George woke in the soft bed and stared at the dragon mural on the ceiling. It depicted Cleolinda in flight, in a stormy sky with flashing lightning and clouds of darkest gray. She looked fierce and mighty, but in her humanoid form, wearing metal armor which covered little of her skin and revealed her shapely form and muscle. A curved sword of yellow fire was in her right hand, raised above her head.
Though her picture was not nude, it remained erotic, and it made him think of her might and power. Her face was alive with fury and wrath, and George wondered why she had selected such a warlike countenance to be the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes.
Perhaps it was yet another hint of what awaited him if and when he returned from his mission, that this fierce Dragon intended to conquer him. Indeed, the painted Cleolinda looked ready to leap from the mural and fall upon him.
He yawned, and stretched. He would need to leave in two days to arrive at the Tournament at Salerno Castle. There was time enough for a few more days of practice. And, he hoped, some time with the Dragon Maiden herself. She had been somewhat distant, and he understood why, for he felt the same stirring every time her amber eyes looked into his own.
He stared up at the painting again, hoping to take in a vision if her amber eyes. The painting, despite its beauty, and its creation by a true artisan, was a pale mockery of what he saw in his memory, which was the etched image of the beautiful DragonMaiden’s eyes.
He saw clothes laid out for him on the marble bench in the corner of his room. White and gold. There was a knock at the door, and several attendants arrived to see to his grooming. As the days had gone by, Cleolinda had begun to make more and more decisions for him, and to have her servants take an active role in his appearance.
The servants were married mamono, all weresheep, holstaurs, or alps, who bade him to quickly bathe and dress, then fussed over his hair and appearance. It was slightly excessive, George thought, but they worked quickly and so he considered it bearable.
His breakfast was brought in next, set down on a table before his bench. He was given a rolled crepe of gossamer thinness, with fresh cold cream and a strawberry sauce. It tasted like heaven. The food he was given was slowly becoming more and more sophisticated, in an effort to make his palette outright reject lesser food. George did not wish to he a snob, but he had to admit he enjoyed the luxurious food quite a bit.
It was not simply appearance or palette that Cleolinda was attempting to modify but also his mind. At night he was given books of antiquity on various subjects. and then there was the finishing.
Once dressed, the attendants left, and several kikimoras entered. They were sent by Cleolinda to ‘help’ him with learning noble manners and courtly behavior. This was all said to help him when he went to the Tournament, but George explained that he was knighted by a Knight, and there would be no expectation for him to have courtly manners. This did not dissuade them – in fact, it only seemed to make them more eager – and George suspected that it was Cleolinda who wanted him to learn courtly manners, in an effort to refine some of his rougher edges.
After his morning ‘lessons’ – a particularly difficult set of rules about dining etiquette- he went down the hall to a set of wooden double doors with carved reliefs of the four evangelists upon them. He opened the door with a quiet creaking sound, and entered the dim chapel.
The chapel was larger than one would think, as large as the parish in Silene, and far more luxuriously outfitted. It had sixteen rows of spaced, large pews before an ornate altar. A long carved column with images of male cherubs and angels filled the center of the altar, hosting the tabernacle.
A painting of Christ ascending to heaven in flowing robes, and the apostles staring up with outstretched hands, dominated the room in the space above the column.
On one wall a row of candles burned in containers of red glass, adding an outpost of light in the soothing darkness of the room. Other candles, like stars on a quiet night, provided small flickers of light throughout the chapel, with the bulk of the light coming from the outside, through stained glass windows of the Virgin Mary and her husband, Saint Joseph, on carved dome of the roof.
Generally the Chapel was empty, but today George saw the long form of a horsegirl near the altar. The Unicorn Commander Deborah was sitting on her legs in a centaur’s version of kneeling, her head bowed, near a section of the pews towards the front with a clear area for monster women such as her. There was something very, very beautiful about this Centaur, George thought, beyond her external appearance. It was not like Cleolinda’s beauty -nowhere near it- but it was a kind of familiarity which made George feel at ease with her.
George entered and knelt near the back, hoping to say his prayers quietly and not disturb the Unicorn. He finished praying and was about to leave quietly when he was surprised to hear a creaking sound. He saw Deborah stand, then make her way back on echoing hoofbeats toward his position.
“May I kneel beside you and pray?” The Unicorn whispered.
George nodded, “By all means,” he said. He watched with some degree of fascination as she got down onto her legs alongside him in the aisle.
“You seem surprised to see me here,” Deborah said.
“I haven’t seen you here before,” George said.
“I generally pray in the Large Chapel on the other side of the concourse,” the unicorn replied.
George’s mind reeled for a moment. “This chapel is larger than the Parish in Silene. I can only imagine how large the Large Parish is.”
Deborah smiled. “Keep in mind we are not all as small as you boys. Imagine Cleolinda in here, and a few Minotaurs. A few large girls like her and me, and soon it is not so large, is it?”
George nodded. “I see your point. It is surprising that you are all so fervent,” he said.
“Why shouldn’t we be?” Deborah asked, with a little laugh.
“Forgive me, but I did not expect mamono to be devout,” George said.
“You thought us unchristian?” Deborah asked.
“I thought it merely perfunctory, as it is in some quarters of my Kingdom,” George said.
“That is a very sad thing,” Deborah said. “The Kingdom of Men is so often like children without mothers and fathers.”
“There is no wickedness or deceit in the Kingdom of Mamono?”
“There is, of course; and there are those who pay service to God with their lips but not their hearts. I suppose it is insecurity that makes us so harshly judge the Kingdom of Men,” Deborah said.
“So little is known of your people,” George said.
Deborah stared at him with gentle blue eyes. “It is for the best. The Kingdom of Men is best thought of as the Kingdom for Women. It is just that women receive a portion of men for themselves, as is proper. But it is a tragedy that you do not know of us, George,” she said. “A sorrowful one.”
George frowned. “A tragedy?” he asked. “I mean no offense, but I do not understand why it should be so much sadder for myself than Eumaeus, or anyone from the Kingdom of men.”
“That is where and why you are different. You are not of the Kingdom of Men. It is always sad when a man does not know his mother, or her people,” Deborah replied.
George frowned. “My mother?” George asked. “Why should you know anything of her?”
“You will forgive me. I have wanted to speak to you about this for some time, but have needed to find some courage,” she said. “I asked Eumaeus and got some details of your life, and am quite certain now.”
“Certain of what?” George asked, still not sure he believed it. “How could you know anything about me? No one knew my mother in Silene, and Father Edward did not speak of her.”
“I can guess why he did not. I shall tell you a story, one that I was told as a child: there were two men, two knights. One was a rake, and the other easily led astray by rakes. These two men went on Crusade to reclaim the cracked altar from the Dark Ones. While they were there, the rake found God, and his friend found a bride, a Crusader from the Kingdom of Mamono. But not just any bride – he fell in love with Anna of Lockwood, a mighty Unicorn known for both her skill with a lance and her legendary piety,” Deborah began. “She was the daughter of Damien, Count of Lockwood, a man of importance in the Kingdom.”
George stared at the unicorn, numb. He had never imagined…
“The two men chose to live in the land of mamono, and while they were there, Anna became pregnant and bore her husband a son. But tragedy struck, and she died in the birthing.”
“Anna’s father, Count Lockwood, blamed the man for his daughter’s death, and it came to blows,” Deborah said. “Angry and hurt, the man took his son, and with his friend the priest, they journeyed back to the lands of Men,” she looked at him, and her hand gently reached out and took his. “We did not know what happened to you beyond that. I only saw in you the eyes of my grandfather.”
George blinked, and it took him a moment to process what had been said. “Wait…”
“Anna was my Aunt,” she said.
