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by Teresa Patterson

There was a dragon terrorizing the barony of Bryngallad. The best archers and fighters in all the barony had tried to kill it, and had failed to even drive it away. The foul creature was burning crops, destroying villages, slaughtering livestock, and wreaking general havoc upon the land. Faced with the failure of his own forces, Baron Alemandus was forced to admit that defeating a rampaging dragon was well beyond the scope of his abilities. He finally sent a messenger to the king for help.

When the messenger returned, heralding the arrival of the requested aid, His Excellency Baron Alemandus of Cambrea rushed to don his best finery. Arrayed in his favorite gold brocade surcoat, with an ornate jeweled coronet adorning his salt-and-pepper mane, Alemandus entered the tapestry-covered expanse of the audience hall prepared to greet at least a full company of knights and royal archers. Instead he found himself facing a young, slightly travel-worn knight and his squire.

"You are to be my dragonslayer?" Alemandus could not keep the contempt and disappointment from his voice as he surveyed the slender dark-haired knight. "But you are only one knight."

"Forgive me, Your Excellency, but it was my understanding that there was only one dragon." The young man answered smoothly, the hint of a smile on his lips. He was used to people underestimating him. "His majesty would not have sent me if he did not believe me well able to serve you."

"You honestly believe you can take on this dragon when all the baronial forces have failed?"

The knight bowed low before the baron, moving with a muscular grace which belied his bedraggled appearance. "I am Sir Cedric de Chavoney, Knight of the Order of the Ruby, holder of the King's Gauntlet, from his Majesty's personal guard." Cedric kissed the baronial ruby signet ring, determined to maintain some semblance of proper courtesy, even if his superior did not. "And I do not truly know whether I can defeat your dragon, as I have never had cause to fight one. But I do know that I am sworn to serve you as I would my liege . . ." his dark eyes raised to meet the Baron's, pinning him with their intensity, "or die in the attempt."

Alemandus' eyebrows rose at the mention of the Order of the Ruby, the most prestigious of the knightly disciplines. King Inman had indeed sent him one of his best, even if the handsome man before him looked far too young to have garnered such honors. '"Well, my boy, for all our sakes I hope it does not come to that. In the name of the king I accept your service." The knight bowed his acknowledgement, then stood, futilely brushing at the trail dust that stained his deerskin jerkin. "But for now, let me show you the legendary hospitality of Bryngallad. My steward will show you to your chambers. Then you will join us at the feast table."

Bathed and dressed in a clean tunic and green velvet surcoat, Cedric looked and felt much more the image of a proper courtly knight. He found the supper of beef, dark bread, and cheese to be quite filling, though not as elaborate as most baronial feasts. Still, the ale was superb and hinted at a quality well beyond that of the simple repast. And the baron, in his glittering finery, was just as pompous and arrogant as Inman had warned.

"I must beg your pardon for the meager quality of our feast these days." The baron spoke in between healthy draughts of ale from his jeweled flagon. "The dragon has left us little fresh meat and even less grain. I do not wish to think on the state of affairs if our larders had not been well stocked before this rampage."

"How many people have you lost?"

"No deaths so far. Providence has at least smiled on us in that regard. But far too many have been sorely wounded trying to bring that foul creature down. Whole villages have been burned by its scorching breath. It is only a matter of time before our luck runs out and the deaths begin. As it is, the winter will go very hard on the entire barony with so little food and shelter. Unless, of course, you can destroy the beast."

Cedric nodded absently, a frown creasing his brow. This creature was not the only dragon in the kingdom, to be sure, but he had never before heard of a dragon actually attacking a village, much less making war on an entire barony. Even the studies he had done before undertaking this quest had indicated that most dragons preferred to keep to themselves unless harassed or attacked. Some scholars even believed them to be quite intelligent. Cedric had doubts about that, but he wondered what would make a dragon go berserk.

"Forgive me, Excellency, but do you have any idea what might have caused the dragon to begin these attacks?"

"Cause? What cause does it need? It's a dragon, by God!" Alemandus slammed his goblet on the table for emphasis, drawing the immediate attention of the other lords and ladies of his house.

The baroness, silent till now, glared at her husband. "Mandus, how do you expect this brave young man to succeed if you do not warn him about the dark sorcery?"

"Sorcery?" Cedric's goblet froze midway to his face. His dark eyes locked with the baron's grey ones. "There was no mention of sorcery in your message."

Dropping his eyes, Alemandus seemed to visibly deflate. The matronly baroness patted him on the arm reassuringly, a silvered curl escaping from her veil. "He still finds it difficult to talk about." she began. "Years ago an evil mage ensorcelled our daughter. We have reason to think that that same mage may be responsible for the attacks from the dragon "

". . . But we have no proof." the baron finished, recovering his composure.

Cedric's stomach knotted at the thought of facing magic, especially that powerful enough to coerce a dragon. He had given his word of honor to his king, but what good was a strong sword arm against magic? "What else did you neglect to put in your message, your Excellency?" He made the title a frozen curse.

Any answer was drowned by the blare of mighty war horns.

"It's the dragon!" the baroness cried, her rosy face gone pale.

The steward and several men at arms burst into the hall. "Excellency, it's in the courtyard!"

"It's after the cattle! We put them there to keep them safe. To arms! At once!" The baron raced out of the hall with Cedric close on his heels. Cedric's squire met them in the entry hall carrying bow, sword, and shield.

"Shall I get your armor?"

"No, Jason. There is no time." Cedric hurriedly strung his bow. If the dragon was here, perhaps he could dispose of it quickly. Alemandus cautiously opened the large carved wooden doors.

