They came for her while the sun was still high. Proctor Vesle, Constable Varlet, and the town elders. She saw them coming long before they arrived and her sobbing mother begged her to run, but it wasn't in her nature. Someone would have to die today, and she couldn't allow this mantle to fall onto one of her friends.
She made tea and had it poured and ready by the time the men arrived. She could smell the sweat, see the stains in their somber attire, and sense their fear and hate. It no longer bothered her. She knew very well she was signing her own death warrant when she refused the Proctor's advances at the Yule celebration.
"Your time has come, Gwyneth, daughter of Chubo," he intoned.
His pig eyes glittered in malevolent triumph. Proctor Vesle was not a man accustomed to being denied, and he was taking obvious pleasure in assuring himself that no man would have her, since he could not. Gwyneth almost laughed at him, but she merely watched impassively as Elder Teeg threw a thin white shift at her.
Gwyneth's poor mother broke down into tears and her father turned his head.
"Get on with it," the Proctor ordered.
With a single, fluid motion Gwyneth whipped her father's blade from the table and closed on Vesle. Before he, or any of the others could move, the cold steel was pressed to his throat.
"I am condemned and I accept my fate," she said quietly, "but I'll not be dishonored in such fashion. Leave me, and I will join you outside when I am ready."
"You will not..." he began, but she drew the blade slightly, sending a rivulet of blood down his neck.
"No. It is you who will not. I go to my death a virgin. I go because I refused you. If you really believe in the gods you so often quote, then try me. I am betting Mighty Haggor will not reach down and stay my hand. Nor will Sulika make your skin as armor."
She could smell his fear and she knew, in that moment, she would triumph over his kind. Even if her triumph was only to save herself from their lecherous inspection. They filed out, then, heads down and faces averted. They were not ashamed to be sending her to her death but ashamed that a girl had cowed them. It was a triumph almost worth her life. They would never speak of it once she was gone, but in the long watches of the night, they would know she had won. And when their turn came to die, she hoped fervently the gods, whatever gods really existed, would take a terrible vengeance on them for their callousness and cowardice.
"Run, my daughter. I beg of you," her father said once the door was closed.
"Nay. You have long stood as they do, my father, and watched as other young girls were sacrificed. I cannot have the life of some other innocent on my head. Do not mourn me. I go to a far less gruesome fate than serving one of those vile men as brood mare, concubine and slave."
"You know not what you say child. It is life and life is preferable to death," her mother sniffled.
"Nay. It is life in death. I prefer death. No man shall beat me. Nor possess himself of my body. Nor grind my soul down with work and childbearing until I am little better than a beast."
"Always you were different, my beloved," she said through her tears.
She nodded, then stripped naked and donned the thin shift, leaving her clothes as her final gift to help her family. When she stepped outside, she could hear her mother wailing and her father trying to comfort her. He was a good man and cared for his wife, but a weak man, who could never find it in himself to stand up against the weight of the villager's beliefs.
She followed the men down into the valley and up the slope of the sacrificial mountain. Half way up, the path opened into a small glade and there, three huge stakes were driven into the ground. She suffered herself to be bound to one. The men then departed in haste, glancing fearfully upwards again and again as the sun was now setting.
Alone with her thoughts, Gwyneth waited for her doom. It was swift in coming. The wind picked up, the trees bent, the sky darkened and the dragon descended.
Gwyneth watched with a combination of curiosity and fear. It was a magnificent beast. Fully three times as large as the village church, it towered above her. Its wings were small and reminded her of gossamer, so incongruously delicate were they. Its scales were silver, flecked with black, and blazed like a suit or armor in the waning sunlight. Claws as big as the watch rock and as sharp as a peregrine's beak decorated each massive paw. A long, seemingly prehensile tail swished back and forth as it approached her. The ground shook with each step and despite her resolve to die with dignity, she felt tears well in her eyes and fear clutch at her breast.
It lowered its face to her, the maw filled with many sharp teeth. She could smell rotting meat on its breath and see pieces of decaying flesh between many of them. Yet its eyes caught and held her attention, dimming the horror with wonder. They were dark orbs, that seemed to dance with inner fires and occasionally, a halo of lightening surrounded them. It reminded her of a storm, venting its fury on this very peak.
"You seem unimpressed," it hissed, amusement dancing in those strange eyes.
Gwyneth was stunned. She had of course heard all the legends of talking dragons and such, but had always discounted them as fantasy. Dragons were wild beasts, and acted as other beasts, following their instincts.
"You can talk?"
"Of course, I can talk. Think you I am no different than an ox or dog?" it replied testily.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude," she said automatically.
"Hmm, well, you are forgiven. I'm used to screaming and imploring the gods. I must admit, I'm a little taken aback by actual conversation."
"No more than I," Gwyneth said, smiling shyly.
