Kiera who first managed to find her voice again.
"So, do you really have a pet dragon?"
"But I'm living with one who is kind enough to let me stay in his lair for the time being."
"Oh. You know, I'm sure there's a fascinating story behind this. One day I want to hear all about it."
"If you like."
"How about next week?" Kiera asked slyly. Caitlin looked dumbfounded for a moment, then a smile spread across her face.
"Yes, I think I'd really like that," she said slowly.
"Alright then," Kiera smiled, "do you know where our castle is?"
"No, but I figure it will be big enough that I can't miss it," Caitlin grinned.
Kiera chuckled. "Yes I'm afraid it is. Well there's the ruin of an old tower just north of it. Meet me there at noon 6 days from now?"
Caitlin nodded. "I'll be there."
"Good. I guess I can't convince you to stay?" Kiera turned more serious "I know you can take care of yourself, but it's late and you must be hungry and cold."
"No, I'll be fine. I need to get back. Siegfried will be worried. You don't want a worried dragon looking for me."
"I guess not," Kiera said smiling. "Well, good night then. And safe journey." She briefly hesitantly touched Caitlin's arm, then she turned around and walked back.
Caitlin looked after her and still stood there lost in thought when Kiera had long disappeared into the house. After a little while someone nudged her rather ungentle in the back.
"Oh, sorry Inky," she said sheepishly. "Yes, lets get back before Siegfried has a fit and sets the wood on fire again ."
Inky neighed in agreement.
You know, I have the distinct feeling you haven't told me everything," Siegfried said sternly. They were outside, on the side of the mountain and Caitlin was practicing with her bow. Or that was the theory at least. Ever since the bandit incident two days ago, the young woman hadn't been her usual self. The truth was, Siegfried suspected he knew what was bothering Caitlin, but he wanted to hear it from her in case he was totally wrong.
"Huh? What are you talking about?" Caitlin said absentmindedly and let her next arrow lose. It missed her target by a meter, bounced off a rock, then another rock, then Siegfried's nose and finally hit an old tree.
"Alright, that's enough!" Siegfried growled in frustration. Actually he wanted to howl, but when he did avalanches happened sometimes. "What is wrong with you?" Caitlin blinked at him confusedly. He took a deep breath. He just had to know.
"It's one of those knights, right?", he asked. The thought pained him for some reason. Knights. Pfffft.
"Who cares about those knights, when there's a beautiful..." Caitlin burst out, then stopped in mid-sentence and blushed. Siegfried looked at her dumbfounded for a moment. Then his brain put two and two together but the result he got wasn't straight. Understanding dawned on his scaly face.
"Aaahh... By the Ancient Ones. It's the princess!" he roared. On the other side of the mountain a small avalanche went down, but neither of them noticed. Siegfried picked up Caitlin in both his giant claws and raised her to eye-level.
"Hey, let me down, what's the matter with you?"
Siegfried ignored her protests and looked at her triumphantly. "A real princess. Yes. That's my girl." he crooned, pressing her against his cheek. Caitlin who had never gotten this full dose of lizardy affection, not even when she had shot her first goblin, was quite overwhelmed and tried to get out of his claws. But when a dragon wants to hug you, there is not much you can do about that. Thankfully, after a few minutes he calmed down again. But now he wanted to know all about Kiera of course and Caitlin told him.
"So, I guess that means you're in love with the little lady." It was a statement, not a question. Still Caitlin thought about that for a moment.
"Yes...I think so...I..I just don't know, Siegfried."
"Alright, lets see...Do you miss her?"
"Are you thinking about her all the time?"
"Loss of appetite?"
Caitlin nodded dejectedly.
"Fire coming out of your nose?"
"Oh, dragon terminology, scratch that. Did you dream about kissing her..."
"...and doing other stuff?"
"Ye... Siegfried!" She blushed furiously and threw her bow at him.
"So, when are you gonna see her again?"
"Whom?" Kiera tried acting stupid, but the performance was rather half-heartedly.
"The tough, butch yet beautiful and sensitive girl you told me about," he answered exasperatedly.
Kiera didn't bother to deny it. She had never been very good at hiding her feelings. She smiled.
"I'll meet her in a couple of days."
"Good! Are you going to kiss her?" he asked matter-of-factly.
Now it was Kiera's turn to look exasperated. "Phyr! I just met her! I don't even know whether she likes wo... me." Phyr was unimpressed.
"Well, she would have to be really stupid not to like you..." Kiera threw her arms in the air and rolled her eyes. What else could she do when confronted with that logic. Phyr went on unfazed.
"This is going to work out, believe me, I can feel it in my feathers," he said wisely.
She gave him a skeptical look-over and raised her eyebrows.
"It's a figure of speech! Very old, mystical, magical bird wisdom, alright?"
Kiera couldn't help but laugh.
"Oi, milady, it looks like some furry animal crept onto your shoulder and died there. You should get rid of it, it stinks."
Lady Arabella drew her brand new mink stole closer around her neck and hurried away, a flock of her court maids frantically scurrying to keep up with her. People usually ignored Phyr, it was just a stupid bird after all. To react to what he was saying would be as good as acknowledging that his verbal abuse was more than random chittering.
However, ignoring him was not an easy feat, especially when he was yelling across half the courtyard. Sir Duncan did his best though, nearly running across. Like all noblemen of renown, he wore an enormous codpiece, the latest craze at court.
"By the gods, good Sir, that looks mighty painful! You should go to a meeting of the anonymous priapists!"
By the end of the week Kiera had a muscle ache from laughing too much.
Caitlin was sitting at the edge of a small lake, looking at the calm water. She had to admit, it was a beautiful spot. The crumbled, overgrown remains of the old tower were at her back, and the rocks she was comfortably resting on, had once been part of the outer walls.
Finding the place hadn't been difficult at all. Siegfried claimed he had already known the spot when the tower had still been standing. Caitlin had eyed him suspiciously.
"Don't look at me like that, I had nothing to do with it! An Elven Alchemist lived there. You know how that goes."
"He blew the thing up?"
"Actually, he produced interesting chemical substances that would make you see pink dragons everywhere, and his customers didn't take it too kindly when he blended the stuff with rock salt."
So here she was after a three hours ride, which had been filled with pleasant anticipation. Now however, her insides started to feel as if a bunch of crazy frogs had made their home there. Caitlin wished they would just go away. She looked up at the castle, looming above her on a hill not far away. A busy, well maintained road led up to it from the nearby village, but so far she hadn't been able to spot the princess. Would she come in another one of those hideous coaches? Caitlin really hoped she wouldn't because...
"Good day to you. Beautiful weather, isn't it," Kiera's voice suddenly sounded right behind her. Caitlin jumped and tried to get up quickly, but her foot caught in a root between the rocks and she landed rather ungracefully on her butt.
"You know, throwing yourself at my feet isn't really necessary," Kiera said, grinning down at Caitlin. "A light bow is usually enough." Caitlin resisted the urge to poke out her tongue at her. Kiera seemed to be in excellent spirits and Caitlin was relieved to see that she had exchanged her official princess outfit for more sensible clothes. Expensive-looking, but practical. Caitlin approved. Especially of the tight leather vest. Yes, definitely.
"I'll keep that in mind, thank you," she said finally. "Where did you come from?"
"I flew in, don't you know that princesses can do that."
"Ah, I see. On a broomstick," Caitlin said, getting up, pointedly ignoring Kiera's outstretched hand. "How very fitting," she added haughtily. Kiera burst out laughing.
"Not bad," she said, wagging her finger at Caitlin, who grinned back at her, dusting herself off. Then she looked at Kiera speculatively for a moment.
"So, there's a secret passageway from the ruins to the castle," she said smugly.
"Oh my, you're a clever one, aren't you."
"You have cobwebs in your hair."
"What? Ewww, where?" Kiera's hand went to her hair, her voice had a distinct panicky note in it.
Caitlin grinned broadly and stepped forward, brushing off the offensive threads. "There, they're gone."
"Gah, I HATE spiders." Kiera was positively shaking with disgust. "And, yes there is a secret tunnel. My father showed it to me when I was still a child. I used to come out here a lot, I loved to play in the ruin."
"Oh, I would have loved to play here as a little child too. And it is really a beautiful spot," Caitlin added and looked at Kiera who was now gazing wistfully out over the lake. "You know Siegfried told me he remembered your father. He said they were on good terms."
"Yes, I know. And speaking of that," Kiera said, turning to Caitlin. "Now I want to know all about your scaly friend." Caitlin nodded and looked around, and then pointed to a few flat rocks near the edge of the water.
"How about siting down over there, it's warmer in the sun."
"Good choice, just a moment," Kiera said and walked back into the ruins. When she came back she was carrying a basket. "Lunch," she explained cheerfully.
Kiera watched in fascination as Caitlin tore into the food while she told her tale. She had never seen anybody eat with such enthusiasm. Well, she was living with a dragon after all, maybe that rubbed off on her. And her story sure was funny, entertaining and downright unbelievable. If her father hadn't already told her a little bit about the old lizard, Kiera probably wouldn't have believed the whole tale.
"So, he asked you whether you wanted to come to his lair, just like that. And you said yes, just like that?" she asked incredulously.
"Well, I was cold. And hungry," Caitlin shrugged.
Ah yes, good point, Kiera nodded thoughtfully, watching Caitlin wolf down the rest of a loaf of bread. She had to admit though, it was actually refreshing to watch someone eat without them trying to hide the fact. Court etiquette did not make a whole lot of sense to her. She listened to the rest of the tale smiling, though she turned a light shade of green when they reached the part how Caitlin had acquired Inky.
"By the gods, that sounds rather uhm painful," she said slowly, swallowing hard. Well, Siegfried was a dragon, what could you expect.
"Yes, it sure was. That damn armor isn't easy to digest. And Siegfried's stomach is not partial to humans anyway," Caitlin answered matter-of-factly.
"Ah, yes ... poor uhm thing." Kiera decided to leave it at that. "Well, that was an interesting story, and very well told," she added. "Where is uhm Inky, by the way?" She had spotted the saddle and some gear lying nearby, but the black horse was nowhere to be seen.
"Oh, I don't know, I left him to roam around, he must be somewhere close. He will come when I whistle. He's a fully trained hero's horse you know, so he poses a lot, but he can do a lot of tricks too."
And speaking of tricks... Kiera looked around thoughtfully.
"Did you perchance notice a small, colourful bird somewhere around here. Blue and golden plumage, swears like a sailor?"
If Caitlin found that description odd, she did not show it. "No, can't say that I have, why?"
"Well, he is a good friend of mine. But he's also a sneaky, feathery, little git. He wanted to stay at the castle, but I suspect he's around here somewhere."
Kiera told her a little bit about Phyr and his formidable sharp tongue. Caitlin found it all highly amusing. "I really hope he's not around here somewhere watching us," Kiera concluded.