In the courtyard all was bedlam. Terrorized cattle charged blindly through the confined space, trampling anything that got in their way. At first Cedric could see little but dust and frightened animals. A man, racing to escape the melee, stumbled and fell just short of the doorway. Cedric grabbed him and pulled him to safety, barely missing being trampled himself. He choked on the thick dust as he helped the man to his feet.

"Open the gates! Let the cattle out before they trample us all!" Someone understood enough to start the huge portcullis moving upward.

The war horns sounded again, but were drowned out by an unearthly wail. A shadow loomed over the yard, followed by a plummeting shape as something large swooped from the sky. Cedric watched in amazement as the creature flashed earthward. It struck a bellowing bull with force enough to snap its spine. With this prize clutched beneath its claws, the creature turned to face them, screaming in triumph, its cry echoing off the stone walls of the yard. Cedric's breathing stilled as it unfurled gleaming wings, arching a graceful neck to glare with seeming insolence at the helpless armsmen. It was definitely a dragon. And it was magnificent!

Iridescent blue-green scales glittered over rippling muscles as it tore into the dead bull. Deep green eyes glowed like jewels on a wide-browed face tapering to an elegant, deadly jaw. Cedric imagined that those jewel eyes were gazing directly at him, pulling him into their depths.

"We can't get at it past the cattle. Use your bow!" Alemandus was shaking him excitedly. "You'll never get a better shot than this!" The blood smell had crazed the remaining cattle. They battered themselves against the stone struggling to force their way through the gate.

Belatedly, Cedric remembered the war bow he held.

Shaking himself free of the dragon's spell he quickly chose a barbed broadhead from his quiver and nocked it. As he drew the powerful bow and sighted, he felt a moments regret for the destruction of such a creature. But he was a knight sworn to his duty. He released the arrow.

The shaft streaked true towards its mark, but the dragon was no longer there. Puzzled, Cedric nocked another arrow, aiming more carefully. Again the arrow sped towards its mark, but the dragon was faster still; moving like quicksilver it avoided the deadly barbs. Cedric tried a third and fourth arrow, with the same result.

An eerie, almost human cry issued from the dragon as it tossed its head, negligently snapping at the last of the cattle as they struggled to leave the yard. Cedric imagined it was laughing at him.

"Jason, my sword."

"But your armor!" The red-haired youth gestured at Cedric's courtly dress in dismay.

"There's no time." Cedric took his sword and shield and joined the ranks of mail-clad armsmen converging on the feasting dragon. "On my signal. We'll all go in together. It's our only chance!" The armsmen nodded and spread out, careful to stay clear of dragon teeth and claws. Cedric waited until it lowered its head to feed, then signaled.

Moving as one, the armsmen converged on the dragon, only to be met by fiery breath and slashing claws. Cedric deflected a gout of flame with his shield. Cringing under the intense heat and the acrid smell of his own singed hair, he struggled to get close enough to use his sword. Sunlight sparkled off something fastened around the dragon's neck, drawing his notice. A jewel? A collar? What would a dragon need with such a thing?

The man to his right struck at the creature's face in an attempt to blind it. One sinuous movement of the elegant head easily deflected the blow. Snapping jaws and a second motion disarmed the man and sent him sprawling. Cedric used the momentary distraction as an opening. He drove forward with his sword, his attack focused on the jewel suspended around its vulnerable throat.

Before he could strike, something slammed into him. There was only a blur of shining blue-scaled tail; then he was flying through the air to slam head first into the stonework like a rag doll.

He awakened in his room to see the baroness and several lovely young ladies hovering over him. For a moment, he thought that such a pleasant sight might even be worth a few bruises. Then he made an attempt to sit and was forced to revise that idea. Sore ribs, a dizzy, throbbing head, and bruised muscles all clamored for equal attention. Even his stomach threatened to revolt from the abuse. With a groan he gave up and collapsed back onto the bed, closing his eyes against the jig his room seemed determined to perform. His hands groped towards his aching skull to find it swathed in bandages. Somewhere beneath those bandages a blacksmith with a very large hammer was trying to reshape his brain.

"Perhaps next time, my lord, you will not be so hasty to rush into battle without your armor."

With effort, Cedric opened his eyes to find the source of the familiar voice. He finally spotted his squire at the foot of the bed, a smug look on his face and a lady on each arm.

"And what are you so cheerful about?"

"I'm just glad you didn't get your fool head completely removed."

"The way it's throbbing I'm not completely certain it wasn't removed." The ladies laughed, pleased that their handsome charge appeared to be recovering at least his sense of humor.

"You know, if you had worn your armor you probably would not be hurt at all."

"Are you determined to rub it in? Perhaps I should be your squire, 'Sir Jason.' " The young man grinned mischievously back at him.

"Besides, look what lovely nursemaids I would have missed." Another set of delighted giggles issued from the ladies. He forced a brilliant smile for their benefit as his squire escorted the lot of them to the outer chamber.

The fake smile dissolved into a sigh of relief as Jason returned. He enjoyed the ladies as much as the next man, but only in small doses. "Speaking of casualties—how many?"

"Six dead and twelve wounded."

"All by the dragon?"

"No. All the dead were trampled by the livestock. Yours was the worst of the wounds actually inflicted by the dragon. No one else tried to bounce their skull off the castle wall. Most of the other injuries were bruises, broken bones, and a few burns."

Cedric's brow creased in a thoughtful frown. "And yet the creature could have killed us as easily as it broke that bull."

"All jests aside, my lord, you very nearly were killed. The chirurgeon is quite concerned with the hole in your head, although I did assure him that it was the most impervious part of your body, and has said that you will require at least a fortnight's rest."

"Devil take the chirurgeon! Jason, find my clothes, I must see the baron."