George rubbed his eyes, and looked at Deborah, who had the traces of a smile on her face. “Then we are…”
Deborah nodded excitedly and opened her arms. “Embrace me, my cousin.”
George hugged her to himself, finding an eager and warm bosom which took him in. She rubbed his back and kissed his cheek.
“You are okay?” Deborah asked. “This is a lot to process.”
George nodded. “My mother?” He asked. “D-do you know what she was like?”
Deborah shook her head slowly. “I was only a child when she died. My mother spoke of her as the sweetest of unicorns. She had golden hair down her back, and my grandfather says her smile gave warmth.”
“My…our…grandfather is still alive, then?” George asked.
Deborah smiled. “I have sent him a letter, telling him of the glorious news of your finding. I am certain that he will want to meet you. He has had no end of anguish since your father left with you. It will sadden him to hear that your father has passed, as he has long wished to make amends with him.”
“I want to meet him,” George said. “After the Grail, and Cleolinda and I are wed…”
“That would please him,” Deborah smiled. “You…love Cleolinda, don’t you?”
George nodded enthusiastically. “She is so elegant, and strong, there is no one so magnificent,” he paused. “She’s…powerful. Maybe that’s the wrong thing…”
“Not at all. Although…” Deborah shifted. “You know what happens on a Wedding night, correct?”
George cleared his throat. “A baby is born from it,” he said.
“It can be. You are innocent in these matters,” Deborah said. She narrowed her eyes. “How much do you know?”
“Oh,” George said with a laugh, reddening. “I know all about it: kissing, hugging, holding hands…love…”
“I can sense Cleolinda’s mark upon you,” Deborah said. “It is quite unmistakable, but…not complete. You have kissed?”
“Not just kissed,” George whispered. He leaned in. “Cleolinda kissed me and we were both naked.”
“And did anything else happen?” Deborah asked, blushing.
George blinked. “What do you mean?” He asked.
Deborah put a hand to her face, and let out a small giggle. “…you are innocent. Definitely a Unicorn’s son. I mean what else did you do?”
“We said we were fond of each other,” he said.
“That’s all?” She asked.
George recoiled. “What do you mean that’s all? It was special!” He exclaimed. “It meant something.”
Deborah raised her hands, as if soothing a startled horse. “No, no, no, I understand that. But…you’ve seen animals, right? Say, dogs or pigs or cows?”
“Oh, well that is animals,” George said with a handwave.”Humans and mamono are different. We can love, animals don’t do that.”
The Unicorn blushed. “That’s debatable, but even if it were true…you see, a boy and a girl…”
“Deborah!” Cleolinda’s voice sounded clearly. Her voice echoed off the chapel walls. The Black Dragon dominated the Chapel, filling it with her presence and outstretched. wings.
Deborah sighed. “Lady Cleolinda, I feel that George needs to know about…”
“And I feel he does not. The young man from Silene knows all he needs to know,” Cleolinda said, folding her arms. “I intend to instruct him in the nature of boys and girls.”
Deborah looked at the Black Dragon, then at George for a long moment. Her eyes were full of concern, George could tell, but what was there to worry? “I am concerned that you may overwhelm him. He is my cousin, after all…”
Cleolinda looked to George, her amber eyes sparkling. “Then you told him?” She asked.
Deborah nodded. “And as I stand before him, I know the truth,” she looked at George. “I see the confirmation of it in his eyes, and in the way he draws in breath or moves. I see in him my grandfather and my mother, and my cousins and my uncles and aunts.”
“Despite being of your blood, he is dearer to me than to you,” Cleolinda said. “I promise you that.”
Deborah sighed. “Well, you should let me see what he wants,” she said.
Cleolinda’s nostrils flared. “He wants?!” She asked, as if the question were an attack.
“He has a right to know, if he wants to know,” Deborah said patiently.
“But I know what’s good for-” the Black Dragon started. She looked at George, and a look of fear went on her face. Cleolinda sighed, defeated. “Go ahead and ask him.”
Deborah smiled and looked at George. “Do you want me to tell you about boys and girls, or do you want your DragonMaiden to teach you?”
George looked to the Black Dragon. She looked as if she were a child denied a sweet. He wanted to know, but… “I trust Cleolinda,” he said. “She’ll tell me what I need to know.”
Cleolinda’s eyes sparkled, and a small smile appeared on her lips which grew to a grin. “You are going to be a good husband, George,” she said. “A good and dutiful husband.”
George felt his cheeks redden, and could see the delight in Cleolinda’s eyes. Any time that he appeared vulnerable or shy, she seemed to enjoy it.
“Well, I suppose with the matter of the wedding night forbidden from discussion, there is still
the matter of the wedding,” Deborah said. “My grandfather, the Count of Lockwood, will want you to come our ancestral castle for the service.”
“He is more than welcome to come here, to us” Cleolinda said. “In fact, I shall insist upon his coming, that he may meet his grandson.”
Deborah looked confused, which looked strangely adorable on a unicorn’s face. “Every member of our family has been married on the grounds of Lockwood. My grandfather is a dear man, but he is very proud,” Deborah said.
“I am a Dragon. I am Pride incarnate. I also have a mountain full of gold,” Cleolinda said. “And I am disinclined to leave it for obvious reasons. I only leave it now to seek the vessel which housed Christ’s blood. The Count of Lockwood is not aged or infirm; he has the long life of the mate of mamono. He is welcome at Mount Gothmog; I shall shower him with esteem and venerate him as the headwaters of my lover.”
Deborah looked at George. “And I suppose you agree?”
“Of course he does!” Cleolinda said. She cleared her throat. “Don’t you?”
“I want to meet my grandfather, but I also want the day to be special for Cleolinda,” George said. “The day is about her…”
“About us,” Cleolinda said, hugging him around the neck.
“I can certainly understand that. I shall pass your invitation along,” Deborah said, though looking less than thrilled about the prospect.
“In any case, we are getting ahead of ourselves,” George replied, clearing his throat. “We have yet to recover the Grail.”
Both Cleolinda and Deborah nodded. Cleolinda looked at him sadly, and removed her arm. “You shall be leaving, soon,” she said.
“On the day after tomorrow,” George replied. “The barge will take us up the river and to Salerno castle.”
“You are off to train, now?” Cleolinda asked.
Deborah rose onto her legs, towering over him easily. “I may come seek you on the jousting field,” she said. “I hope that is agreeable, Cousin.”
“It is,” George said eagerly.
Deborah smiled at him. “We shall talk more. We have much to discuss,” she said.
George watched her leave, wondering – and hoping – that the noble unicorn was the image of his mother. He judged that that would be a fine thing, to have a mother as kind and noble as his new cousin. He wondered what she thought of him, and if she watched him from heaven with a smile.
When Deborah was gone, Cleolinda stood before him, draped in the shadows of the Chapel. The dim candles lit her wonderful face in an intimate glow.
“Let us go outside this holy place, and give no further disturbance to the house of God,” Cleolinda said
George and Cleolinda stepped outside the chapel and onto the raised hallway over the concourse. Below the din of the men and monstergirls engaged in the commerce that made Mount Gothmog a vibrant outpost of the Monster Woman Kingdom. George felt his hands shaking. He had so few chances to be with Cleolinda, he found himself excited when opportunities to speak to her presented themselves.
“I take it you are pleased with the practice you have been getting?” Cleolinda asked.
George nodded. “You monster women are excellent tutors. The Centaur women are peerless jousters, and the Minotaur war masters have insights,” he said.
“I hear from all of them. They tell me you are fantastic,” Cleolinda said.
“I suspect the only ones who are disappointed are the kikimora who are attempting to teach me manners,” George said.
