Thanks again to the very generous Mysterious Mitch who commissioned another chapter of this story! 🙂
A huge, armoured man at the head of the guard leant forward in his saddle. “Dane!” he bellowed out to the two of them, “Dane, my girl, it is you!” He had a rare smile on his broad, moustached face.
The way that moustache kinked at the corners of his mouth when he smiled always made Dane smile, too—and she did, for a moment. It had been too long since she’d seen him without a furrowed brow.
As the guard arrived at the crest of the hill, he dismounted and made a beeline for Dane, his armour clanking, and took her by the shoulders. “When Epiphany returned to the stables without you, I feared the worst,” he told her, the heartfelt display of emotion somewhat out of place on such a burly, weathered man. “The Queen said I was foolish for worrying that a mere dragon would ever best my daughter, and I’m so pleased that she proved right. Welcome home, girl!” His smile deepened as he gave her a once-over, and then faded somewhat at how pale she was. “Heavens, you look… tired, perhaps? Although it’s no wonder, if Epiphany made you walk! What spooked her, though? She’s not normally so skittish.”
Beside Dane, the Patroness spoke. “I did, sir knight.”
Her father’s eyes dipped to the Patroness. “You, my lady?”
“I’m afraid so.” At least she had the decency to look properly ashamed of herself for once. Dane wished she’d finished there, though. “I used magic to speed our return to the capital, and your daughter’s horse was quite startled by it.”
Dane closed her eyes for a moment. She’d forgotten to tell the Patroness not to mention magic. Heart pounding, Dane opened her eyes and looked from the Patroness up to her dear father, preparing to once again see that smile fade to familiar worry.
She saw no such thing. In fact, his heavy eyebrows shot up his forehead. “My, my,” he said, smoothing his thick beard with interest. “So, you’re a mage, then?”
Dane and the Patroness shared a glance; Dane desperately hoped the Patroness would heed her earlier promise to keep her true identity a secret.
The Patroness’ gave her an almost imperceptible smile of reassurance as she replied, “Of sorts, sir knight.”
Dane’s father looked most impressed. “Well, I never!” he said. “We don’t see many of your sort this far up north! I’m sure the High Priests will be most interested to meet you, uh…” He paused, and then chuckled at himself. “Goodness gracious, look at me! Hand of the Queen and I still can’t remember my manners!” He bowed slightly. “Sir Arlan, Hand of the Queen, and I’ll assume you’ve been properly introduced to my valiant daughter, Sir Dane the Dragonslayer…?”
Again, Dane and the Patroness shared a look. The Patroness was giving her another smile—but the cheekiness in this smile reminded Dane about their ‘introduction’: Dane recumbent on her back with the Patroness’ dark hair spread all over her bare thighs. She swallowed and looked away, cheeks pink.
Fortunately, the Patroness answered for her. “Yes, Sir Arlan. That, I have been.” She curtsied. “Lady Gallifront.”
Sir Arlan couldn’t help but notice his daughter’s flushed cheeks, and—to Dane’s horror—she could see anticipation on his face as he addressed the Patroness. His smile returned, eyes alight with what he thought he might be about to hear. “So, what brings you to Aurora, Lady Gallifront?” It seemed like he may already have guessed.
Almost coyly, the Patroness gave Dave a veiled look from under her lashes, and took Dane’s arm. “Your daughter, sir knight.”
Dane let the Patroness settle at her side, still feeling quite odd about it.
Sir Arlan was nigh holding his breath. “My daughter brings you here…?” His eyes rested on Dane.
Dane knew what he was expecting to hear, and—she was almost unable to say it. He’d been waiting years to hear Dane say those words, years.
The words felt foreign on her tongue as she said them. “We are to wed, father.”
Her dear father’s judgment was too clouded with joy to notice her hesitation. Dane watched his scar-flecked face break into a big, open-mouthed smile that showed all his teeth, his eyes crinkling in the corners. A jubilant laugh bubbled from deep within his barrel chest as he gripped her shoulders again. “What wonderful news! And the lady you rescued, too: just like a true fairytale! Congratulations, my girl—both of you!—and may the Light shine for eternity upon this holy union!” He hugged them both with his big tree-trunk arms.
