The first of two chapters for Mysterious Mitch, the Patron-like highest backer of Flesh & Blood. The request was ‘world building’, but there was just one thing I had to get out of the way first :3
CHAPTER ONE is here if you haven’t already read it.
No sooner had Dane realised what those reptilian pupils on her wife-to-be meant, she’d shoved the lady off her, hoisting herself up off the table and hurriedly pulling up her breeches. No, it couldn’t be, it couldn’t be— “This is a trick!” Dane accused her, hearing the desperation in her own voice as she backed away. “It’s dark magic, or unholy—”
“Oh dear, I knew it was too soon,” the Patroness was saying, putting a despairing hand against her forehead. “What was I thinking? All the books say you need to be careful with regard to humans—”
The back of Dane’s thighs hit the table; she could retreat no further. Her heart was pounding. “Stop it! Tell me those eyes you just revealed to me were a trick! In the name of the Light, tell me!”
The Patroness was still chastising herself. “—Honestly, she tells me her title is ‘Dragonslayer’, and what do I waste no time doing? Showing her that in actual fact—”
Dane’s ears were ringing. She was going to say it.
“—I’m a dragon.”
That word slammed into Dane with full enough force as if to knock her clean across the room. It left her winded, dazed. What had she just… What had they just—? “No…!” Inadvertently, her hand flew up to hold her undershirt closed across her breasts.
“It was a mistake of me to tell you so soon,” the Patroness admitted, as if that were the only mistake. “I should have waited. I should have left it until after you—”
“It was a mistake of mine to accept your invitation!” Dane rasped. “I knew something was amiss! I knew it! I should have slain you second I laid eyes on you, you lying, devious monster, but I let you trick me into defiling me with your filthy hands and—”
“—Excuse me,” ‘that creature’ interrupted her, eyebrows in her hairline. “I’ll acknowledge I could have exercised better judgment about what just took place, but I don’t think it’s fair to call me such—”
“—how fair do you find it to seduce a holy knight of the council with empty promises of marriage only to reveal you are one of the foulest, the most fiendish—”
The Patroness didn’t let her finish. “—It wasn’t an empty promise, sir Knight. I do completely intend to marry you.”
Dane’s face twisted and she took a couple of threatening steps towards the smaller woman. “Well, I would sooner banish you into the pits of hell before I’d marry something like you!” she spat, and then looked her up and down, breathless with anger. “I’ve always known dragons had no morals, but I never expected such devious—”
The Patroness bristled. “—Simply making an error of judgment does not mean I have no morals at all, good sir knight. It was never my intention to—”
“Then how could you?” Dane demanded, taking another step towards her. “How could you force my hand like that? How could you remove my clothes and accept my vows, knowing what I am and what you are?”
Dane had expected the monster that this woman was to fire something back at her, an excuse, a platitude, something hollow. She didn’t. Instead, the Patroness considered her for some time, brow knit in thought. “To be quite honest, I’m not sure,” she admitted eventually. “I certainly find you handsome—there is no doubt about that— and I’m very interested in finding out more about your people, but ordinarily when knights show up at my castle I simply eat them.” She paused, grimacing. “As food, I mean. Not any other sort of—anyway. I’ve never even bothered to have a conversation with one before.”
Dane had never had a conversation with a dragon, either. It had never occurred to her that the beasts could speak. That hardly mattered at this moment, however. “Well, you shouldn’t have spoken to me, you should have let me slay that cohort of yours and then made your own vain attempt at my life!” Something occurred to her. “In fact, we can correct that mistake right now. Reveal your true form and fight me, dragon! I shall avenge my honour by emerging victorious and slaying you!”
The Patroness made no move to change herself, and instead gave Dane a very odd look. “You mean to attempt to slay your wife-to-be?”
That grated on Dane. “No, I mean to actually slay the hideous beast posing as a maiden to lure unsuspecting knights to their folly! Come, creature! I will find my sword and you will fight me!”
She didn’t look very intimidated, only slightly insulted. “’Hideous’?” she repeated, raising an eyebrow. “I thought I heard you say before that no matter how ugly my true form, you promised to learn to love me as your betrothed? Do you mean to break that promise, sir knight?”
