"Shield, just remember to stay away from me. As long as the dragon's focused on me you should be fine to get to the princess."
"So you keep saying." I mumbled. But my brother was already opening the castle gates, and was either ignoring me or too far ahead to hear me.
This was absurd. Charging into this castle with barely any plan, only my brother's sword and my shield against a dragon. No, not even. My brother's sword against a dragon, while I ran through the castle finding the princess who may or may not be in the highest tower and getting her outside before Sword was killed by the dragon.
This was dangerous, even for my brother's planning. While we had always gotten out alive thanks to him and his plans, that was hardly going to stop me from worrying today. And this was different. The only way I could get out with the princess was if Sword kept the dragon busy until we were out or if he killed it. Which meant Sword's life was in my hands. This dragon had avoided death from who knew how many knights and even a few wizards.
My brother was strong, but was he strong enough to kill the dragon alone? Was he strong enough to keep it distracted?
I followed Sword through the gates of the castle. He was already across the delapitated courtyard at the front door. He waited impatiently for me to catch up.
Sword's life hung in the balance of how fast I could find the princess and get her out. The sooner I did, the less time Sword was fighting alone.
I reached out a hand to touch Sword's arm, how the hell did he expect this to work out? But before I could reach him he had started walking again. I followed, unsure if I should force this suicide mission to a halt or trust my brother to get us through.
The hall we were in was dusty and tapestries hung in rags on either side. Halfway down the hall, there was a gaping hole in the wall to the right. The stones all across the hall floor, up the wall, and even on the ceiling were scorched and blackened. The rubble from the wall was stone that had been charred entirely black.
This quest was impossible. I ran forward to grab Sword and my foot tangled in something on the floor. I was thrown to the floor, the shield strapped to my back clanging loudly on the stone.
"What the hell, Shield-" My brother never finished his whispered berating. His voice was interrupted by the loudest, most peircing roar I had ever heard.
I felt all the blood drain from my face. The sound went on and on. It sent my skin prickling and I broke out into a sweat, I screwed up my eyes and plugged my ears but the sound pressed in on me.
The roar died away and I slowly looked up at my brother. His face was pale but he gritted his teeth and stormed towards me. He grabbed me under my arms and pulled me to my feet. I tried to help but found I could barely move. In my head, I could still hear the dragon roaring.
"We're gonna die." I whispered, my brother struggling to keep me standing. I laughed somewhat hysterically. "We're gonna die!"
"Just shut up." He snapped. He let go of me abruptly and reached down, pulling the ragged curtain from around my foot--what I had tripped on in the first place. I almost fell over again as he yanked the curtain free but managed not to.
I rubbed my face hard, trying to get control of myself. I felt like a child. Was I such a coward after all? What next, I would start crying like some newborn?
"Pull yourself together." Sword whispered angrily. "The stairs are down this hall, get to the tower first that's where she's most likely to be."
The dragon was moving in the next room, I could hear its heavy body scraping over stones and its claws scratching the floor. I could hear it breathing, and I could feel the ground shaking as it moved.
My eyes slid from the hole in the wall back to my brother.
"We have to do this. Just stay clear of the dragon and get the princess out. That’s all that matters."
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I wanted to refuse. I wanted to drag Sword from this castle and get us out of here. But my brother's eyes were burning and I knew he would do this with or wthout me.
So I had to help him. I had to do this.
Sword clapped me on the shoulder. He stared hard at my face for another second before he turned and crept up to the opening.
I stood frozen. He was going to die. He was going in that room to face a dragon. He was going to die.
He looked through the opening. I watched him take a breath. He held up a hand, he hesitated, and waved it frantically towards the other end of the hall.
I willed my legs to move. I willed my body to cooperate. Sword needed me to do this and do this fast. Was this the last time I would see my brother alive? I shook my head and pulled my hands into fists. I took off running.
At the same time, I watched Sword duck through the hole. I heard him shouting a challenge before the dragon roared loud enough to overpower his voice.
I covered my ears and kept running.
The stairs were easy to find. I ran up them three at a time. On every floor I just kept turning up the next set of stairs until there were no more stairs in sight. The top floor. Now I just needed to find the stairs to the tower. Several floors below me, I heard the dragon roaring. This time it was more like a scream. I begged silently that it was dead.
I was out of beath from the stairs, but I moved as quickly as I could opening doors trying to find the entrance to the tower. I breathed a sigh of relief, it was one of the first doors I tried.
I hurried up the twisting stairs. The ceiling was lower than I expected and I had to keep my head down. I could hear nothing from downstairs, but that told me just as much.
The door at the top of the stairs was barred from the outside. I lifted the wood plank from the fastens and dropped it to the side. I reached for the door handle but stopped. Instead, I knocked hard.
"Princess! My brother and I have come from the South Kingdom of the Light. My brother is Sword Calcule, crown prince of the kingdom and I am Shield Calcule, second son of the kingdom. We have come to bring you safely back to the Windfall Kingdom."
