Sometimes stories write themselves. That’s not so much to say that it comes effortlessly as it is that they go in a direction you weren’t expecting. For example, I was expecting to wrap this story up, but I think it’ll need one more chapter. Also, I had expected for there to be more dialogue, but so far, Gwaelin and the Dragon Warrior seem to be adhering to the old 8-bit video game in that respect, and not saying very much.
Luckily, we need one more chapter, and perhaps then they’ll find their tongues! We’ll see. I didn’t feel any lack in their communion, and I’m pretty sure you won’t either.
The passages were unknown to him, beyond the fallen dragon, but a mere handful of steps and three turns later, he saw the heavy double doors that surely locked the princess of Alefgard in her prison. They were massive, made of a dull gray metal with rust-red handles. The escutcheon was small, but at last he found it, and he found himself fumbling for one of the magic keys he’d purchased in Rimuldar.
His gloves, he found himself noticing in a sort of dull shock, were filthy. It suddenly occurred to him what he must look like. The poultice of magic herbs had healed the burns from his left forearm where his shield had rested, but the shirt was scorched and ragged now to the elbow. The three long, deep gashes in the chestpiece of his once-handsome full plate mail had utterly ruined it, his crimson cloak with the pristine ivory lining was in blackened tatters. He reached up to check his dented helmet, and sure enough, one of the horns was snapped off.
Why in the world should he care about his appearance? He’d just slayed a dragon! Surely the princess would not care at all what her savior looked like, as long as he set her free and took her home. Everything he’d heard about Gwaelin implied she would never judge him harshly for such a petty thing. It was absolutely ridiculous to be nervous.
And yet, miraculously, amazingly, he was. Frightened, he’d been many times. Exhausted, more times than he could count. He’d learned new depths of anger and pain and empathy . . . but nervousness? The realization blindsided him, causing him to stand and stare at the magic key in his hand.
He took a deep, slow breath, trying to will the tension out of his shoulders as he exhaled. He had no idea why he was so anxious, but now was not the time to figure it out. This poor woman had waited long enough. He inserted the key into the lock and turned. The doors were so old that it actually took effort to turn the key; he could practically feel the mechanism of the lock moving.
And suddenly, as if they had never been there at all, the huge metal doors just vanished.
The room– if one could call it that– was small. There were no furnishings at all, because one could not in decency call a pile of straw and a bucket to relieve oneself in furnishings. No lamp, no table, no chair, no bed, no rug, no washbasin, nothing at all for Gwaelin’s comfort. She had been sitting here, alone, stumbling and groping in the dark.
It wasn’t dark now, the magical spell of radiance still clung to him, revealing this unthinkable cruelty, as well as the woman he came to rescue. She stood in the middle of the small room, facing the door. Her hands were clasped demurely in front of her in a regal posture he was sure was often practiced, a result of her station. The sudden light caused her to flinch, she turned her head away and shut her eyes. Somehow she maintained her noble bearing, but he could see her hands were clenched tightly together, betraying her nerves in spite of her discipline.
He could not help but drink her in with his eyes, as hers adjusted to the light. Her clothes and hair were filthy, but she had clearly done her best to maintain them, somehow, with nothing and in pitch blackness. The sapphires and rubies on her crown, pendant, and belt glittered in the magical radiance. Her gown was the color of the most delicate spring daffodils, pale and creamy despite the soil upon it, and around her trim waist was a vivacious lilac-colored sash. She wore long white gloves– well, the tops of the opera-length gloves were still white, at least– and lilac-colored heeled shoes that must have been very difficult to walk in on this rough floor.
Her hair was just . . . indescribable. The light caught it and coaxed out myriad colors; to merely call it red felt almost blasphemous. Shades of auburn-copper-caramel-gold-ginger . . . it was like coals glowing in a fire. How much more magnificent would it be clean, how many more facets of the flame could he notice in a purer light? It even curled and whorled like embers dancing up from the heat of the hearth.
Combined with the cheerful, yet demurely muted colors of her gown, the very sight of her was uplifting, complemented by the poise with which she held herself despite her undignified circumstances. Her eyes, adjusted somewhat to the glow about him, met his. He found himself mutely taking a step forward to look more deeply into them.
He’d expected her eyes to remind him of precious jewels, jade or emeralds in this case, but they were too nuanced for that. There was nothing cold, hard, or even pure about their beauty; Gwaelin’s eyes were soft and deep, defying his ability to name their color, as her hair had. Juniper, moss, fern . . . things green and growing and full of life, things that coaxed birds into song and nourished the souls of anyone who sought peace. Her eyes sought his and held them, wonder taking the place of anxiety. They must be the mirror of his own eyes.