At Jason's call, the ladies scurried back into the room to restrain their wounded knight. Between the pounding in his head and the insistence of the ladies, Cedric grudgingly allowed himself to be convinced to remain abed while the baron was summoned. Carefully propped up with soft furs, he felt very foolish giving audience to a noble of higher rank. Fortunately the baron, perching himself on a bedside stool, did not seem to mind.

"So, my lad, how are you feeling?"

Cedric winced. The difference in years between himself and Alemandus was far fewer than the baron seemed to think. "Quite well, Excellency, for someone who has lost a fight with a dragon."

"Well, it was to be expected. After all, you are only one man." The baron's condescending smile grated. "Perhaps now the king will send more knights. At least your quest has ended."

"I . . ." Cedric tried to control the edge in his voice, "have barely begun my quest. But you could begin by telling me about the sorcery you almost forgot to mention. Perhaps then I will know why a wild dragon wears a jeweled pendant about its neck? And why that same dragon easily kills livestock, but does little damage to its human attackers? If there is magic involved, I need to know everything."

"All I want is someone to put an end to that dragon."

"And if you had told me everything from the beginning I might have had a chance to do that. I have no more patience for games."

The baron arose with a glare, unused to such insubordinate treatment. Heaving an exasperated sigh, Cedric tried again. "I have sworn to my king on my honor to serve you. If you want me to have any hope of ending this siege I must understand what has happened here. Who is this wizard and why do you believe him to be consorting with dragons?"

The glare faded as Alemandus sank onto his seat, removing his coronet with a sigh. "One man cannot end it. It has been going on for far too long. But you have earned the right to hear the tale." He stared into the baronial leaves of his coronet, seeming to seek inspiration.

"Years ago the evil mage, Gwydion, came to live in the barony. He gave the appearance of a peaceful scholar by day, but by night he secretly despoiled our lands and livestock. I believe he went so far as to consort with demons. He used his black powers to ensorcel my only daughter, then abduct her for his own foul purpose. Over the years my men and I made many attempts to rescue her. We even managed to corner Gwydion once. But his young apprentice intervened, allowing the mage to escape. He took refuge in the depths of the Veldtar forest. We eventually killed the boy and left his body in the forest, hoping his death would deter his master. Instead Gwydion swore vengeance, conjuring a dragon to drive us from his forest. I am certain it is his worm that now assails us."

"Then you know where this dark wizard hides?"

Slowly the baron's eyes rose to meet Cedric's. "We believe he lives in the Drachen valley, but we cannot be certain. All who attempt to enter the area are driven back by the beasts he has corrupted. And the dragon itself guards the valley."

Cedric paused to consider. He knew he could not defeat the dragon in single combat. But the mage was the key to the dragon. If he could defeat this Gwydion, the dragon would have no master. The thought of going up against dark magic terrified him. It was small consolation that magicians were notoriously poor fighters once bereft of their magic.

"I must go to the heart of the matter. Tomorrow I will ride to the Drachen valley."

Alemandus nodded agreement, a spark of hope alight in his face.

It was actually two days before Cedric finally managed to convince the chirurgeon to free him from his bed. But on the third day, head still bandaged, he, his squire, and ten armsmen set out at dawn for the Drachen valley.

It took half a day's easy ride over rolling countryside to reach the edge of the Veldtar forest, the largest single forest in the kingdom. Another halfday was spent wending through its imposing depths. Tall trees stood to either side and shaded the trail while scenting the air with the fragrant aroma of sap and warm leaves. Just before nightfall they reached the grassy clearing that marked the edge of the Drachen valley. Cedric dismounted and studied the area, deciding it would be a good location for a base camp. The forest bordered them on two sides. To the west there was a stone pillar rising above their camp like a castle tower that had been roughly carved by giants. It was part of a ridge that made up the west wall of the valley, giving one side the appearance of a canyon. Just east of the pillar, at the edge of the clearing, the grass sloped gently downward towards the valley floor. A dim trail followed the slope downward, disappearing in the foliage draped shadows below.

Gazing across the width of the thickly forested valley, Cedric wondered how he would find one wizard amid all that greenery. Especially one that probably did not want to be found. As he eased his aching body onto the grass near his squire's cook fire, he glumly considered that facing the dragon may have been the easier task.

A commotion in the camp caught his attention. Several of the men were yelling and pointing at the sky. Others were hastily stringing bows. He looked up to see a great winged shape silhouetted in the red glow of the sunset. The dragon lightly touched down on the stonework tower portion of the ridge, furling its wings and emitting a lonely cry that sent chills up his spine. The bowmen fired. It sidestepped the arrows as easily as it had avoided his days before.

"Wait! Don't waste your arrows!" The firing ceased. Everyone was still, waiting for the dragon to make a counterattack. But the beast held its place. It seemed content just to watch. Gradually everyone returned to their tasks, sending occasional nervous glances towards the shadow lurking above them, illuminated by the failing moon. Cedric positioned his sleeping furs carefully, determined to keep an eye on their visitor.

He awakened the next morning, partially healed ribs sore from a night on the hard ground, to discover the dragon had flown with the sunrise. He was angry with himself for falling asleep. He was even more angry when the men refused to enter the cursed valley until and unless he found the wizard's lair. They were not afraid of a military confrontation, even with a mage, but they wanted no part of the enchantments this valley was said to possess.

So it was that Cedric and Jason rode down the trail into the shaded maw of the valley unescorted. Cedric's temper did not improve as the winding trail separated into a tangle of lesser paths, bending and weaving amid a gradually thickening mass of trees and brush. Thick foliage draped the trees, occasionally obscuring the trail completely. The whole thing was a maze. The pungent odor of rotting vegetation permeated the air, making it thick and hard to breathe. Creatures skittered through the vegetation just out of sight, causing the horses to become nervous and difficult. Things seemed to be watching them from the shadows. Even Jason gave up his usual light banter to concentrate on calming his mount. Cedric tightened his leg and rein to steady his own horse, but continued to press on. Until there was a direct attack he would not allow fear to rule him. Perhaps fear was the mages chief weapon. That and a seemingly endless maze of looping trails.