Caitlin raised her eyebrows at her. Kiera turned away hastily to hide a slight blush which was creeping up her neck. She hadn't meant it that way obviously, but now that she was thinking about it, she'd really rather not have Phyr watching her and Caitlin. Not that there was much to watch at the moment. Kiera was thoroughly enjoying herself and she was sure Caitlin felt the same, but now that ride under the stars seemed nearly unreal in the broad light of the sun. Like an exiting dream.
A desperate sounding shriek from high above tore her from her musings. They both looked up, squinting against the sunlight. A small dot was zig-zagging madly through the clear blue sky, pursued by a much larger shape, which had the distinct outline of a bird of prey. There was a flash as sunlight was reflected form bright, golden feathers. Kiera felt the icy grip of fear around her heart.
"Phyr! No!" She looked helplessly around but there was absolutely nothing she could do. Vaguely she was aware that Caitlin was moving fast towards her pack, but her eyes were drawn back to the drama unfolding in the sky. The large shadow had nearly reached the smaller shape now, which frantically darted sideways again, but it was no use. Now it was onto it and... Suddenly there was a loud twang and the dark shape plummeted out of the sky. A moment later it landed right in front of Kiera. She gaped at it, then at Caitlin who came running over, her bow still in her hand.
They both looked down on. It was a hawk, Caitlin's black feathered arrow sticking out of its chest. She picked up the dead bird and a pitiful chirp sounded. Phyr was still tightly clutched in one claw, feathers sticking out in all directions.
"Well hello," he said in a choked voice, "you must be Caitlin." She nodded.
His little feathery head turned towards Kiera. "I already like her," he announced brightly.
Caitlin was extremely glad, she had been able to save the little bird. It had been a lucky shot indeed. She looked at Kiera and tried to think about something to say, but talking was really not her forte. The princess looked up also and their gazes met. Kiera smiled and Caitlin felt a distinct lurch in her stomach region.
"Thank you again for saving Phyr. He has been my only friend for a very long time," Kiera said. "Until now," she added, looking at Caitlin meaningfully, who felt herself blushing slightly. Her stomach felt as if it was filled with boiling lava now. What was that about fire coming out of your nose?
Kiera smiled. "I could really do with a little bit less excitement on our next meeting though."
"Oh yes, I agree," Caitlin chuckled. "But I'll take my bow, just in case," she added dryly.
"Yes, I suppose I will stock up on weapons too, this getting rescued business irks me a little."
"Yes, it's such a cliché, isn't it." They both laughed.
"Or maybe I could use your nice sword there. Is that the weapon you took from the knight?" Kiera asked, looking over at Caitlin's pack.
"Yes, it is. Pity I'm useless with it," she admitted.
Kiera looked speculatively at her. "Do you want to learn it?"
Caitlin's answer was a broad grin. "Is a dragon's butt fireproof?"
"You want to teach her sword-fighting? Oh my, I'm getting all teary-eyed now, that's the most romantic thing I've ever heard." Phyr feigned to swoon and then broke down into a little heap of feathery laughter.
"Oh, shut that little beak of yours." But Kiera was smiling nevertheless, she was simply so glad her friend was still alive. They were back at the castle. Sleep and a good beakful of Brandy had revived Phyr considerably. Kiera had taken some too, she could use it, the events of the afternoon had shaken her.
"Whew, sorry..." Phyr's fit seemed to recede and he slowly got on his feet again, looking at her more seriously. "I'm sure glad your new friend is such an expert marksm... I mean woman, or I would have been done for." Kiera swallowed and nodded, scratching his head. "I like her, she seems to be a good friend to have in a tight spot," he continued. "And just so that you know, from the looks she was giving you, I am rather sure she more than likes you." He went on quickly before Kiera could interrupt him. "And well, she is as cute as a monkey with a puppy," he concluded brightly.
"Yes, and so do you, judging from the way you were looking at her."
Kiera didn't bother to deny it. She was too tired for denial. They had hugged when they said goodbye, well actually Kiera had hugged Caitlin, but she had definitely responded after the first shock. Kiera chuckled inwardly, she had a feeling that first moves would have to come from her. And she was certain now, that they would be welcome. The thought filled her with a warm glow. She smiled.
"Yes, that is exactly the look I mean," Phyr said. "Are you going to tell her about... you know...," he went on, more seriously. Kiera nodded. "Good. By the way, I think teaching her sword-fighting is a brilliant idea."
"Yes, I know." Kiera smiled mischievously.
"And you will wipe the floor with her?"
Kiera's evil grin was answer enough.
"She hugged me," she declared to Siegfried and the Universe in general, as if that would explain just about everything. He grinned. "Is there fire coming out of my nose?"
Siegfried made a spectacle of squinting very closely at her. "No, but I might see fumes. Just a little bit more and you'll get there."
"Ah, mmh, could be." Judging from the way she was feeling now, Caitlin couldn't rule that out anymore. Then something strange managed to pass through her happy haze.
"Uhm, Siegfried, why are you wearing a chain of helmets around your neck?"
"Oh, well, do you like it? It's my official knight slayer necklace. And it's not only helmets."
"It's helmets with skulls in it."
"What!?! But why?"
"Well, you know, it's like trophies...I showed it to Marla and she thinks I should wear it," he said, shuffling his feet, which was a rather disconcerting sight. Ah, Marla ... Things were starting to make sense now.
"And she likes it?" Caitlin asked casually.
"She thinks I look uhm dangerous."
"Siegfried, you would look dangerous wearing a pink tutu."
"You know pink is not my colour."
Caitlin grinned, but took pity on him."Well, I have to admit, it gives you a kind of feral aura."
"You think?" he asked hopefully.
"Oh yes," she answered with conviction and bit her lip to keep herself from laughing.
Kiera had to bite her lip to suppress a smile. It was evident, Caitlin was trying very hard to control her ego, which was taking quite a beating this afternoon. She had good reflexes but knew no technique whatsoever, making it painfully easy for Kiera to get the better of her. Luckily they were using wooden swords padded with leather wrappings, otherwise Caitlin would have been forced to part company with different parts of her physiognomy. Wearing a thick padded leather vest was also a prudent precaution, although she had scoffed at the bulky thing in the beginning. However, after the first good whack to Caitlin's side, she had changed her mind.
Fortunately Phyr had decided to stay at the castle. He had told her he was still in shock, though Kiera suspected he was being tactful. Which was just as well, witnessing the spectacle of Caitlin falling on her behind, she very much doubted the little bird would have been able to keep his sharp beak shut.
"Well, that was a little bit better," Kiera said. Caitlin snorted in amusement. "Alright, it wasn't," Kiera admitted smiling. "You know, you have good balance and speed, but your moves are too easy to see-through. And you shouldn't do that twirling thing, only complete id... beginners do that."
Caitlin grinned sheepishly. "My arm just seems to do that on its own. I will try to avoid it."
After that first painful lesson Kiera thought it best to start with the basic moves. They went on with that through much of the afternoon until Caitlin flopped down to the ground gracelessly and refused to move. It was a hot day, so Kiera announced the lesson finished and Caitlin gratefully pulled off her leather jacket. Kiera was grateful too, though in a different way. The warm weather was the reason Caitlin wore only a sleeveless thin linen shirt, which was clinging to her in a very interesting way now.
She herself wasn't much fazed by the heat, but then she hadn't moved that much and her vest, being a custom fit, was less bulky. Until her father died she had been allowed to train with the young noblemen. Her brother had put a stop to that. Not that Kiera would have cared, but she did not want to cause the old officer who was the master of arms any trouble. He had been quite devastated, declaring her his best student and had, though in not so many words, called her brother a bloody fool. Kiera smiled bitterly at the memory, for his loyalty had cost him his life. Her dear brother had sent him on a suicide mission in the south, and he had not come back. She had never forgiven her brother for that and she never would.
"Are you alright?" Caitlin's concerned voice dragged her form her memories.
"I'm fine, just remembering my old weapon's master."
Caitlin nodded in understanding, Kiera had told her the tale.
"He must have been a fine teacher."
"Actually, he was a mean old bastard," Kiera smiled fondly. "Which means that he was a very good teacher. Gods, did I have bruises." They both laughed, Caitlin wincing slightly.
"How's the side?" Kiera asked worriedly. She hadn't meant to hit her new student quite that hard, but she was rather out of practice of pulling her own blows. Instead of answering Caitlin pulled up her shirt a little bit to inspect the damage. Kiera's mouth went quite dry. Then she rallied and forced herself to look at the bruise. It was huge and had rather interesting colours.
"Don't worry about it, I bruise easily" Caitlin said dismissively. "Maybe I should cool it though." She looked towards the lake.
"Yes, good idea!" Kiera had rather interesting thoughts about tending to that bruise with a wet cloth maybe and... her jaw dropped. Caitlin was pulling her leather pants off. The linen underwear, which was revealed in the process, didn't even with a substantial amount of goodwill qualify as alluring. But it showed a very distinct amount of naked skin to Kiera's appreciative eyes.
"Do you want to come along?" Caitlin asked, a rather hopeful tone in her voice.
"No, I'm fine here. Go ahead," Kiera squeaked. Caitlin shrugged and made for the lake, jumping in with a dive.
Kiera buried her head in her hands, she doubted she would survive the afternoon.
"There must be more to it."
Kiera nodded. Caitlin was silent for a while, just staring out over the water, watching the dragonflies zoom over the surface. They were sitting at their favourite spot again, near the edge of the lake under the branches of a big birch tree.
"Maybe they actually know a lot about your family and marrying you will bring them some sort of advantage. Maybe you are the last descendant of a rich merchant family. Or even of the royal family. Maybe there's a civil war going on. There are a lot of possibilities."
"I know. I had similar thoughts."
"What are you going to do?" Caitlin's voice still sounded calm but somehow Kiera sensed that quite a lot depended on her answer now.
"Well," she said forcefully "I wont be shipped off to some distant land like a piece of furniture. It really does not matter whether the offer is serious or not. I will decide my own fate and I doubt, Actos will have the nerve to force me. I am still a princes of the realm and a lot more popular among the people than my dear brother, if I may say so myself."
Caitlin let out a deep breath. It was obviously the answer she had hoped for.
"Well, he better not try to, if he values his castle in the orderly state it is now," she said.
Kiera smiled warmly. "I appreciate that, believe me. But no matter how big a fool my brother is, he has an army at his command and, surprising as it may seem, there are a few capable soldiers."
Caitlin laughed. "Oh no, no matter how much I wish to be able to tear down the walls with my own hands, I wasn't referring to myself. But I'm sure that your dear brother will not care for an angry dragon siting on his doorstep."
"Are you serious?"
"Believe me, if the daughter of his old friend is in peril, a thousand soldiers won't stop Siegfried. He'll be even angrier more likely since humans give him indigestion," Caitlin chuckled.
"I meant you. And your wishes... to tear down walls," Kiera said calmly though her insides were far from being that.
Caitlin looked at her with big eyes, then blushed a deep crimson.
"Well, I uhm... yes, I was serious," she said defiantly.
