Day Three

Gerald, without even realizing it, was perched on the edge of his seat as he waited for the man to share his news. An interruption like that was not something that happened very often and likely meant ill tidings.

“Your Majesty, I beg you to forgive my appearance - I have been riding almost non-stop for the last three days,” Michael began with a cringe. “I would never dare appear before you and Your Highness this way but I felt I could not delay any longer than absolutely necessary.”

“The news, my good man,” the king urged. “What has become of my men and their mission?”

“Of course, Sire. It grieves me to say that the mission met with… failure.”

“And my soldiers?” Owen asked, clearly not wanting to hear the answer but having no choice in the matter.

“Lost. Every last soul.”

A hush fell over the Great Hall, all heads were bowed, and several ladies of the court began to openly weep. Gerald sat stunned, the image of those powerful, deadly men riding through the castle gates playing over and over in his head. It was impossible to comprehend that not only had they failed in their duties, but met with death as well.

The king was the first to recover.

“Tell me,” he commanded in a tightly controlled voice. “All of it.”

“We traveled north for twelve days, riding as hard as the horses would allow,” Michael said quietly, his eyes on the floor and every ear in the hall straining to hear his words. “On the morning of the thirteenth day we encountered our first signs of the dragon Blackwing’s presence, in the village of Orchandia. Houses were burned to the ground, there was no livestock to be found. The survivors, what few there were, would only speak to us through their doors. They were too afraid to come outside.”

The king slammed his fist down on the arm of his throne in frustration, causing the messenger and Gerald to jump and his golden crown to tilt to the left. Owen was not the sort of ruler who wanted his people to live in fear of anything, be it man or beast. After taking a few breaths to collect himself, the king adjusted his crown and nodded for Michael to continue.

“Sire I would suggest, if you will forgive me for my boldness, sending a shipment of goods to the survivors. Since they have locked themselves indoors, they are depleting their winter stores. I fear that even hunger will not override their fear, and without assistance from the crown they will starve before Sister Spring returns.”

“Henry, make sure that the villagers are taken care of,” Owen instructed without taking his eyes off of the messenger. “Have them brought here if necessary; we will find room for them.”

“Thank you, Sire,” Michael said with a short bow. Taking a deep breath, he carried on with his tale. “The survivors told us that Blackwing came with the sunrise only two days before our arrival. If we had only left sooner, or rested less, or pushed the horses harder…”

“Do not make matters worse by blaming yourself,” Owen said. “I don’t know that your presence would have made the end result very different at any rate - but I still do not know the details of my soldiers’ fates. Pray, go on.”

“They told us that Blackwing took the livestock first but his great appetite was not satisfied. So he returned less than an hour later and devoured anyone that was caught outside. But still he hungered.” Michael began to tremble with rage and his hands balled into fists at his side. “So he attacked the houses - ripping the roofs off of some, burning others. Only three homes were left untouched, though their occupants will carry scars with them all the way to the Great Dream. They watched their families and friends die in the claws and jaws of that dragon. And then they watched him leave.

“They told us he flew straight as an arrow to the northwest and we set off in pursuit immediately. He had made no attempt to cover his trail; there were… remains of his meal… scattered for a mile or more. We rode until nightfall and camped at the base of Okar Mountain. Foolishly, we lit campfires and huddled around them for warmth. That was how he found us.”

Michael fell silent and tears began to stream down his cheeks. Gerald looked away, unable to witness his pain, and saw that Estelle was crying as well. He felt like his heart was splitting in two, that there was nowhere safe to turn, so he closed his eyes instead.

“I am afraid that I have few details of the actual attack to offer you, Sire,” Michael said, rubbing the back of his head with one hand. “I was asleep, as were half of the soldiers, when it happened. I woke to screams and a ring of fire surrounding us, trapping us. Before I could get to my feet I took a blow to my head and fell into blackness. When I woke it was morning and I was underneath a fallen soldier and… the dragon had shown why the people are calling him by that grim name.”

“What name is this?” Owen demanded.

“Everywhere we traveled while we hunted, all the people of your kingdom knew this beast by the same name: Blackwing The Beheader.”

The king sat perfectly still for several moments while the blood drained from his daughter’s face and Gerald’s stomach performed nauseating acrobatics. The kingdom had experienced multiple dragon related disturbances over the years, but it was almost always a matter of livestock being taken during years in which their usual prey was scarce. Very rarely was a man or woman snatched instead. It was completely unheard of for a dragon to kill without making a meal of his victim.

“This has gone on long enough,” Owen said, rising slowly to his feet. “Too long. Henry?”

“Yes, Sire?”

“How many people has this damned beast killed?”

“The last report I received came in almost a week ago, so the numbers are at least two weeks -”

“How. Many.” Owen turned to face his advisor and there was fire in his green eyes.