“Not at all,” Cleolinda said. “They comment on your pleasant and polite demeanor. They say you are a proper gentleman.”
“That surprises me,” George said. “I am so clumsy at all the dining stuff. I hope I am up to standard.”
“Standard?” Cleolinda asked with a laugh. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean I hope that I am acceptable,” George said.
“Acceptable to whom? To those fools in Diocletian’s court? Don’t worry about them,” Cleolinda said with a dismissive hand wave.
Cleolinda stopped. She turned back a moment, with a frown. “What do you think? I mean, it isn’t-” She asked. Her mouth opened in shock. “You don’t think I consider you unacceptable, right?”
“Well no, not unacceptable. Just annoying or…embarrassing…” George said, rubbing his neck. He was aware that her face had twisted in horror. “I know you are a highborn dragon. And I am, you know…a commoner.”
“Don’t say that!” Cleolinda exclaimed with alarm. “That’s…NO!”
“Look, you needn’t get upset. To be honest I am not very refined…”
Cleolinda looked wounded, as if she had been struck.
“This is horrible!” She exclaimed. “It isn’t that at all. You are noble born; even if Deborah did not confirm your pedigree, even if your mother were a humble pug orc, yours is a noble spirit I can see it in your bearing and hear it in the beating of your heart. And you have excellent training in manners from your Guardian. I just…you can learn about luxury and etiquette. You deserve it. You have a gallant heart, you should shine like the brightest lamp,” her nostrils flared and she stared at the ground with a hardened gaze. “Clearly, this has gone too far…”
“No, it hasn’t,” George said. “I wanted to better myself for you. I just was worried that I wasn’t-“
Cleolinda put a claw to his lips. “Don’t even finish that thought. It is not worth uttering. It is bad enough to think it,” Cleolinda said. “You could eat steak with a spoon and I would love you no less. I wanted to give you access to things you didn’t have, to make you-“
George hugged her, and for once the giant Dragon melted in his arms.
“I know that now,” George said. “I’m sorry I misinterpreted. It just wouldn’t be that unusual for a woman to have standards in the Kingdom of Men that need to be met.”
“I have standards!” Cleolinda said. “But you meet them,” she stared into his eyes. “You met them when I first looked at you, and saw your face, and in the first moment I heard your voice…”
George smiled. “I am a lucky man,” he said.
Cleolinda cooed, which from a dragon meant a great about of smoke billowed from her nostrils.
“My lady…” the Dwarf girl said. “We are to meet with the Goblin Queen to secure her access to the mithril mines…”
“I shall be there, presently, Cleolinda said. She sighed, and hugged George tightly. “I must attend to this.”
George nodded. “I shall see you again soon, I hope,” he said.
Cleolinda smirked. “It is dangerous every time that I am near you. I may not be able to help myself on of these times,” she said. “And there is still the matter of my pledge.”
“The Grail…” George said.
Cleolinda sighed. “The Grail. It must always come back to it,” she said.
George bowed to her. “I shall go and suit up to train, then,” he said. He turned and walked down the hall as Cleolinda followed after her Dwarf attendant.
George returned to his room and suited up in his mail armor. He headed through the massive halls and past the bustling market of men and monster women and to the outside air. He walked on the crunching ground towards the stables.
The stables were Ephialtes was there in his stall, happily chewing on some broken carrots. He tilted his head toward George and let out a grunt of recognition. George gave him a pat with a smile.
“What say we get some riding in, eh?” George said with a grin.
Ephialtes whinnied eagerly, and George mounted him. They galloped out to the riding grounds, where the horsewomen and their husbands practiced at war. Some more conventional horsemen and monster women also practiced on the field. The sheer rock wall of the mountains rose on one side, and from it a giant balcony jutted outward, which led inward to Cleolinda’s private chambers. Sometimes she would be there, watching him spar, but now she was busy at her business with the Goblin Queen.
Two Centaurs were waiting for him: Agnes and Sarai. Both were large, taller than him even when he was astride Ephialtes, and they held long lances that were like small felled trees. Both had young men as handlers, and were kissing them. These were large centaurs, though Ephialtes was a bit larger. It was this fact alone that gave George a chance.
Jousting a Centaur put a man on horseback at several disadvantages. The Joust almost always went to the better rider, and Centaurs were incomparable riders, as they had one mind instead of two. They also could not be knocked off their ‘horse’, so to speak, and so instead one could only score the round by the hit, and the shattering of the lance or staggering of the Centaur.
Ephialtes however had one advantage, in that where they had mass devoted to being the top of a human female, his mass was fully placed into muscle, and so his force was greater and in the gallop he was faster.
Agnes and Sarai were both canny, however, and knew how to fight horsemen. Even despite his handicaps, both the Centaurs agreed that George was a finer jouster than they had ever seen a man be, and he was able to keep from being unhorsed even if they tended to hit him more often than he hit them.
As he made his tilts, he became aware that Cleolinda was watching him from her balcony. She looked a mixture of regal, intimidating, and ravishing, her wings folded as she stared down. He always endeavored to do as well as he could when she was watching. He began to feel that, as her (unofficial) mate, he was reflecting on her with his performance.
George tried not to glance up to her too often, beautiful as she was, as he needed to keep his focus. From what he had seen, she was pleased with his skill, as always.
When he had finished jousting with Agnes and Sarai, the centaur women took their husbands onto their backs and began their practice for war. George sat on Ephialtes and watched them for a bit, pacing along the grounds to observe the maneuvers.
What surprised him was that the centaurs had riders, who were their husbands. They were wiry men, strong but built for riding. They would climb onto their wives, and take off riding with bows in hand. Their shots were accurate as an Elvish ranger’s, and they put many shafts into the sky while their mates wheeled and hurtled with lance in hand.
Their strategy was an interesting one, wherein the centaur would ride around and let her rider fire arrows upon the enemy. When he had exhausted arrows, he would dismount and act as infantry as his centaur, brandishing a lance, would act as a cataphract, forming up with her sisters and crashing into their foes. They would divide into small units and each group would operate independently of each other.
Cleolinda had insisted that only men or married mamono could spar with George, which meant his opponents tended to be very seasoned. This did not stop young, unmarried mamono from watching him as he practiced, and he noted a large group of them tended to gather.
Several centaur girls watched him trot back and forth, all of them young and comely maidens with long hair of light brown, blonde, or crimson. They fanned themselves as he passed, and George could not help but sit a bit straighter in his saddle.
“…such a skilled rider…” one of the young centaurs said, a blonde, just within his earshot.
“…just imagine…” her friend agreed. “Having one such as him on your back…”
“His bare heels kicking in your lower ribs…” another centaur continued. The girls giggled.
“Alright, enough, girls. Do not ignore your own senses, and note that he is scent marked by our Hostess, who watches us even now,” George heard the voice of Deborah say. “Unless you want to be charred to ash, find other young men to ogle as they practice.
The horsegirls parted, and Deborah came forward with a twirled lance, of a similar form to the swirled horn which rose from her head. The handguard was of a seashell shape, befitting the style of her husband’s house, for he was from an aquatic noble family. James of Reefmage stood alongside his wife, his bow at his arm and a trident slung over his back. His armor and kit was the same as the other soldiers, but of a coral pink.
“Hello, Commander,” George said with a big smile.
“Shall you go a few tilts with me, cousin?” Deborah asked, her tail swishing.
George bowed his head. “I would be honored,” he said. “Show mercy on a poor relation, that is all I ask.”
Deborah smirked. “Do not try to undersell yourself,” she said. “And I shall not undersell myself – I have won several tournaments. Of course, we don’t joust in exactly the same way that you do…”
George laughed. “In either case, I would love to test myself against a unicorn champion,” he said.
