I stood on the vast plain outside of the castle, alone at the head of the crowd. All the inhabitants of the castle and of all the surrounding villages had come out to see the sendoff of my quest, and many of the King's men, both servants and knights, stood near me. The King himself, and her majesty the Queen, sat elevated from the crowd on their thrones carried on poles by servants.
I can't say I wasn't expecting it. Trust me, I would love to say that I lived a normal life, that the King's men startled me from my bed one dread night and dragged me here to sacrifice me to the cruel dragon, but it would be a lie. From the moment I was born, all people knew that it would be me, even I myself. She of the silver hair, the prophecy said, she with eyes of blue, a third child, a firstborn daughter, an orphan, born under the sign of Sirah, when Aeros rode high in the sky. These things describe me, and star signs never lie. All these things I have known all my life. Yet, throughout my childhood I thought little of the consequences of my lineage, knowing only that I was honored and adored, revered, protected from all harm. If I thought of the dragon who waited to be slain, it was only to think that surely I would be protected from this foe as well. Surely the servants who attended my every need would shelter me from such a fate.
Now, as I stared across the impossibly flat tundra, rippling slightly in the nearly imperceptible breeze that shifted the dust like a sheer handkerchief, I wondered what would happen if they sent someone else. The prophecy, so deeply aged that the lips from which it were uttered had long been forgotten, forced no one’s hand. If I did not ride forth that day, the lilting passage would be as silly and useless as a nursery rhyme. But the scourge of the dragon had frightened everyone to desperation; no one was prepared to risk what was quite possibly their only chance for relief for the sake of one innocent life. I understood completely.
I was clad in silver armor, my shining breastplate bearing no crest or symbol but shining blank and broad, for I stood alone, belonging to no one, fighting for all. For I was the Champion. I was small for my age, and slight as well, but the armor fit me perfectly, forged by the finest silversmiths in the land. My skin felt cold and numb beneath the icy metal, and though it was normally a very pale alabaster color, my trembling hands told me it was now bone white. I was often described as a having the appearance of a porcelain doll with my perfect silver ringlets and eyes far too wide for my face, sparkling an unusually bright color of blue. If I was beautiful, I knew nothing of it, for I had never been allowed to know such things. I would wonder, later, if my caretakers had perhaps thought it to cruel permit me to know of love, considering my destiny. I was a thirteen-year-old girl, a child about to slay a dragon.
Yes, I the Champion, I the long-awaited object of the prophecy, was to ride forth and slay the dread beast, the dragon who has long oppressed our land, or die trying. This, the prophecy proclaimed, would appease the dragon once and for all. No longer would it fly on wings of flame up from its warren and burn our towns, slay our livestock and murder the sons of men. Today it would be vanquished, either by my victory or by my sacrifice.
One of the King's men led the traditional snow-white horse to my side. He was a tall, thick-boned warhorse with hooves as large around as dining platters and a broad head almost as tall as I was, but his eyes were soft and dark, almost reassuring. He was nearly twice my height, so I had to be lifted atop his back, and, once I was in the smooth black leather saddle, it seemed that I sat atop the world.
The same man put a long, silvery, steel sword, glistening with a hunger for dragon blood, into my mail-gloved hand. He put a broad, blank shield into the other. I took the things mechanically, my fingers closing around handles, seeming to understand, apart from my instruction, that they should. As he saw to the fastenings of my saddle, I spoke to him. Somehow, even in the numbness of my mind, I knew I shouldmake conversation.
"It will be good when the dragon's gone, won't it?" I asked conversationally.
"I expect so," the man replied, not looking up from his work. "The beast has oppressed us enough these long two-hundred years. It is good that it will finally be going."
"Yes," I said, "good indeed."
Suddenly, from behind me, the trumpet sounded, high and mournful. There was a hushed murmur from those gathered, and then an eerie silence settled over the plain. It was an oppressive, waiting silence, and it made me shiver.
The King and Queen had been set on the ground once more, and now the King stood. He was quite old, and his white beard hung, thinning, all the way to his belt. I could hardly see his eyes through the folds of skin that drooped around them. I had never seen him before in my life.
"I name thee, Era, our Champion."
Another trumpet blew, and I knew that I must go. For one half a second, I considered turning around and running back through the crowd, but it would have been an act of unbelievable cowardice, especially in the hour that might well be my last. For if I ran, I would only be stopped by the King's army, and brought back to start anew. Perhaps I would be fed live to the dragon if I still refused even then. Truly, I was more a prisoner than any champion.
I rode forth without any further hesitation. I spurred the horse onward, and his gate flowed easily from a trot into a smooth canter. I rode low on his neck, my sword outstretched before me and my shield on my arm. I rode across the plain until I could no longer see the castle and the crowd behind me, only empty desert. All at once, I and the horse were entirely alone. The sounds of the crowd, the shifting of feet, the murmuring, the clinking of various armors, the snorts and snuffles of tethered animals, all vanished instantaneously as though an invisible hand had snuffed them out of existence. The only noises now were the faithful tramping of her mount’s hooves in the dust and the sound of their mingling breaths. The steady, slow sound of the stallion’s exhalations steadied my own shallow breaths.