Eventually, approaching sunset and the threat of full darkness forced a return to camp. Tired and disgusted, neither man oven considered spending the night in the valley.

At sunset the dragon returned to its perch.

The next day Cedric suggested they split up in the hopes of covering more ground. "This valley must have a river or creek at its base. I plan to find that watercourse and follow it. If the mage is in that valley, his home is probably somewhere near the water. You take the path near the ridge and try to work your way around the western edge."

"Do you really think well find this mage?"

"Probably not, but if he thinks we are serious and that we do not intend to leave, he may well find us!"

Jason looked grim at this less than reassuring plan, checking his sword and dagger before obediently spurring his big bay towards the ridge. Cedric smiled at his squire's courage, then mounted his grey gelding.

On re-entering the valley, Cedric concentrated on following only paths that sloped towards the valley floor. He refused to think about the increasing darkness as the canopy thickened overhead, shutting out the sun, or the shapes that rustled and flitted to either side. Several times he thought he heard the sound of rushing water, only to have the trail veer sharply away from what he was sure was the stream he was seeking.

Finally, in frustration, he decided to make his own path. The water sounded so close he was sure he could reach it. On Cedric's command the powerful war-horse plunged into the lush undergrowth, snorting his displeasure as thorns and brambles cut at his hide. Vines caught at them, slowing their progress. Cedric ducked low on the gelding's neck to protect his face from sharp branches. He could hear the gelding's breathing become labored as he fought against the unyielding foliage, feel his growing fear. But the knight continued to encourage the struggling animal forward. The stream he heard should be just ahead.

Something burst from the brush in front of them. A flash of moving fur and shadow. His startled horse shied and tried to bolt, only to become tangled in the vines that entwined his legs up to the knee. Off-balance, the horse went down, taking his rider with him. Something—a tree?—struck Cedric's head as they fell. Dazed, he could barely force himself to roll clear of the panicked animal's thrashing hooves.

Once relieved of his rider's weight, the horse managed to kick itself free of the entrapping vines and lurch to its feet. Cedric had one glimpse of his mount's terrified white-rimmed eyes before it bolted into the forest.

For a moment, he could only lie amid the brambles and dirt, gasping for breath as he waited for his head to clear. Perhaps the chirurgeon had been right, he should have stayed abed another week or two, maybe a month. Or perhaps he should never have become a knight at all. If only he hadn't given his word, he could walk away from all this right now. With a groan he sat up, wincing as his ribs complained. Of course, he knew that was a foolish wish. It was that dedication to honor that gave his life meaning. Without it he was nothing. Better to endure a horrible death than live without honor. But for now, better to find that blasted stream. He needed cool water to rinse his aching head. Then he would find his horse and continue this hopeless quest. Climbing slowly to his feet, careful not to jar his head, he stumbled towards the sound of gurgling water.

A few yards later, as he forced himself through the tenacious grip of vines and branches, another sound caught his attention. A faint ringing melody trembled on the air. At first he thought it an illusion, created by his reinjured head, but as he followed the sound, it grew stronger. Someone was singing! It was a woman's voice. Sweet and clear as silvered harp strings, the music soared in gentle counterpoint to the water's burbling voice. The language was unknown to Cedric, but strangely compelling. Entranced, he drew nearer until he found himself on the edge of a small glade. Careful to stay hidden, he peeked through the leaves.

Within the glade a raven-haired girl sat singing to herself as she rinsed her hair in the waterfall. Dressed in a clinging gown of green velvet pulled low about milk white shoulders, the girl arched her back to hold her long dark hair under the falling water. Cedric almost forgot the pounding in his head as he watched and listened to her haunting melody. He had never seen such a creature. Surely she put all the ladies at court to shame. Still singing, the girl stood to twist the water from her hair. An ornate golden girdle and belt pouch clung to her hips as she moved, accentuating the graceful lines of her figure. She reseated herself on a nearby stone, still singing, and began to comb her thick tresses, revealing her delicately sculpted face and brow to her hidden admirer. The crimson hue of her full lips accentuated her pale skin and dark eyes. Cedric thought he might be content to spend all eternity watching her.

At the end of her song she laid aside her comb and turned to gaze directly at the knight's hiding place. He knew he had made no movement or sound, yet she looked right at him. Laughing, she rose, a movement like flowing water, and glided towards him. His breath caught in his throat as he met her eyes, deep pools of sky reflecting wisdom well beyond her apparent years. Had he stumbled upon one of the fairy folk? Or perhaps he was still unconscious from his wound.

She smiled, a dazzling sight that challenged the sun, and held out her hand to him. "You need not hide from me, good sir. Come forth and name yourself."

Embarrassed, Cedric stepped from his hiding place, stammering an introduction as he tried to brush the leaves and dirt from his jerkin. She calmly took his hand, her skin the softness of flower petals, and led him to a sitting stone by the brook. Dizziness assailed him as he gazed at her.

"So, you are the dragonslayer. I have heard of you." Her voice was musical, even when speaking. "I am allowed so few visitors. You must stay a while and talk with me."

He meant to ask her name, and where she came from. And what she might know of the mage. But when he looked at her, everything save her beauty evaporated from his mind.

"I have never heard a song like that. It sounds like something the fairy folk would sing."

She laughed delightedly and pirouetted before him. "Do you think so? I would love to meet one of the fairy folk." She enlarged her pirouette into a dance and began to accompany it with a song that hinted of lofty heights and mystic places.