George acquired a fresh lance and readied for a tilt. Deborah set up across from him, stamping her feet on the packed earth and sending puffs of dust into the air. She lowered her visor
Ephialtes whinnied, and George raises his lance in salute. Deborah responded, raising her own lance. A moment later he kicked his ankles into Ephialtes, and spurred the mighty horse onward.
The unicorn bore down upon him, and he upon her. He tilted his lance as she tilted hers, and they shattered in an explosion of splinters. Both were righted quickly.
The onlookers applauded, and George collected a second lance, as did Deborah. Their second charge was no less impressive than the first, with as fantastic a shattering of lances. On this second charge George was almost unhorsed, but he managed to stay ahorse.
On the third charge, his lance burst into splinters against her breastplate, but Deborah’s aim was true, and the lance struck him well in the left shoulder and shattered. In its shattering, splinters flew into his visor, and this coupled with the force made him falter and hurtle to the ground in a heap of metal.
The wind was taken out of him, and he felt an immediate soreness all over his body. He felt the ground shake as Ephialtes wandered over to him, then still more hoofbeats as he was joined by Deborah.
“Are you alright, cousin?” Deborah asked him as he groaned, the numbness in his head subsiding.
“I am fine just a bit easily amazed right now…” George slurred, clutching his temple.
“No man has ever lasted two tilts against me, let alone shattered lances on every run,” Deborah said. She dipped, and helped him to his feet. “You have great skill with the lance.”
George grimaced as he stood. “…not good enough, it seems,” he said.
“Perhaps not against horsegirls, but against other knights such as yourself, you are among the best I have seen,” Deborah said.
“I shall joust against the finest knights in the Kingdom,” George said. “I have to be the very best.”
“You are excellent,” Deborah said. “But remember that our plan does not hinge on your victory, but on your knowledge. Indeed, keeping a low profile may be best.”
“I understand that, but beyond acquiring the Grail, we must also avert the war,” George said. “If Argal Seine is the King’s Valor, the recovery of the Grail shall become a war to defend it against him.”
“This Argal Seine is a blight, but I wonder if this Baron Roferato you mention is any better. He seems every bit as much a warmonger as the Vizier, at least from what our man-spies can discern.”
“Sir Griffid trusts him,” George replied.
“Yes…the man who marred your face…” Deborah responded.
“He is a good man,” George said, feeling at his scar with his gauntlet. “A dueling scar is a sign of masculinity.”
“It is horrible to so blemish a man’s face as an honor,” Deborah said. “Despite how well you wear it, it should not be there.”
“Cleolinda agrees, I think,” George said.
“Most definitely. She considers him a War Criminal,” Deborah said.
Panting, George looked up at Cleolinda on the balcony. She watched him with a clenched jaw, but her eyes gleamed at him. She flapped her massive wings and took off into the sky. A moment later she was in her full beast form, hurtling off into the cloudy morning.
“She goes out to reave, as we had agreed,” Deborah said.
“I didn’t agree to that. I wish she would stop,” George said. “Malliard is out there.”
“You said he was at Salerno Castle,” Deborah said. “She is not going near it.”
“And yet I still fear him,” George said. “I have no idea what he may yet advise to the people across the Kingdom, nor what the King and his advisors may press him to do.”
“I understand your concern. However, we want no change in her routine, no sign that anything is different. We don’t want to imperil our plans to recover the Grail,” Deborah replied.
George watched as Cleolinda became a distant black mark and disappeared into the gray sky. “I hope she is okay,” he said.
“As do I,” Deborah said. “But I also hope that you are okay. That was quite the fall.”
“Oh, yes…” George said, again aware of his aches. “I think I am fine. I have had my fill of jousting for the day.”
Deborah bowed. “I thank you for an excellent contest, cousin,” she said. “Are you going to retire, then?”
“I think I shall take some time to practice my swordplay,” George replied. “Fight on foot.”
Deborah smirked. “Such an odd concept. Well, I wish you good luck,” the Unicorn said. She trotted to her husband James, and with a clicking of her tongue the bowman leapt onto her back, and the two of them raced off onto the practice field, joining up with a team of skirmishers and riding off at some targets.
George took Ephialtes back to his stable. The combat fields were near the riding fields, but around the ‘corner’ of the mountain on a flat expanse of sane. The predominant group on the practice grounds were lizard-women fighting against their men. These fire-lizards appeared to be the bulk of the mamono army, and appeared to be quite serious soldiers.
The fights were intense affairs, where the men and women traded blows as if their lives depended on it, though no blood was shed. These contests seemed destined to continue forever, with neither side admitting defeat until the practice ended, when the two would kiss with passion.
Despite the large number of Salamanders, George did not practice against any, but against other warrior mamono. George practiced with several different opponents – swift Elvish warriors, stout Dwarves, and towering Minotaurs.
That particular day, George was sparring against several different opponents. He was doing his best to avoid the swings of a minotaur named Korro, who wielded a broad two handed axe with wide clefts. Because the minotaur did not pull her punches, she used a light wooden axe when practicing, which still delivered a sharp blow when it connected. George similarly used a wooden sword in his practice against her, and was able to score several hits, to her mounting frustration.
After one exchange in which George had managed to tap Korro but taken a good smack to the helm that rattled his head, he decided to take a brief break. He drank some water and it was warm, though refreshing. A gust of warm wind went across the plane, and refreshed him. He was beginning to feel hot in his armor, and began to think that he had enough of sparring for the day.
One red lizard girl had watched him over several days, and was taking in his combat now with great interest. In many ways she reminded him of Cleolinda – there was a confidence to her much like his Black Dragon, a skill and power which made her alluring, though not as much as his DragonMaiden. She watched him fight with folded arms, leaning against the rock wall of the mountain near the entrance back to Cleolinda’s expansive mountain palace.
“Who is that?” George asked, wiping the sweat from his brow as he caught his breath.
Korro, his Minotaur sparring partner, took a long draught from her waterskin. “Never you mind,” she said. “Given your sweetness for lizard meat, she isn’t any dish you need to sit down in front of.”
“It doesn’t hurt to tell him,” Barza said, resting on her axe. “That’s Charna. She’s considered the greatest fighter in our army.”
“She is also very much single,” Korro said. “So keep well clear of her.”
Charna saw him look over at her, and with a blank expression gave him a subtle nod. George stared at her, wide-eyed, then turned back to sparring.
George sparred against Barza next, then watched as Korro and Barza sparred against each other. Despite the size difference the two were evenly matched, and it became a contest of Minotaur fury against Dwarven stubbornness.
Finally, George collected his gear and walked towards the entrance, bringing him past Charna on his way to his room. He planned to drop off his gear, bathe (Cleolinda had managed to make him find a fondness for frequent bathing) and then seek some food, perhaps track down Eumaeus and Concita.
“You are impressive,” Charna said in an elegant tone as he walked past. “Quite skilled. I didn’t think men could learn to fight that well, without mamono to teach them.”
“I was taught by a skilled warrior,” George said.
Charna laughed. “That much is clear. I would be honored for a test of my skills against yours,” she said.
“You mean to spar?” George asked. “I have heard the others speak most highly of your ability. I would consider it an honor, too, but that would not be appropriate, I think.”
Charna frowned. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you flatter yourself. I have promised myself to battle,” she said. “My husband is the god of war. I am interested in the contest, the improving of myself, the test. I have no designs on mating with anyone.”
George rubbed his neck. What could a few rounds of sword fighting hurt, he thought to himself.
She pursed her lips. “Of course, if you are afraid of losing…”
George laughed. “Not at all. Just a few exchanges,” George said.
Charna smiled. “Good. Then let us take a small walk. Shall we say, best of three?”