Do you mean to break—now Dane knew she was being facetious. “That was before I knew you were lying to me about your very being!” she hissed. “Listen here, dragon, you are not my wife-to-be. How could that possibly be so? I could no more make a holy promise to marry you than I could promise to marry a goat, or a snake, or some other beast. The promises are for people, not for—”
“I apologise for correcting you,” the Patroness began in what Dane could only describe as a haughty and paternalistic tone. “But I have read your ancient scriptures—many a time, in fact, they’re quite fascinating—and they do not specify who can and cannot make a holy promise, only that they are to be made between parties who wish to marry. As a goat or a snake do not have the means to express a promise I doubt they would be able to partake of one, but as a dragon, I most certainly am able to—”
Dane swelled up with rage again. “—How dare you!” she said, cutting the woman off. “How dare you, a foul dragon, mean to tell a holy knight of the Council of Protectors what is and isn’t a Light’s Truth from the holy scriptures that we govern our very lives with, every aspect of our beings and—”
“—well, if you’re wrong about the contents,” the Patroness told her, sounding a little put out, “then, yes, I ‘mean to tell a holy knight of the Council of’—”
“—you’re wrong about the contents!” Dane shouted over her, taking a step so they were toe-to-toe. “I live the contents! I breathe the contents! Following the will of the Light is my—”
“—I am never wrong about books, good sir knight, and yelling at me isn’t going to magically make you right when you are not—”
“—A human simply cannot marry a beast, dragon, and I refuse to let a revolting, deceitful, lying monster I should have slain—no matter how beautiful a maiden she currently resembles—tell me that a promise she tricked out of me constitutes a holy—”
“Slay me, then!” The Patroness’ shouted in Dane’s face, her delicate brow low over her eyes, and in an instant she’d reached beside them and plucked something long a solid out of thin air, pressing the flat of it into Dane’s hand. Dane glanced down; it was her Firebrand steel sword. “Slay me! If you are so sure I am wrong, forsake your Light and slay your betrothed when you have taken a holy promise to always protect her. We shall see who is truly right!”
Dane didn’t waste a moment in raising her sword to the creature’s throat, not believing for a single second that a dragon could be right about the scriptures. “It would be my pleasure to slay you—!” she growled, and drew a breath, preparing to cut down the foul monster in front of her.
The ‘foul monster’ looked back at her with a maiden’s soft eyes and a maiden’s gentle face.
It’s just a trick, Dane told herself. Taking another deep breath, Dane once again made ready to slice her throat—but just as she did so, a cloud suddenly passed across the sun outside. The beautiful technicolour light that had surrounded them disappeared from the room, plunging it into near darkness.
Dane tried to ignore it, holding the sword steady. She tried to reassure herself it was just a cloud, just a coincidence, but she couldn’t ignore a voice deep inside her that whispered the Light turns from the act you are to commit. All her childhood, the priests had cautioned her to listen closely to that inner voice. It spoke very clearly to her now.
Confirming its message, the moment Dane dropped her sword with a frustrated shout and stepped away from the Patroness, the sun returned, throwing colour back into the room.
Dane turned her back on the lady and placed her hands firmly on the dining table, leaning heavily on them. The Light had shone warmly on them while they coupled on this very table. While they’d consummated their promises and partaken of each other, sharing the most sacred of pleasures, the Light had endured. It had only been when Dane lifted her sword to slay her betrothed that it had left her. The message was clear, and it made Dane sick to her stomach.
The Patroness had been right, the promise stood, and the Light’s will was for her was to marry this dragon.
But why? Dane breathed, rolling her head back to look helplessly up towards the stained glass windows. Her earliest memory, carved into her very soul, was of the devastation these monsters wrought across the whole countryside. Of the villages they razed, of the burning inferno forged from the homes and bodies of innocent people.
She could make no sense of it. No sense at all.
“You needn’t look so overcome,” the Patroness said from behind her. She sounded a little breathless. “I’ve had a thousand years to read every detail from all of my books. There is no shame in being wrong when those are the odds.”
As if that were what Dane was overcome by… She said nothing. She could hardly look that the creature that was to be her wife.
It took a few moments for the Patroness to piece together what really troubled Dane. “Well, if it will make the whole affair more tolerable for you,” she began, “I can promise to never show you what I really look like when I—”
“Does it matter?” Dane asked darkly, staring down at the shattered crockery from their passionate foray on the table. “I’ll always know what you are.”
The Patroness saw where she was looking. “But you enjoyed what I am before, did you not? I can stay the way I am now, and perhaps you will enjoy it again.”
Dane grit her teeth. She doubted it. “You’re a dragon.”
A silence stretched between them, and the sunlight endured from the coloured windows above.
“I can scarcely believe this is true,” Dane found herself confessing, grasping at the last straws of hope she had. “Please tell me that you were lying about the scriptures, and that you blocked out the sun just a moment ago.”
The Patroness watched her for a short while, and then exhaled. “Come with me,” she bid Dane.
Dane doubted there was much to do but follow her.
Her greaves—the only item of armour she was still wearing—clicked on the marble floors as the Patroness led her through Castle Gallifront. Everywhere they went, glowing slit eyes watched them from colossal windowsills and high rafters, and even when they reached a huge and stately doorway, the Patroness had to shoo dragons away from it so they could enter.
