Author: Chris Cook
Willow craned her neck, allowing her passenger to simply step from her saddle onto the balcony of her tower, and remained still while Tara undid the straps holding the harness around her neck. It was a manoeuvre they had both done many times, and were practised at - Tara undid the buckles, pulled the straps just loose enough, pulled to either side as Willow tilted her head one way and then the other, getting her broad flight scales through it, then Tara let go, Willow flipped her head back, and caught the heavy leather harness easily in her mouth. Even stripped down as Tara preferred it, the saddle was heavier than that of a horse, and was a bit much for a human to carry around.
"'nk 'oo," Willow said indistinctly, releasing a little puff of pheromone gratitude in lieu of being able to speak properly with her mouth full of saddle. Tara inhaled, smiled, and patted her forehead affectionately, then headed inside. Willow executed a fairly elegant - under the circumstances - series of hops to get to the stores balcony at the back of the tower and deposit the cargo crate she was carrying in one claw, then meandered off towards her cave.
Willow felt slightly guilty, and extremely giddy, for scenting with her princess. Among dragons it was common enough to communicate via pheromones as much as speech, which when all was said and done was still regarded as a 'human thing,' no matter that dragons had been speaking for generation upon generation and no harm done. But even so, it was customarily a sign of intimacy - to allow one's emotions to be converted into chemical form, gently wafted out of the tiny, delicate scent glands in the ridges above the eyes, inhaled by another and turned back into pure emotion. There were even still some dragons who clung to the old ways, and would not share scent with anyone outside their clan, using the simplistic dragon tongue for all others - the notion of speaking 'human' usually appalled them.
Willow had been raised in a more pragmatic fashion - her mother, a bimorphic, was quite at home with human ways, and her father was something of a counter-establishment dragon - one of the leading lights of a circle of draconic poets, who 'wrote' in emotion and recited in scent. Between the two of them, Willow's childhood had been unusually vocal, in speech and scent, and she still retained a tendency to babble, as Tara put it, which most people found unusual in a dragon, traditionally - at least around outsiders - a taciturn race. But even so, when Willow spoke to Tara like that, and saw her inhale and understand... it was more than just a means of communication.
She worried, a little, that Tara didn't fully understand that, but then she told herself that that was giving her too little credit. It was Tara who had first asked Willow about scenting, having read a reference to it in a book - early in their friendship she had read everything she could find about dragons, which made Willow feel absurdly proud, for no reason she could identify, at the time. It was, in fact, just when she was realising that her feelings for Tara went beyond the friendship she hoped for, and the protectiveness that was expected of her, that Tara had asked if she could recite a poem, and in a flight of nervous courage she had agreed.
Willow treasured that night. They had walked together to a small stream, an offshoot of the main waterfall that fed the lake that instead trickled down from rock to rock, and over the centuries had formed a natural little gully of its own. Airflow was, of course, important to scenting poetry, and the form of the cliffs created a slow, constant caress of air, coming down off the highlands above. They had sat opposite one another, Willow with her back to the tiny miniature waterfall, the stream trickling to either side of the boulder they were on. Moonlight shone off Tara's hair, and the understated silver embroidery in her dress, and behind her the whole valley seemed to be laid out like a mosaic in jewellery, smoky diamonds for the valley walls, soft emeralds for the grass and trees, deep sapphires for the lake and sky. Willow recited a poem her father had written, which he had told her described a pale imitation of his feelings when he first saw her mother. Of course she could only reproduce the poem in basic form - the nuance and subtlety, the control of emotion, the ability to not just speak a poem but feel it, was something that took a lifetime to master. But Willow did her best, and as she sat there, silently singing to Tara, watching her with her eyes closed, creating the tempo of the poem with the rhythm of her breathing, she felt that she managed to communicate something of meaning.
The silence between them had somehow become too precious to break, and they had walked back to the tower, and shared a gentle hug goodnight, all without a word spoken.
The next morning Tara had been all praise, and they had spoken about dragon poetry, and scenting in general, at some length. But in spite of how much she has cherished the experience, Willow had never quite mustered the courage to suggest another recital, and in spite of Tara's enthusiasm to learn of the more prosaic scenting speech - though being human, she would never be able to understand anything more specific than general impressions of emotions - she had never asked for another poem. Willow often wondered why. At times, alone, she wondered if Tara had sensed her feelings, and understood them only too well. Willow tried not to get herself down with those kinds of thoughts - she had Tara's friendship, she told herself, and that was enough. She had known before even meeting her that Tara was fated for another - admittedly, 'fated' was a dubious notion, when the two of them were actively conspiring to scuttle any unwanted claims to her hand in marriage, but the crux of the matter was that Tara would, eventually, end her tenure in the tower, and return home with some hero or heroine or other.