Kiera smiled warmly and reached over to take Caitlin's hand, her eyes shining.
"Thank you, you have no idea how much that means to me." She didn't let go of Caitlin's hand who, judging from her dreamy smile, really didn't seem to mind. They looked at each other for a moment. Somehow the distance between the two of them seemed to be decreasing, though Kiera couldn't fathom how. Undoubtedly some powerful magic must be involved, for she wasn't aware that she was moving. And suddenly they were very close, faces just a few inches apart. From that distance Caitlin's lips looked even more soft and inviting and Kiera couldn't help but lean forward just a little bit more to press her own lightly against them in a chaste kiss. Caitlin's eyes went wide.
"Oh my," she mumbled.
Kiera had rather hoped for a slightly more romantic response. Fortunately her disappointment was short lived for suddenly she felt herself being pulled forward and Caitlin's lips pressing on hers in what could only be described as a thoroughly romantic and deeply passionate kiss. Well well well, whoever said that country girls couldn't kiss?
"What?!? Henry, take the kids, we're out of here. Two women who... by the gods, this is an outrage!"
Yes, quite, milady, to each his own I guess. But why in the name of the Bard didn't you leave in the beginning instead of interrupting now AND RUINING MY GODSDAMNED LOVESCENE?!?
"Well, I didn't realize, did I. I thought they were just very good friends you know. Instead I have to find out they are unnatu...grghh"
"How dare you! Unhand my wife at once!"
Like I said, our security trolls are not know for their sense of humour. Get them out of here. Thank you very much, Greta and Hilda. Good Riddance.
Oh dear, well I guess I have to get on with the next chapter then...
The next morning, Caitlin left the lair at dawn to watch the sunrise over the hills as she did very often. It was going to be a beautiful day, as beautiful as a day can only be when you are truly in love. When she rounded the side of the mountain, Caitlin found Siegfried sitting there, looking out forlornly into the beginning sunrise. She noticed little puffs of smoke curling up from his nostrils, a clear sign that the dragon was deep in thought.
"Good morning," she said brightly.
"'Morning," he mumbled back.
Caitlin frowned. "Is something bothering you?"
"Not exactly, just thinking."
"How was card playing yesterday?" she asked slyly.
"It was fine."
Caitlin waited patiently for in her experience Siegfried usually was rather forthcoming with his problems. His next words proved her right.
"Did you know Marla can change her form?" he asked casually.
Caitlin's eyebrows shot up. "Really?" She hadn't known black unicorns were able to do that, but that answered one persistent question she had asked herself since it had become evident there was something going on between the two of them. "Huh, well I was wondering ..."
"Uhm, nothing. So, she is a shapechanger?"
"Sort of. It takes some magical energy I reckon. She can only keep it up for one or two hours."
"Well, that should be enough," Caitlin said before she could stop herself.
"For what?" Siegfried looked at her suspiciously.
"Well, uhm, to... go for a flight together, you know. That is, if she can transform into dragon shape."
"But she refused to do so until now." AHA! There was the problem. "She says I'm not ready for that, whatever that's supposed to mean," he went on miserably.
Caitlin sighed, suddenly feeling guilty for being so happy. "So you have no idea how she would look in dragon shape."
"No. But I don't care about that. Really. I mean, I don't know why she is so shy about that." He gave a big sigh, flattening a few bushes further down the slope.
Caitlin had the impulse to put a comforting hand on his shoulder but since that was a few meters away, she contented herself with patting his nose.
"I'm sorry. Well, if she needs more time, I guess you have to grant her that. I mean, she definitely seems interested. So let her know you are too, but don't push her."
"Do the sensitive thing, you mean." He winked at her.
Caitlin grinned and nudged his cheek. "Mmhmm, them gals love it ya know."
Siegfried threw his head back and roared with laughter. Caitlin quickly stepped under his head to avoid a small avalanche. When the last pebbles had bounced off his scaly head he wiped a few tears away and rumbled "Thank you for making me laugh, I feel better now. You're a real friend." Caitlin just smiled. "But enough about me. From the radiant smile on your face I can see things are going well for you," he continued, eying her questioningly.
She nodded happily, but then remembered that there were also some dark clouds on the horizon.
"Well, yes, but a short while ago something strange happened at the castle. And I would really like to know what you think about it," she said seriously, and then told him Kiera's story about the strange man who claimed to hail from her homeland. When she mentioned the name of the land, Anghan, he startled. She looked at him questioningly but he only gave a deep rumble which meant she was supposed to go on with the story.
"I don't want to upset you, but I really have a bad feeling about this," he said when she was finished. Caitlin nodded grimly. "And yes, the name is familiar. I know that some of my kind used to live there, though that was a long time ago and I cannot say what happened to them. They were friendly with the people there, I think because of some great service rendered to them, but I don't know the whole story. Most likely this has nothing to do with this business."
Caitlin nodded again and then told the dragon about their theory.
"Yes, a possible scenario. When is that ambassador supposed to show up again?"
"Soon I think." She sighed. "I'm really worried, just the thought of something happening to her..." She shook her head. Siegfried looked at her sympathetically.
"Don't worry, we wont let that happen. When will you see her again?"
Caitlin smiled despite her worry. "Today."
"Good," he chuckled. "Tell her to be careful then, but I guess you already did that. And if her brother decides to behave like a troll's ass, she has just to ask and I will give him more grief than he cares for. But I guess you already told her that too."
Caitlin grinned sheepishly, then she got serious again. "Do you think there is a chance there is more to it than a plot to seize control of the country?"
He looked at her thoughtfully. "Well, a very slim one maybe. But I think that is a chance we should not take," he continued. "We need more information about that land, and especially, I'd to learn more about that old story I told you about."
"Yes, but from whom?"
"There is one of my kind who deals in knowledge. Balkaron is his name, he's a good friend of mine. I think I will pay him a visit, I haven't seen him for a while," he mused. "You go and take good care of your princess but I don't think that will be a problem," he chuckled and shuffled towards the entrance of the lair.
Sometimes, even for the notoriously impatient, waiting can be a pleasant thing. Kiera reached that conclusion when she was walking through the underground passage. The whole day she had felt the tingling sensation in her stomach, her heartbeat always going faster than usual. It was like that pleasant buzz you reach between being slightly tipsy but not yet drunk, when every sensation is heightened and emotions are felt more deeply. The moment Kiera reached the end of the passage and started to ascend the old worn stairs, her heart accelerated even more and when she stepped out of the crumbling archway, spotting Caitlin already waiting, it felt like might jump right out of her chest.
Before she could say a word, Caitlin had already crushed her in a tight embrace and Kiera had forgotten all about talking as they put their lips to a better use.
A few breathless moments later, they were sitting under the birch tree again, arms wrapped tight around each other, basking in the warm glow which filled both of them.
"This is just... it feels so..." Caitlin took a stab at expressing her feelings, but then gave up again.
Kiera only nodded. There seemed to be no end to the depth of her feelings. She knew without a doubt, she loved Caitlin, but words were just inadequate to express it all. So she didn't even try, but let her body speak the universal language of love.
Suddenly there was a loud screeching in the distance. They both jumped and looked in the direction the hideous sound was coming from, but before they had time to react something thumped into the ground a few meters away and skidded towards them.
"Kiera Kiera Kiera!"
Phyr was lying at their feet, panting heavily. Kiera picked him up and tried to sort his tangled feathers, all the while he was chattering at her.
"Kiera, he's back. That man's back! Came just a few minutes ago. But he's already talking to Actos. First, I didn't know whether to eavesdrop on their conversation or come and get you, but I thought..."
They both gaped at him, their minds trying to catch up. Kiera managed first and interrupted him.
"Phyr, it's alright, you made the right decision," she tried to calm him. "So, he's already talking to my dear brother. " She got up, and Caitlin did too, looking a little bit confused at the turn of events.
"I have to go back. I need to talk to that man before Actos sells me off like a horse," Kiera went on determinedly.
"Are you sure? I mean, maybe you should just stay away until we know what's going on."
"Well, I won't find out about that until I have talked to the man, will I?"
"I don't think it's safe to go back without you knowing what his agenda really is," Caitlin pressed on. "You could come back to the lair with me and..."
Kiera was feeling more than little bit irritated now. She did not much care for people telling her what she should do. She had been fighting that all her life.
"I will not run away from my home, I am still a princess of this land and hold some authority. This is my best chance of finding out what this is all about and I will not run off to hide somewhere," she ejected forcefully. Phyr was looking back and forth between the two of them, his eyes big as saucers. Caitlin's face showed the same stunned expression, but she valiantly rallied and tried again.
"Then let me come with you at least, I could..."
Kiera's temper had reached boiling point now. Did that woman really think she was a useless little princess who needed rescuing all the time? Well, she would show her.
"No! As unlikely as it may seem to you, I am quite capable to deal with some matters on my own!" With that she turned around and stomped off towards the ruin and the secret entrance, Phyr still clutched tight in her hand.
Phyr had been silent the whole time. He was riding on her shoulder, his little beak uncharacteristically inactive.
"I overreacted, didn't I?" Kiera sighed.
Phyr gave a relieved squeak. "So it is safe again to talk to you?" Kiera nodded feeling slightly ashamed of herself.
"Well, just a little bit I would say. You didn't bite her head off completely."
"Do you think..."
"I wouldn't worry, I think you have to do a lot better to scare her off," Phyr said matter-of -factly. "There was some truth to what she said you know," he went on carefully. "I have a bad feeling about this whole thing."
"I know. I'll be careful. And of course I still have you to come to my rescue," she went on smiling. He gave an exasperated sigh, but Kiera could tell that he was pleased nevertheless.
Had it been wrong to offer help? Kiera seemed to have taken it as an indication that Caitlin thought she was just a helpless little girl. Which was far from the truth of course, she was merely worried out of her mind.
She looked around dejectedly, wondering what to do now. Her first impulse was to find Inky and make her way to the castle on her own. Where was that horse anyway? She had sent him wandering off as usual, but she seen neither hide nor hair form him since. She walked around the ruined tower to look over the grassy hills beyond.
When she stepped over the remains of the outer walls, Caitlin suddenly sensed movement behind her, but it was too late. She never saw the blow coming. Slowly the horizon tilted, the ground rushing towards her. Then there was only inky blackness.
"Inky? The horse? Hah! I knew it. He's coming to the rescue."
Weeeell, not quite. You see "inky" can be a metaphor for totally utterly black. So, it has nothing to do with the horse.
"Hmm, but ink can be also red."
Well, in this case it was black! BLACK! BLACK! BLACK!
"Calm down, will you. We heard you."
"But what happened to the horse?"
"Yeah, where's Inky?"
"You didn't forget about it, did you?"
No, no, of course not. Uhm, Inky...well, let's see...uhm...yes, of course, I can't tell you yet. Would totally ruin the dramatic tension.
When Kiera reached the castle, she briefly thought about changing her clothes, but then decided against it. The ambassador would just have to live with seeing her in casual clothes. So she went straight towards her brother's private study.
