Damsels and Dragons
Written by argonaut :: [Wednesday, 09 August 2006 10:32] Last updated by :: [Thursday, 15 May 2014 15:51]
Damsels and Dragons
Author’s Note: Sebia was created by Anterion and is used with his kind permission. Read about her first appearance here.
“‘Tis fortunate that we met, milady,” Sir Quentin observed to the young woman walking beside him along the forest path. “These woods are full of danger – especially to a lady such as yourself, alone and defenceless.”
“Fortunate indeed,” the girl replied. Her tone was grave, but there was a trace of a smile on her lips. “But surely, with the wizard Konzaroth fled, and his evil minions with him, I would have thought this forest was safe once more.”
“True, the wizard has fled – but some of his minions remain. I hear that Gorugh the orc has taken to robbing wayfarers at Bracken Bridge. Indeed, I am on my way there now.”
“Gorugh, eh?” the girl said softly, as if she were familiar with the name.
“Besides,” said the young paladin, “Konzaroth was hardly the only menace lurking in these woods. There are brigands and wild beasts – and even,” he added impressively, “rumors of a dragon.”
“Goodness!” exclaimed the girl, arching her eyebrows.
“And you must consider,” Sir Quentin went on, “that whoever turned Konzaroth’s castle into a mound of rubble, and caused him to flee these parts – whether giant, troll, or who knows what – must be a fearsome wight indeed … not someone you would care to meet around the next turn of this path, I’ll wager!”
The girl suddenly appeared to be seized with a coughing fit. “No, indeed!” she exclaimed when she had recovered. But her vivid green eyes seemed to be shining with amusement at some private joke whose nature Sir Quentin could not fathom.
Indeed, the damsel had been a source of puzzlement to the knight ever since he had come upon her half an hour before. Fair of face and small of frame, she wore a green gown whose hem she held daintily an inch or two above the ground. A belt of intricate silverwork, fastened with an ornate buckle, girt her slender waist, and her red hair was tied with a lavender ribbon behind her neck, whence it spread in a coppery fan across her back. Her skin was fair, save for a faint sprinkling of freckles across her small, upturned nose and dimpled cheeks; and her eyes, bright as emeralds, sparkled with sly humor.
She had politely but firmly declined Sir Quentin’s offer to let her ride upon his horse, and so – mindful of the courtesy befitting a knight – he had dismounted and now walked beside her, holding his horse’s reins in his right hand. He had asked what her name was, and how she came to be travelling alone through this forest, but she had parried his questions with a light laugh and a change of subject. So the two of them continued along the path that led through the woods, winding back and forth as it climbed toward the summit of Grimsby Hill before descending to the village of Slough.
“Tell me,” she said. “This calling of yours – this knight-errantry – do you like it?”
“Indeed, milady,” Sir Quentin replied. He was young, and newly knighted, and keen on his vocation. “The pay is scanty and the hours long, and many’s the night I’ve gone hungry and slept rough. But it’s given me the opportunity to see the world … and who knows what adventures each day might bring?” In his zeal, Sir Quentin was forgetting that so far he had not travelled more than twenty leagues from the village where he was born and raised – and that his adventures had been disappointingly few. “And truly,” he concluded, “there is no finer calling than giving succor to those in distress!”
“But the danger!” exclaimed the damsel. “Are you never frightened?”
Sir Quentin blushed. “To tell the truth, milady, I have as yet encountered little in the way of danger – unless you count a pair of common brigands who had the sense to flee an armed and armored horseman. But I hope – I pray – that if ever true danger should come my way, I will face it as befits a knight, whatever my fears.”
The girl laid a dainty hand on Sir Quentin’s arm. “That was well and frankly spoken, sir knight,” she said, and there was no laughter in her eyes.
They walked on in silence for several minutes. The path was growing steeper. Despite the forest shade, Sir Quentin was perspiring freely, and his coat of mail lay heavy on his limbs. He noticed that the girl showed no sign of fatigue as she picked her way daintily among the roots and stones in her path, and he envied the lightness of her garb.
They came to a turn in the path. A spacious clearing lay before them, and they saw the crest of the hill beneath a cloudless summer sky. But they saw something else besides.
A cart laden with barrels stood by the side of the path a few yards ahead, just beyond the edge of the woods. Its side bore the inscription SAM TWIGG, WINE AND LIQUOR MERCHANT in freshly painted letters. But neither the horses nor the driver were anywhere to be seen. Sensing something amiss, Sir Quentin halted, motioning the girl to step behind him.
