She is upstairs, in the highest room of the tower. The cliff upon which the tower sits is too steep to scale; the only way up is through the dragon’s caverns. The caverns were strewn with the bones and possessions of previous challengers, but he had been undaunted. He had known that he was skilled enough to triumph, and a final blow with his mighty sword had proven him right.
He climbs the stairs one by one, keeping an eye out for traps, but it appears that the dragon itself was the last line of defence. His steps are not slowed only by caution, but also weariness; his armour hangs heavy, his cuts and bruises announcing themselves more loudly as the adrenalin abates. Slowly, carefully, step by heavy step, he climbs, until he reaches the heavy, ornate door. The giant key he’d taken from the dragon’s neck fits perfectly, although turning it is somewhat of an effort. Using the weight of his own body and armour more than actual strength, he forces the door open.
She looks up from her loom at his approach. She is beautiful, perfect, with rich black hair in intricate braids trailing down her back, woven with jewels and chains of gold. The style is of neither his kingdom nor any neighbouring one, and its uniqueness speaks of her isolation, as does the rich golden lace and thread of her trailing dress, a stiff cloth in the skirt and waist that fades onto lace so fine at the collar that it seems to almost melt into her dark brown flesh. She smiles and stands, brushing her skirt flat as she does so.
“Sir Knight. Are you injured?”
With an effort, he prevents himself from leaning against the doorway. “I am here to rescue you, my lady. Please, come with me. I will protect you.”
She quirks an eyebrow as she looks him up and down. “Not in your present condition, I fear. Allow me to treat the wounds you gained honourably in my defence, at least. And rest.” She was already pulling a box of cloth and bandages from a shelf, so he saw little option but to sit down and start removing his armour.
She begins boiling water in the fireplace as she patches him up. None of the wounds are severe; some bruising, a few bite marks (not as deep as one would expect from a dragon’s monstrous jaws), a cracked bone or two. Nothing that can’t be healed by time and a small amount of attention. He stares at the kettle and wonders where she gets her firewood. He wonders if she has enough food to supply them for the journey home. He wonders how much of the dragon’s hoard they will be able to carry with them.
She brews tea, and watches him carefully as they drink it. He is weary and unguarded. The fight, after all, is over.
“Where are you from, Sir Knight?” she asks.
“Dercalan, to the South,” he answers. She nods, silently. The silence stretches out, and to fill it, he adds, “It is beautiful. The Spring wildflowers will be blooming when we return. You will like them very much.”
“Will I now?” she asks, raising her eyebrow once again. The jewels in her hair clink as she moves forward to pour her rescuer another cup of tea. “And how do you plan to move my possessions down the mountain in so little time?”
He shrugs. “Fear not, my Lady; we can replace the contents of this tower at our destination. But I am sure you would not want such reminders of your captivity. I will buy you grander furniture, finer silks, the finest in the land.”
“We should be able to carry some of these things. I assume you have a horse.”
“The horse will be weighed down with the weight of the dragon’s hoard, my Lady.”
Both eyebrows rise this time. “You plan to replace my belongings using my own treasure?”
“Using the dragon’s treasure, my Lady, which I have just won by slaying the beast and freeing you.”
“Slay the beast, get a prize. I see.” For a moment, concern flits across her face, and she glances at the door. “Where did you get the key?”
“From around the dragon’s neck.”
The concern disappears. She smiles. “Well then. A toast to our future.” She raises the teacup, then sips.
“To our future.” He repeats the action.
“Now rest, Sir Knight. You have done much today.”
He feels sleepy. Very sleepy. He lets his eyes close, just for a moment.
Going downstairs is easier than going up, but even the small amount of armour he still wears is very heavy. She removes it before dragging his body downstairs.
The dragon lying on its back in the caverns, head mostly severed, opens a single eye at her approach. She gives a nod of greeting, and it rolls neatly onto its feet, the wound vanishing.
“It didn’t work out?” it asks.
“He was far too presumptuous.” She wrinkles her nose. “A bully with kind smiles. I could sense it. You’re not supposed to let any and all comers defeat you.” She hands the key to the dragon.
“I didn’t. He passed the trials. The purpose of them was to filter out the people you consider unsuitable, was it not?”
“They’re imperfect, clearly. I will need to revise them.” She chews her lip. “I factored in intelligence, perceptiveness. He clearly had those. I saw him eye the fire and my woodpile. I think he wondered where my selection of teas came from. He wasn’t missing any skills, as such, just…” she shakes her head. “What do you think I should do? How do I fix them? Should I just stop seeing the knights altogether?”
“Is that really a decision somebody else should make for you?” the dragon asks.
“No,” she concedes, “but I value your advice.”
“I didn’t have these troubles,” the dragon says, “because I wanted no knight or prince. But if you know what you want, and your chosen filter isn’t working, you need to use a filter that actually applies to the characteristics that you want. You can always leave the tower yourself. There is that nice Servi trader whose contracts you edit in exchange for your silk, is there not? Perhaps you should meet him in person?”
“No, he’s betrothed,” she replies, shaking her head. “Besides, I have no desire to leave home at this time. There is too much to be done. Setting up trials as a filter works fine, they’re just not selective enough. I need to add another puzzle, another monster, a…” she frowns. Another thing for them to defeat, to kill or take apart, to prove their worth. Another test of skill or strength or intelligence.
No, it’s not that the trials aren’t selective enough, that they need to filter out more people. It is that the trials filter out the desirable traits.
“I don’t want a dragonslayer,” she says quietly.
“What was that?” the dragon asks.
She meets its eyes and grins. “Remove the trials. We don’t need them. Remove the trials, and no matter how brave or strong the knight, stop wearing the key.”
“You’ve decided to refuse all rescuers?”
“No. I’ve decided to refuse all dragonslayers. Any who draw a sword against you for access to this tower, kill them. Any who try to butcher their way through, kill them. Do not threaten a rescuer unless they threaten you first – any who come to you peacefully, who fight with words and ask you to stand down or try to negotiate with you, grant them the key. But nobody else.”
The dragon’s gaze becomes solemn. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes. The only men I will consider taking are those who will try to understand and negotiate before they try to bully and kill.”
“I have been a dragon a long time. Neither I, nor my dragon, nor her dragon, was ever approached by a knight who tried words before steel. The man you seek may not exist.”
“You may be right.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Then I, too, will be a dragon. If I do not have a life to walk into that is better than what I have now, I will keep what I have now.” She smoothes her skirt and checks herself for blood, but she has bandaged his wounds well, and none has leaked onto her clothing. Of course, without a loud, chaotic battle to warn her of an approaching rescuer, she wouldn’t have time to dress up before they got to the tower, so the gold dress would probably not be worn much any more. But that, too, was probably for the best. She can wear it for her wedding. Or she can instead wear gold scales in her own cavern.
But whichever of those things comes to pass, it will be hers.