Author: Chris Cook
Willow's saddle was designed for the rider to more or less lie along the back of the dragon's neck, rather than try to sit upright. Tara, a keen horsewoman when she had lived back in her father's kingdom, had adapted quickly to the different mode of riding. With Willow's input she had heavily modified the saddle, stripping out much of the padding and extra layers of leather, and redesigning the stirrups for her hands and feet, allowing her to grip much more securely as she lay along Willow's neck. With a little practice she was able to rise up like a jockey, quite secure and safe, yet with the wind surrounding her, streaming above and below her body, as if she were flying herself, and with her encouragement Willow had taken her on thrilling acrobatic jaunts, swooping through the mountain peaks, flying high in the sky, looping and diving.
Privately, Tara also enjoyed their more sedate flights - with the saddle's padding gone she was free to lie flat, directly on Willow's scaled skin, feeling her powerful neck muscles move as she turned her head this way and that, the horn-like flight scales arching out and back from her forehead directing air streams onto her wings, allowing her to manoeuvre while remaining almost still. Tara was never so content as when she and Willow flew together, with the rest of the world laid out beneath them, beautiful and distant.
"Here we are," Willow rumbled, as she curled her body over a little, allowing her wings to cup the air. Tara lifted herself up as they landed gently on a wide field beside a picturesque town high up in the mountains, then dismounted as Willow craned her neck down, and helped her take off the saddle. Willow winked in thanks, then took a breath and changed, while Tara opened one of the slim saddlebags and unfolded a light dress for her. The townsfolk were quite accustomed to a variety of strange and semi-mythical creatures, but Willow felt it was more polite on her part to be human-sized, and clothed, when she and Tara visited.
"There's a new flag up," Tara noted, looking to the edge of the field, where a couple of dozen pennants were flying from tall posts, some with crates and packages sitting beneath them.
"Last time I saw Clem he said he'd been contacted about a new job," Willow said. "Maybe that's her. Oh drat, that reminds me, I meant to stop by the lake and say hi."
"You go on," Tara offered. "I'll meet you at the tavern?"
"Thanks," Willow smiled, quickly pulling her dress off again. "I'll just be ten minutes or so."
Tara stood back as Willow took a running leap into the air, transforming mid-jump and soaring, with a beat of her wings that tossed Tara's hair around in the sudden rush of air. She watched the dragon climb and bank off to the south with an affectionate smile, tinged with longing, then folded Willow's dress back up and headed into town.
Towersburg, as the name suggested, had grown up around the practice of secluding princesses in towers, and from its humble beginnings several centuries ago had become a bustling, prosperous town. Situated at the top of the only path into the mountains not infested with ghosts, treacherous pitfalls, avalanche-prone valleys or irritable monsters, it was the only safe way for anyone - besides suicidally brave heroes - to reach the mountaintops, where the future queens of anywhere up to thirty kingdoms could be living at any given time. Convoys carrying staple goods, as well as luxuries of every kind, were a frequent sight in Towersburg, which welcomed them with open arms. Being the only trading outpost in the region, catering to princesses with time on their hands and the considerable treasuries of their home kingdoms at their command, the town was profitable like no other.
"Mornin', Lady Tara," the barkeep greeted her as she entered the tavern, a clean, lively-looking place currently inhabited by a few patrons enjoying an early lunch.
"Good morning Rolf," she replied courteously.
"Heard there was a hero somewhere about your area," Rolf said cheerfully.
"He reached the tower earlier today. Willow scared him off," Tara grinned.
"Ah, good for you. The standard of heroes these days is just shockin', it really is. Any fool with a shiny shield and feather in his helmet thinks he's the almighty's gift to noblewomen. Miss Willow around?"
"Just visiting Clem," Tara said. "She'll be along in a little while."
"Right-o. Oh by the way, I don't know if you noticed the new flag up?" Tara nodded. "New girl arrived today," Rolf went on, "looks a bit nervous, I thought perhaps you might have a chat with her? She's in the courtyard out back, Lady Drusilla's with her."
"Of course, thank you," Tara nodded. "An Eastern tea, if you have any?"
"Fresh batch of leaves yesterday," Rolf said proudly. "The missus has been looking forward to brewing up some, I'll bring it out to you soon as it's ready. I'll get some sulphur tonic on the stove for when Miss Willow shows up, too."
"Thanks Rolf," Tara smiled. She made her way out to the paved area behind the tavern, where a handful of sturdy wooden tables and chairs were set up in the shade of the garden's apple trees, and found a slim, expensively-dressed young woman sitting there, contemplating a mug of coffee cradled in her hands. Beside her was a taller, dark-haired woman, talking to her quietly.