“That’s odd,” he mused. “I was a tavern-boy before I became a squire, and I recognize those wares – October ale from Bavaria, and red wines from Burgundy, and strong whisky from Hyborea. These must be the costliest liquors in merchant Twigg’s inventory. Why would the driver leave such valuable wares unattended?”
“Perhaps he went off to answer a call of nature?”
“One needs no horses for that errand, milady.”
“Then perhaps he was waylaid by some of the brigands you spoke of?”
“That may be. But then where are they? Having chased off the driver, they would surely have carried off his wares – or else broached a barrel of ale and become as drunk as a council of bishops on St. Swithin’s Day.” Sir Quentin frowned. “A warm day … a long climb … “ He cocked his head, listening intently. Sure enough, he heard the sound of running water, off to his left. Peering into the forest, he spotted a spring trickling from the hillside, filling a small pool before running off downhill. “Ah – the driver must have led the horses to the pool yonder – “
Sir Quentin suddenly fell silent, for he saw something that seized his heart with dread. By the side of the clearing, off to the left, lay a heap of charred flesh and blackened bones – the mortal remains of the horses and their unfortunate driver.
Lowering his voice, he spoke to the damsel behind him, but without taking his eyes from the clearing ahead. “Turn around, milady,” he said, “and hurry back down the hill as fast as your feet will take you. Look for a hiding place – under a log, behind a boulder – whatever you can find.”
“What is it?” murmured the girl. “What – ?”
As if in answer to her question, a long shadow fell across the clearing. Looking up, they beheld an enormous dragon rearing its head above the crest of the hill, glaring at them through baleful red eyes. Its iridescent scales gleamed in the sunlight as it clambered toward them, raking the ground with talons as long as scythes …
“Run, milady!” shouted Sir Quentin. Seizing his horse’s bridle, he slid one foot into a stirrup and prepared to leap into the saddle, hoping to distract the monster long enough to allow the girl to flee. But the horse, rearing in terror, shook him off and galloped downhill. Sir Quentin tumbled down a shallow ravine by the side of the path, crying out in pain as he twisted his ankle. Unable to stand, he scrambled back up to the path on his hands and knees, praying that the girl had followed the horse’s example and fled.
But what he saw, as he pulled himself out of the gully, sent a shiver of horror through his bones. The girl was standing in the same spot, unmoving, staring directly into the dragon’s eyes. Poor girl, he thought, she’s frozen with fear. He had heard somewhere that a dragon’s gaze had the power to paralyze its victims. “Run, milady!” he shouted again. He picked up a stone and flung it at the monster, hoping desperately to draw its attention away from the damsel.
But the stone bounced harmlessly, unnoticed, from the dragon’s scaly flank. Still glaring at the girl, it drew its head back and opened its jaws, exposing two rows of long, sharp teeth. Then, thrusting its head forward, it poured a stream of dragon-fire directly at her.
“NO!” shouted the paladin as the fiery torrent engulfed the damsel. He ducked his head as a wave of heat, fierce as the blast from a furnace, rushed past him. Closing his eyes, he crossed himself and commended the girl’s soul to the mercy of her Maker, praying that her death had at least been swift …
But his words faltered as he opened his eyes and beheld the girl standing, unscathed, in the center of a circle of blackened heath. Her outer garments had been burnt away, and she stood clad in a shirt of fine mail that hung on her small body like a shift, hanging off her shoulders and falling halfway down her thighs. Her ornate belt was the only other article of her clothing that had survived the flames. Her red hair, no longer bound by its ribbon, tumbled in loose coppery waves along her shoulders and down her back.
“ ‘Tis a miracle!” whispered Sir Quentin, recalling the tale of the three Israelites who had survived King Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. He gazed with wonder – and a not altogether chaste admiration – at the damsel’s bare limbs, slender yet sinewy, hinting at a strength out of keeping with her small stature.
The girl turned and caught Sir Quentin’s eye. She smiled and winked – as if surviving a blast of dragon-fire were the most natural thing in the world – and stepped nimbly to the vintner’s cart. Reaching up, she placed a dainty hand on either side of a barrel of whisky; and then, in one smooth, effortless motion, she hoisted it off the cart and set it on the ground.
The knight stared, momentarily forgetting the dragon in his amazement at the girl’s strength. What manner of damsel is this, he wondered, who can withstand dragon-fire and lift a hogshead of whisky as if it weighed nothing at all? The girl had pried the lid off the barrel and flung it aside; now, raising the barrel to her lips and tilting her head back, she took a long, deep draught of the potent liquor.
Sir Quentin had heard it said that a dram of Hyborean whisky, neat, could knock an orc senseless for two days – yet the girl continued to quaff the fiery spirit as if it were sweet cider. Presently she set the barrel down, drew the back of her hand across her mouth, and turned to face the dragon.