George nodded. “I see no harm in that,” he said.
They walked back onto the practice field. George followed behind Charna, and he was struck by her confidence as she moved. In many ways she reminded him of Cleolinda. She turned when they were about a hundred paces from the door and drew her sword. George set down his gear -his shield, scabbard – and drew his own.
He approached his lizard woman opponent. She was mostly like a human woman in size and shape, though a bit stockier, and with reptilian hands and feet. A very slight flame emerged from her tale, of a red color like her skin. Her gill ears wiggled, and she blinked her auburn eyes.
In the actual combat, George found his opponent to be swifter and more fierce than any other that he had faced. Her ripostes were almost immediate, her parries and deflections flawless. Her technique was amazing, and yet George was able to hold his own.
They went three exchanges, and while Charna had taken two of the three, the last one had been contested, and they both agreed to three more. In these, George was the victor in two, and then the question arose of who would be the best in another contest of three.
George was amazed by the quality of his opponent. Eumaeus had been an excellent sparring partner, and Father Edward was an excellent swordsman. But since he had come of age, George had always been able to overpower any opponent given enough time, with the possible exception of Sir Griffid. In this case Charna was able to match him ferociously in each case, and overcome him in others. He felt as if she were an equal.
George was only faintly aware that Charna’s tail was glowing brighter as she fought, and when he did notice it he assumed that it indicated that she was getting more involved in the contest. He did note that and as her flame grew brighter, the intensity if her exchanges – the force of her hits and the loudness of her grunts – increased.
Finally during one exchange, she slapped the sword from his hand, and it skittered across the sands. Charna raised her head skyward and laughed.
“I win!” She said. Her tail was white with flame, her chest rising and falling.
“I concede,” George said. “You have the better of me in this exchange.”
“I know!” She exclaimed excitedly. “I don’t mean to show you disrespect, quite the opposite. I have never felt so…alive. You are amazing, and yet so young still. In a few years you may be the most powerful mate a Salamander could have!”
She dropped her own sword and approached him, her tail swishing. Her whole body was white with fire. George realized with horror he had done exactly what people had told him not to do.
“Charna, we said this was just a simple sparring practice,” George said, taking a step backward.
“And I had every intention of it being so,” the Red Salamander replied, her voice shaking. “At least, in my waking mind. If I deceived you, I deceived myself as well. The urges are just so strong! I thought myself above it, but none of us are…who can resist so fine a warrior?”
George recoiled. “N-no! I’ve kissed Cleolinda! We have bathed together!”
Charna laughed. “I smell her on you, yes. She has good taste, but a scentmark is not a marriage, and mighty as she is, Cleolinda is a lizard. Among lizards, the duel supersedes a scentmark…”
George backed away. “Though I was warned, no one explained that to me. I no longer wish to duel,” he said. “
“Oh, but I do,” Charna said, pressing forward. Her fire had grown brighter, from orange to white.
“Please stop,” George said.
Charna laughed. She reached him, standing before him with a look like she was about to pounce.
“I won’t do this,” George said. “I’ll fight.”
Charna grinned. “Good! We’ll fight and struggle, but I won’t stop coming at you. Eventually I’ll plant a kiss on your lips. And then you won’t be able to resist me…”
“But I love Cleolinda,” George cried out, fearful she might succeed, and he might lose his DragonMaiden forever.
Charna apparently did not hear or register this comment, because her only response was to laugh, as if he had said a funny joke.
“Do not deny what we have,” Charna said. “I feel the current in you, the skill.” she ran her hands up her body in a way that George had to admit was stirring. “My God, I am a flame…”
“Charna, I think I did something really, really bad,” George said. “I didn’t mean to, but I think you are aroused.”
“I know more than think that,” she said. “And I don’t care. I want you, and I’m taking you.”
The exchange had been overheard, and a crowd of very horrified mamono and men had gathered. Among them were Korro and Barza.
“Dammit George!” Korro said. “I warned you!”
“I’m really, really sorry that I did not listen to you,” George said.
“Do not feel regret, George; our dance has been the greatest thrill of my life,” she said.
This statement only made George feel worse. “Charna, I apologize, I have done you a grievous fault.”
“Moderate your guilt slightly, young Knight,” Barza said. “Charna should have much more sense than this.”
“Who has sense in matters of desire?” Charna cried. She lunged at George, and he jumped away.
“Charna, you fool, that’s Cleolinda’s man!” Korro shouted. “There is nothing more dangerous that you could be doing.”
“Stay out of this, Korro!” Charna shouted. “This is between me and George. A Salamander’s rights-“
“A Salamander is going to get squished by an angry Dragon,” Barza said. “You are too sensible a warrior for this. I know it is hard, but you must step away. The effect will fade.”
“I do not wish it to fade,” Charna said, staring at George with hungry eyes.
“Charna, stop and think. How will you handle Cleolinda?” Barza asked.
“I’m not afraid of Cleolinda!” Charna snarled. “We walk on eggshells around her, and why?”
“We are using her mountain as a stronghold,” Barza said.
“And she once crushed a tower in the fury of battle,” Korro responded. “You are thinking below the waist, sister.”
“Stow it, Korro,” Charna said. “The Law is the Law, and we have dueled.”
Korro shook her head. “Charna, we are old friends. I won’t let you do this. It’s suicide,” she said.
Korro grabbed Charna, but the smaller Salamander flowed around her and with explosive force tossed her to the ground. Korro landed in a heap.
“No one interfere! This is sacred!” Charna shouted.
Surging with fury, Charna swung her tail out and smacked George before he could react, bowling him over. As he was on the ground and still reeling from the impact with the sands, she was on him, leaning over him with a triumphant grin.
“Now, I just plant a kiss, and-“
Her words were cut short by a fulminating roar. The sky darkened, and a hot gust of air nearly bowled all those assembled over.
“The Black Dragon!” Barza cried out. The crowd -mighty warriors, all- ran in abject terror. Even Korro stood and hobbled away, cursing under her breath.
Cleolinda landed in her shapely figure, but the roar she issued as her feet touched the ground sounded as full and mighty as if she were in her full dragonform. It was enough to make the normally fearless Charna flinch, and she quickly retreated away from George – and back over to her sword.
“What do you think you are doing, Charna?” Cleolinda snarled. She outstretched her wings, looming over the smaller Salamander.
“It’s my fault,” George said. “We were sparring, and I shouldn’t have-“
“Peace, my Knight of Silene,” Cleolinda said, shooting him a look in which he saw jealousy…and fear. She turned back upon Charna with clenched teeth. “How dare you…”
“I have done nothing against any law,” Charna replied defiantly. “After all, you and he are not betrothed, engaged, or-“
“He is scentmarked,” Cleolinda snarled.
“And a duel supersedes that, even among Dragons,” Charna replied.
“And then there is one recourse. You are enflamed, and the only way to quench your fire is to beat it the hell out of you. Which I shall do at once,” Cleolinda said. She flapped her massive wings, nearly bowling Charna over as a storm of sand rose up and howled outward. “If you want to attack my Hoard, I shall defend it.”
Charna’s eyes widened – after she had cleared them of flecks of sand. Indeed, the Salamander was so covered in grains that she looked speckled white and red. Her flames burned on, however. It was a testament to her character that she never cowered.
“Your Hoard?” Charna asked with surprise, refusing to dust herself off. “Boys are not property. They can’t-“
“Don’t dare lecture a Dragon on what is in her Hoard!” Cleolinda shouted. She began to circle in large steps. “You have always been a venerable warrior, Charna, but there has been a smugness to you I find insufferable. You have never gotten the slap across the mouth you deserve.”