"Dru!" Tara called in greeting. Both looked up, and the taller woman's face broke into a warm smile.
"Tara, good to see you," she said, waving Tara over. "Fred, this is Princess Tara of Macleigh. Tara, Princess Winifred of Burquelle."
"Hello," Tara said, taking the seat Drusilla offered her.
"H-hi," Fred said hesitantly.
"She's just got here," Drusilla explained, "and can you believe it, her parents didn't even explain how the tower system works? Makes you wonder how they can run a kingdom, doesn't it."
"I was... kind of apprehensive," Fred admitted shyly, giving Tara a fleeting smile. "But it's not like I was expecting."
"Let me guess," Tara said. "You were worried about being trapped alone in a tower until someone rescued you?"
"Something like that," Fred nodded bashfully.
"Don't worry, everyone goes through that," Tara smiled. "Towering is really a specialised field, only a few royal advisers, and the people up here of course, really know how it works."
"Is it true there's lots of princesses up here?" Fred asked. "And you're allowed to visit each other, and make friends...?"
"Yep," Tara replied happily. "The thing about being put in a remote tower is that 'remote' is relative. There's towers serving just about every realm on the continent here, all within about ten miles of each other."
"Plus a handful of fortresses, mist-shrouded islands in lakes, labyrinthine catacombs... and a flying cottage," Drusilla added. "For princesses who're after something specific, rather than just the generic tower."
"The important thing is that all the heroes think we're just sitting around waiting to be rescued," Tara explained. "That way they don't get suspicious when we make it difficult for them."
"Make it difficult?" Fred asked.
"That's the good bit," Drusilla grinned. "Down in the rest of the world, royal princesses get married for political reasons, or to shore up alliances, or seal treaties, or... well, all sorts of reasons other than because they actually like their would-be husband. Up here, you decide who your husband is. Or wife, if you feel like it, they never closed that loophole."
"Well," Tara said, leaning back, "suppose a hero decides to rescue you. All the towers are laid out so there's only one avenue of approach, and it takes several weeks at least to reach you. All you have to do is keep a telescope trained on the horizon, and you'll see if anyone's coming, usually a week or two ahead of time."
"Heroes like having their own banners," Drusilla added. "Makes them easy to tell apart at a distance."
"Then you just send a letter back home, either on the mail coach or with a homing bird - they've got a couple of fairies who carry letters too, if you're in a hurry - and get sent a full report on whoever's trying to rescue you. If you don't like the look of it, there's all sorts of things you can do to make sure you're not rescued. It depends who you've got guarding you."
"Uh, they said," Fred frowned, searching her memory, "I'd be guarded by Al-Klemmagon the Undying, Lord of the Deep Ones." She looked more than a little alarmed at the prospect.
"Oh, Clem," Tara smiled. "Don't worry, he's a sweetie, you'll get on fine. He's been in the princessing business for something like two hundred years."
"It's a business?" Fred asked.
"Absolutely," Drusilla nodded. "All the best mystical guardians are in it - the pay's good, the working conditions are easy, you get to hang around with people who're used to strange creatures and so on, and the only people who ever attack you are lone heroes who, believe me, would be hard-pressed to defeat a mangy old were-rat nine times out of ten."
"I thought... don't the heroes kill the monster guarding the princess?" Fred asked.
"Not for centuries," Tara said. "I read up on the history of the practice when I first got here. If you want to get rid of a hero, your guardian ambushes him and sees him off. Heroes don't run into creatures as powerful as the ones we have up here normally, so it's not a problem. And if you like the look of a hero and want to be rescued, your guardian just makes a show of confronting him, then throws the fight and lets itself be 'driven off'. Of course it takes weeks to get back to civilisation, so you've got plenty of time to change your mind, and your guardian can 'miraculously recover', kidnap you from the hero, and get you back to your tower."
"It's not a bad system, all things considered," Drusilla shrugged. "It's even fun, now and then. Depending on the hero, I sometimes take them on myself, rather than letting my vampire handle them."
"You have a vampire guarding you?" Fred asked.
"Yeah, Willy," Drusilla smiled. "He's sweet, he writes poetry. In a pinch he can turn into a giant bat and scare the wits out of people, but mostly I just wait for a hero to rescue me, and then put on my creepy act."
"Oh, what a pretty helmet you have, Mister Hero," Drusilla trilled, letting her eyes unfocus and assuming a rather worrying smile. "I once dreamed I had a great big axe that chopped helmets in half. My fairy friends tell me I'm naughty for having dreams like that. But they don't dance in the moonlight, so I don't listen to them, even when they tell me it's wrong to fill up cauldrons with juicy, bubbly blood, and make a lovely stew. A couple of hours of that," she said, returning to normal, "and even the most ardent hero decides I'm better off being left for someone else to rescue."