As she whirled about him, Cedric marveled at her movements, all quicksilver and sunlight. A blur seemed to envelope her dancing form as his temples joined the rhythm. Her song and the waterfall's gurgle echoed louder and louder in his ears. She smiled and beckoned him to join her. He stood, reaching out to her through the growing haze. . . .

And abruptly collapsed.

With a cry the girl was beside him, touching his brow in a featherlight caress. She gently lifted his head—and gasped as her hand came away covered in blood.

"You are injured!"

"I must have reopened the wound in the fall." Somehow it didn't matter so long as she held him.

"How did this happen?"

"I lost a fight with a dragon."

"The dragon did this?" She looked stricken, as if the identity of the perpetrator was more horrible than the wound.

"I'll be fine." he lied, unwilling to upset her. "Just let me rest for a while."

"No, you need a healer." She seemed to consider for a moment. "I will take you to Gwydion. He will help you. He must."

As consciousness dimmed, he marvelled at the irony of the situation. He was going to meet the dread mage after all. He sincerely hoped the man did not want to fight. He was not quite up to it just now.

Somehow the girl managed to catch his horse and help him to mount. Cedric was only vaguely aware of the process. "I don't even know your name to thank you," he gasped, slumping against the grey's powerful neck.

She smiled back at him and began to lead the gelding down an all but invisible trail. "They call me Aurora."

At first he struggled to remain awake enough to watch their route, knowing that this might be his only chance to learn the way to the mage's secret lair, but all the twisting and turning began to blend together in his pain-fogged brain. If only there was a way to mark the trail! His unfocused eyes settled on a blur of color. It was his brightly fletched arrows. He could leave a trail of feathers!

Carefully he peeled the feathers from the arrows, trying not to alert Aurora, or jar his head, and dropped them at every turning of the path. Fortunately his guide never noticed.

He was almost out of feathers when the trail widened into a clearing. At first, there appeared to be nothing there. All he could see was a large expanse of grass, broken only by the stream running through it and the stone ridge that made up the valley wall. As they crossed the gently flowing stream and approached the wall, the stone of the wall seemed to change. Cedric thought it a trick of his delirium as its features began to blur and shift, revealing the shadows of what seemed to be towers and windows. As they drew nearer, the shadows gradually solidified into the crenelated walls and towers of a small castle. It was built into the ridge wall, fashioned of matching stone. So clever was the masonry work that the castle was indistinguishable from the cliff at a distance.

After slowly dismounting and releasing the horse into the care of stableboys, Aurora helped Cedric climb the wide stone stairs to the massive, carved wooden doors that made up the entrance to the keep. He noticed that the wood was painted stone grey to match the surrounding construct. A portly woman in peasant clothes met them at the door. She seemed quite agitated to see Cedric, as she escorted them to a modestly furnished antechamber, then disappeared, leaving Aurora to help Cedric recline on a low padded couch near the center of the room. The cloying odor of incense filled the candle-lit chamber. Intricately carved wooden furniture was scattered throughout its length, while two large tapestries hung on opposite sides of a great carved thronelike chair. A large iron brazier stood to one side of the chair and a table cluttered with parchment and candles perched beside it.

Cedric was trying to force his eyes to focus on the candles when a very dignified older man strode into the room. Silver haired, with a close-trimmed beard and sharp chiseled features, the immaculately robed man projected tightly controlled power. He signaled the girl to attend him, ignoring the young knight. Anger seemed evident in his brisk gestures and sharp tones as he spoke to Aurora. Cedric tried to hear what they were saying, but was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate. He could only catch brief snatches of their conversation. ". . . know who he is, yet you brought him here?"

"He is badly hurt. He needs your help. You were a healer once."

"That was a long time ago. Before. . . ."

"But you must help him. It was the dragon that injured him!"

Something in her desperate tone of voice must have touched the mage, for he fell silent for a long moment. Then he touched her cheek and sighed heavily, as one who is preparing to reshoulder a great burden. "Very well. I will see what can be done. Ask Giselle to bring my potions."

"Thank you!"

"And then see to your duties. I do not have to remind you that you are still bound to serve me."

"Never, my lord."

Cedric tried to thank her as she glided past him, but found his voice would no longer responded to his will. His body felt very cold and far away. He watched with disengaged interest as a statuesque woman with straw colored hair bound up at the nape of her neck entered the room. She was dressed in riding leathers and carried an array of odd-sized bowls and flagons and a hand-sized jewellike stone. The mage carefully took the containers from her and set them on the table, casually brushing the parchment aside, then moved with her to hover over Cedric.

"She brought him in just in time, eh, Giselle."

"It will take the last of your medicants to heal this one. Are you certain you have the strength?" The woman's voice was clear and strong.

"There is still some power in me, and the potions will help."

"But are you certain it is wise?"

He did not answer her, but moved to light the brazier. Then he picked up the faceted stone from the table and began a low, musical chant, holding the stone out before him. After a moment, the woman joined him, adding her lilting contralto to his baritone as she placed her hands over the stone in his. As Cedric watched, they slowly pulled their hands apart, leaving blue fire glowing in the air between them. Cedric felt his old fear of magic surface, urging escape. But his body would not respond. The pair moved so that each stood at one end of the couch, and lowered their hands until the blue fire surrounded Cedric. He wanted to scream, but no sound came. The blue fire brought with it a tingling sensation that gradually stole his fear away, then lulled him into comforting darkness.

He awoke to find the straw-haired woman smiling at him from beside the couch. He touched his head experimentally and discovered there were no bandages. His expression must have shown his amazement for Giselle laughed, the movement crinkling the skin around her soft hazel eyes.

"Gwydion is a marvelous healer when he chooses to be. You are very lucky."

"I would thank him."

"I am right here." Cedric had missed him, sitting so quietly in his great wooden chair, the table beside him littered with empty containers and a burned and blackened stone. The young knight scrambled to sit up and face the mage. "Not too fast, boy. Even an eldritch healing takes time and rest."