“Let our contest be honorable, then,” Charna said, outstretching her hand. “Fight me with sword in formal duel, before the Commander Deborah-“
“Fight the devil in a formal duel!” Cleolinda shouted, striking away the offered hand with a force that spun the Salamander. “You are lucky that I do not incinerate you, or toss you off my mountain in dragonform. I only confront you as a maiden because I hold you in some esteem, and know the innocence of your desire.”
Charna’s face was stoic as she reached down and grasped her sword. “Shall we fight to the death?” She asked.
“I have killed those who tried to steal my treasure, and George is a dearer possession to me than my entire mountain,” Cleolinda said. She narrowed her eyes. “But it will not come to that, for you shall yield the Knight of Silene to me very shortly.”
“My tail still burns,” Charna said. “And much has been said of your skill, but I have never seen it.”
Cleolinda’s eyes widened. “You are serious, child?” She asked, incredulous.
“I cannot match your flight or fire, but as you stand before me as a maiden, I believe I can best you in combat. And what then? Will you yield the Knight of Silene?” Charna asked.
“I could be half your size, and I would still fight until I was dead. George is mine!” Cleolinda snapped. With a roar, Cleolinda lunged outward with an open swipe.
Charna moved away swiftly from Cleolinda’s grasping claws. The dragon swung about, and brought her swinging tail into the red Salamander. The bulwark of jet-black dragon hide knocked Charna from her feet and sent her sprawling across the sand with a dragging sound. The Salamander was quickly up on her feet with a jump, and she twirled away from another lunge from the pursuing Black Dragon.
Charna swung her sword, and Cleolinda deftly blocked it with her arm as if it was a fist, delivering an open hand slap across the Salamander’s face which spiraled her.
The combat began in earnest, though less a combat than a pursuit. Charna was disadvantaged in all respects in the fight – she had less reach, less mass, less speed. It was a testament to her skill and experience that she was able to do as well as she was, but she was barely treading water against an ocean. Cleolinda, being centuries old, was clearly more experienced, and her own skill was easily the equal of Charna’s.
More than that, it was apparent that the Black Dragon’s zeal was greater. Charna had a kindled interest in him, George assessed, but Cleolinda’s feelings were a raging inferno, burning so intensely that the slightest threat caused it to scorch and burn with the white fire of a Dwarven forge.
George felt guilty as he watched the events unfold. And yet, he could not help but be aroused by the Black Dragon’s fury. She was so strong, so powerful, that she made the finest warrior of the monster girl army look like a child running from a hurricane.
Cleolinda was dominating the fight, tossing the Salamander about with ease and knocking her about the sands with open hand slaps. She finally grasped Charna, lifting her, and easily tugged the sword from her grip by grasping the blade and yanking it. It landed and skittered across the sands
“Withdraw your claim,” Cleolinda said. “I have no desires on your life; it is George of Silene that I want. Withdraw!”
Charna stared at George for a moment, and in her eyes he could see the lust dissipating, replaced with resignation, and even a hint if embarrassment.
“I yield,” Charna rasped. “He is yours.”
Cleolinda dropped the Salamander to the ground, still growling as the Salamander clutched het throat. She turned her gaze upon George, and approached him with thunderous steps which so shook the ground that George felt himself totter.
“C-Cleolinda-” he began, unsure if he was in trouble himself.
Cleolinda towered over him, and wordlessly she took him in her arms. With a flapping of her mighty wings, he was lifted into the sky with a sound like a cracking whip.
He had never flown before, and had imagined seeing high vistas and feeling the wind. In the event however, what he saw was a Dragonmaiden’s pretty, sweat-covered neck, and he felt her very tight grasp around his waist. She held him to her bosom ferociously, and he felt more carried than in flight. It was better than he imagined, and he stirred in his loins.
When they landed, it was on a high cliff near the top of the mountain peak, before the entrance to a dark cave. It was cold here, and he might have shivered slightly but for the burning heat of his Dragon, who clutched him in her arms and against her bare flesh.
“This was my first cave,” Cleolinda said. “I nestled here when I first arrived, after forty years of wandering. It is the safest place for you, accessible only with wings.”
“I am to stay here?” George asked.
“For now, until I can handle this outrage. I had hoped a scent marking would be enough, but clearly there are mamono to whom you are too irresistible,” Cleolinda said. She smiled and touched his face. “I cannot say I blame them.”
“I am so sorry, Cleolinda,” George said. “I was careless…”
“It is alright. I cannot be upset with you, George. I would sooner be angry at my own heart than at you,” she said.
“I am thankful you defeated Charna,” George said, noting her displeasure at his saying the Salamander’s name. “But I hope she was not hurt.”
“Not at all. Salamanders love powerfully, but not immediately,” Cleolinda said. “She was overpowered with lust, not love. Not yet. Salamanders yield to strength. A Salamander, once impressed by a man, will give him up if a stronger lizardgirl defeats her before their joining. It is their way.”
“Are you like them, then?” George asked.
“In some respects. I have a competitive streak as well, but it is very…different,” Cleolinda said.
George shifted. “Are we going to spar?” He asked.
She leaned over him with her arms on her hips. “Do you want to?” She asked.
George searched, aware his heart was beating. He looked at the large Dragon, unsure of what he wanted exactly, or why this excited him. “I…I don’t know,” he said.
Cleolinda blinked her amber eyes at him in the dark, slowly. She entered the dark cave and returned a moment later with an iron sword with a dull luster but a sharp blade. “Take this,” she said.
George took the offered weapon. Despite its dull look it was well balanced and sharp. The Black Dragon loomed over him a moment. Charna was either his equal or slightly superior to him, and she had obliterated her. He had as much chance against her as he had against the mountain, he knew. Yet – and this was the odd part- that was what he was looking to experience.
“Now,” she said. “Strike me.”
George stared at her, alarmed. “What?”
“That’s the goal, isn’t it?” Cleolinda asked. “To hit me with the sword?”
“Won’t you defend yourself?” He asked.
“If you ever strike me, it will be with cause, I assume,” Cleolinda said.
“Why are you making it like this?” George asked.
“Because I am not a Salamander,” Cleolinda said. “I am a Dragon. I do not want a sparring partner, I want what is mine. I have no interest in fighting.”
George looked at Cleolinda. Despite her large size, her tail, her wings, and her horns, she was still a maiden, a beautiful and lovely one. He guessed his sword could not hurt her, but even raising it against such beauty seemed wrong. His heart possessed no strength to do it.
George lowered his sword. “I do not want to strike you,” he said.
Cleolinda smiled with a look of triumph. She walked forward and gently took the sword from his hand, dropping it onto the cave floor with a clang.
“That is because you are too good of a man. You know that you must yield to me,” the Black Dragon said, taking in a shaking breath. “Get on your knees.”
George obeyed, falling down before her. Her claw grasped his face, gently, and with great affection.
“I know what you really want,” she whispered down to him. “And yes, I will overpower you and take you, and you will feel my strength. You will be helpless in my arms despite how hard you struggle…”
George felt his manhood grow hard, and his heart pounded in his chest. His genitals ached. “Oh God…” he whispered.
“But I have no desire to strike you either. Ever. Romance is not a battle between us. You are mine. A gem does not harm its jeweler, and a jeweler does not mar her gem,” Cleolinda said. She lifted him up, then kissed him sweetly on the lips, and George’s heart fluttered.
She smiled down at him, tugging on his breastplate and lifting him off his feet to be eye level with her. “You are so, so adorable. I would take you right here, in my cave, and we could stay here…” Cleolinda said. “No one would come looking for you. You could not make the climb down. I would have you all for me. For as long as I wanted.”
“T-Take me…” George whispered, unsure what it truly meant to be taken. He only knew that he wanted to hold her in his arms, and feel her soft bosom against his chest, and her lips against his.