"Are you not afraid?" the dragon asked archly.
"No. I came here to die. I was a little frightened when you arrived, but after looking into your eyes, I cannot seem to find any fear, as strange as that may sound."
The dragon chuckled. At least, she was pretty sure it was mirth. It was hard to tell when any expression exposed those murderous rows of teeth.
"Few have looked into my eyes and not been paralyzed with fear. You are a strange human. Tell me, why do you not fear me? I could crush you, with ease," it said, brutally squashing a full grown tree, as if to prove its point.
"I do not know. I should fear you, but I feel only curiosity. Perhaps I am simply reconciled to my fate," she said with as close to a shrug as she could muster within her bounds.
"None may know their fate, child. And none is ever reconciled to it. Even the fated calf bleats and cries before the axe falls."
"Perhaps, but the calf looks forward to warm days and sweet fields and thus has something to lose. I have only hell to look forward to, should I be spared. Death is preferable."
The dragon snorted derisively.
"Death is death. There is nothing in it. Neither joy nor pleasure nor hope. Only a fool greets death with anything other than bared fangs."
"Perhaps it is so for dragons."
"For all the peoples of the world, little one. Including you humans, who live so fast and die so quickly. Even more so for you, because you have but a little time in the best of circumstances."
"If life eternal were an option, I would not take it. Not even if youth were granted with it."
"You speak like a fool. Yet I don't think you are a fool. Tell me, what do you see that makes you talk of death as a nun does her secret lover?"
As it spoke, the dragon dropped onto its belly and curled up, keeping its face to her.
"I see pain. Dishonor. Abuse. A life bereft of good. I see only the loss of freedom. The loss of any chance for love. Servitude. Servitude to a man who will treat me as he wills, be it kind or cruel, it maters little. It's no life, but simply existence."
"Then you observe with a veil over your sight child. The world is full of sound and beauty. There is good everywhere and pleasure to be had around every turn in the road. The life of a slave is terrible, but only one who is fit to be a slave can ever truly become a slave. You choose the path you follow. No man chooses it for you."
"Perhaps that is true for dragons. It is not so for women."
"Is it not?" the dragon said in amusement, "did you not make the choice that brought you here?"
"I..." Gwyneth began, but she paused and cocked her head.
"You did. And the truth of my words should become more apparent to you as you ruminate upon them."
"Dragons are notorious liars," she observed.
"Oh? I thought we couldn't talk?"
"Just because I didn't believe you could talk doesn't mean I haven't listened to the legends."
"And did you take pleasure in their telling?"
"Yes. I loved to hear stories of dragons and maidens and knights when I was young," she said quietly.
"You are still young. Among my kind the freshest hatchling is ancient compared to you. And your dark world apparently has some pleasures in it."
"Bah. The pleasures are still there. It's only the jaundiced eye that refuses to see them."
"What would a dragon know of my life?" she asked defiantly.
"More than you might expect, Gwyneth, daughter of Chubo," the dragon said, laughing gently at her stunned expression.
"How do you know my name?"
"Does it matter?"
The dragon chuckled again and relaxed. She found herself fascinated at the way its huge muscles could be seen beneath the shimmering skin and how it could project its mood so easily, when its expression was so inscrutable.
"What do you see, when you look at me?" it asked, apparently avoiding the question.
"I see...a dragon?" she replied uncertainly.
"When I look at you, I see much more than your physical mien. I see a proud heart, one that refuses to be chained. And a dark mind, buried in dismal fears and doubt. If I look hard, I can see the child who loved to listen to stories of dragons, when she was too small to understand the world in which she lived wasn't always a happy place. I see a hopeless love, for a darkly sultry girl, who is now an old woman before her time, beaten down by childbirth and a drunken husband and a thousand other cares. And I see a growing horror of that fate, closing the shutters and blotting out the light."
"You see all that?" she asked in wonder, not even bothering to deny the vision's clarity.
"All that and more. Dragons do not see as humans do. We do not dread time, for it is to us no enemy."
"So you can see a person's past?"
"If I try. I can also see the person you are, rather than the façade you present. I can see your hopes, your dreams, your wildest fantasy. I can see your fears, and that which disgusts you. I can see, for example, Proctor Vesle, holding onto his engorged...manhood and demanding you satiate his lust. And I can see how you recoil, even now, at the memory of it."
"You can see everything?" she asked in a small voice.
The dragon smiled its toothy grin.
"No, though I can see much. I can see, for example, that you fear I know the full story of why you rejected his advances and not the simple answer you tell to yourself."
"Can we get this over with?" she asked, blushing furiously.
"No. I'm rather enjoying this. It's been ages since I actually spoke to a human."
"Can we at least change the subject then?"
"If you wish," the dragon said with another toothy grin.
Gwyneth shivered as a breeze began to blow. The sun had faded, and twilight was upon them. Stars were slowly becoming visible, as the last of the sunset had faded.