He had no idea how long they stood there, staring into each other’s eyes. Time no longer had meaning. Beautiful she was, but even more than that, she was grace epitomized, even among the squalor, and he was captivated by it. Suddenly he understood why Alefgard mourned so, without her.
Finally, she smiled, just a little, gentle amusement and shyness sparking in her subtle eyes. “Thou art brave indeed to rescue me, hero. I am Gwaelin, daughter of Lorik,” she said simply, her soft voice taking any abruptness out of the words. “Wilt thou take me to the castle?”
He started, and found himself starting to blush. He had most certainly been staring. Should one even look into the eyes of the king’s daughter? Should he bow? She introduced herself so simply, as if she could be any maid instead of the princess.
A panicked moment of indecision gripped him, but her gaze stayed on his, serene and searching. It steadied him, and he found himself returning her smile, amused at himself. She was so gentle, and yet undeniably strong. He felt himself calm, and knew it was her demeanor that soothed him. He need only be himself.
“Yes,” he said, his deep voice tranquil and sure.
Something in Gwaelin’s dignified bearing cracked. Her fern-green eyes filled with unmistakable tears. She clasped her hands prayerfully in front of her, her face lit up with unbridled joy and relief. It seemed to have finally, suddenly dawned on her that she was safe, that she could go home at last. To his amazement, she threw herself into his arms.
“I’m so happy!” she cried.
He returned her embrace as if it was the most natural thing in the world. His protective instincts flared with a suddenness that might have staggered him had he not been so resolved to be steadfast in her hour of need. How this poor woman had suffered, alone in this wretched cave with nothing and no one, in silence save when that arrogant brute of a dragon taunted someone at the edge of her hearing through all this rock, or perhaps occasionally came to heap abuse on her as well. She had had nothing to do except worry about her people and her country without even the weak glow of a candle to give her comfort.
His arms were strong around her, but cradled her with infinite care, guiding her cheek to his shoulder. He felt her gasp in surprise and stiffen. He waited patiently and without fear, laying his cheek atop her head, and was not at all surprised when the regal woman burst into tears. He held her through the storm, stroking her hair and wishing to be the rock she could safely cling to with a fervor that astonished him. She’d been through so much, and the war wasn’t over yet. If she needed this pittance to begin to cleanse herself of her anguish, it was the least he could do.
After a long time, her sobs quieted and they stood in relative silence, punctuated by the occasional sniffle. She looked up at him, uncertainty written all over her face. This was a dangerous moment, the moment where she could be deeply embarrassed by her breach of decorum, but he was equal to it. He was the echo of her earlier serenity, compassion radiating from his smile, and he was delighted when she gratefully returned it.
She stood up straighter and he reluctantly let her go. She wiped her eyes with her soiled, gloved hand, and he winced, wishing he had a handkerchief. He grasped his ruined cloak in his hands and ripped it, the sound loud in the empty cavern.
Gwaelin looked up, startled by the sound, and saw her disheveled hero smiling sheepishly, holding up a ragged square of his cloak for her to use. She took it gingerly, biting her lip on a smile. At the same time, they began to laugh.
Their laughter bounced off the close walls, and echoed long after they quieted. They smiled at each other as their merriment finally faded again into silence, each feeling as if they had met someone who understood them with an uncanny skill that bordered on miraculous.
She looked at the open portal, smiled at him again, and took an unsteady step toward it. All the times she must have stumbled around this hovel in the dark in these unfit shoes crowded into his head, and this, it turned out, he could not bear. Before he could think about it, the young hero had swept her off her feet and into his arms.
“Let me,” he implored softly, looking down into her wide, startled eyes.
She swallowed and an unmistakable blush bloomed across her cheeks. He felt an immense, mysterious sense of pride to know he could make this regal, elegant woman blush, and a heady pleasure when she smiled shyly, averted her eyes, and nodded her agreement.
He bowed his head and murmured the magic spell of escape. Her eyes widened again in awe at his skill, though this he did not see, and suddenly the cave was empty. Outside at the entrance to the now vacant prison, the dead dragon lay. There was restless movement in the passages beyond as the denizens of the dark contemplated their approach to the feast.
Picture Credits: Here’s some official art, perhaps from a manga? http://www.avalanche-hq.com/eyecandy/dq/dq_group.jpg
And here’s another piece from the talented ProfessorMegaman over on Deviant Art: https://www.deviantart.com/professormegaman/art/Laura-and-Her-Savior-122230224