Stomach sinking, Dane watched as her father released them both and dismissed his men, insisting that if his future daughter-in-law couldn’t ride, he would walk the length of the long road up to the Light’s Vigil with her. “I would like to get to know my soon-to-be family!” he told them, and then escorted the two of them through the city gates, a bounce in his step despite his hefty stature and heavy armour.
The Patroness, for her part, was charming and sociable with him. Her questions about Aurora’s recent history and her keen interest in the royal family was clearly genuine, and Dane knew how much her father loved and missed instructing. His questions, however, posed much more of a problem for them.
“It must have been awful for you, trapped up on a stormy peak with those infernal dragons,” he said somberly, shaking his head. “How on earth did you survive it?”
Dane glanced in warning across at the Patroness, but the Patroness wasn’t looking at her. Deliberately, Dane suspected. “Quite easily,” the Patroness told Dane’s father. “They took very good care of me. I was comfortable.”
Sir Arlan was taken aback; he stopped for a moment, brow dipped in confusion. After a moment of consideration, he conceded, “How odd. How very odd,” and resumed their slow pace uphill. “Do you believe they need to be in some sort of feeding frenzy but otherwise they’re docile?”
The Patroness flinched at ‘docile’ and opened her mouth to say something Dane knew would cause trouble, so Dane tightened her grip on the Patroness’ arm and shot her a look that she couldn’t ignore. This time, she mercifully chose to heed Dane and say no more.
At their silence, Dane’s father continued. “Tell me of family, Lady Gallifront. The Gallifronts have always been so generous to the universities and libraries, even when I was a boy I heard ‘Patroness of Gallifront’ every time someone commissioned a new wing of the Library. Your mother, I suppose? Or you grandmother?”
The Patroness laughed somewhat nervously. “Mmm.”
“Will they be joining us for your wedding? I know it’s an awfully long journey to Aurora.” He paused. “Unless you have magic, I suppose. Are your family mages just as you are? I should very much like to meet them, either way. We will have a big banquet to welcome them!”
The Patroness winced. “Yes, they were just as I am,” she said with a gentle nod. “But they have all passed, I’m afraid. Many years ago.”
His bright smile faded. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, and it was clear he meant it. He draped a huge arm across Dane’s shoulders for a moment. “Dane’s mother—my beautiful Astrid—has passed, too.” He exhaled at length, adding quietly. “Dragons.”
The Patroness seemed surprised to hear that news; she looked across somewhat curiously at Dane.
Sir Arlen misinterpreted it. “Your parents, too, my lady?”
The Patroness opened her mouth, and then shut it again for a moment. “No,” she said simply to him. “Humans.”
It was Dane’s turn to look across at the Patroness; she’d never mentioned that.
Sir Arlen nodded sagely. “There are people out there committing terrible deeds,” he acknowledged, of course not understanding what she really meant. “Well, may they all rest in peace, bathed in eternal light,” he said soberly, and they all walked on in thoughtful silence for a little while.
The Light’s Vigil—an imposing stronghold that doubled as the seat of the crown—was a considerable walk uphill through the city streets. Carts bustled past them as they climbed upwards, full of produce on the way to morning market. Roosters crowed, dogs barked, and the smell of a thousand breakfasts being cooked hung in the air. The Patroness found all of it fascinating. She stopped to examine the produce in merchant carts, the anti-dragon sigils on people’s doors (which were apparently not very effective), and even inspected all the people walking past them.
Everyone was just as interested in her. They admired her dress—so foreign!—and the way she wore her dark hair falling down her back. That she showed so much of her figure and wore her hair unbound was quite sensual; men and women alike stared, their eyes lingering on the details of her body. Dane saw their looks and longed to shout, ‘It’s not real!’, but of course, she couldn’t. It all bothered her far more than she thought it should have.
Another reason the Patroness drew stares was her company; no one ever saw the Hand of the Queen or his knighted daughter walking! It was unseemly for knights to walk anywhere; they were always sitting straight-backed on horses sporting the royal colours, as befit their positions. Without the royal colours, and traveling on foot… Dane was sure their small party was quite a spectacle.
