The cursed statue had stood in my valley long before even the Druids vanished. It might have crumbled into harmless myth had it not been for the last sacrifice, for all those who came before had walked into death’s lair. I could blame her for everything that happened, but blame is a very human fixation, one they value far too much. Only time will tell how anyone’s story will end, no matter the choices they make. Mine is no different. I did what I could. My role will have little impact on the outcome. Still, the world is on fire and, though it is not my fault, man will blame me. They always blame the dragon.
The casting of lots decided which girl would become an offering for the basilisk, but never before had the name of a Princess been chosen.
The King and Queen, not having the power to stop the ritual sacrifice, grieved her loss alone for the people of the Haven cheered when the crier read their daughter’s name. Most almost certainly suspected, as I had, that Royal’s names were not entered into the lottery.
Princess Aerten—unlike her parents, and all the girls who had been sacrificed before her—had not shed tears, begged for mercy, or screamed in terror over her fate. “You need not bind me with chains. I go gladly, giving my life so another may live,” she said when the Scarlet Knights made to seize her.
Though her words were a dagger to my heart, for I could not imagine a world without her in it, I was there when they took her away—the only one who dared accompany them from the safety of the Haven’s protective stone walls into the forest-without-end.
Aerten rode with only a small saddle covering my back and a plain, single rein bit. Nothing fancy for her, she always said, shooing away the stable lads who thought a Princess’s mount should be fitted with a Royal caparison, and a gold bit decorated with fancy bosses.
Today, the knights had seen to it anything of value was left behind. They had not even allowed her a cloak. Her slippered feet curved against the warmth of my ribs, giving my sides a slow caress.
“You are a fine beast, Taran.” Her hair had come undone. The long glossy tendrils wound through my mane as her voice tickled my ear.
One of the Scarlet Knights laughed,. “Look at ‘er, whispering to tha courser like the horse is going to talk right back!”
“Mayhap she thinks it will sprout wings and fly her over the forest-without-end, to a land far, far away,” the other knight said. “Or, grow a unicorn’s horn to stab the beastie to death before it can devour her!”
Only the Princess knew how close their jests were to my reality, for only she knew my secrets, and even she did not know them all.
Aerten did not answer them, though her fingers tangled tighter in my mane, her weight shifting subtly with the rising of her back and the tightening of her thighs. My Princess—proud to the last.
Listening to the knight’s taunts , thinking ahead to what waited, I had few regrets, though I felt remorse for my parents hurt when they discovered I had stacked the lottery to make up for all the years my name had not been entered.
Taran nickered, as if reading my troubled thoughts.
“Settle. We will be there soon, and all is well in my heart.” I repeated the words like a spell meant to soothe us both, “All is well. All is well.”
The Scarlet Knights picked up our pace. As the sun sank behind the Mystic Mountains, we reached a clearing where tall stones curved around the mouth of a ravine, each one carved with ancient symbols that meant nothing to me. Bones of those who had come before, the remains of the dragon’s yearly feast, littered the forest floor.
In the center of it all stood a huge statue. Rust and moss covered, almost hidden by vines and brambles. Still the shape of some sort of hound could be made out. From its neck hung chains and manacles. How odd, I thought, to find such a thing here, so far from the Haven. Had it been another occasion, I might have asked the knights what they knew of it, but I had other worries this night.
Before the knights could dismount, I slid from Taran’s back. “I would meet the dragon unchained.”
“You will be the beast’s meal either way.” The older of the two knights spoke with a confidence belied by the darting of his gaze to the fast sinking sun.
From within the mountain could be heard a deep rumble. The air was acrid and bitter on my tongue. Tendrils of smoke lapped at my feet and flirted with my skirt.
“We canna leave her thus. She is sure to run,” the other knight said, though he too remained atop his mount.
“Even if I could make it to the Haven before full night falls, I would not be welcome. Running would mean death. Dinner for the wolven.”
“Stand in the circle, by the statue, and I will consider my duty ended. ‘Tis the least we can do, but be quick about it. Night comes.” His gaze darted to the fast darkening, twilight-blue sky.
I saved myself further torment, avoiding Taran’s expressive, equine eyes as I passed his reins to the knight.
Pungent smoke seeped from the fissure in the mountainside. A skull stared blindly up at me from the forest floor. Terror drove me to my knees. Despite my previous intention to go nowhere near the thing, I reached for the statue that had held so many before me as offering for the dragon. Its thorns bit my fingers, sending me to my haunches sucking pinpricks of pain from their tips.
Gloom had overtaken the forest, and creatures crept with skittering claws over dry, fallen leaves in the darkness all around me. I struggled, barely able to resist the urge to run. I knew what terrible things wolven could do. The dragon was a thing of mystery, for no one who ever met it returned to tell any tales. Mayhap a death at it’s whim would not be as dreadful.
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