The woman smiled and left the room, gently touching Gwydion's shoulder as she passed him.

"So, you are the knight who would be a dragonslayer?" The mage's slate-blue eyes bore into him.

"I have sworn to stop the dragon's rampage. I am prepared to do whatever it takes."

"Even kill me, no doubt, since I control the dragon. Despite the fact that I have just saved your life."

"If I must." Cedric did not like the direction this discussion was taking. "My liege has charged me to put an end to the destruction."

Gwydion glared at him. "So there will be more bloodshed in the name of false honor."

"I am a knight, not a fool. Battle is only a last resort. The people of the barony want only to be left in peace. As one reasonable man to another, I beg you to rein in your pet."

"The people of the barony deserve what they get. I have no peace. There can be none for them."

"Then you are an evil man."

"I am evil?" Gwydion erupted from his chair, clenched knuckles white with fury as he advanced on Cedric, who stood unsteadily to meet him. "And what are those who destroyed and defiled the sacred groves? What of their evil? Do you even know the meaning of the word? Those same fools who sent you to destroy me are responsible for blighting earth magic that has stood since the time of man. Is that not evil? They have killed people for no mason other than their own fear and lack of understanding. They drove me from my home, from my land, forced me to turn outlaw. And when I tried to fight back, they cut down my only son in cold blood!" The mage's hands were shaking. "Can you not understand the honor demanded by love? No price is too high for such a crime. I will not recall my dragon!"

"But you ensorcelled the baron's daughter!"

"Do not presume that which you cannot understand! My war is with the baron and his people, not you. Do not make the mistake of standing between us, or, by the Goddess, I will have your life!"

"Then kill me now, for I am sworn to stop you." Cedric hoped he sounded more convincing then he felt.

"I will not take the life which I have so recently given. You will be escorted back to your own men. If you ever return, however, I will make good on my promise." So saying he whirled and stalked from the room, his robe billowing like storm clouds about him.

Cedric sank back down upon the couch, trying to still his own shaking hands. Military encounters were so much cleaner, somehow. There was no doubt, no time to consider right or wrong, only the swift justice of the blade.

Some little time later Giselle came for him. As they left the keep, Cedric looked for Aurora, but there was no sign of her. Giselle wasted no time mounting her horse and trotting into the forest, forcing Cedric to give up his surreptitious search and follow lest he be left behind.

Evening shadows all but obscured the path so that Cedric would have been completely lost without a guide. At least he no longer felt any malevolence from the surrounding forest. He maintained a companionable silence, half afraid that any conversation might distract the blond woman enough to lose the path. Eventually he sighted the ember glow of the camp's cook fires. Turning to thank his guide, he discovered she was gone.

That night Cedric dreamed of Aurora, while the dragon again watched from the ridge.

The next day he rode into the valley alone. Somehow he managed to locate the waterfall glade. Perhaps it was easier because he no longer feared the forest. He tethered his horse to a stout tree and entered the glade, afraid it would be empty. But she was there, waiting, seated on a rock. Her beauty was even more radiant than before.

"I was afraid you might not come after what Gwydion said to you."

"Dear lady, I could not stay away."

She stood to greet him, hesitantly, as if unsure of how to proceed. He looked into the depths of her blue-green eyes . . . and was lost. Before he was quite aware of moving he gathered her into his arms, savoring her sweet suppleness against him, and kissed her. She did not resist, but looked at him in wonder as he released her. Tentatively, she reached out to touch his lips, as if amazed at their texture.

"I'm sorry. I should not have presumed so, my lady." Embarrassed, he stepped back. How could he assume that she would share his feelings?

"No, my brave knight, there is no need for forgiveness." She lithely closed the space he had placed between them and initiated an embrace of her own. He joyously returned it, breathing in the honeysuckle scent of her hair as he swept her off her feet to lay her gently on the grass.

They spent the day together, sometimes in each others arms—she seemed to find each embrace wondrous and new—sometimes talking or playing in the waterfall. She wanted to know everything about him. What it was like being a knight. All about court, all about his life. Cedric delighted in telling her. Never had he had such an attentive audience. Only once when he tried to turn the subject back to her, did she withdraw. But as soon as the topic returned to other subjects, she was her joyous self again.

Even looking at her, touching her, he could not quite believe she was real. He wanted to memorize each nuance of expression and movement. At last he understood why the court minstrels went to such lengths to sing the praises of love. Everything he had known before was but a pale imitation of this moment.

All too soon the shadows began to lengthen. Aurora suddenly pulled away from him. "It grows late, I must go."

"But you're coming with me, back to camp."

"I can't go with you. I'm sorry."

Cedric could not believe he had heard correctly. "What are you saying? Have I done something wrong?"

"Oh no, beloved knight, but my place is here. I am bound here."

"Is it Gwydion? Does he have some kind of spell on you?"

She avoided meeting his eyes. "You would not understand." Just then a distant horn sounded, a long, low, mournful sound echoing across the valley.

"Oh no! I must go. Now!"

"But why?"

"He calls. They know I am gone. He must not find me with you. He will kill you if he finds you here." She turned to leave, but he grabbed her arm and spun her back to face him.

"I will protect you from him. Do you not love me? Do you not trust me?"

A look of profound sadness covered her face. "Oh, dearest one, I do love you, more than you can know. And I do trust you to protect me, so far as you are able. But you do not understand. I must never see you again, I am bound to him!" She leaned forward, kissed him passionately, then turned to flee into the darkening wood. He tried to follow, but soon lost her in the shadows. As he gave up and began his lonely return to camp, he noticed a brightly colored arrow feather lying on the path. Perhaps there was still hope.