Kiera made sure she was seen by every member of the palace guard who lined the way. They had been fiercely loyal to her father and she was sure she held as much authority as her brother with them.
A few corridors away from her goal, she let Phyr fly out of a window. He was to guard her back. Kiera was no fool. In case things got out of hand, he would fly straight for the mountain. He looked nervous, but determined not to let her down.
"Good luck," he squeaked grimly and gave her an affectionate peck before he hopped off through the window.
Kiera also carried her dagger with her, though she hoped things would not get that far out of hand. She squared her shoulders and marched on towards Actos' private rooms.
They both looked up surprised when she stormed into the room. J'iang rallied more quickly though and jumped to his feet, bowing low to her.
"Your highness," he said pleasantly "I am overjoyed to finally meet you in person."
"Why, the same is true for me, Ambassador J'iang," she answered just as pleasantly.
"Just this moment I was asking His Majesty to maybe include you in our little discussion," J'iang declared, giving a slight bow towards Actos. Her brother still didn't say anything, but kept glaring at her. She glared right back.
"Yes, considering your discussion concerns me to no small amount, I would have thought courtesy dictated that I would have been included from the beginning," she said acidly, looking pointedly at Actos, who jumped to his feet clearly enraged.
"You speak of courtesy! How dare you, while you yourself bring shame and disgrace over your family," he shouted, his self control totally slipping.
J'iang's lip curled slightly with distaste. Kiera looked at her brother startled. She knew that tune very well, but why start with that now?
Then she suddenly realized and the blood shot to her face. He knew about Caitlin.
"Yes, that's right," he sneered. "I know all about your tasteless little... dalliance."
She looked at him with contempt. J'iang seemed to harbour similar thoughts.
"Maybe it would be best, if I talked in private with Your Highness for a moment. I am sure I will be able to convince You, dear Princess, that I only have Your best interests at heart."
Kiera raised her eyebrows, but truth be told she was glad to see Actos go, otherwise she might have to hurt him.
"Yes, maybe it will be for the best," he said with a nasty smile.
Kiera didn't like his triumphant air at all.
When he had left, she turned towards J'iang.
"I don't know what kind of deal my brother proposed to you, but you should know that he has no right to make decisions for me. My father made sure of that. So any negotiations concerning marriage you should carry out with me directly."
He looked at her for a moment. "Contrary to your brother's description, I find you are woman of intelligence," he said finally, bowing slightly towards her.
Kiera raised her eyebrows at his forthright comment. Not sure where this was leading, she just accepted the compliment with a nod. She knew she would have to advance with extreme caution. J'iang's manners were pleasant, but she sensed a razor sharp mind beneath the smooth surface. Unfortunately, his next words proved her right.
"Just now for example, you are playing along in the hope of... how do you say... wheedle information out of me. But I'm growing tired of games, I'm afraid your brother used up a lot of my patience."
Kiera looked at him alarmed, a sinking feeling in her stomach.
"Fortunately for me I am a far-sighted man," he went on and raised his hand.
Kiera tensed, ready to pull her dagger and call for the guards, but then she realized he was merely pointing at the table in the far corner. She felt an icy cold claw grip her heart. She immediately recognized the object laying there on the polished wooden surface. It was Caitlin's bow.
"Yes, I see my little surprise has the desired effect on you. I can put your mind at ease though, your... friend," he put a certain emphasis on the word, "is unharmed. At least for the moment. She is currently in my custody, and I'm sure you share my deep concern for her future well being."
Kiera clenched her fists helplessly. For a moment she felt paralyzed with fear. But Caitlin's life depended on her keeping a clear head now. There was no doubt her opponent was as ruthless as he was cunning. And he had some very efficient friends. They must have captured Caitlin the moment they had parted and still managed to arrive before her at the castle.
Well, she herself had friends too, and one of them she desperately hoped was just now on his way to get help. She tried hard not to look towards the open window.
"And do not hope for help, for there will be none." Could the bastard read her mind? He smiled pleasantly again and snapped his fingers. Suddenly there was a commotion outside the window, the ivy bush was rustling furiously, then a protesting squawk sounded. A moment later, a dark masked figure, clad all in black cloth had jumped smartly through the window, a struggling Phyr clutched tightly in one gloved fist.
"Let me go you bastard, or I'll have to hurt you. I'll peck your eyes out, you pajama clad idiot. I'll..." J'iang barked a word in a foreign sounding language and suddenly, like shutting a door, there was silence. Phyr's beak was working furiously, but no sound came out of it.
"Ah, that's better, don't you think," he said brightly.
Kiera couldn't have disagreed more. Obviously his goal was to utterly demoralize her, and unfortunately, he was succeeding. It seemed he really wanted to drive the point home though, for he gestured towards the masked figure to released Phyr. The moment the little bird was free, he made a beeline towards the open window but he didn't get very far. J'iang waved his hand in a sharp arc and dark misty tendrils appeared out of thin air, blocking Phyr's way. He frantically tried to dodge them, but they weaved and twisted and enclosed him in a net of black strands.
Kiera watched in horror, then started to draw her dagger to stop J'iang from killing her friend. It was a clear sign of her totally hopeless situation that neither he nor the man in black even tried to stop her. Before she could try to stab the bastard though, the misty strands turned solid with a strange metallic sound and Phyr was enclosed in a black birdcage, which clanged to the ground noisily.
Kiera looked at it open-mouthed, then picked it up. Again they made no move to stop her. Phyr was staring back at her dejectedly. She noticed there was no door on the cage. She could squeeze her fingers between the thin bars though and stroked the little bird to calm him. And collect herself. Something had occurred to her the moment she had seen her friend behind the metal bars. If she would be able to play for time, help would arrive on its own. Kiera was sure if Caitlin didn't return to the lair in a few days time, Siegfried would come looking for her. Kiera just had to make sure she was in the right spot to be found. She took a deep breath and turned around.
"Alright, you made your point. What do you want?"
"Your cooperation." He smiled benignly at her. "You cooperate and you and your friends might come alive out of this."
She didn't believe him for a second but she nodded him to go on.
"There is someone with a certain interest in you. Believe me, finding you was no simple feat, but my employer is patient. So you will accompany me tomorrow, and for the public you will keep up the nice little tale of the princess returning to her homeland to marry a wealthy lord. I am sure in contrast to your brother you have already realized it is only just that, a story."
"And what is the real reason?"
"I am not allowed to tell you that. And...," he raised his voice to stop her protest, " that is irrelevant now. Unless you value your friends life not as much as I thought you would."
Kiera had never felt so powerless in her whole life, so it was not hard to let that emotion show on her face. Her mind was racing though.
"Yes," he said contentedly, "that's what I thought. By the way, you must have realized it is in my power to just take you away without this whole sorry charade, and I will do so if you force me to and your friend will have to pay the consequences of your actions. However, it is a long and tedious journey back to our homeland." So that part of the story is true, Kiera thought. "And I would prefer not to have to constantly look over my shoulder for your greedy brother. He insists we have to make a public affair out of this. Obviously he is concerned the people will not react kindly should you just disappear."
Kiera nodded grimly. "Yes, they probably wouldn't."
"He himself seems to be quite keen to get rid of you, especially after I told him about your little affair. When I told him I had already seized the person you were disgracing your family with he did have no objections," he went on mercilessly.
Kiera looked at him, pure hatred burning in her eyes now. "It is not an affair," she pressed through gritted teeth, "and right now it is not me who is disgracing my family."
"Well, you may even be right there. I wouldn't know. And it is of no consequence to me. What I have to know is whether you will come with me or whether we will have to blow the charade right now. And you know what will happen then." He looked meaningfully towards the corner where the masked man had been standing the whole time, not moving a muscle. He could have been a piece of furniture.
Kiera swallowed hard, she didn't want him or J'iang anywhere near Caitlin. J'iang wanted to leave tomorrow. Well, that suited her just fine.
"Will she come with us?" She allowed her voice to sound pathetically hopeful.
He looked at her speculatively for a moment. "No, I think it would be best to keep you apart as far as possible. If your brother agrees I will leave her in his care. And one of my men maybe." He nodded, warming to the idea. "Yes, but your little friend may accompany you. As you can see he won't escape from that cage anytime soon."
Kiera looked at Phyr again, who gazed forlornly back at her, still unable to make any sound.
"So, I am to follow you without knowing why or what will happen to me." It was not a question, but J'iang nodded nevertheless.
"Very well, I don't see I have much choice at the moment." Kiera said.
"Ah, true love," he said brightly "makes things so much easier for us villains."
Oblivious to the drama unfolding miles away, Siegfried was flying towards the island where his old friend Balkaron had made his home a long time ago. It was nothing more than a barren piece of rock with an old fortress on top.
Most dragons hoarded gold and magical artifacts. Balkaron hoarded knowledge. He collected books and scrolls, and even old stone tablets with etchings from the beginning of time. To keep them safe from the wet and cold, he had transformed the castle into a gigantic library, protected by all kinds of magical wards and spells. He lived there with a small army of gnomes, who tended to his beloved books and shared his passion for the written word.
When Siegfried landed, one of them came running to greet him. Visitors were usually welcome. They might bring more books after all.
"Follow me," he squeaked and the dragon trotted after him towards the entrance.
Siegfried rather liked gnomes, in contrast to dwarves they were usually not after his hoard.
He followed the little fellow through the big hallways towards the central chamber which housed the library. Hundreds of shelves on several levels lined the walls there. The place was buzzing like a giant beehive, gnomes on ladders crawling up and down and tending to books, carrying around stacks of volumes which were bigger than themselves or writing in gigantic catalogs.
He himself resided in the middle of this organized chaos, reading in an ancient looking ledger which was placed under an enormous magnifying lens. Siegfried's gnome walked towards the old dragon and announced his presence.
Balkaron looked up, blinking confusedly. Siegfried sighed, conversations with his old friend could be quite a challenge at times.
"Greetings, Balkaron, how are you these days?" he ventured.
"Ah, young Sigfried! Splendid! Splendid! I just acquired a first edition of Gungoldin's Herbarium Magicum. For a long time it used to be in the possession of Rumburak the Great and look, there are little side notes about how he..."
Siegfried knew he had to stop the old lizard now or there would be no end to his ramblings.
"Yes, yes, congratulations old friend. But I'm not interested in herbs that will make me see pink dragons today. I have come to tap into your vast knowledge concerning Dragon Lore."
Balkaron looked at him curiously. "Ah, yes, a most interesting subject indeed."
Siegfried nodded, glad to finally have gotten his old friend's full attention. "Yes, quite. I would like to learn about the old kingdom of Anghan. If I remember correctly, its history is deeply connected with our kind."
"It was. And a curious story it is." He seemed to think for a moment, then he barked out a few rather long numbers. There was no sign at first that any of the gnomes had reacted to this, but after a few moments, quite a few were shuffling towards them, carrying all kinds of books and scrolls. The old dragon nodded at one of them and he exchanged the Herbarium Magicum with a thick leather bound volume. Balkaron gave a casual flick with one of his claws and the pages started to flip on their own.