People were gossiping. No wonder: Dane arm-in-arm with an unfamiliar lady, both being led by Dane’s father on foot? The Hand of the Queen smiling for once? Everyone knew what he’d lost, and his joyful smile as he watched the Patroness move through the crowd could only mean one thing: a wedding, and a wedding meant a party. Everyone loved a party, and a state wedding, held in the Great Cathedral, would be a grand and public affair. Around them, people leant together, abuzz with speculation.
Dane looked from the excited faces of the citizens to the proud face of her father—who was strutting along through the crowd, chest all puffed out—feeling her own chest deflate. Everyone was excited about her upcoming wedding.
When they reached the Light’s Vigil and were ushered through the gates by the guards, Sir Arlen excused himself as the queen was waiting on news. “I expect you are tired after your long journey and your ordeal, my lady,” he told the Patroness, still not fully understanding just how short magic had rendered their journey. “I will have two hot baths drawn in Dane’s quarters, and some breakfast sent up for you. I’m sure the Queen will be happy to allow you time to rest before you both have an audience with her.”
The Patroness’ ears piqued at ‘queen’. “Really? We shall get to meet the queen in person?”
“Of course!” Sir Arlan clapped one dinner-plate-sized hand on Dane’s back. “Not only is Dane the daughter of her Hand, but she’s a hero in her own right! Knighted at sixteen, she was. Few have ever achieved knighthood so young! She’s slain more of those foul dragons than I can count, the queen absolutely owes a measure of the kingdom’s safety to her!” The way he looked at Dane as he spoke of her both warmed Dane’s heart and broke it. “She is a hero, my girl. A true hero who deserves nothing but happiness. Of course the queen would very much wish to meet the lady who captured Sir Dane the Dragonslayer’s heart.”
While Dane’s own heart was already being crushed under the weight of her father’s words, he drew her aside to drive the blade even deeper. “Lady Gallifront is lovely, my girl,” he said, such tenderness in his eyes. “She’s beautiful, and learned, and fashionable—and a mage! What a treasure you have found yourself!” He touched Dane’s cheek gently with a calloused hand. “You can’t imagine what it feels like to know my darling daughter will get the happy ending and the family she’s always deserved. You simply can’t imagine.” He then left them with a maidservant to be shown up to Dane’s quarters.
Stomach sinking, Dane watched him leave—singing to himself. He never sang. Closing her eyes for a moment, she begged the Light that he would never, ever have to find out the truth about the Patroness.
The Patroness herself was watching Dane as they walked up several flights of stairs. “He’s such a kind man,” she observed. She sounded surprised to be saying that.
“You were expecting someone different?”
She shrugged. “Well, he is your father. I expected him to be more like you.”
Dane froze in place, mouth open. It took her a moment to keep moving and follow them. She waited until they were safely escorted into the alcove of her quarters and had shooed the servant away to protest, “I’ll have you know that I find it very easy to be kind to people who don’t trick me!”
She was unfazed. “I’m ‘people’ now? That’s a development.” She gave Dane a smile. “And why should it surprise you that I don’t find you kind? Your name is ‘Dragonslayer’. Someone who slays for a living could not possibly earn a reputation for kindness.”
That still didn’t sit well with Dane. She was doing the Light’s work! “Every dragon I slay saves the lives of a hundred people!”
The Patroness looked amused. “So, I’m not ‘people’, after all?” she wandered out of the alcove into the main room. “You have many virtues, Sir Dane, but kindness is not one I would count amongst them.”
Dane hastily unbuckled her heavy armour in the alcove, feeling most bothered by being told she was unkind. No one had ever accused her as such before, especially not someone like her. “You’re not exactly the paragon of kindness yourself, my lady.”
The Patroness looked as surprised as Dane had at the accusation. She shot Dane a look of disbelief as she admired the armoire.
Unclipping her breastplate, Dane jabbed a finger at her. “Disguising yourself as a beautiful maiden to lure unsuspecting knights to their deaths does not exactly spell ‘kindness’.”