The dragon had been regarding her quizzically, its great head tilted to one side; but at her approach it began to growl – a low ominous growl like the rumble of thunder on a sultry August afternoon. The girl sauntered forward, showing not the slightest fear as she halted directly in front of the monster and placed her hands defiantly on her hips. Nostrils flaring, the dragon opened its jaws a second time and poured out another stream of flame.
Leaning forward, puffing out her cheeks, the girl blew a jet of air through puckered lips. Her breath, saturated with the strong liquor she had imbibed, met the dragon’s flame high in the air and exploded into a roaring ball of bluish fire. For a moment, the fireball hung halfway between damsel and dragon; but continuing to blow, the girl pushed it slowly but inexorably forward, until a final puff sent it directly into the monster’s maw.
Bellowing with outrage, the dragon reared up on its hind legs. It spread its wings and clawed the air for a moment before dropping to all fours with an impact that made the hillside tremble. Glaring furiously at its diminutive adversary, it lowered its head and distended its jaws until they gaped higher than a castle door.
For an instant, Sir Quentin feared that the monster was about to swallow the girl; then he realized that it was preparing to unleash yet another torrent of fire. He caught a glimpse of white-hot flame churning in the dragon’s throat, fiercer than any forge, louder than any cataract. Surely the damsel could not withstand an inferno such as this, he thought. He tried to call out, to shout “Run!” – but the roar of dragon-flame drowned out his words.
The girl stood unflinching in the hot wind that poured from the dragon’s mouth. Eyes half-shut, chin raised, a smile on her lips, she appeared to be basking in the fierce heat as if it were a warm summer breeze. Then, just as a flood of white-hot dragon-fire threatened to pour down the hillside, consuming the damsel and everything else in its path, she pursed her lips and blew a single puff of air directly down the monster’s throat.
There was a loud pop – and the blaze that had been roaring inside the dragon went out like the flame of a snuffed candle. The monster blinked; it shook its head back and forth; it began to cough and wheeze, thrashing about in a desperate effort to re-kindle its flame – but to no avail.
Learned men say that dragons are incapable of fear; but within every creature there must be an instinct for self-preservation – and such an instinct stirred within the monster now. With a plaintive bleat the dragon stepped back from the damsel. To Sir Quentin’s eyes, it was as if a cat were to flee from a mouse, or a lion from a sparrow. The beast turned around with lumbering steps; it crouched and spread its wings, preparing to spring from the hilltop and fly away. Its massive tail came sweeping across the clearing …
Deftly as a juggler plucking a ball from mid-air, the girl raised an arm and caught the tip of the dragon’s tail as it passed over her head; then, grabbing hold with both hands, she leaned backward, bracing herself, as the monster leapt into the air …
With a sharp tug – as if she were restraining a dog on a leash – the damsel brought the dragon’s flight to an abrupt stop. Its long neck was stretched taut, its front legs clawed the air, the desperate beating of its wings flattened the grass and stirred the forest leaves; but the dragon made no more headway than if it were tethered to a mountain. Nimbly the girl began to spin round, swinging the beast like an enormous flail. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, the dragon’s great bulk circled the hilltop, snapping the tops off tall trees as if they were sticks of kindling. Sir Quentin ducked as the monster’s shadow passed over him – once, twice, thrice …
And then the girl let go. Standing on the crest of the hill, silhouetted against the cloudless summer sky, she gazed upward, watching the dragon recede until it was no more than a speck, high and distant in the blue vault.
Sir Quentin hobbled across the clearing, using a broken-off branch as a makeshift crutch. “Truly, milady,” he stammered as he drew near the damsel, “you – you are as strong as you are fair!”
“Kindly spoken, sir knight,” replied the girl, smiling. She blushed, suddenly conscious of her bare limbs and Sir Quentin’s gaze, and held out a hand. “And now may I beg the loan of your cloak?”
Fumbling, Sir Quentin unfastened his cloak and handed it to the girl. “What is your name, milady?” he asked. “And your strength – how?”
“My name is Sebia, sir knight,” she replied, wrapping the cloak about her shoulders. “And my story is a long one. Let us retrieve your horse and bind your foot, and then my tale may while away the rest of our journey.”
As they walked back toward the forest, the girl turned to Sir Quentin. “And may I ask one more favor of you, my brave and courteous knight?”
“Anything, milady Sebia.”
“Let me go with you to Bracken Bridge. For Gorugh and I are old friends, and I am sure that he will be glad to see me once more!”