"Ah there it is." The pages stopped. "I know the story well of course, but I was a little bit fuzzy on some of the details."
Siegfried rolled his eyes. "Could you just give me a brief summary?" he said impatiently.
Balkaron looked up frowning and exchanged a knowing look with the gnome, who had brought the book. Clearly Siegfried was not a professional scholar.
Siegfried hated that, it always made him feel like a young hatchling again.
"A friend needs help," he felt the need to explain his impatience.
"Ah, I see. Hmm, well in that case I guess I could summarize the more important details." Balkaron was still looking as if Siegfried had asked him to commit a sacrilege, but he started his tale nevertheless. It sounded as if he was giving a lecture. Suddenly the buzzing and bustling in the hall just stopped. All gnomish eyes were on Balkaron as all gnomish ears listened raptly.
"Anghan, like the rest of the Old Eastern kingdoms was founded around 2000 years ago. They were constantly at war with each other and rulers and tyrants changed quite often. This went on for a few hundred years, until a group of warlocks suddenly appeared. They had found a way to steal magical powers, and had grown to be very dangerous. You see," he suddenly stopped his lecture, "that is the detail I was fuzzy about. It could have been the Cursed Clerics of Cantaloupe or the Wonky Warlocks of Warakesh, who were in truth just a splinter group of the Morbid Mages of..."
Siegfried sighed inwardly. It had started out so well.
"Ah, yes yes, an emergency, I know," he grumbled. "Well, those warlocks appeared, and they were looking for a base of operation it seems. In one week they had managed to completely take over Anghan. The war against one of its neighbours had weakened the kingdom considerably, so it did not stand a chance against the powerful magic wielded by the warlocks and the force of the small army of hired mercenaries. The royal family was killed, though some could flee.
But then the warlocks bit off more than they could chew, for they sought to steal the magic of dragons. Several of our kind were living in the east at that time and they did not think much about that idea. There was a fierce battle, the warlocks' magic was very powerful indeed and they even managed to bring down one of the younger dragons. However when some of them tried to steal his magic, they were driven off by the dragons' allies. It was the daughter and son of the old king of Anghan and some loyal soldiers they had managed to gather. Before the dragons could arrive many of them were slain by the foul magic, the princess among them. The battle was over soon though, and the warlocks were defeated. The dragon who had fallen was beyond help, but when his soul traveled beyond, he left his essence behind and it manifested in form of a flawless emerald. It was his dying wish the humans who had helped them should have it."
"The heartstone of a dragon! A very powerful and generous gift!" Siegfried injected.
Balkaron nodded his assent.
"They could use it to conjure up the essence, a shadow dragon, not quite as powerful as a live one, but powerful enough to ward off practically any danger the small kingdom was confronted with in the future." He flicked his claw again to shut the book. "So that is the most famous story about Anghan. And it is true by the way, I am old enough to have actually talked to some of our kind involved."
"Are they still there?"
"No, they left the area quite a while ago. I don't know what became of the stone. I just know that the kingdom was ruled by the same line for a very long time. But when the dragons left, I lost my source of information. I do not know what happened there the last 400 years."
"Why the sudden interest in this matter?" Balkaron looked curiously at the younger dragon.
Siegfried saw no reason to hold back the information, so he told Balkaron the whole story as Caitlin had told him. When he had finished, his old friend looked sceptically.
"A strange story." Siegfried only nodded. "Well, it should be easy to find out whether this so called ambassador of Anghan is for real. Just fly there and ask."
"Yes, I might do that."
"And write everything down you see."
"I will. You know," Siegfried mused, "it seems strange to me they would leave such a powerful artifact in the hands of humans. It could get stolen or whatever."
"Well, it would be of no use to anybody else but the descendants of the the ruling family at that time."
"No, the use was tied to the bloodline."
Siegfried gaped at him. "It was? Why didn't you say so earlier?" he rumbled exasperated.
"Well, I thought I did. Why, do you think that is relevant unless... oh dear." Balkaron's eyes grew wide as wagon wheels. "You think...?"
But Siegfried was already on his way out, startled gnomes flinging themselves aside to avoid being trampled. If a dragon is in a hurry you better run.
"Thank you for the information," he yelled over his shoulder, then he was gone.
Balkaron just shook his head, then he signaled the gnomes to put the Herbarium Magicum back under the magnifying lens. Suddenly he looked up and frowned.
"Hmm, do you think I should have told him there are rumours that the warlocks are still around somewhere?"
The gnome who had just put the book back in place shook his head.
"He said he wasn't interested in details, didn't he?" he said airily. "So I guess he will have to make due without them."
Sometimes when things go wrong, they go so completely wrong that there seems to be no end to it. Sitting in the near-dark in a damp dungeon cell, Caitlin guessed surely this must be one of these cases. She had never felt so miserable in her whole life. Ever since Phyr had brought the message about the ambassador, events had turned from bad to disastrous.
When Caitlin had woken up, she had found herself in this damp dungeon cell. She couldn't remember anything after the bastards had conked her over the head. Caitlin had no idea who exactly those bastards were, but the name seemed appropriate and her ego conjured up an image of at least four tough-looking cutthroats. Or four tough-looking soldiers, more appropriately considering her surroundings. For surely these must be the castle dungeons.
She had no idea why exactly she'd been captured, but it seemed to confirm her most dire concerns about that whole business with Kiera's heritage. And where was the princess now? With only her own worried mind as company, Caitlin's imagination soon ran rampant with all the terrible things that might have happened to her.
She looked around helplessly. But there was just nothing in the cell that would help her escape. Some rusted chains embedded in the solid stone wall, and a few stalks of moldered straw, that was all. There was a grated window too high for her to reach. A solid beam of moonlight speared through it and now and then Caitlin could hear the muffled sounds of horses neighing or people talking. She suspected it led to the courtyard.
The only other source of light was the torch-lit corridor beyond the sturdy wooden door. It was empty. After waking up, she had banged on the door for a bit and yelled to be let out. It was rather half-heartedly though, more because of the indistinct feeling that it was the appropriate thing to do when waking up in a dungeon than from actual hope that someone would show up.
Now she felt like banging her head against the solid oak planks, if only to prevent her mind from presenting her with more gruesome possibilities of what might have happened to Kiera. For a very short moment there had been a tiny beacon of hope when Caitlin remembered that Siegfried would surely come to her rescue. But it was quenched with the realization that he was gods knew where at the moment, visiting his dragon friend. When he got back and found her missing, it might well be too late for both of them.
"Hah! I knew it! "
See, I didn't forget about the horse...ahem...
"Yeah, yeah, get on with it!"
"Right, we wanna see some bloodshed here!"
Now he was trying to find out what had happened to Caitlin. It had been a while since he'd had a conversation with a horse, he usually just ate them. It was a frustrating business, and after five minutes Siegfried lost his patience. "By the Great Egg, this is no use," he growled. "Just show me where you lost her, will you."
Inky gave a relieved snort and raced off into the night.
"Just hang in there, little one," he muttered. "One dragon coming to the rescue!" With two beats of his leathery wings he was airborne and then started to follow the black stallion who was galloping towards towards the edge of the woods.
"Good thing I'm not afraid of vermin, or I'd be in real trouble right now." She chuckled mirthlessly at her feeble joke and then realized she'd already started talking to her herself.
"Oh great, a few more hours here and I'll be stark raving mad..."
Footsteps echoing through the corridor leading to the cell, interrupted her musings. She scrambled to get up quickly, her heart beating fast now that finally something happened, and then reluctantly laid herself down on the patch of smelly straw, pretending to sleep.
The footsteps stopped in front of the door, Caitlin thought it must be at least two people. A key rattled in the lock, then the door swung open with the inevitable creak.
"Humph, doesn't look like much, does she?" A haughty male voice. Caitlin ground her teeth. What was it with those people? There seemed to be kind of universal contest and she always came up short.
Then footsteps came closer.
Caitlin forced herself not to react. She carefully opened one eye, peeking through her fingers and saw a pair of expensive-looking boots.
"Be careful there, Your Majesty!" A concerned voice. Guard probably. More footsteps and a pair of solid leather boots. Your Majesty, eh? It must be Actos, Kiera's dear step brother.
"Pah, she's just a dirty little farm girl," the haughty voice sneered. "HEY, wake up!"
One of the expensive-looking boots lifted for a kick. Caitlin rolled away from the blow then grabbed the boot and pulled. Her attacker went down with a rather unkingly yelp and she used the momentum to scramble to her feet and bolt towards the door. A hasty backward glance showed the overwhelmed guard, clearly torn between giving chase to her or helping his king who screamed at him to accomplish both at the same time.
Caitlin grinned. She should have paid more attention to the corridor though for in the next moment she collided heavily with someone. Before she could even think about reacting, Caitlin was hauled around and thrown bodily back into the cell with such force that she collided with the opposite wall. She just lay there for a moment, trying to get her breath and senses back.
There was angry shouting in the background. Actos was yelling for a whip. Great. She sat up against the wall, looking back towards the doorway. A motionless masked figure was standing there, clad all in...black pajamas? Caitlin blinked, she must have hit her head harder than she thought.
Suddenly the walls vibrated with a mighty thump. Everybody froze, Actos even stopped yelling, and looked up towards the window to the courtyard. People had started screaming there and the heavy footfalls of soldiers could be heard. It sounded as if the castle was under attack.
"What the hell is going on?" Actos had found his voice again. He turned towards the guard. "Follow me! And you.. go find J'iang." The black warrior didn't react, his eyes still fixed on Caitlin who stared back at him. They both knew she would not be able to get past him.
"Fine, see that she doesn't escape then." Actos' arrogance wavered, clearly he was not used to people ignoring him. He threw her one last hateful glance, then he was gone.
"Say hello to your visitor for me, will you?" Caitlin yelled after him. The moment door was closed behind them, a terrible roar sounded from the courtyard.
Caitlin smiled. The cavalry had arrived.
They had spotted him already from a distance and as soon as he was flying over the walls, arrows had started to hail down upon him. He ignored them just as he ignored the few brave, or stupid, soldiers who dared to attack him when he hit the ground. But he decided a few good roars were in order, just to vent his anger a little bit.
Soon there was a full blown panic. Siegfried looked around critically, while arrows bounced off of him in all directions. The captain of the soldiers attacking him was cowering behind a wooden barrel, bravely shouting encouraging words to his men. Siegfried flicked the barrel away and then snatched the man up in his claw before he could make a run for it.
"Now listen closely, you pathetic little worm, I'm looking for a young woman who was last seen around here. Do you think you could help me with that?" he growled.
The officer looked back at him, his eyes wide in terror, then he fainted. Howling with frustration, Siegfried dropped the useless man and picked up the next soldier.
She looked up again at the grated opening. If she could just get up there, but the bricked wall didn't offer much in the way of handholds and was covered with slimy moss.