As the lady gestured for the doors to open themselves, bright light flooded forward and momentarily blinded Dane. When her vision cleared, she was looking up through them, way up towards ten-feet tall windows on every wall and a high steeple roof in full aspect of the sun. This was a chapel of the Light.
A smile grew on Dane’s lips—she had never felt more need of a chapel than at this very moment—when she realised they were not alone in it.
There were dragons everywhere.
Dane was horrified that they were defiling such a holy place with their presence, and was about to say as much when she noticed they were reading. Why would dragons want to—?
She was in the middle of asking herself that question before she realised something else: the chapel no longer contained pews, shrines and altars. Instead, it had rows upon rows of thick shelves, filled with a million leather-bound tomes. The spines of the books were in all different colours—indexed by topic, it seemed, with such precision that it would have put the librarians in the capital to shame—and dragons were reclined all over the floor, surrounded by piles of various books, apparently giving their full attention to the tomes spread open in front of them.
Dane was torn as to what was more shocking: that a holy chapel had been converted from the worship of the Light to what appeared to be the worship of books, or that dragons had any sort of interest in those books.
“I’m sorry, children, but you’re going to have to leave us,” the Patroness called, stepping between them all.
One by one, the dragons rolled their eyes and closed their books, giving Dane very sullen glares as they slunk past her on the way out.
Dane watched them all file out in a very calm and orderly fashion. She had never seen dragons behave so obediently. “Children?” Dane repeated to the Patroness afterward, momentarily forgetting to be disgusted by her. “They’re not…. your children, are they?”
The Patroness laughed pleasantly as if Dane had said something ridiculous. “Oh, goodness, no,” she told Dane, casting her eyes along a row of books. “I don’t plan on my own children for another thousand years or so. These ones are all orphans. Many of them were starving when I took them in, so they appreciate what I’ve done for them after the untimely death of their natural parents.” She gave Dane a very pointed look over the top of the shelf.
Dane deliberately ignored it. If dragons insisted on raiding farms to eat people and livestock, they should expect to be slain by holy knights such as herself. Rather than deigning that jab at her with a reply—especially not after what this creature had done to her, Light’s will or no—she continued forwards to the centre of the chapel, into the bright triangle of light pouring forth from the high windows.
While she squinted upwards, trying to make out the pictures in the stained glass, the Patroness walked over and placed a large tome in her hand. By reflex, Dane looked down. She recognised it immediately.
The gold-leafed text read ‘The Light’s Eternal Truth’ in traditional lettering and it was inscribed into the butter-soft cream leather of the cover. The cover itself was embossed with hundreds of intricate filigrees—all holy symbols Dane recognised from the tapestries in the Great Cathedral—and despite the obvious age of the book and its light cover, there was not a single mark anywhere on it. There weren’t even wrinkles on the spine. Someone had taken great care to perfectly preserve it.
That someone watched quietly for a time as Dane’s fingers reverently explored the textured surface. “It’s beautiful, is it not?” She sounded proud. “I had it commissioned by a cloister nearly 300 years ago. Even now, it’s still one of the most beautiful books I own; every single word on every single page is leafed in gold. And look, just in case you still doubt me.” She guided Dane’s hands to spread the cover, and pages flipped neatly of their own accord. They came to rest on the Holiest of Vows. She pointed to a line with a single finger.
Dane’s eyes followed the gold lettering, her heart sinking as she realised what it was. ‘Should those who desire marriage exchange freely the Holy Promise to wed,” it read, “then the promise is made before and unto the Light, and the Light will bless their future union for long as the parties to the betrothal are faithful and true…” She stopped. There were no prohibitions on who—or what—could make a promise to wed.
“Just in case you thought I was lying to you again,” the Patroness said quietly, and then mumbled. “I do have morals.”
Dane’s stomach dropped as she read the text again just to be certain, even though nothing could be more certain. Their Holy Promise, consummated in the Light, stood true. There was no way to avoid fulfilling it.
Dane felt ill. “Leave me.”
The Patroness took a step back from her. For a moment, Dane expected that she would protest, but in the end she didn’t. “Very well,” was what she said. “I’m sure you can find your own way back to the dining hall should you feel hungry.”
Hungry was the last thing Dane felt as she watched the Patroness exit the chapel and close the doors behind her, leaving Dane alone with The Light’s Eternal Truth.
For many hours thereafter, Dane sat cross-legged with the beautiful book of scriptures spread across her knees. The sunlight faded and gave way to moonlight, and the gold lettering changed from glittering yellow to pale silver. The words endured, though, just as the Light’s Eternal Truth did.
But they didn’t help Dane understand her fate.
Why would the Light will her to marry a dragon? Was the Light’s will truly for her to take an unholy and monstrous creature before the holiest of people—the High Priest—to say the holiest of words? To commit her own life, her very soul to a creature who delighted in the destruction and torment of man? She implicitly knew the answer was ‘yes’, but nothing could explain why.