'Wish it was 'other',' Willow mused to herself as she navigated the twists and turns in her underground home. She had true night vision - in her current form, at least - but even so she tended to navigate by scent, following the veins of minerals from tunnel to tunnel. She took a breath of the familiar copper-iron-touch-of-zinc scent of her favourite cave, deep underground but with a useful series of air holes that twisted and turned more or less directly to the surface, allowing her to hear the tower bell should Tara need her, and-
'Wait, that doesn't smell right,' she just had time to think, before she suddenly felt like she had been winded, and transformed into her humanoid self.
"What-" she began, almost managing to scramble upright before her saddle fell on top of her.
"Ow! Sonofa..." She heaved it away and tried to change, but couldn't - her body remained steadfastly in its current shape. The surprise of being stuck in her present form was such that she completely forgot about the unfamiliar scent, until an unfamiliar voice sounded behind her, and the cavern was suddenly lit by a flaring torch.
"Avast, beast of the underworld!"
Willow spun around, blinking in the sudden light. There were two people there, slowly approaching - one in metal armour that the light shone off, the other shadowy. There was a drawn-out scrape as the armoured figure drew a sword. Willow frantically tried to change, but frustratingly, like a sneeze that just wouldn't sneeze, she couldn't quite bring about the actual transformation.
"I think, melord," the shadowy figure said in a murmur, "'avast' is fer pirates, not dragons."
"Oh," the knight hesitated. "Well... yield, monster!" The way he flourished his sword wasn't especially impressive, but Willow was panicked, and couldn't take her eyes off it.
"Now just yer relax," the other man said, gesturing with something in his hand - a wand of some kind, Willow saw as her eyes slowly adjusted. "Yer been beat fair 'n' sqware... ain't no point making this 'ere 'eroic gent bloody 'is sword wif yer."
"My vassal speaks true," the 'hero' nodded. "Yield and I will spare your life, unnatural though it is. I have no quarrel with you, and shall allow you to be free, once I have claimed the hand of the beauteous Princess."
"Yer," the servant said absently. "Well spoke, melord, very valiant an' suchlike. An' you," he said to Willow, his voice suddenly growing menacing, "if yer knows what's good for yer, ye'll keep yer mouf shut."
Willow watched sullenly as her captor - Adam, the larger, ill-spoken one - stepped back from her, after firmly tying her hands and feet. The other one - 'Sir Riley' as he had proclaimed himself on no less than five occasions, though Willow had mentally renamed him 'the idiot' - had wandered off from the mouth of the cave, where they had dragged her to, and could be heard in the distance, calling hopefully up to Tara's balcony, and evidently getting no reply.
"Just between you and me," Adam said quietly, "I don't think he'll be getting a warm welcome. But he grew up on fairy tales, and doesn't have a clue how the world works. He's probably planning the wedding already." He chuckled at Willow's wide-eyed stare.
"Oh, yes," he nodded. "No need to put on the 'by yer leave, melord' act while he's out of earshot. I know you won't tell him. That is, I know you won't get the chance." Willow wished she hadn't been gagged, so she could at least say something insulting. As it was, she settled for a withering glare. Adam ignored her, and pulled the wand he had used earlier out of his belt.
"Never seen one of these before, I'll wager," he smirked. "Very difficult to come by, this was - cost a good portion of the gold that simpleton gave me to buy provisions for the trip here. Lucky he can't count any better than he can think. Yes, very expensive, it was - and of course, not even a mercenary sorcerer would sell a wand of nullification to a man like me. Nor would a man like me, with my reputation, be allowed to get anywhere near a royal princess, let alone a dragon. But Sir Riley's trusted vassal, that's a different matter, of course. Sir Riley's been very useful indeed."
He stuck the wand back in his belt, and walked back over to Willow, crouching down in front of her.