It was a beautiful evening that I rode through. It was just the hour of twilight, when the bright orange glow of the sun had already sunk below the horizon, leaving in its stead a single, pure hour of silver and violet, through which the barest shadows of stars shone through. They were shining through now, like bright holes in a shimmering watercolor cloak, winking and flickering and chasing each other around the sky like tiny ghosts. Perhaps this was the last time I would lay my gaze upon them. Perhaps this was my last day on this earth.
And at last, though I feared the moment with a terrible alarm, I came to the place of the dragon. His lair lay below the earth, in a cavern whose maw opened wide and hungry, like the mouth of the dragon itself. It seemed to expand before me, and its depths were black as night, ready to swallow me whole. It was my duty here to ride on bravely, to plunge forth into the cave regardless and blind to all danger, but here I hesitated. I was scared. Terrified, really. How could a girl of thirteen slay a beast of such lore and legend as a dragon?
I drove my horse forward into the cave. He walked now, for he was as apprehensive as his rider, and in the darkness his smooth white coat shone like a live white coal. We walked deep, deep into the cave, deeper and deeper, until I could not have seen my trembling hand before my face.
Suddenly, in the blackness, a voice beyond words echoed. It was in my mind and of my mind at the same time; it slipped in through the chinks, putting words in my head that were not my own. Yet, at the same time, it was a voice to be heard as well, for its sinister bass was vibrating through every inch of the cavern.
You have come at last, as I knew you would. You are the young Champion who has been sent to slay me.
"Dragon!" I shouted into the dark; the fear that shook my entire body touched not my voice, which felt, as I spoke, as though it belonged to someone else. "Where are you in this darkness! Show yourself so that you may fight me fairly!"
Ahahaha…he laughed, Your people give me strange names. Dragon, they call me, and beast, fiend, lizard; all are not what I am. You are an odd and primitive people, full of superstitions and false judgment. Dragons are myths among your young people. I am no dragon; I am something far more.
"But it is true that you are evil!" I whispered, unable to muster louder speech. "You burn our towns, you eat our children."
Evil. Such labels you people give things. Who is to say what is evil and what is good? Who are you to judge all in this great universe? You are a special child, little Era, for yes, I know your name. You are not of your people. They mistake you as the figure of a prophecy, when you are truly far more powerful. You do not belong here. Let me take you away.
I stared into the darkness, unsure of how to reply to the beast beyond the dark curtain. I was too terrified to even move, trembling as though with a terrible cold, such a cold that I was numb both inside and out. And with the numbness came a strange uncertainty. Could the dragon conceivably be right? Perhaps I was not of this world. Perhaps he had been sent to reveal my true nature to me.
Come young one. You know the truth. Quests such as the slaying of dragons are no more. You do not wish to kill me. You will let me bring you into myself. Come, child; you belong to me; you are MINE!And at this last vicious word, I felt a horrible paralysis slide over my limbs and a steely coldness encompassed my mind, so that even my thoughts were twisted and restrained. I felt a presence within me and a cruel smile that was not my own slide over my face as I swung down from the white horse's back.
"See?" my own voice, horribly distorted, said. "I told you that you belonged within me. Is this not much easier? This is the position in which you truly belong. As my vessel."
In the back of my mind, I still existed; I was still aware. I was aware that the dragon had taken possession of me in mind and body, and that his power inhabited me. I remembered my destiny, my quest. To slay a dragon. All of that was lost, along with my life, and self; surely I would cease to exist. And the dragon would destroy the Kingdom. Perhaps every Kingdom on the earth. I had not died, but this seemed to be a fate worse than death.
In a flash, it came to me. I knew what I had to do. In that single moment I both knew that it was impossible and that it must be done, and I moved in a split second of intuition. I flexed my will with every ounce of energy I yet retained, and in an instant I had overcome all opposition. I was conscious of a roaring in my ears and the frantic pounding of my heart as I gripped the pommel of my sword and, without hesitation, thrust it through my heaving breast. The needle tip of the sword pierced through my breastplate and thrust aside the bones in my chest as though plunging through water, ravaging my poisoned flesh with a hunger, a bloodlust so sharp that it made me gasp. I felt the sword enter my heart. There was a shriek like no other both all around me and within my mind, pounding against the inside of my skull with unbelievable pain.
I fell to the floor, the long steel shaft still run all the way through me, my blood running down my arms and pooling beneath me. My vision was blurry, and I barely had time to register the fact that I was dying, and by my own hand—a thought that I had assumed would never cross my mind. But the terms of the prophecy had been met; I had given up my life and the dragon would now fall. I could feel it dying within me now, and all around me I could hear it, though still I saw nothing but darkness. But now I was fading, fading faster and faster, and all I could perceive was my own breathing, in and out, in and out, in and out, in…