The Patroness scoffed. “It’s far kinder than eating the innocent,” she pointed out. “All the men who came to Castle Gallifront to rescue me were prepared to die, and so they did.”
“Well, I would have put an end to your ‘kindness’, if given the chance.”
That, she laughed at. “No, you would not have, Sir Dane. You lived because you’re the most interesting and handsome knight to come galloping into my courtyard,” she said firmly. “I don’t regret my decision at all, but it could have ended quite differently.”
Having finished removing her armour, Dane took a few strong steps towards her. “Yes, it could have. I have never lost a single battle with any dragon.”
The Patroness was unnervingly calm. “That’s because you have never faced me, Sir Dane. I am a force to be reckoned with.”
“So am I, my lady.”
Even though Dane was giving her a hard, unbroken stare, she didn’t budge. She didn’t even break eye-contact. “You are a fool if you believe you could pit yourself against my magic.”
“And you are a fool if you think your unholy magic is any match for the infinite power of the Light,” Dane shot back, confident it was true.
They squared off.
There was a faint, slightly amused smile on the Patroness’ lips as she considered Dane. Rather than insisting she was right, or using her unholy magic for anything unscrupulous, she staged a heavy sigh and looked away. “What a shame it is that I’m too kind to let you find out the hard way what the truth of the matter is,” she said, her eyes trailing over Dane’s tall, unarmoured figure as she turned from Dane and continued to explore the room.
At that moment. Dane almost wished for the opportunity to challenge her. Her blood was pumping, her muscles were singing, she was ready for it! She had to talk herself down from any such thought: knights did not attack ladies. It was forbidden in The Light’s Eternal Truth.
But… She paused. Was a dragon considered a lady? Even a dragon with a title…?
While she was talking herself down, trying to remember the wording of that passage and recite it to herself, she realised something: they’d left The Light’s Eternal Truth back at castle Gallifront. Dane wondered if her sneaky wife-to-be had done that on purpose, and frowned at her as she tried to decide.
The Patroness approached the centrepiece of Dane’s room: the bed. There were double-doors on either side of it that lead outside to Dane’s big crescent balcony, and they’d been opened to allow the passage of fresh air. As a result, pale morning sunlight bathed the plush quilts and pillows on the bed.
The Patroness gave Dane another little peek over her shoulder. “Now this looks comfortable…”
Dane knew what that look meant, and felt quite the opposite. She didn’t even know if dragons slept, but she had a feeling that wasn’t what the Patroness was referring to.
The Patroness tested one of the pillows. “Will you be sharing it with me, or will one of us be required to sleep on the floor?” there was some measure of amusement in her voice.
In truth, Dane would have very much liked to be sleeping on the other side of the stronghold altogether—the thought of being completely helpless around this woman’s unholy magic was genuinely unnerving—but she remembered the joy on the citizens’ faces, the skip in her father’s step, and the Light that had shone on them both when they’d consummated their Promise. This was the Light’s Will, and she had never seen her father smiling so much.
So that was that. She exhaled at length. “We shall share it,” she conceded, but felt as if needed to add, “but no magic.”
The Patroness scoffed. “I already agreed to that,” she pointed out with a smile, and then double-took and gave Dane a rather puzzled look. “Odd to think this will be for the rest of your natural life,” she commented so casually as she wandered out of one of the open doors that lead onto the balcony.
While the Patroness leant on the thick balustrade and admired the view of Aurora, Dane couldn’t get that easy ‘natural life’ remark out of her head, nor her flippancy about the marriage itself. That, coupled with the ‘short life’ she’d accused Dane of having earlier, it was like the Patroness considered her presence here in Aurora a pleasant summer dalliance that she could shrug off come winter. It didn’t sit right with Dane. Making the Holy Promise, wedding someone: these were sacred undertakings.