"So do you think she is the baron's daughter?" Jason asked that night as Cedric dispatched a man to ride for the baron.

"I do not know for certain. She avoided the subject completely. Whoever she is, the sorcery that binds her is very powerful."

Jason's eyes widened. "It must be if even love could not break it."

Cedric looked shocked. He had told his squire nothing of the day's events.

"It's all over your face. You've fallen for her! The knight who could not be moved by any of the pretty faces at court has fallen for a mystery woman!" The red-haired youth could not keep the edge of glee from his voice.

"She is unlike any woman I have ever known. And she is in trouble. I must find a way to rescue her."

"And defeat the dragon."

"And defeat the dragon. But Gwydion is the key to both; either way I will have to face him." He glanced over at the stone pillar. The dragon was not there. "Tomorrow we will attack in force With luck, and a fleet horse, the baron will be here in time to see our success."

Dawn found the armsmen clad in mail and riding single file into the valley. Though still leery of the dark magic they believed infested the area, they followed Cedric because he had been to the wizard's lair and returned. Their idle chatter faded away to silence in the thickening shadow of the wood.

Cedric led the way directly to the glade, hoping that she might be there. But the glade was empty. He led them through it, trying to hide his disappointment. The horses' many sharp hooves tore the sod, defacing the soft grass where he had loved. Guiding them to the trail of arrow feathers that marked the way, he prayed it was not an omen. Not even Jason had been told of the threat the mage had made to him.

After an uneventful trek they reached the clearing. Cedric heard the men gasp and saw his squire cross himself as the castle "appeared" before them. Guiding his horse across the stream, Cedric saw a familiar form running towards them from the castle steps. "Aurora!" He spurred his horse towards her, vaulting from the saddle to take her in his arms.

"You must leave here at once, Cedric." Worry lines creased her smooth brow.

"Because of Gwydion's threat?" He gently smoothed the frown from her face. "I am not afraid."

"You should be! He intends to see you die. Please, beloved, for my sake, leave these woods."

"Only if you will come with me."

"I cannot! Do not ask that which I cannot give!" The anguish in her voice tore at him.

"Then I must free you so that you can!" He signaled Jason. "Take her to safety." Remounting his horse he rode up to the silent castle.

"You cannot free me! You do not understand!" She wrenched free of Jason's hold and ran to place herself between Cedric and the castle steps.

At that moment the great doors opened to reveal Gwydion, cloaked in crackling blue fire. "Stand aside, girl." His voice reverberated with authority. "I warned this knight of his fate and he has come seeking it." Sparks flashed in his hands. Several armsmen drew their bows at the sight.

"No! It is my place. I will deal with him!" Standing tall, the girl faced Cedric, her voice carefully controlled. "I begged you to leave in the name of love, now I beg you in the name of honor. Leave this place, or I will not be responsible for your fate."

"It is because of honor that I cannot leave. I am a knight. My sworn quest can only end with his death," he pointed at Gwydion, "or the death of the dragon."

"Then by my honor, I am sworn to stop you." There were tears in her eyes as she pulled a large pendant from her belt pouch and put it on.

"Do your duty, then!" Gwydion called to the girl as he advanced on the young knight. "Or I will end this myself."

"Step aside, Aurora." Cedric glared at the mage beyond, sword raised to signal the attack.

"NOOOoo!" Grasping the pendant, Aurora threw back her head and screamed in anguish. A strange green glow enveloped her, emanating from the pendant. Reining back his startled mount, Cedric looked on in amazement as Aurora's body melted and flowed, coalescing into the form of a great dragon. Her human cry ended in an inhuman scream.

Cedric's horse tried to bolt as the dragon spread wings and launched herself skyward. He quickly dismounted and released the terrified animal, to stand gaping as the great dragon disappeared into the clouds above. For a moment, no one moved save to scan the empty sky.

"My lord! Behind you!"

Cedric spun around to see the great dragon streaking towards him, claws outstretched. He could see fire flaring from her nostrils as she drew near. Quickly he threw up his shield, remembering this creature had broken a full-grown bull.

She struck the shield with claws extended, gouging through the metal and knocking Cedric off his feet with the force of the blow. He rolled and brought his shield up as she came after him, spitting fire. Could this creature really be Aurora? She dove for him. He rolled away at the last moment, coming up beneath her belly.

She screamed in frustration and reared up on her hind legs, leaving her vulnerable underside open to Cedric's sword.

And he could not strike. Dragon or girl, he could not kill the one he had loved. He lowered his sword, diving behind his shield as a burst of fire singed him. Claws raked at him once more as she lifted back into the sky.

Crawling out from behind his ruined shield, Cedric wondered that he still lived. Jason ran to his side to help him to his feet, both men scanning the sky for her next attack. The swordsmen and archers were drawn up in formation, anxiously watching the sky, bows at the ready.

A blood-chilling scream heralded her approach as she broke through the clouds to plummet towards them. Cedric saw the archers sight and draw as she approached.

"No! Hold! Do not shoot!"

It was too late. Cedric saw the arrows fly towards their mark. Time slowed for him as he breathlessly waited for the dragon to make that amazing quicksilver evasion he had seen so often

But she never altered her course. The arrows struck true. They slammed into gleaming flesh, eliciting a scream of agony from the wounded dragon. For a moment, she hovered gently on the wind. Then the great wings sagged and fell slack, leaving the gleaming creature to tumble limply to earth. She landed at the steps of the castle she had protected.

Cedric raced towards the fallen dragon, ignoring the gasps of the men as the dragons body slowly melted into that of a young woman. He gently scooped her into his arms, trying not to jar the bloody shafts protruding from her flesh. She looked up at him with pain-filled eyes, and smiled.

"Why?" he gasped through his tears.

"I had no choice." she gasped. "I had to fight to preserve my honor, but I chose death to preserve my love."