Damnit! She needed to get out of this cell and start looking for Kiera before they had time to move her away or or...She kicked the wall in frustration as her fears got the better of her again.
"Hey! Caitlin! Are you in there?"
Caitlin nearly fainted with relief at the growling sound of Siegfried's voice. It took a moment before she could answer.
"Are you sure she's in there? If you are trying to trick me, I'll add your skull to my necklace. Nice helmet by the way." The dragon sounded rather menacing. He seemed to be talking to someone.
"NO, I'm not trying to trick you. The captain told me they locked her up in the dungeon," a frantic voice answered. "Please, please, I'm telling the truth."
"Siegfried, I'm here!" she yelled at the window. Suddenly the faint light was blocked as the dragon tried to peek into the cell.
"There you are!" he roared triumphantly. "Don't worry, I'll have you out in no time."
"Siegfried, have you seen the princess?" But the big eye had already disappeared and she heard him talking to his unlucky hostage again.
"Alright, I can't reach in there with my claws. Do you have a rope around here?"
"Well...uhm, I don't know...I suppose we do..."
"Oh nevermind," Siegfried growled impatiently."Caitlin, stay close to the outer wall!" He was talking to her again.
But Caitlin had other problems now. The door was opening.
"Damn it all to hell." She pressed herself against the wall and hoped that whatever Siegfried had in mind, he would do it quickly as the black clad assassin stepped in the cell.
Suddenly a loud metallic ping sounded above her. The metal grate crashed into the opposite wall and slid down.
"Damn, that must have hurt," Caitlin said, impassively looking at the crumpled figure lying in the doorway. Turning her eyes up again, she gave a startled yelp. She looked straight into the frightened face of a young soldier. He was dangling upside down from the window.
"Uhm, hello. I guess you must be Caitlin." She only nodded open-mouthed. "Could you please take my hands so we can pull you out before your friend loses his patience and rips my legs out?"
J'iang had locked her in her quarters, with one of his cutthroats as guard and told her they would leave in the morning.
She hadn't even tried to find rest, but had spent the night pacing restlessly in her quarters, her last conversation with Caitlin playing over and over in her mind. What must she think of her now? The thought that this might have been the last time they saw each other was excruciating.
Phyr, still muted, had sadly looked at her from within his black cage, his little beady eyes trying to offer comfort.
Then suddenly in the early hours of the morning, all hell had broken loose in the courtyard. Now Kiera was thinking what to do. She knew she was no match for the assassin, she had seen them move. He was watching her steadily, his attention never wavering. Damnit, she needed to divert him just for a moment. There was a secret passageway in the other room, if she could reach the hidden door and close it, it would take him a long time to figure out the opening mechanism. But she still had no idea where Caitlin was. J'iang had made it sound like she would be kept hostage in the castle, but was she already here?
For the hundredth time Kiera silently cursed her situation, torn between the possibilities.
Then she heard the lock to the corridor click. She tensed as the door swung open and J'iang stormed into the room. His usually calm face was a grimace of anger and, to Kiera's surprise, also fear.
He gave a curt order to the guard, who immediately disappeared into the corridor. Then he turned towards Kiera again.
"Well, my dear princess, that was a stage-ready performance," he sneered menacingly. "Feigning ignorance of your heritage, playing the damsel in distress. You really fooled me there. And now we have a dragon sitting in the courtyard and I don't doubt for a minute that he came to your calling."
Kiera looked at him bewildered. What in the name of the gods was the man talking about? She opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her short with an angry gesture.
"Well, I underestimated you one time," he said, his voice dangerously calm again. Then with a sudden movement he drew an evil looking dagger. "It is a mistake I don't intend to make again."
"By the great Egg, don't you ever do that again," he said shakily. Caitlin wanted to point out, that she hadn't actually done anything, but there was no time for that now.
"Siegfried, I'm so glad to see you. But please, we have to find Kiera now. The stranger is already back and... and I don't know what happened to her."
The desperation in her voice tore him out of his reverie. "Yes, of course," he growled. "And I'll have a word with that man, there's a lot I have learned from my friend."
"What is the meaning of this, soldier? Where is your officer and how did that harlot escape from the dun...," an angry voice interrupted them, then suddenly stopped. Well, the sight of a giant dragon sitting in your courtyard is prone to do that.
Actos was standing in front of the doorway to the main building, staring open mouthed at Siegfried. He had been shouting at the young soldier who was now pointing helpfully at the dragon. Apart from them the courtyard was nearly deserted. A few soldiers were sprawled on the flagstones, and Caitlin fervently hoped that they were only knocked out.
It seemed the king thought a strategic retreat was in order, he was inching slowly backwards. With amazing speed Siegfried lurched forward, grabbed him and lifted the struggling monarch to eye level.
"Caitlin, do you know this rather excitable fellow?"
"Well, what do you know," she answered grimly "you caught yourself a real king."
"Oh, really? Do you think he tastes different than ordinary scum?"
Actos blanched and stopped struggling.
"I don't know. Maybe you should try..." Caitlin looked mercilessly at him.
"No, please no!"
"I guess I'll start with a leg..." Siegfried made a show of ogling the extremity.
"...unless he's going to tell us where the princess is," she continued menacingly.
"She's locked in her quarters!" Actos was extremely forthcoming with information now.
"And where is that ambassador?" Caitlin practically shouted at him.
"I don't know!" He was nearly weeping now.
Caitlin took a deep breath. "I'll go in, Siegfried. He will lead me there, there's no other way."
"Alright, but if you're not back in 10 minutes I'll come after you, no matter how. If you are in trouble, yell for me and I'll take this damn piece of rock apart."
She nodded, snatched up some weapons, a crossbow and a few daggers, which were littering the courtyard, and then nodded towards Siegfried to let the king go. He hit the ground unceremoniously and scrambled to get away from the dragon. Caitlin trained the crossbow on him and made him get up slowly. He glared hatefully at her.
"Now we take a little walk together. Pray that your sister is unharmed. Otherwise losing a leg will be the least of your problems." She shoved him towards the portal to the main building.
Siegfried watched them go. "I sure hope she knows what she's doing," he said to the young soldier who was looking rather forlornly around. "Do you have a name by the way?"
Kiera slowly backed off from J'iang who had taken a step forward, readying herself for his attack. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Phyr fluttering desperately in his cage, his little beak open.
The ambassador raised the dagger, then suddenly slashed his own forearm with the curved blade. Blood spurted from the deep cut and ran down his arm in rivulets. He ignored it and waved the bloody dagger in front of him. A fine mist of blood marked its path and formed a complicated symbol which hung in midair.
Kiera backed away further. Something was very wrong here. J'iang's face was a grimace of painful concentration. Whatever it was he was doing, it clearly cost him a lot. Suddenly a red light erupted from the symbol and spread across the room in a split second. Before she could even move a muscle it had reached her.
"How much further," she spat at him, the crossbow trained on his face.
"Not much," he said through gritted teeth. "Around the corner, last door on the right."
Caitlin shoved him onwards and rounded the corner. Another long hallway, filled with tapestries and old paintings. The castle was full of them. One of the doors at the end stood open. A strange crimson glow spilled through the doorway, painting the corridor an eerie red.
She felt her heart skip a beat, she knew instinctively this was her goal. And that something was very wrong.
She pushed Actos out of the way and sprinted towards the doorway. Suddenly a dark figure stepped out of an alcove, blocking her way.
"Gods damn you, you black bastards!" Caitlin knew she couldn't stop. She had to reach that doorway. She had to get to Kiera. The assassin just stood there, waiting calmly for her to reach him. She raised the crossbow and fired, not really expecting to hit him. Aiming was out of the question. The shot went wide, he did not even bother to dodge it. Caitlin hear a metallic twang as the bolt hit an ornate tower shield and bounced off it, then a soft thud. A moment before she reached the dark clad figure it swayed, then toppled slowly to the side, the bolt sticking out of the side of his neck.
Caitlin's mind, fixed on reaching the doorway, took only peripherally notice of all that. She skidded to a halt in front of the opening and stared open-mouthed at the scene inside the room.
Kiera was there, standing near the window, a man with a dagger opposite her, his back towards the door. Both of them were outlined in that strange red light, which seemed to pulse now.
Kiera's head turned towards the door and Caitlin. Their eyes met for the fraction of a second, then the red glow imploded in a blinding flash. When Caitlin could see again, the room was empty.
Black Magic! And lots of it." Siegfried grimaced with distaste as he sniffed the room in general, the bloodstains on the floor and then the strange magical cage Phyr was trapped in.
For Caitlin he was stating the obvious. The material was like nothing she had ever seen before. Impossibly black, it actually looked more like the total absence of any matter.
While the dragon was examining the cage, she impatiently paced the room for the umpteenth time.
"And you are absolutely sure, he didn't mention anything about where he was taking her, Phyr?"
"Why, no! Now that you've asked me about a hundred times, my tiny little brain suddenly remembers. He gave me the exact address of their secret hideout and told me to stop by for breakfast," Phyr replied acidly.
"I'm sorry." Caitlin stopped pacing and closed her eyes, trying to pull herself together. It was just so maddening to be here doing nothing when every fiber of her being wanted to race off to find Kiera.
Actually, not much time had passed since Caitlin had stormed into the room just to watch Kiera disappear. For a few moments she had just stood there in shock, oblivious to Phyr's vocal cursing, as the realization had sunk in that she had come too late.
Then suddenly one of the windows had imploded, the devastating force behind it taking out a good portion of the wall as well.
"Caitlin, what's going on? Where are you?" Siegfried's voice had boomed out of the dust. Dragons are not known for their patience.
A moment after, Actos had stormed into the room, demanding to know what had happened as well. Somehow he had managed to pick up a few palace guards. Caitlin, still numb with shock, had just ignored them, leaving it to Phyr to explain the situation. The King seemed to be stunned by recent events. Then, with a feeble semblance of authority, he had ordered a full search of the castle and the surrounding lands. But Caitlin had already known the search would be futile. She could not tell how, but knew in her heart that Kiera was beyond their reach now. Siegfried had confirmed her fears.
"You will not find the princess. That was a powerful spell, I sensed it even from outside. I venture to guess that she is far far away now," he had rumbled.
Actos had glared at them for a moment then he had stalked off without a word, the guards following in his wake.
Now she wondered whether to go after them, she had the distinct feeling she was forgetting something important. Siegfried was still examining Phyr's cage. The little bird was eying the big head warily which was looking at the bars very closely now. Suddenly he gave a loud squeak and looked around.
"By the Great Feather, I totally forgot...where is that black clad thug? If we can catch him, ..."
Caitlin cursed and slapped her own forehead. Of course how could she forget!
"...I bet your big friend here can squeeze some good information out of that bastard and I won't mind if he keeps on squeezing until..."
"No, that one's probably dead. I killed one of them in the corridor," Caitlin interrupted Phyr, "but there is a second one in the dungeon cell, hopefully still unconscious and..." She trailed off. Phyr stared at her open-beaked and Siegfried was beaming at her, glowing with pride.
