Chapter Two: The Knight Who Would Save the Kingdom
Aislin was barely twenty when she set out from home with a borrowed shield and a rusty sword. She was decent enough to look at if one could convince her to wear something pretty, but for the most part she preferred to wear her father’s old clothes while she walked about the dusty paths to the Loch.
There she would gamble with a rather disreputable trader who would prefer her in nothing rather than the suit of armor she won off him in cards. She ran away from that inn while the trader was still drunk. On horseback she put the town far behind her, setting off for the place where the forests began.
She had long to ride, for the forests were not close to civilization. Before she reached them she would have to pass swamps and the ruins of homes once occupied by others like her. Aislin made quick work of the strange beasts that lurked in these parts who could not let a human pass unchallenged.
As difficult as the journey had been up to this point, the woods were far worse. Removed from people and from society for days, Aislin began to feel the gloom of the forest weighing upon her. But when the trees ended abruptly, she felt unprepared. Her eyes strayed to the sky for a sign of dragons, before she lowered her gaze to look at the distant pinnacle of a castle.
Too late she looked at the mass of briars before her. A pair of opalescent green eyes stared back at her through the thorns. The would-be knight dropped her helmet and drew up her sword and shield. It was too late to run in the trees. The dragon surely would snatch her up and eat her before she could even take three steps.
“Don’t run.” The dragon spoke with a strange echoing voice that resonated in her mind as much as through her. “I bare my teeth but it is only because I am in great pain. I have caught a great big tree branch in my foot. If you take it out, I shall grant you both your life and a wish.”
Aislin was compassionate but not foolish. She considered the request and whether it might be a trick of some sort. In the end, she put her faith in what her father had said of dragons in Nod. According to his stories, passed down from his own father, dragons did not lie.
“Alright,” she began hacking at the briars that stood between her and the dragon. She circled around carefully, avoiding coming too close to the dragon’s jaws which had disturbingly pointy teeth. She moved to the hindfoot and eyed the offending branch.
“You fell on the patch,” Aislin realized as she studied the item that had penetrated quite deep.
“Yes,” the monster said. “I was out hunting for a wild pig to eat and tripped through here rather clumsily. The pig escaped, but my foot did not.”
The woman began to trim down the branch, taking care to watch the dragon. The creature simply closed its eyes and said nothing.
“It’s out,” the woman finally spoke several minutes later. “But I don’t know what to do for you now.”
“Nothing,” the dragon rumbled. “I shall lick it when I have flown out of this patch and it shall close as it usually does.”
“How odd,” the knight mused. “Dragons have very special gifts. If only humans were the same.”
“What does bring you here, human?” The green eyes swirled about as the dragon turned its head towards the woman, who responded by taking several involuntary steps backwards. “Perhaps you were looking for treasure?”
Aislin felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. “I do not covet dragon treasure. I have no wish to touch something that might bear a powerful curse.”
“Indeed,” the creature answered mournfully. “Curses are rather irritating. Anyways, there is no treasure inside. So you should go on your way and spare yourself the trouble.”
“I would like to go inside, nonetheless,” Aisling was firm. ”I wish to find if there is a man inside, asleep.”
The dragon’s eyes glittered. “So you have heard the stories, have you? Since you have paid me a kindness I shall pay you a more honest response. A man does sleep inside, not able to die or to wake. According to the people who once lived here, he was either a monster or a hapless prisoner. I do not presume to judge. That would be a task for one of his subjects, scattered into exile.”
The warrior considered this point. “I have heard the same stories, I believe.”
“I know you,” the dragon said suddenly as it looked at the woman’s eyes, hard and clear. “I know your shield rather,” it said as it looked at the item on Aislin’s back.
“It is rightfully mine now,” the lady responded. “And I am a subject of this kingdom, come to see my king.”
The dragon grinned, baring her teeth. “Well, lady knight. You have the smell of one who speaks true. Therefore, let me spare you the trouble of dealing with the thorns. If you will put your blade away for just a moment and climb my back, I shall take you to see him.”
The woman regarded those teeth for just a moment, before she nodded. “I will take a chance yet again on you, dragon.” And with that, she sheathed her sword and placed her hand on the side of the dragon and climbed its back.
With a powerful leap of its backlegs, the dragon took itself and the woman airborne, above the tangle of thorns.
“How did the briar patch come to be?” The woman shouted above the winds as she looked down at the world below.
“They are flowers that have overrun their boundaries. With the king asleep for so many years, there was no one left to tend to them.”
The woman cleared her throat. “And what of the witch within this castle.”
The dragon rumbled in amusement as it circled slowly downward into a stone courtyard and gently landed. It turned its head towards the woman as she climbed down its back. “There _was_ such a witch, and she was quite powerful. But she lost her magic, and after that,” the dragon yawned, showing again its impressive set of teeth to the woman. “I ate her.”
Aislin was not quite sure whether to believe the creature, but did not dare question her.
“By the way, young soft creature,” the dragon smiled a terrible smile. “Unsheathe your sword again.”
The lady knight obeyed, and was surprised to see the blade she had in her hand had transformed from hilt to point.
Somewhat cryptically the dragon nodded. “By granting you your wish, another will become possible to accomplish.”
“I have not told you my wish–”
“Shush. As soon as you stepped out of the forest, your wish was evident. Go and claim it.”
And so the woman left the amused dragon in the courtyard to find the king whose life needed to end so that others could live.
The sword trembled in her hand as she looked down at his face, lit softly by a window somewhere far above. She wondered how the stories could have failed to state that the monster was not only young, but fair.
She bowed her head, mumbling words that she had rehearsed so many times at her father’s bedside. “Your kingdom is adrift, its people scattered. Your hovering in between life and death is meaningless, king.”
The man did breathe, but did not wake. Aislin hefted her sword again in her hand but her eyes drifted to the window to look at the land outside, the place that her grandfather once called the emerald sea – a place that birthed dreams … not end them.
As the wind whispered through the window, she put aside her sword and made her choice.
Outside, the dragon began to roar.
Choose King over Kingdom, dear Knight.
Upon the mouth of a sleeping beauty, bestow your gift!
But Knight, heed a warning:
Without True Love’s Kiss,
the Curse is not to be broken!