And not only were they sacred, but they were important, one-in-a-lifetime events. Not just for the two of them, but for the Council of Protectors and everyone involved, and especially for Dane’s father. Ever since their ordeal long ago, he always wished for Dane to have a happy ending. Seeing that beautiful, open joy on his face when she’d said they were to wed… She wanted him to wear that expression for the rest of his life. He deserved it after everything he’d lost. He deserved his happy ending. No one should ever jeopardise that.
“I hope you actually intend to see this marriage through, my lady,” Dane said, warning audible in her voice.
The Patroness looked across at her, thoughtful. “Are you still worried I will reveal I am a dragon, and Dane the Dragonslayer will be the laughing stock of the realm?”
Dane swallowed. She hadn’t considered that, either. “No,” she said, “although I very much don’t want that, either. It’s that my happiness important to my father, and he has endured so much already. If you consider yourself kind, you’ll allow him to believe we are blissfully in love.”
Her eyebrows jumped a little. “But it will just be a ruse?”
Dane gave her an incredulous look. “What else could it be? You are a dragon, I am a dragon slayer.”
She gestured to her beautiful form. “At this moment, I am human.”
“That is a ruse.”
“It is not,” she said far too easily for Dane’s liking. “You have felt it with your own hands, and you will forget what I truly am, in time.”
Dane was a little insulted. “I am not as simple as you keep implying,” she told the Patroness. “I will not forget what you are, nor what I am. And, to be quite fair, I don’t like your tone of voice! I’m not sure how dragons entertain themselves, but I would hope idly meddling with my life for amusement is not your intention. I hope this is not just a game to you.”
The Patroness turned against the balustrade so she was facing Dane. To Dane’s relief, she looked quite serious. “No, it’s not,” she said, “and I already gave you my word. It was my idea about marriage in the first place, if you recall.”
Dane recalled too well the Patroness seducing her to seal their fate. “I just find it rather impulsive.”
The Patroness shrugged a little. “A little unlike me, I’ll grant. I’m still not entirely sure what came over me. Perhaps it’s just that I’m a little more able to be impulsive given that I will live for thousands of years and marrying you will occupy a mere sixty or so of them,” she said, and then her mouth peaked in a little coy smile. “Or, perhaps it was that you are rather handsome, and I rather liked the idea anyway.”
Dane hadn’t expected her to answer like that. She cleared her throat.
The Patroness continued. “But fear not, sir knight. I intend to see this marriage through, and I intend it to be a proper marriage.”
Dane exhaled. What a mess this whole affair was. “A proper marriage,” she repeated, wondering how it could ever be so. “A proper marriage to a dragon…”
Light’s Will or no, Dane still didn’t feel entirely comfortable that the Patroness was marrying her for the right reasons, but she wasn’t able to enquire further because there was a knock at the door.
“That must be our baths,” the Patroness realised, and then gave Dane another one of those looks that made Dane feel as if the dragon could already see through her clothes. Stumbling for words a little, Dane excused herself for a moment and went to answer it.
It was a beaming servant girl wearing royal colours. “Sir Dane,” she greeted the knight with a curtsy, and then the Patroness who’d wandered up behind Dane, too. “Lady Gallifront. I have some wonderful news for you.”
Dane couldn’t think what it could be. “You do?”
She nodded. “The queen asked me to relay that she is most pleased to hear of your Promise,” she recited clearly. “She is also very thankful for Lady Gallifront’s generous donations to the libraries and universities of Aurora over many years. So, as a service to you both, she would like to extend you the private use of her personal bath chamber to relax in after your long journey.”
Dane stared. In any other circumstance Dane would have been most flattered by the gift—the queen did not extend such person hospitality lightly, even to Dane the Dragonslayer! But… with the Patroness…? She stole a nervous glance across at her bride-to-be, and was greeted with one that was entirely too hungry in return. She swallowed.
The servant was still smiling. “Come,” she said, beckoning to them both. “I am to lead you there. The water is being warmed as we speak.”
“Thank you,” the Patroness told the girl when Dane was silent. “We will be honoured to accept such hospitality. I simply can’t wait to see what the bath chamber is like.”
Heart in her throat at what lay before her, Dane allowed herself to be led by both the servant and the Patroness towards the pinnacle of the stronghold—the queen’s private quarters.