"That's my girl! Deadly but smart. Leave one alive for interrogation." He nodded in approval. "Very good! We'll make a dragon out of you yet."
Caitlin opened her mouth to explain but decided to save that for later.
"Uhm, well...Phyr, can you show me where the entrance to the dungeon is? Or maybe I'll just go back in through the window." She was already on her way out of the room when Siegfried's deep voice stopped her.
"I'll cover the courtyard, you can take the regular entrance."
Caitlin nodded her approval and dashed back to grab Phyr's cage but the dragon stopped her with a growl. "Let's just quickly get our little friend out of this thing, I don't much like the thought of him being in there for long."
"But how?" Phyr squeaked.
"Well, this is some powerful black mojo, but not powerful enough to withstand Dragon fire!"
"What?!? Dragon fi...WAIT!"
"Don't worry, just don't stick any feathers out." The Dragon started to take a deep breath.
They were making their way towards the basement now. In the general chaos of running guards and headless servants no one paid them any attention. It seemed the whole castle was on its feet, looking for the princess.
They found the door to the cell still open, a dark shape lying motionless just inside the doorway. Phyr gave a triumphant chirp but Caitlin shook her head. She had spotted a small dark pool next to the masked head, it looked as though the shadows were leaking blackness. Nevertheless she approached cautiously, stepping over the metal grate, crossbow at the ready.
"He looks pretty dead to me. Pity."
Siegfried's voice, echoing eerily inside the cell made them both jump. He was peering in through the small opening. Taking a deep breath, Caitlin bent down to examine the body.
"He's dead. Broken skull. Dammit!" She just about stopped herself from punching the corpse. Another road closed which could have lead to finding the princess.
Phyr was looking at the metal grate, then at Caitlin.
"How exactly did you...?"
"Siegfried, not me," she answered absentmindedly.
"AHA, could it be your scaly friend's maybe a little bit gung-ho with his power," he commented waspishly and loud enough for Siegfried to hear. Caitlin smiled weakly. Phyr hadn't been too happy with Siegfried's method of choice for his jailbreak. To be honest, her own heart had skipped a beat at the sight of the magic cage dissolving under an angry red-hot stream of Dragon fire. Still, Phyr had come out of it unscathed even if he claimed that at least four of his most magnificent flight feathers had been singed. Caitlin hadn't been able to spot any damage, but the little bird had ignored her assertions.
"Yes, I'm sure you would have done much better, probably pecking through the bars in no time," Siegfried chuckled.
Ignoring Phyr's angry sputtering, Caitlin quickly searched the body although feeling slightly queasy doing it. There was nothing interesting however, apart from a few local coins and an amazing assortment of sharp and pointy things she had never seem before. She suspected most of them might be weapons, although for all she knew, some of them could have been eating implements or used for personal hygiene. She pocketed a few, which looked decidedly weaponly, for good measure.
"Alright, that's it," she sighed.
"I figure we should take a look at Jiang's quarters too," Phyr suggested. "Maybe we can find something there."
Caitlin nodded. "Did you hear that Siegfried?"
"Yes, but hurry."
She laughed mirthlessly. As if she needed reminding of that.
She glanced sideways at Phyr riding on her shoulder. He hadn't complained about his singed plumage once since they got out of the dungeons and probably was just as exhausted as her. He swayed slightly and Caitlin realized they would both wouldn't be able to go on like this even if resting wasn't very high on her list of priorities at the moment.
When they stepped out into the bright morning light, the courtyard was buzzing with activity. The human mind has an amazing capacity for coping with unusual situations. Mostly this involves simply ignoring what is out of the ordinary and just going on with daily business. In this case it meant ignoring the gigantic dragon, who was sitting complacently in the middle of the chaos, and repairing the damage done by said dragon.
"Hey, there you are!" Siegfried's voice easily carried over the noise of the soldiers and servants bustling around him. Caitlin waved somewhat feebly back at him, then made her way towards her friend and collapsed on a pile of debris.
"That pitiful excuse for a king somewhere around?"
"A while ago, but he went out with a search party. Just a PR stunt of course," Siegfried scoffed. "And I had the impression he wasn't very comfortable around here. Wonder why." he added with a smirk.
Caitlin's answer was cut short by loud whinnying and a big black nose bumping into her face.
"Inky!" She hugged the big neck fiercely and buried her face into his mane.
Siefgried grinned. "He came charging in once the drawbridge was lowered, gave the people quite a start I can tell you. And he practically led me here you know."
"Awww, did you now. Clever Inky!" Caitlin fondly scratched the stallion's ears. Inky whinnied proudly and did some first class hero's horse posing.
Phyr, who had been catapulted off Caitlin's shoulder by Inky's rather forceful display of affection, scoffed and wearily fluttered up to regain his seating.
"Good, now that we're done with patting each other on the head, can we finally start doing something about Kiera?"
"What do you think we've been doing until now?" Caitlin flared up. "You know I would like nothing more than run off to that godsforsaken land and start looking for her. It's driving me crazy. But without any clue as where to start searching it's gonna take forever. And we don't have forever, in fact it might already be..." Caitlin faltered and closed her eyes, trying hard to fight off the imminent breakdown. No, she could not let herself think about that possibility, not even for a second. And somehow she knew, with absolute certainty, that Kiera was still alive. Again, she could not explain it, but she felt it with a clarity, just as she felt the warmth of the sun or the solidness of the rock under her feet.
"I know I know. I'm sorry. I..." Phyr had been nearly shaken off again by Caitlin's violent outburst. "I'm just so scared for her." Then he burst into tears and sobbed into Caitlin's shoulder.
"I know." She stroked his feathers soothingly. "We'll find her I promise."
Siegfried nodded. "Yes, we will. I'll quickly fill you in on what Balkaron told me. It's an old story but my scaly gut tells me we're in the middle of that story now. And it'll give you time to rest for a moment and eat something. I venture to guess you didn't have anything for a while and you need to keep your strength up." He looked sternly at her, obviously waiting for the protest but Caitlin only grimly nodded in agreement. "So don't even start to arg....oh, well good then."
The dragon turned his head and yelled at a young soldier nearby. Caitlin had noticed him before because he didn't take part in the repairing but was just standing about looking lost.
"Oi! Rupert! Can you come here for a moment?"
When the soldier shuffled closer, Caitlin recognized the involuntary accomplice to her escape from the dungeon.
"Young Rupert here is now my official liaison. The rest of the bunch is somewhat reluctant to talk to me," Siegfried grinned broadly, which was always an alarming sight. The dragon seemed to enjoy the whole situation immensely. Well, it probably had been a while since he'd had the opportunity to lay siege to a whole castle and Caitlin was extremely glad, he'd shown some restraint and kept the damage on the material side.
She grinned at Rupert and shook his hand. "Thanks for the jail break. Uhm, do you think you could you find something to eat for us? Nothing big, just a few scraps?"
"Yes, just a snack. One little virgin would do for me..."
Kiera had once heard a saying that to appreciate life in all its overwhelming glory, you should try everything at least once. Well, she had tried something new today and could state without a doubt that magical transportation was not meant for her. She definitely could do without the sensation of being squeezed into a tube half her size and shot through an equally narrow tunnel with lightning speed. She also did not care for the feeling of her lungs exploding and her stomach trying to crawl up her throat while pulsating red light pierced through her tightly shut eyelids. Nor hitting a wall with bone-crushing force. Luckily, this had marked the end of the unpleasant journey.
The wall they had crashed into was in fact a piece of cold stone floor, as Kiera realized after lying there for a while. Reluctant to move at first, afraid of finding out that some of her limbs might be missing, she carefully opened one eye. Dimly illuminated by a pale green glow, she could see one of her hands. It looked encouragingly normal, apart from the green tinge. She squinted. Yep, her nose was still attached to her face. So far so good. Then, slowly and sluggishly, her mind started working again, struggling to catch up with the recent events.
Suddenly the last image Kiera had seen before her involuntary journey flashed up and it all came back to her in a rush. Caitlin's face, the desperate look in her eyes which told her more than a thousand words could ever convey. Then the blinding light and the sickening feeling of being yanked away.
Hastily she scrambled up, taking in the surroundings for the first time. The princess found herself in a small circular room, a cavern probably as the walls were solid rock. It was lit by a strange green light, which emanated from a row of glass tubes fixed to the wall and gave Kiera the eerie feeling of being underwater. Her captor was only two feet away, lying motionless on the stone floor. It seemed magical travelling agreed with him even less than with Kiera. A huge hexagram had been drawn there, they both had landed within its boundaries it seemed and she spotted J'iang's dagger only inches from his gloved hand.
She was loath to touch it, but it was the only weapon at hand. Keen on finally getting the upper hand in the situation, Kiera quickly snatched up the dagger and stepped back again. J'iang still hadn't moved. He was laying on his side and his face was hidden in shadows. Was he unconscious or maybe even dead? Kiera couldn't tell. Maybe the magic had gone wrong, surely this must be a difficult spell to cast. Well, she better found out now.
She looked at the strange glow lamps. The slender, slightly conical glass tubes rested inside metal rings which were fixed to the wall. They seemed to be filled with a milky green substance. Tentatively she touched one of them. The glass was cool under her fingertip and basically felt like...well glass. Encouraged, she carefully lifted the tube from its seat. Suddenly the light brightened, the liquid stirred and then something reached out of the milky green and attached itself to the surface. Kiera immediately dropped the tube back into the ring, and hopped away with a rather girly yell staring at the tentacle thing in shock. Then more came into view and she saw it was just a small squid which was floating in the liquid. Kiera shook her head in wonder as she realized that it was emanating the green light. She had read of strange glowing creatures living in the deepest reaches of the sea but never thought she would actually see them one day.
Well, it was just a squid, no reason to be squeamish. Shaking her head at her own weak nerves, she resolutely snatched the squid tube out of its holding and glanced at the sorcerer. If her yell hadn't woken him, he was probably really dead. She stepped closer, bending down slightly, the glowing tube in her outstretched left hand while her right gripped the dagger. Suddenly J'iang's face was illuminated in the green light and the princess recoiled immediately, nearly dropping the glass.
"What in the name of the gods?"
If it hadn't been for the clothing, she would have never guessed this was the man who had captured her. His hair was thin and white, his shrunken face looked as though it belonged to a 150 year old if such things were possible. Was that a side effect of the spell? Had he overestimated his powers?
Well, good riddance. If he wasn't dead already, he surely did not look like someone with a high life expectancy and after the events of the last day, Kiera found it rather difficult to muster any compassion. She carefully nudged the lifeless body with her boot and was rather sure she detected a faint fluttering of the eyelids. So he wasn't dead. For all she knew, he might be able to regenerate himself and be as good as new in a few minutes.
With a sick feeling in her stomach, the princess realized it would probably be wise to make sure this didn't happen. She looked down at the dagger. It felt cold and heavy in her hand, although the slender blade didn't look as if it weighed much.