It struck her deep in her core, reminding her so much of another time, another place, where she’d been curled in a tiny ball on the charred earth, dimly aware of her own girlish voice screaming why, why, why…
Her father had explained to her that sometimes there is no why. Sometimes we cannot fathom the Light’s will, he’d said, sometimes we must surrender to the knowledge that a higher power has a plan we cannot know, and live on as best we can. He’d said that even with tears on his own cheeks.
She’d never found out the ‘why’ of that day, but it was the sole event that led her to pursue becoming a holy knight. The sole driver of her faith, and the reason that, ten years later, she had knelt before the Queen to roaring applause, the rising star of the order and the youngest knight in the Council of Protectors.
Perhaps she wouldn’t find out the ‘why’ of this, either. Perhaps it wasn’t for her to know, but, just like what had happened to her when she was six years old, it would eventually lead to something else incredible.
There was comfort in that thought. There was comfort in wondering if the Patroness was nothing but a piece on the same chessboard just that she herself was. It explained things she felt uneasy about: why she’d been led so effortlessly to couple with a woman she hardly knew when another soul had never even lain a finger on her, and why the Patroness had said it was all unusual for her, too. If they were both being played by the Light towards a final cosmic checkmate, at least some of it made sense.
Very well, Dane thought, surrendering. She would simply need to trust in the Light just as she was oathsworn to, and marry this dragon. Even if no part of her really understood or accepted it.
Feeling her heart sink, she carefully closed the beautiful tome and stood, moving to return it to where the other religious books were indexed.
When it came time to slip it back into the shelf, however, she couldn’t. It was far too beautiful for such a cursed place. She tucked it under an arm, and made her way back to the dining hall.
The drago—no, Dane corrected herself as she remembered her oath—her betrothed, was picking absently at her dessert with one hand, all her attention on a book she had spread open in the other. For a time, Dane stood at the doorway, The Light’s Eternal Truth held close to her chest as she watched the Patroness sitting in the muted candlelight.
She looked so human. She’d felt human, too, when Dane had touched her. Nothing had felt different, or wrong, or unholy about the things they’d done to each other—the opposite—and there was nothing at all about the Patroness that Dane could reconcile with what she knew of dragons. And yet, she was one.
Dane swallowed, crossing the threshold into the dining hall. She stopped not far inside. “My lady,” she said, and even to her own ears, her throat sounded tight.
The Patroness didn’t look up from her book. “Have you come to finish me, after all?”
Dane grimaced. “No,” she said, and knew what words must come next. “I came to apologise for my earlier behaviour.”
The Patroness looked up sharply, blinking at her, and with eyebrows in her hairline. Daintily, she patted her lips with her napkin, taking aspect of her husband-to-be. “My word, that’s quite a change of heart. I thought I might need to ‘misplace’ that sword of yours for quite some time to come!”
Dane didn’t bother saying that her heart wasn’t much changed at all. What Dane herself wanted was irrelevant: she was a servant of the Light. Instead, she continued, “And I also came because I have two requests if our betrothal is to stand.”
The Patroness gave Dane her undivided attention.
“Firstly, we simply can’t tell anyone what you really are. Not a single soul. I’m Dane the Dragonslayer—that’s my title. It’s who I am, it has to stand.”
Her betrothed’s eyes danced with amusement. “I think that’s a sensible precaution anyway,” she agreed. “I’ve been reflecting on how perhaps I shouldn’t have told you in the first place. There really is no need for you to know, and you would be blissfully happy now if I had not.”
While Dane suspected that were so, she couldn’t fathom the idea of being married to a dragon and having no knowledge of it. She pushed aside that thought, instead indicating the beautiful copy of The Light’s Eternal Truth under her arm. “Secondly, if you will allow it, I will take this as a gift for the High Priest. A book as beautiful as this belongs in the Great Cathedral to be appreciated by all who turn towards the Light.”
That, the Patroness hesitated on, and Dane could see the worry on her face as her eyes dipped to her precious book. Her concern quickly passed, though. “That seems like a reasonable request,” she eventually agreed, and then brightened. “I must admit, I’m quite excited at the prospect of seeing the capital again! I’ve not had an escort before—certainly not one as well-connected as yourself. Meeting you was such a stroke of good luck.” She gestured across the table opposite her, where a full meal had been laid out. “I left your food out just in case you did feel hungry. Won’t you dine with me?”
Not a day beforehand, Dane would have rather perished of starvation than dined with a dragon.
Feeling uneasy about that, she set The Light’s Eternal Truth beside her as she sat down to her dinner. Rather than eat, however, she could do nothing but stare across the table at the apparent maiden across from her with one single thought running through her mind: Dane the Dragonslayer was about to marry a dragon.