“How I wish I could…” she said, nuzzling against his face. Her face was soft against his own, and her breath was hot as fire from a stove. She kissed him on the lips, hard, and when she released him he saw stars.
“Mmmm,” she said happily when their kiss broke, her eyes shut. She was no less affected than he was. “I wanted to take you here on our Wedding night.”
“I’m sorry it was sooner than you planned,” George said.
“I’m not,” Cleolinda said. “This is a good…preview of what is to come. I shall not hold you here for long, just until I can speak to Deborah about redeploying the single mamono for a few days. I shall keep you from seeing any mamono save from Deborah and the Harpy Scout that your man-at-arms has grown fond of…Concita, I think?”
“Yes, that is her name. I think after today no one would come near me, with how you dispatched Charna,” George said.
Cleolinda’s eye twitched, and she clenched her teeth.
“You dislike hearing me say her name?” George asked.
“Forgive me. I am still…jealous,” she said. “I feel as if my whole treasure was just set upon by rogues. I want to just…just…never hear you speak another monster woman’s name. Ever.”
“I am sorry,” George said. “I do not mean to upset you.”
Cleolinda laughed. “You are sweet. I think that you would avoid mentioning another mamono in my presence, just on my request, even though it is an utterly unreasonable one for me to make,” she drew closer, and her amber eyes glowed. “Perhaps…I may even indulge in making it a rule of ours, when you are my husband.”
“Then I should leave soon,” George said. “I want you to…to teach me.”
“We must have the Grail, my Knight,” Cleolinda said. “Once we have restored the Grail, I can punish you for your innocence in the way that you deserve.”
Cleolinda set him down gently upon the cave floor, and George braced himself against the wall as he watched her walk away swiftly. She walked as though angry at needing to leave, and she left him there with a downward swoop. His loins were tight.
“I must get the Grail,” he announced into the wind.
It was only a few hours later that Cleolinda returned, and carried him in her arms back to his room. It was dark then, the halls were quiet and his room was lit by lamps.
“I wish that I could stay the night,” she whispered to him.
“As do I,” he said. “M-maybe you could. I could sleep on a cot…”
Cleolinda giggled. “My Sweet Knight, if you were on the cot, I would be, too,” she said.
“I would like to just talk,” he said. “We haven’t really had a chance to talk the past few days. I like just hearing your voice.
Cleolinda looked at him, her amber eyes sparkling. She put a hand to his face.
“You are the dearest creature in the whole world,” she said. “I shall have a pile brought, and I shall stay in your room tonight. Now, go and bathe and get ready for bed.”
He obeyed her, entering his washroom as she summoned servants to enact her plan. The servants came quickly, and as he submerged beneath the warm water and let it soothe his aching muscles, he heard the din of Cleolinda telling them what she wanted, and their feverish affirmations of her will. He heard the doors to his room slam shut, then the sounds of a large monster woman attempting to sneak over to watch him.
When he caught her amber eyes peering at him through the slightly open door, it made him become aroused. For the briefest of moments, she began to cup one of her breasts, playing through her leather top at her nipple. Her other claw went beneath her skirt. Her eyes rolled upward and shut. He didn’t know why, but it made his manhood throb to watch her. He ached.
He exited the water, hoping to go closer to watch, and as the drops pooled on the stone stairs he saw her suddenly fix herself, panting, smoothing her dress and fixing her shirt.
He put on the silk pajamas which had been left out for him. It was less clothes than a gentle feeling of softness and he reveled in it.
“My God, these pajamas are the softest things I have ever felt,” George said.
“They should be. Silkworm girls across the Jade Sea labored on the silk it was made of. A single bolt of this costs two hundred gold coins,” Cleolinda said.
“You spend so much on me…”
“Trust me, this extravagance is what you deserve,” Cleolinda said. “I let the Dwarves here extract gold for a fee, and I protect their own treasures as they protect mine.”
“It is a good relationship,” George said.
“It is now,” Cleolinda agreed. “It was not always.”
“What happened?” George asked.
Cleolinda smiled as there was a knock on the door. “Our food is here,” she said.
“Food?” George asked. “I guess I am quite hungry…”
“I assumed we would be famished. I took the liberty of picking food for us,” Cleolinda said. “Hopefully that is not a problem.’
“Oh, no,” George said. “I’m quite happy to eat what is put before me, so long as it doesn’t crawl or skitter.”
“You may like some skittering things,” Cleolinda said. “Lobster, shrimp, crab, crayfish…”
“I haven’t had any of those,” George said. “I’m skeptical, but if you say they are good, I’ll try them.”
“That isn’t on the menu for tonight, but I’ll make sure that they are cooked perfectly when you finally sample them,” the Black Dragon said.
The food entered, a massive heal of fried birds and bowls of vegetables. The aroma of cooked poultry made George’s stomach rumble and his mouth water. The servants entered with a table that could seat six, but when Cleolinda took one side of it the table felt like a very intimate setting, as she leaned over the table and smiled at him.
While the place was set for dinner, other servants entered with wheelbarrows full of gold coins, which they began to pile in one corner of the room, near the entranceway to the bath. This, apparently, was where Cleolinda would sleep tonight.
As George pondered the comfort of sleeping on coins, the servants poured wine into two glasses, which were differently sized, such that Cleolinda’s was larger than his. In the event she took nearly a full bottle into her cup.
The plates and silverware followed a similar trend, with his being ‘normal’ (which is to say man) sized and hers being larger. Two lit candles were placed between them, and with the food arrayed on the table in heaps, the servants filed their way out. They sat across from each other in the intimate glow of candlelight, and dined on fresh water fowl with parsnips and sweet carrots. The meal was delicious, and George found himself devouring it ravenously. His long day of practicing had made him famished.
If he ate ravenously, however, Cleolinda ate both as a hungry beast and a genteel lady, munching down whole waterfowl in a matter of seconds, swallowing them bone and all, yet never for a moment looking as if she were consuming more than a dainty portion. She dabbed at her mouth gently with her napkin after each whole waterfowl was crunched in her mouth.
“This was delicious,” George said as he picked over the waterfowl bones.
“I do not eat bird very often,” Cleolinda said as she finished crunching down a thigh. “But I do enjoy it, and I thought today would be a good day to have some.”
George laughed. “That is funny,” he said. “Waterfowl is a common meal back home in Silene. They were considered practically a pest. It is interesting that it is considered a delicacy here.”
“I consider it a delicacy, not the region,” Cleolinda said. “If I ate it nightly, I think it would very quickly become a costly meal for the people around here. I hope you are not sick of it…”
“No! No, no…” George said raising his hands. “It’s great. It reminds me of home, but it tastes so refined. Like, better than I ever had it.”
Cleolinda smiled. “I have some excellent chefs here. Legendary, in fact,” she said. “The Dwarves take food as seriously as they take mining and forging.”
“I have been amazed by the food they’ve given me,” George said. “And the clothes I’ve received, and the…well…”
Cleolinda blinked and folded her claws in front of her. “What?”
“The leash,” he added sheepishly.
Cleolinda grinned. “I am glad you like it. You and it shall be very intimate, almost as intimate as you and I shall be,” she said. “But we should avoid talking about that for now, or we shall most certainly not be sleeping tonight. Now what is it we shall talk about, eh, my Sweet Knight?”
“I’m interested in hearing your story,” George said. He grasped up the cup of wine and sipped it. It was full and potent, a draught strong enough to overwhelm him.
Cleolinda shrugged. “Well, I came to Mount Gothmog four hundred years ago…”
“Where were you from before that?” He asked.
“The Other Side,” she said. “I came through the portal.”
“The portal?” George asked.