After a moments thought, she shook her head. No. No matter how wise it seemed or how much she wanted to take vengeance for what he'd done, she could not bring herself to murder him.
Having made that decision, there was only one thing to do now. Find a way to escape from wherever she was before someone showed up. She looked around the room and then groaned in frustration as her mind finally realized what her eyes had been seeing all along. Walls, ceiling and floor were solid rock, she couldn't detect any exit. She was trapped.
The princess cursed silently. She was sure that J'iang wasn't alone in this. He himself had spoken of a master and no matter whether this was true, he had certainly other, more powerful allies than his black-clad thugs. But for one thing, Kiera would have liked to be gone long before they showed up and secondly, J'iang's condition strongly hinted that this wasn't going as planned. Who knew when they would show up.
So at the moment, it looked as though her enemy might be her only way out, which meant keeping him alive was definitely a good plan for now. Not that she could do much really, apart from checking regularly whether he was still alive for which she used the blade of the knife held above his lips. The princess had even tried to wake him, but J'iang had shown no reaction whatsoever. Finally she had reluctantly searched his clothes, but apart from a number of small exotic looking glass vials and some powders and herbs which were surely for magical purposes, she hadn't found anything useful. There were no markings on the vials and Kiera wasn't desperate enough to just try them. Poisoning the person who might be her only way out, no matter how appealing the thought might be, was out of the question.
Sighing, she sat down against the wall. There was really no way to tell how much time had passed since they had got there, but she was feeling exhausted and tired now and also decidedly hungry. An earlier search of her own pockets for anything useful, had revealed a small pouch of sunflower seeds she often carried around for Phyr. She pulled it out now and started munching on them, thinking about her little friend. Although she was glad he didn't share her predicament, he would have been better company than her little squid friend who wasn't much for conversation but kept staring at her somewhat accusatory whenever it floated into view. Actually Kiera thought the creature was rather cute, whenever she was moving the tube it attached all its tentacles to the glass which looked as if it was bracing itself. She felt vaguely guilty now because grilled squid had always been one of her favorite dishes. Her stomach growled.
"Don't worry," she said, lifting the tube to eye level "I heard that there are strange countries where people eat live seafood, but I don't like food which fights back."
The squid looked even more reproachful. Maybe she shouldn't have brought that up.
Suddenly there was a loud grinding sound to her left. For a moment Kiera just froze, then she scrambled up and threw herself towards J'iang. She got there just in time to press the dagger against his throat before a segment of the wall had rotated and two of the ugliest monsters she had ever seen stormed into the room. They looked like huge lizards, but were walking on two legs and carried gigantic axes in their scaly hands.
"Stop, or by the Gods, I'll cut his throat!" Kiera made a valiant effort of sounding menacing and determined. Sure enough, the two brutes stopped two meters in front of the princess, growling and hissing at her.
"Well, good...now, I... uhm..."
Kiera's slightly less menacing and determined speech was mercifully cut short by the arrival of a woman in a black silk robe who strode confidently into the room .
"Oh go ahead, you'll be doing me a favor...little sister."
"You do not look impressed." Siegfried was eying Caitlin who was absentmindedly feeding apples to Inky. Rupert had risen to the task admirably, hauling in half the kitchen store. At least that's what it looked like. The soldier had even organized half a sheep for Siegfried, after apologizing for being fresh out of virgins. The Dragon had taken a look at the assembled ladies of court who were gaping at them from various castle windows and declared the sheep looked a lot more attractive.
Caitlin shook her head non-committedly. The truth was, after listening to Siegfried's tale, she was disappointed. They were no closer to finding out where Kiera could have been taken.
"I just don't see how that helps us. I mean we don't even know whether it's relevant at all. The only connection is that strange kingdom and we already knew that before."
"I assure you it is not a myth and, well I have a gut feeling that Kiera is connected to it," Siegfried answered defensively.
"Gut feeling, eh? Are you sure it's not just indigestion again?"
Siegfried huffed in indignation. Caitlin took a deep breath and tried to fight down her rising irritation. She knew it was only the fear and desperation getting to her.
Phyr who had been uncharacteristically silent the whole time, chewing thoughtfully on some bread crumbs while listening intently to Siegfried's story, suddenly gave an exasperated chirp and shot into the air.
"Of course! Dragon! Hah! Was nagging at me the whole time and now I remembered. Hah!" He hovered in front of Caitlin's face, bobbing up and down excitedly until she snatched him out of the air.
"Calm down, you're making me dizzy. Who said what about what dragon? Siegfried?"
Phyr nodded enthusiastically.
"Well, I sure hope it was something flattering," Siegfried growled.
Caitlin shut him up with a glance.
"That evil sorcerer bastard. When you made your great entrance, he said something like he had underestimated Kiera. And I think he believed that she had somehow called you."
"Hah! See?" Siegfried roared triumphantly. "That proves it. Kiera is the heir of the royal family of Anghan. And that's why he believed she had called me, because he thought she has a special connection with dragons."
"But does the legend say anything about that?" Caitlin was still skeptic.
"Well, no. But it's just an assumption he made. And it could be true after all. I mean I never saw her. Maybe I would have been able to sense it," the dragon countered.
"Hah, I always knew there must be something special about her," Phyr chirped, fluttering up from Caitlin's hand again.
Caitlin shook her head. She just couldn't believe it that they were suddenly in the middle of a fairy tale. Well, it was all there, wasn't it? The dragon, the mystic princess, the evil sorcerer. She chuckled mirthlessly. And where's the knight in shining armour? Well, she would do her best, and they would have a happy ending together or she'd die trying. Well, preferably someone else would die while she was trying.
"What more do you need to convince you?" Siegfried asked, misreading her reaction.
"No, no I believe you. Alright, so let's assume Kiera is a descendant of that line. I still don't see how that helps us. It merely tells us that she's in even greater danger and we have to hurry even more to find her!"
"Well, for one thing I don't think they intend to kill her, that could have been easily accomplished here. I rather think that some powerful ritual of unspeakable evil will be involved," the dragon stated matter-of-factly.
Caitlin and Phyr gaped at him. The little bird's beak was opening and closing, but no sound came out.
Then Caitlin realized that the whole courtyard was silent all of a sudden. All the activities had stopped, and the assembled soldiers, workers and loitering onlookers were staring towards the gatehouse.
"Dear Siegfried, have you ever been told that your pep talks stink?" a silky voice sounded into the silence. The little group turned towards it.
"Marla?" Caitlin asked incredulously.
The Black Unicorn was walking gracefully towards them, black mane flowing (although there was no wind at all), seemingly ignoring the excited whispers. This day would definitely be the stuff of stories and legends for the next one hundred years to come.
"Oh! Hello Marla...uhm, nice to see you," Siegfried said, shuffling his feet and flattening a few rain barrels in the process. Caitlin rolled her eyes at Phyr who was looking back and forth between the two magical beasts. Then he burst into giggles.
Caitlin intervened before the love-struck lizard could do anymore damage.
"Marla, not that I'm not happy to see you, but what are you doing here?"
"Well, I was curious what Siegfried was up to and followed him here," she answered, turning casually so that the late morning sun gleamed on her jet black hide. "I didn't want to spoil his fun though, so I kept back for a while. Just when I decided to take a look inside the castle, the drawbridge went down and what comes out? A horde of fine soldiers and the king no less. Well, I wasn't exactly hiding, so they see me, and you know what he did?"
"He yells something about foul magics and evil beasts and a missing princess..."
"Yes, I was very flattered of course. Then the whole company chases after me. I hadn't had that much fun in ages," Marla chuckled. "I led them towards Ogre's Rift, so I'm pretty sure it will be a while until they show up again. So, what's this about a missing princess?"
They quickly filled her in on the whole story. The Black Unicorn was impressed.
"Well, that is quite a tale. A legendary artifact, powerful magics and your missing princess right in the middle of it."
"Well, I don't care about all that, I just want to get her back," Caitlin said somewhat irritatedly. Marla looked at her knowingly.
"Yes, and what I meant earlier is that the use of evil rituals and such takes time and preparation," Siegfried explained importantly.
"Oh yes," Marla sighed, "and the really tricky ones can only be preformed at certain times. Do you know how rare solar eclipses are for example? And the requirements! It's not like virgins are grown on trees..."
Siegfried interrupted her hastily. "Yes quite, so what I'm saying is that we may have some time. But of course," he continued silencing Caitlin's protest, "we will find her as soon as possible. I just want you to realize you don't have to drive yourself mad with worry."
She took a deep breath and nodded. Phyr landed on her shoulder and pecked at her soothingly.
Marla looked thoughtful. "You know, you've got quite the opponent there. That sorcerer must have some power for a human." Caitlin nodded grimly. "I think maybe you should have a little bit of magical support yourself," the Black Unicorn continued, winking at Siegfried.
"If you're meaning to say you'll come along, just do so, we're in a hurry," Phyr chirped impatiently. "I don't see how though, since I suspect we'll be flying. And stop winking at the big lizard, he'll only break more stuff."
They all gaped at the huffed up bird. Then Marla started laughing.
"Well, how about this?" She vanished in a puff of black smoke and a big, beautiful black owl was sitting on the ground. Siegfried stared at her. Caitlin realized he'd probably never seen her changing shape and was surely wondering how she would look in dragon form.
"Oh well, uhm...yes, that might work," Phyr mumbled and hid in Caitlin's pocket, who chuckled and thanked Marla for her offer. The truth was they had already discussed the problem that Siegfried, clearly their biggest asset, wouldn't be much use if their opponent decided to hide away in some dungeon. And considering the fact that their opponent was a dark evil sorcerer, this was pretty much a given. She explained this to Marla the Black Owl, who hooted approvingly and turned back into Marla, the Black Unicorn with a faint pop.
"The black smoke is really just for dramatic effect," she explained to Caitlin who looked at her questioningly.
"Well, good then. I feel better now that we have such char... I mean capable magical support," Siegfried stated, smiling toothily at Marla.
Phyr giggled in Caitlin's pocket.
"I would feel better though, if we'd be packing a little bit more punch in the way of brute force," he continued. They all looked at him. "Apart from me of course."
"Mmh, those pajama-wearing thugs are tough bastards," Caitlin conceded. "So what do we do? Hire a Troll gang?"
"Hmm, maybe something slightly uhm smaller, but more dangerous would be more helpful," Siegfried said pensively. Then he called out to Rupert, who was still loitering in the vicinity since he was their official liaison now and hurried over at once.
"Rupert, who is the most feared, dangerous, notorious assassin for hire around here?"
Rupert scratched his head and thought for a moment. "Well, that would be Baldrick the Bloody Librarian I guess."
"Baldrick the bloody what?" Caitlin asked incredulously.
"Librarian," Rupert said helpfully. "He got that title because they say that what's left of his victims fits between two sheets of paper."
Phyr gulped and hid deeper in Caitlin's pocket.
"Very well," Siegfried chuckled. "And where might we find that illustrious gentleman?"
To be continued...