by C. Michael Chase
He fell through the dimly-lit night sky, and she watched in horror, unable to do anything from her place in the grass far below.
Coming toward her and yet she knew him lost.
The paralyzing thought that if he wasn’t dead now, he soon would be seemed to prolong the event, taking malicious glee in the suffering those few short seconds inflicted on her.
And then his burnt body crashed into the ground with metallic finality. The scream that had been trying to fight free ripped from her in an agonized wail, pulling her into a scrambling run toward him.
The ground shook with a triumphant roar as she fell to her knees next to the smoking body of her knight. The grass around him curled and blackened slowly, sending smoke up around him in shifting swirls. The smell of burnt flesh, hair, and hot metal spread out from him, but only the heat kept her from taking him into her arms. She sank to her knees as close as she could bear, sweat mingling with the tears streaming down her face.
A rumbling thump-thump-thump shook the ground as the dragon swooped in for a loping landing. The scaled lizard wings curled back behind his long, serpentine body, and his long-muzzled head swung down to peer at the body of his vanquished enemy.
“Why!?” the young woman screamed, turning her glistening face towards the great beast, pain, rage, and loss twisting her voice. Then a wordless howl followed, and she collapsed in the grass, sobbing uncontrollably.
The dragon watched her shaking form, his low breath growling in and out like bellows. “Child,” he finally rumbled, in a very human attempt to soothe.
“Child?” she howled, pushing herself up. “Child!? What gives you the right to call me ‘child’?”
He pulled his head back at the sharpness of her voice, the undiluted anger. “Why are you so distraught, child?” the great serpent asked slowly. “He was only a man. You did not know him long.”
A wordless howl of rage ripped from her as she pushed herself up to her feet, her hands clenched into fists at her sides.
“But he was mine. I chose him.
And then she sobbed, her shoulders sagging, unable to sustain the anger under the weight of her sudden loss.
“He was unfit. You can choose another.”
Fire briefly flared up in her. “Who are you to decide who is fit and unfit? I chose him. Since I wanted him for myself, the choice should have been mine.”
The dragon sighed. “Child… You know it cannot be so. I have told you many times the duty entrusted to me by your father. I am bound to perform it. ‘Only he who proves himself worthy…’”
‘… may seek my hand in marriage,” she finished for him irritably.
“Exactly,” the dragon said gravely. “This man had not proven himself. In fact, when forced to the task, he failed.”
“The task of beating you in single combat?” she retorted, her voice filled with hopeless rage. “An unlikely task for another dragon, let alone a mortal.
“What measure is mere skill at arms?” she went on hotly after a moment. “Soldiers are skilled fighters. Mercenaries even more so, many times. Would they be worthy of me?”
“No such man would best me,” the dragon replied smoothly.
She gasped in indignant fury. “But what measure of a man is it? Did you know anything about him, before you forced him to fight you? His name? Where he came from?”
“Of what importance are these trifling details?”
“What kind of man was he!?” she shrieked. “Did he have honor? Was he kind? What did you know of him?”
A long pause followed her outburst, broken only by the rumbling breath of the dragon. “Nor did you know him, child,” he replied finally.
“I knew him more than you,” she shot back with venom.
The meaning of her words settled slowly over the dragon, and he lowered his head in solemn acknowledgement.
“So I am your prisoner?”
“On the contrary, child,” the dragon said, trying to regain a sense of authority. “You were never my prisoner. You are my charge. My ward. Have I not watched over you since you were but a little human, barely able to walk? Taught you, cared for you, played with you? I do not treat my prisoners so, not if they were the deities themselves.”
She slumped further, falling to her knees again. The fire had died in her voice, and it dragged itself out of her mouth like the heavy footsteps of a weary miner. “It doesn’t matter,” she whispered. “He is already gone. There is no worthy man in this world any longer. None…”