“Fifty,” Henry replied, licking his lips. “More with each passing day it seems.”

“And still we have not been able to put a stop to it? Still my people live in fear and wonder what good their king is? This shall not continue!” Owen’s voice was growing louder and louder with each word, until he was shouting and spittle sprayed from his lips. “I will not allow this to continue!”

“Sire, calm down! I beg you: do not act irrationally,” Henry said as the rest of the room watched on, frozen by shock.

“Irrationally?” Henry’s voice had gone down to a whisper and it was all the more chilling for having been preceded by his yelling. “Allowing this dragon to continue massacring my people is irrational. What I am about to decree is the very picture of rationality.”

“Your Majesty, Father Winter will be arriving soon and dragon conflicts are always more rare when snow is on the ground. People remain indoors for warmth and livestock are sheltered. Why not consider your options until Sister Spring is -”

“Write. This. Down.”

Henry blanched, taken aback by his king’s demeanor. After the briefest of pauses he produced a scroll of paper and a quill from an inside pocket of his vest and waited for the proclamation.

“Blackwing The… Beheader,” Owen managed to fill the word with both scorn and rage, “has terrorized my people for too long. No more! In three days’ time I will give a promise, in writing, to any man brave enough to receive it. The danger of my task will be incredible but the rewards even more so.”

“Father…” Estelle was staring at the king, worry and fear intermingling on her face, as though she could see what was to come next. Gerald could only look back and forth between them in confusion, the gears of his brain spinning in place.

“The man who slays this foul creature,” Owen continued as though he hadn’t heard his daughter speak, “will have the gratitude of the entire kingdom.”

“Father, please…”

“The man who delivers to me the head of Blackwing The Beheader shall become the next king of this land…”

“Father, no!”

“… for he will have my daughter Estelle’s hand in marriage.”

Chapter Three

“Father!” Estelle shot to her feet, defiance radiating from every fiber of her being. “You made a sacred promise to my -”

“We will discuss this matter in private,” Owen declared.

“There is nothing to discuss! I refuse to allow you to -”

“That is enough, daughter,” Owen growled and Estelle’s mouth snapped shut. Gerald’s jaw, in turn, dropped open. Not once in his six years as jester had he witnessed an exchange like that between the royals. But he quickly ducked his head to hide his shock as Owen spun around to confront the stunned suitors. Pointing a trembling finger at the men he said, “And you lot! If you wish to prove that you are worthy of my only daughter - not to mention the crown that rests upon my brow - then you will appear before me in three days, sword in hand, ready to slay a dragon.”

With that Owen stormed out of the room, narrowly missing bowling over the herald who only at the last moment recovered enough to step aside. In the startled silence that followed, Estelle ran after him, her gown held tightly in two small fists.

“Father, you cannot do this!” she called after him, but he did not slow his pace as he marched down the narrow hallway, nor did he turn to acknowledge her. “What about your promise?”

Owen slowed to a halt but still did not turn. Estelle came to stand a few feet behind him, breathing hard but slowly recovering from her initial shock. They stood that way for a short eternity before the king found the words he was searching for.

“When I promised your mother - my beloved wife - on her death bed that I would allow you to marry for love, I was certain it would not take long,” he said quietly and began to walk again, Estelle close on his heels. “But the days have become weeks, and the weeks years. I will not die without a man ready to take my place.”

“But you are still many years from the Great Dream,” Estelle said with a shake of her head. Then, softly, “Aren’t you?”

“Of course I am!” Owen stopped and turned to face her, a nearby candle casting dancing shadows across his face. “But when will I have an opportunity like this again? To crown an heir brave and bold and clever enough to defeat a dragon in combat? You will have a husband of great renown, one that will go down in history! The people will respect and love him!”

“But father,” Estelle whispered, tears pooling in the corner of her eyes, “I will not love him.”

“That is no certainty, my dearest daughter. And perhaps, if we are both deeply fortunate, you will grow to love him. That is my most sincere wish, you must know that. I do not want to see you miserable, not even for a second!”

“Then do not do this thing, I beg you!”

“I have no choice,” Owen told her, turning away as a new weight settled on his already heavily burdened shoulders. “I am sorry.”

Estelle stood rooted to the spot as she watched him walk away, tears spilling down her cheeks unnoticed. She heard footsteps behind her but remained as she was.

“Perhaps this is for the best, Your Highness,” Henry said, attempting to sound soothing but failing due to a complete lack of practice. “Your search thus far has proven fruitless and taken its toll on all of us. Perhaps a man willing to slay a dragon for you will prove to win your affections.”

“Or will it just be a brute of a man who is willing to do anything for a chance at the crown?” Estelle countered harshly. “How will I ever know for certain?”

The End

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