I heard scufflings behind the door but no words. I wondered if honor said I should knock again and wait for a response. Thinking of my brother fighting below, however, I slowly pressed the door open instead.
"I'm coming in." I said before opening the door all the way.
I left the door open behind me as I entered the room. It was small, smaller than a princess's quarters should have been. But it was lavishly furnished with rich fabrics and tapestries, all in good condition contrary to the rest of the castle.
This was clearly where the princess should have been, and I knew I had heard the sounds of someone moving before I opened the door, but the princess was nowhere to be seen on a cursory look of the place.
There was no time for hide and seek. If I had to guess, Sword had already been fighing for about seven minutes. Unless he had killed the dragon, he would be getting exhausted by now.
And I knew if he had killed the dragon he would head towards the tower to meet up with me. Since I could hear no one coming up the stairs, I had to assume he was still fighting.
"Princess, please. I am here to help you. I will not hurt you and I will not let harm come to you. You must follow me, it is dangerous to stay here any longer."
Slowly, a thin hand pushed aside the edge of the window curtain. The princess was revealed in increments. Her brown hair hanging in limp curls. Her pale, peaked face. Skinny arms and torso hidden by a dress that hung from bony shoulders. She looked as if she might have been beautiful if she were less malnourished.
I resisted the itch to urge her to hurry. If she was afraid while I was standing still I could only imagine what would happen if I even moved.
"Will you please follow me?" I said as gently as I could in the situation.
She nodded, barely moving her head.
"Stay close to me, we will need to move quickly." I glanced around the room. "Is there anything here you wish to bring with you?"
She shook her head. I suppose it was only natural not to want anything to remind you of when you were held captive by a dragon.
"Alright, let's hurry."
I turned and led the way down the stairs. I glanced behind me so much I hit my head on the ceiling because I forgot how low it was. She was following, if slowly.
I asked once about her health, but I was given no response. She was looking away from me, as if she had not heard me although I knew I had spoken loud enough. After that, I kept my words to myself.
After the next stair case, I looked back to see her only a quarter of the way down. I felt the floor rumble under my feet and I wiped my sweaty hands on my pants. If the floor was moving, even a little, I realized that meant the Sword had not killed it yet.
I was forced to wait at the bottom of each staircase, waiting for her to catch up. I wanted to run. If I could have done so, I would have picked her up and ran out the castle doors. Then I could leave her outside long enough to go help Sword escape.
If he was still alive.
At the bottom of the last set of stairs, I motioned for her to follow and quickly led the way down the hall. I waited for her, again, when I reached the hole in the wall. When she was closer to me, I motioned for her to wait. Then I carefully peeked around the edge.
For the first time, I saw the dragon. It was smaller than I expected, but it looked no less deadly. Its scales were a poisonous purple, with long black claws. Black horns and knobs jutted out from its head, and spikes curved from its back all the way down to the end of its thick tail. It walked on four legs, although it was currently favoring the back right. There was a slash in that leg, and it dripped purple blood. The blood steamed and hissed where it touched the stone floor. A horrible stench flowed out of the hole. The smell was like metal, blood, smoke, and something I was unable to describe.
I turned back into the hall before the dragon could notice me. I had seen no sign of my brother, and that terrified me even more than the dragon itself.
The princess was shaking next to me. She hugged her arms close to herself. I had to get her out of here.
I leaned close to her. "When I give the signal, run across this opening towards the doors. Go straight down this hall and through the doors. You'll be in a courtyard. Cross that and you'll reach the gates. Leave through those. I'll be behind you, can you do that?"
She looked at me with wide eyes. I knew she would never be able to do this alone. She looked barely able to take her own weight, let alone be able to push open any doors.
But there was no choice. And we had to be fast so I could return for Sword.
I held up my hand the way Sword had for me. I turned back to look through the opening. The dragon was growling deep in its throat, I could feel the sound rumbling in my chest. It was picking through an enormous pile of riches in the far corner. I felt sick to my stomach. Would it be doing this if it felt at all threatened by Sword? I closed my eyes tightly and then opened them again.
The dragon busy, I waved for the princess to run.
She walked as slowly as ever across the opening.
The dragon would hardly stay facing away from the opening for too much longer. My heart was beating fast and I realized I was starting to panic. From the looks of the dragon, it seemed like Sword was dead.
I turned towards the princess fast. Grabbing the princess's wrist with one hand and putting the other on her back, I hurried her along more forcefully and pushed her into a reluctant jog. She made protesting sounds and I hissed for her to be quiet.
I opened the door for her and very nearly threw her out. I could see the gate was open.
"Run." I said ugently. "Run now! My brother and I will come for you, wait by the horses!"
She shook her head but I had no time to wait anymore. Turning fast on my heel, I sprinted for the hole in the wall.
He had to be alive. He had to be.