"Um, suppose," Fred said shyly, "there was a certain someone at home... a commoner, for the sake of argument... that I was kind of..."
"Ah, in that case," Drusilla said, "you're in your element up here. Anyone can be a hero, especially if you arrange it so that 'someone' anonymously sends them letters explaining how to get past the various obstacles leading to your tower. You should talk to Princess Anya, from the granite tower just over the northern ridge, she's working on the same kind of thing with a stable boy she got friendly with before coming here."
"Commoner defies incredible odds, wins hand of noble princess," Tara smiled. "It's a classic. No-one would dare argue with it."
"Didn't Lady Buffy actually send herself to a tower, just to set that up?" Drusilla asked.
"I think so," Tara nodded. "She changed her mind," she added to Fred. "She's from Sunnydale, just a small principality, so she shared a tower with Lady Faith of Snowydale, and by the time... what was his name, Parker? By the time he got to the tower, she'd decided she could do better."
"Did she set a creature on him?" Fred asked.
"I think she set Faith on him," Drusilla said.
"She's sweet once you get to know her," Tara added. "She's just very... formidable, for a noblewoman. She taught me boxing a few months ago. Just as a form of exercise of course, but it's kind of fun." She mimed a couple of jabs, as Fred grinned. The three turned as Willow emerged from the tavern, carrying a tray of drinks.
"Hi sweetie," Tara smiled. "Fred, this is Willow - Fred's going to be staying at the lake tower."
"I know, Clem's going nuts cleaning the place out," Willow chuckled, handing Tara her tea, and taking a sip of her own steaming coffee from a corrosion-resistant mug. She noticed Fred still looking a little anxious at the mention of her soon-to-be defender, and gave her a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, Clem's the sweetest lake monster you've ever seen."
"And a pretty good tenor," Tara noted.
"Oh yeah, he rocked in the Axle Grease production last autumn," Willow nodded.
"The what?" Fred asked.
"It's a musical," Drusilla explained. "All about these guys making a custom chariot, and one of them falls in love with this girl..."
"Krevlornswath - that's Princess Harmony's demon - started a musical and drama club a while ago," Willow said. "Tara sang the female lead part in Pirates of Pylea, the first show they did."
"Oh, I-I can't sing," Fred said bashfully.
"Don't worry, me neither," Willow smiled. "Can't carry a tune in a bucket. Actually I'm a decent alto in my larger body, but then I wouldn't fit into the town hall."
"Wow," Fred breathed. "Y-you can really be a... a full-size dragon...?"
"Yup," Willow cheerfully confirmed. "Bimorphic. I'm my smaller body at present, obviously. Well, I guess this could be my large body, but then the small one would be, oh, about gnat-sized. Not really very hero-resistant. Though," she mused, "I suppose I could sneak under their helmets and buzz around until they went crazy... What's up?" Fred was looking at her in polite bemusement.
"You're not what I expected, from a dragon," she said hesitantly.
"Because I talk like that without passing out?" Willow chuckled. She leaned close to Fred and spoke in a mock-whisper. "Tara says I retain the lung capacity of my larger self. I think she's just having a joke at my expense."
"I like your babble," Tara protested playfully. She was glad to see Fred joining in the laughter, a little hesitantly, but genuinely nonetheless.
"A-and... you guard princesses for a living?" Fred asked.
"Actually Tara's my first and only princess," Willow said. "I'm actually kind of young to be doing full princessing - mostly you do an apprenticeship first, and spend some time guarding minor treasure hoards, or the resting place of mystical relics, until you get the hang of it. But bimorphic dragons are in high demand."
"All the anti-hero advantages of a regular dragon, but we don't hibernate nine months out of the year and eat whole flocks of sheep in one go when we're up and about," Willow grinned. "My mother's a bimorphic serpent dragon, she set me up with an agent in the same school of royal wizards she got princessing work through. My father's a full-blood emerald wyvern, so he mostly does construction work. You know, if you need a pass dug through some mountains in a hurry..."
Tara realised she was staring, a little less than casually. She already knew all about Willow's family, and how she had gotten into the princessing business - rather than listen to her words now, she chose to simply listen to the sound of her voice. Willow, animated and absorbed in the conversation, didn't notice, nor did Fred - Tara guessed that perhaps Drusilla could tell she was gazing at her friend with more than mere friendly interest, but she was never one to gossip. Occasionally Tara had considered asking Drusilla's advice, but always she had backed out - there was something fiercely determined inside her, in spite of all her doubts. As much as she valued Drusilla's friendship, and her wisdom on other matters, Tara wanted to find her way with Willow on her own.
Even though at times she wondered if she even knew what that way was.