"What honor? I don't understand!" He felt a presence beside him and turned to see the mage standing over him, bereft of blue flame, looking very old as he gazed at the dying girl.

"Just as you were honor bound by your king, she was bound to me to serve myself and my people at any cost. You see, she was a lonely dragon who wanted nothing more than to be human. And I was a bitter man who had just lost his son and wanted nothing more than revenge. When I used my waning power to grant her wish and swear her to my service, I never dreamed she would be so human as to become trapped between love und honor. You see, dragons take honor very seriously. She has chosen death rather than betray her lover, or her liege." Gwydion choked on the last word.

"Then yon must save her. She kept her word! She faced death to protect you!"

"I cannot save her. I no longer have the power!"

"But you're a healer—you healed me! Do not betray her like this!"

"Do you think I would let her die if there were any choice?" The mage's voice cracked. "I have already seen one child sacrificed in my name! Do you think I want to discover a daughter only to lose her?" He turned his back to hide his tears.

The straw-haired woman, now wearing a flowing gown of blue, stepped from the castle and ran to the mage's side. Taking his hand she turned to Cedric. "He used the last of his focusing gems and potions to heal you! Even that was a near thing Yet your wound was not so grievous as this. With the destruction of the sacred groves the old magic is waning, and even Gwydion no longer has the strength to compensate for its loss."

A sudden bellow of war horns broke the moment as the baron and his men burst from the trees to thunder into the clearing. The baron rode directly to the steps, dismounting as he shouted excitedly. "They said you shot the dragon! They saw it fall. . . ."

He stopped when he saw the girl, pierced with arrows, in Cedric's arms.

"Yes, Father, the dragon is dying. Your sworn man carried out his duty." An icy feminine voice snapped from the top of the steps.

Alemandus turned in shock to the blond woman glaring at him. "Giselle!"

"She dies by your command, just as my son died, two years ago."

"Your son?" His face went white as he stumbled back against his horse. "My God! My grandson!"

"Giselle is your daughter?" Cedric did not try to cover his own shock. "Just how long has this feud been going on?"

"Seventeen years ago I ran away to marry Gwydion." Giselle answered, "Our son was born the following year."

"I didn't know!" Alemandus pleaded.

"You didn't want to know! Nothing mattered but your politics and your stupid war. You could not believe that I would choose to be with Gwydion rather than be the baron's daughter. Now there is another death upon your head!"

"Perhaps not!" Gwydion approached the fallen girl to kneel at her side. "There may yet be a way to save her." He touched the small stone still hanging from its thong on Aurora's neck. "But it will require the aid of all assembled." Standing, he looked directly at Alemandus. "It will require that you join with me in a healing circle."

"You must be mad! I cannot join you in your heathen rituals! Find someone else to share in your evil!"

"Then you would condemn this girl to death, just as you did your own grandson?" His words lashed the baron.

"But you have said this girl is the product of sorcery. I will not risk my soul to save a creature that has none!"

"Enough!" Carefully handing Aurora to Jason, Cedric stood, sparks in his eyes. "This was has already gone on far too long. While you bicker, a girl is dying! Your hatred has already cost you a child that was blood kin and heir to both of you. Must it also take the life of one whose only crime was that she would not be foresworn? Do you value honor so little that you will let her sacrifice so much? You have a choice. Let this hatred continue to drag you to ruin, or put aside your grievances and regain some of the honor you have lost."

Alemandus looked at the girl, lying so still on the steps, and thought of the grandson he never knew. Raising his eyes he met the unflinching gaze of his daughter. He would win her, or lose her forever with his choice.

"Very well. Let no man say that Alemandus is a coward. I will join you, as will my men."

Gwydion inclined his head in solemn acknowledgement, and led the way to the sanctuary deep within his castle.

Hours later the great hall looked like a war zone. Exhausted men sat or sprawled throughout its length, drained from the healing they had aided. Drudges moved among them offering food or mead. Gwydion slumped in his great wooden chair, forehead resting on one hand. He had not moved since they had left the sanctuary.

Cedric himself sat wearily on the rush-covered floor, too tired to even find an empty bench, his back braced against the stone wall. For all he could tell, the ritual had been a success. Of course it would be a matter of time before anything was certain. Gratefully he took a cup of mead from the drudge who offered it. He noticed that the mage took nothing. But the baron was drinking his third glass.

Finishing his mead, the baron stood and approached Gwydion's chair. The mage slowly raised his head to regard him warily.

"I cannot forgive you for who and what you are, and I will never understand you . . ." the baron began.

Gwydion's eyes narrowed.

". . . but even I must give honor where it is due. What you wrought this eve," he gestured towards the sanctuary doors, "was well done! I have gained honor in the sharing of it." Alemandus held out his hand.

For a moment, Gwydion just stared at him. Then, slowly, he raised his own hand to clasp the Baron's.

"I would also like," the Baron continued, "to propose a treaty that I think will be mutually agreeable. I would grant you the Veldtar forest, in fief for me, of course, to protect and preserve. With the understanding that the people of the barony be allowed to pass through it unmolested. In return, you will cease your war upon the barony. You will also confine any sorcery and magical solicitations to the forest, and avoid troubling my people with your heathen practices."

A flash of anger lit Gwydion's eyes at the last, but he quelled it. "This will not end what is between us, but for now, it is enough."

The moment was interrupted as Giselle entered the room. "She is awake."

Cedric spilled his mead in his haste to get to the sanctuary. He entered to see Aurora, eyes closed, lying on a pile of sleeping furs in the center of the a great circle, surrounded by guttering candles. He knelt by her side, frightened by how fragile she looked. Her eyes opened. As she saw him she smiled and reached out for him. Suddenly nothing else mattered.

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