“We have a portal back to out homerealm, it is how we first came here all those years ago. It is kind of odd…in our world the way here is by jumping down a well. Somewhere during the fall you find yourself on your feet and walking, and you come out here.”
“And your parents?” George asked.
“My Mom and Dad are back in the Old Land,” Cleolinda said.
“Do you ever see them?” George asked.
Cleolinda grit her teeth. “Dragons sometimes have…trouble…dealing with each other,” she said. “I love my mother dearly, but we have a tendency to butt heads. It had been decades since I last saw them. My father just smiles and bears it all as best he can.”
“I would like to meet them,” George said.
“Of course. They shall come to our wedding here, at Mount Gothmog,” Cleolinda said.
“Like my grandfather,” George said. “Who else is coming?”
“Oh, over four hundred years one builds up a large list of guests,” Cleolinda said. “King Firmar Barkonnen and Queen Thisbe shall come, of course.”
“They seem well regarded,” George said.
“Oh yes, very. Queen Thisbe is the only person to ever defeat me in a fight,” Cleolinda said. “She’s a dear friend.”
Cleolinda talked to him at length concerning some of her exploits within the Kingdom of Mamono, and her travels across the realm during its founding and its securing. George was impressed by not only the number of battles and enemies she had fought, but also by just how old she truly was, and how for much of it – despite the fact that she had been the locus of so many important events – she was ultimately alone.
Through it all George found himself captivated by Cleolinda’s smile and her eyes. He felt at ease with her, and their hands drifted to each other’s and their fingers interlocked. Despite their draconic appearance, The DragonMaiden’s hands were soft and smooth, and held his own so gently that he found himself savoring the touch, almost unable to focus on her words.
They talked of his own life in Silene, and though George was uncertain how the mundane life of a peasant would sound to a mighty Dragon, Cleolinda asked him many questions, treated his achievements or failures there as seriously as she had treated her own, and seemed by the end of his tales to be as familiar with it as he was.
The candles on the table were low when finally his yawning became too much for Cleolinda to ignore.
“I have talked your ear off enough,” she said, rubbing his hand with her much larger clawed one. “And asked you enough questions. You should get some sleep. You will be leaving soon.”
George nodded, and Cleolinda blew out the candles, making the room dark. He stood from the table and made his way to the bed as his eyes adjusted to the dim light from the outside balcony. Cleolinda stood and made her way to her golden heap. As he climbed into his soft blankets he heard the clinking of coins as Cleolinda circled and lay down upon it.
“Is that actually comfortable?” George asked.
“There are degrees of comfort,” he heard Cleolinda reply in the dark. “If I am not on at least a portion of the Hoard, I shall be awake all night worrying about it. But I find this quite nice.”
“Will I have to sleep on a pile of coins?” George asked. “Someday?”
“We’ll see,” Cleolinda said. “I think I shall have you in a bed among the coins. You too are a treasure, after all, and so laying with you counts as a portion of the Hoard.”
“That’s good news,” George said. He yawned.
“You should sleep,” she said.
“Aren’t you tired?” George asked.
Cleolinda giggled, which George did not expect. “I don’t think you realize how long I can sleep at a stretch,” she said. “Some times it is for weeks.”
“I think I shall miss you when you sleep that long,” George said.
Cleolinda giggled again.
“What?” George asked. “You can’t expect me to sleep for weeks.”
“Oh George…” she said. “You shall be kept very, very, very tired, my sweet Knight.”
“This is some of the stuff you will teach me?” George asked.
“It is,” she said.
“You mentioned before that something happened with the Dwarves,” George said.
“No, I didn’t,” Cleolinda replied.
“Well, you said that you and the Dwarves were good, ‘right now.’ I wondered what that meant,” George said.
Cleolinda sighed, and there was only silence in the dark for a time that seemed eternal to George. “I have feared to tell you too much of my past,” she said.
“You needn’t fear,” George said. “All people do things they are not proud of.”
“And still they find it in them to judge others for their failings. I would not blame you if you judged me, George,” Cleolinda said.
“I swear to you that I won’t,” George said.
Cleolinda sighed. “It was many years ago, when I first came through from the Other Side. I was very…fiery then. I was much like Charna, only more in love with treasure than with war. And in the same way that she was aggressive towards you, I was aggressive against anything gold that I came across.”
“After two decades of reaving, and building up my fortune, I came upon the Dwarves in their Mountain Kingdom to the far north. I saw their great gems, their ornate armors, and their seas of gold, and I coveted them. I was young, and full of fire, and believed all these things should be mine. I burst in to their sanctum and drove them out. I hurt many in the process, and made their people paupers as I slept amongst their fortune.”
George was quiet. “Did you kill them?” He asked.
“I did not scorch any Dwarves in fire or rake any across the face with my claws. But many died by my actions,” She said. “I ruined lives. A whole generation of Dwarves grew up as beggars and suffered hardships because of my greed.”
“What made you change your ways?” George asked.
“It was only when a priest came, a Father Matthias, that I saw my folly. He showed me…” she paused. “He was a true priest. He came at the behest of the Dwarves, to talk me into leaving. For seven days he exhorted me and for seven days I laughed at him. Then on the last day, he showed me a vision of Hell, for he was a Holy Man, a Saint even if he is not recognized as one. There is a Dragon there, George. Not a Dragon like me, not as Dragons are supposed to be, but a Dragon that is so horrible that to lock eyes with it chills the blood. I fled the terrible gaze and the Dwarves’ Mountain, returning it to them, and came here, to Mount Gothmog. I built up my cache of treasure from the wicked instead of the good, and despaired that I would lose my soul.”
“But the Dwarves did not recover from my initial invasion. The Might of the Kingdom was broken, and it was sacked again and again by rivals. I went North to protect their Mountain, and I dashed their enemies and restored to the Dwarves every gold coin taken and more besides from my own store. After all these years and aided by my efforts, the Dwarves of the North are again mighty, a Fortress pledged to the great King Firmar, but I pledge to protect it still. I gathered and restored all their treasures to them, and I employed them to mine for me from my own mountain. Over four centuries my name has gone from a Dwarvish curse word to a cherished ally. They call me Friend from the Southern Mountain.”
“You should be proud that you have made amends,” George said. “It sounds like it was a long process.”
“Dragons feel pride for everything we do, and yet in this I feel only fear. There are many with whom I cannot make amends. They did not survive my folly. I fear my soul is damned.”
“But you are doing the best you can,” George said. “That is all that you can do.”
“I caused the Dwarves a lot of pain. I’ve caused a lot of people pain. I tried to make it right, but the only way to truly make recompense is to get the Grail back. With that act, I shall wash away all the inequities of the past. All the greed, all the theft, it shall be cleansed from me, for I shall have done something which saved the world,” Cleolinda said. “At least, I hope…”
“I can only imagine what you think of me,” Cleolinda said, and her voice sounded less like a Dragon’s and entirely like a woman’s, with a vulnerability and fear that could not be masked by pride.
“I am not God, and cannot say if you are saved or damned for true, but I believe in my heart that you are a good person, and that God will not judge you severely,” George said forcefully. “And I believe the Grail will go to reinforce the goodness within you. In any case, this story does not in any way diminish my love for you, and I think no less of you for sins from your past for which you have sought to make amends.”
“You are more than a Knight, George of Silene,” Cleolinda said with a shaking voice. “You are a Man. I shall make you the happiest one in this world. I swear it. Would that I could hug you now, and squeeze all the love I feel into you, but it must wait.”
George laughed. “After we get the Grail,” he said in the familiar refrain.
“Yes,” she replied. “After we get the Grail.”
With thoughts of his quest in his mind, George drifted off into sleep.