"I'm sure you're mightily curious," he grinned. "Well, let me tell you a tale. See, there once was a very bad man, who did some very bad things, because people paid him a lot of money to do them. But one day this man, he took a contract that, in hindsight, he shouldn't have taken - it turned out that the man whose throat he cut had some very powerful, very nasty friends, and the man who'd give our hero his job, well, he faded away and left our hero to fend for himself. So our hero finds himself in a bit of a spot. He needs an advantage. And that, my pretty young thing, is where you come in."
He reached out and ran a fingertip up Willow's thigh; she jerked away from him and glared daggers into his eyes.
"Heh," he chuckled to himself. "Don't worry, it's not that I've got in mind. Don't get me wrong, I could make a pretty penny selling you to the right people - but not enough to pay off the enemies I've made. And in any case, I've never been the kind to solve my problems with bribery, when good, inexpensive violence will do the trick. But as I said, these enemies of mine, they're very powerful people. So I'm going to need some very powerful violence to make them see reason and leave me alone. The kind a dragon could provide - but dragons are in high demand, so again the money problem rears its ugly head, and as for coercion, well, you don't try that with a dragon longer than you have to."
He drew a thin dagger from a sheath strapped to his boot.
"I intend to take a more direct approach," he smiled. "I'm full of little-known facts, you see - I'm a good listener, and I meet some very interesting people, who're usually very eager to tell me very interesting things in the hope that I won't slit their weasand for them. One of these little-known facts is that a human can become a dragon, just like you do. It's a very simple process, and all that's required is a supply of blood from a bimorphic dragon such as yourself. Quite a lot of blood, I'm afraid. But if it's any consolation, I understand that expiring of blood loss is quite peaceful. Certainly compared to some of the other tricks I've got up my sleeve."
"Get away from her!"
Adam spun around, and Willow's heart leapt into her throat. Tara was standing in the cave mouth, fists clenched, glaring furiously. Off in the distance Sir Riley was still addressing the now-empty tower.
'Run!' Willow stared imploringly at Tara. 'For the love of all that's good, run away and don't let him anywhere near you!'
"Well, isn't this sweet," Adam laughed. "The little princess standing up for her 'jailer'. Got used to her, have you? Or," he chuckled lewdly, "have you been enjoying a bit of dragon snatch while you've been all alone up here?" Tara reddened, and held up her fists in a fairly ineffectual-looking approximation of a boxing stance.
"I don't want to fight you!" she warned, her voice trembling.
"How right you are," Adam grinned, advancing on her as Willow desperately shook her head and struggled with her bonds. To her horror and dismay Tara launched the world's worst right hook, which Adam easily caught in his palm. He pushed Tara back and half-turned back to Willow - and Tara, whirling around from the momentum of his push, slammed her left fist into his jaw, followed it up with a right into his stomach, and a simultaneous chop to the back of his neck and a knee to his groin. He collapsed in a surprised and painful ball, stunned long enough for Tara to pull the wand from his belt. She quickly snapped it in half against the ground, then moved to where Willow was watching, almost as stunned as Adam had looked.
"Whu?" she asked, once Tara had pulled the cloth from around her face and removed her gag.
"Faith's boxing workouts included 'dirty fighting'," Tara grinned. She produced a pocket knife from beneath the folds of her dress and quickly cut Willow's bonds. Willow rubbed her wrists, then heard Tara let out a heavy sigh. She looked up to see Tara staring intently at her, suddenly seeming much more fragile than the spirited young woman who had knocked out a criminal twice her size.
"Are you alright?" Willow asked, getting to her feet a little unsteadily. Tara gave a quick grin, nodded, then shook her head as if trying to dislodge a troublesome thought.
"A-are you alright?" she asked quietly. Willow smiled hesitantly and nodded; Tara's smile broadened in reply, then all at once she had enveloped Willow in a fierce hug they almost knocked the wind out of her.
"I... I was so afraid," the princess whispered. Willow automatically held her in return, stroking her hair, and was about to reply when she felt Tara's lips against the thin scales on the side of her neck.
"What on earth is going on here?" came a voice from outside. Willow and Tara jumped apart and looked back to see Sir Riley, finally having tired of proclaiming his love for an empty tower, staring in disbelief at Adam's prone form.
Willow glanced at Tara, who took a step back, and an instant later the cave mouth was very crowded with several stories of irate dragon.
"Uh," Riley said. "Um... Adam?"
"Let's you and me have a talk," Willow rumbled, "about your immediate future."
As it turned out, Sir Riley's immediate future included a very hasty retreat.