Kneeling at the opening, I looked in. I wondered if I was going to throw up. From this angle, I could see my brother. He was huddled behind a column that had not yet been turned to rubble.
His face was hidden from me, and I was too far away to see if he was breathing.
The noxious smell I had noticed before, I realized now it was the smell of burned flesh.
I pressed a hand to my mouth, sure I was about to be sick. I realized that while it was impossible to tell if he was alive, I needed to get to him no matter what. I was determined to convince myself he was alive. Even worse than my own doubt, however, was knowing I needed to take his body back to the South Kingdom of the Light if he…was not alive.
I could hear the clink of metal as the dragon continued to drag a claw through its hoard.
I breathed deeply and dropped my hand away from my mouth. I stood but stayed crouched low. I hurried quietly into the room, hoping the sounds the dragon was making would mask my own. I ducked behind the pile of rubble that used to be the nearest column. The dragon was still busy.
I ran as quietly as I could passed another broken column and stopped behind the next that was still standing. I was closer to Sword now, but he was so hunched over himself it was impossible to see if he was even moving to breathe.
My heart was beating so fast I felt like my own blood would strangle me. Sword was only two columns away from me. The next one was half standing, I could hide behind it. Looking around the column I saw the dragon stop rifeling through its hoard. It raised its head and sniffed the air.
I took my chances. I ran as fast as I could to my brother. The dragon roared, nearly deafening me. As I ran, I faltered in my steps when I saw my brother move just a little to look towards the dragon.
Diving to join him behind the column, he almost attacked me. He stopped himself but he stayed tense.
"Get the hell out of here!" he broke off in a coughing fit.
"I'm not letting you die here."
His face was streaked with soot. The second tunic he had been wearing to guard against the cold was crumpled next to him, covered in purple blood and steaming. He looked far past exhausted but I could see no immediate injuries.
My brother was a prodegy. Taking on a dragon for over ten minutes with hardly a mark on him.
The ground shook as the dragon stomped around. I looked and it was coming right towards us. It roared again, and I shouted with the pain in my ears that the sound wrought.
Sword sat up but he could barely do that. His sword clanged to the ground as he struggled.
I watched him and I realized that there was no time. No time for words, no time to help him stand. No time to even unbuckle my shield and slide it onto my arm.
I acted without thinking. It was the most stupid thing I could do, but if it bought Sword enough time to leave that was all that mattered.
Standing up straight, I sprinted. Away from my brother, away from the door. And right in front of the dragon. Its long neck turned and it looked sharply at me. It roared and charged. I was shouting, straining to be heard over it as I screamed for it to focus on me.
The seconds seemed endless. The dragon stopped roaring but mine was not the only voice still shouting. I stumbled to a stop, turning to look back. Back at my brother who had found the strength I had always envied him of. At my brother, who was running towards the dragon with his sword in hand.
Then the dragon swung its head to the level of the floor. Its jaw stretched wide. An eternity passed before the fire came crawling from its mouth. I watched the flames fight through the air, I felt their heat long before they reached me.
In a blistering crash, the flames pummeled into me and threw me across the room.
My back crashed into the wall behind me. I dropped to my knees. The flames were gone. I was shaking so much my eyes found it impossible to focus. I stared at my hands: they were whole, untouched, and unburnt. My clothes showed no sign of even a singed hem. The only pain I felt was from hitting the wall.
The dragon was screeching, worse than ever before. Trembling, I managed to look up. My brother stood next to it, his sword buried deep in its neck. I watched him jerk his weapon free and stagger back as purple blood sprayed.
I looked back at my hands. My undamaged hands. My hands that should have been burned, even blackened by the heat of dragon flame. There was a horrible crawling in the back of my throat. I pitched forward, bracing my hands against the floor as my stomach heaved.
A hand gripped my arm.
"Shield…Shield you fucking idiot!"
I gasped for air and wiped my mouth. My vision was blurry and I realized I had actually let loose tears.
"The princess, Shield. Did you find her?"
"Look at me brother." My head turned jerkily and I looked at his haggard expresion. "You're fine. And no one is going to die. Are you trying to say the princess is outside?"
I managed to nod.
No one was going to die? But I should be dead. I should have died in that attack. Nothing could have saved me. I took on the full power of dragon fire without even a shield in front of me. I had to be dead. I had never realized being dead meant I still felt pain.
Sword was pulling me to my feet, although I had no idea where his strength was coming from. It was impossible that I was alive. Yet, as I took quaking steps out of the castle, it seemed I had to be alive. With barely scratch on me. After facing a dragon with neither weapon nor shield.
I found we had passed through the courtyard. By the horses, the princess stood waiting. My brother left my side and immediatly set to talking to the princess. I tried to listen but my mind focused on staring at my hands again.
Black spots started to fill the corners of my eyes.
My voice was too quiet he was too busy talking with the princess to hear me.
My vision fell completely blind. The ground rushed to meet me.