"Are you cold?" the dragon asked.
"A little. Funny isn't it? I never expected to see another sunset when I rose this morning, but when given the opportunity, I didn't even notice it."
"Do you regret it?"
"Yes. I do."
The dragon rose heavily, and she paled when it reached out with a massive paw towards her. She closed her eyes and held her breath, but all she felt was a sudden tightening of her bonds. She heard a ripping noise and they loosened. When she opened her eyes, she was standing there, the ropes now in tatters at her feet.
The dragon reached out, seized her gently in one massive paw and spread its wings. For all their delicacy, they raised a huge cloud of dust and trees bent almost double as they began to beat and slowly raised the creature's bulk from the ground. Gwyneth had the strange sensation of falling and kept her eyes tightly closed as the wind whipped past her.
After a scant few moments, the Dragon settled into a glide, the wings no longer beating and the wind fell away. Much later, it settled to the ground and gently placed Gwyneth on her feet. It was only then she opened her eyes. It seemed impossible, but it was daylight again. She was standing in a mountain meadow, and the sun was sinking below the horizon.
"How?" she stammered.
"Does it matter? I've granted your wish. You may enjoy the sunset you regretted missing."
Gwyneth didn't question the seeming miracle. She just demurely arranged her skirt as she sat and for the next hour, the two of them watched the sun set in utter silence. She was lost in her thoughts, reliving happy memories, and she never even noticed when the dragon laid down. Nor did she notice when she leaned back against it. Only when the sun was gone and the chill of the night crept back into her limbs, did she leave the happy world of memory.
"You're cold again." the creature observed.
"Yes. This shift provides little warmth."
"I don't know. I suspect it provides observers with quite a bit," the dragon said with that toothy smile she had come to recognize.
"If I didn't know I was to be your dinner, I might get the idea you were trying to flatter me," she said.
"Does one preclude the other?"
"I suppose not. You're a strange creature. You've chastised me for seeing only darkness, given me pause to consider what I was so afraid of, and given me a second chance to enjoy my last sunset. I should be afraid of you, but you have treated me far kinder than any human I have ever known."
"Nay. It seems so only because your expectations were so grim. Your father has been much kinder. So too your mother. And your friends. You have been surrounded by kindness. You simply could not see it for the despair."
Examining her fond memories, Gwyneth realized the dragon was right. She felt a pang of regret for her final words to her father and mother. For not saying thank you or telling them that she loved them.
"I've sent that expression before. It's the same one all humans get when they are offered a view unfettered by time. It is followed immediately by a crushing knowledge that time has passed them by. And then by regrets. But I tell you little one, time is not the enemy. Nor has it passed you by. Nor will it. Only your earthbound perceptions cast it so."
"What are you saying? That I can go back and change the past?"
"Nay. Even for a dragon that is impossible, but you need not die with your regrets."
Gwyneth looked curiously at her captor as he extended his paw and grasped her again. This time she did not close her eyes as they took to wing. All was dark below them, but as he gained altitude, the sun rose in the far west. She saw it briefly, but the dragon turned back east and soon darkness returned to the land.
Gwyneth felt a rush of excitement, the chill of the wind, the warmth of the dragon's paw and the hardness of its scales. More than anything she felt alive. She experienced the wonder of flying and at some point in that flight, realized she was really feeling what it meant to be alive. With that realization, her determination to die withered. Yet she knew a sadness too, for she realized she would not be able to cheat death. Her captor was too powerful to be denied.
Eventually, they began to descend. She wasn't sure how she knew, but the lazy spirals in which the dragon was gliding and its now still wings made her sure of that feeling. When it touched down, she saw lights in a house and only belatedly realized it was her own home.
The dragon spoke then, so quietly she could barely hear.
"Time, little one, still runs. Go now, to your parents and make amends. Carry not the regrets of having failed to say to them what you feel. I ask only that you promise to return to me, as quickly as you may."
"I...I don't want to die anymore, but I will return."
The dragon eyed her closely, then nodded and placed her on the ground.
Gwyneth made her way to the front door and bit her lip. She waited moment longer and then walked in.
Both of her parents looked up from their meager meal. The color drained from her father's face and her mother burst out into tears.
"Be gone specter. Do not torment us more than we already are," her father shouted.
"Chubo! Do not send her ghost away!"
"Peace. I am neither specter nor ghost, but your own daughter," Gwyneth said.
"How can this be?" he father asked suspiciously, while edging towards his sword.
"I have been...granted a short reprieve. The dragon waits without. My time is so short and I must make the most of it. I'm sorry father, for my harsh words at our parting. Ever have you been good to me and ever have I refused to recognize it. I must go, but I would part, knowing that you know how much I love you and how much you have meant to me."
Chubo seemed taken aback. As she watched, a tear formed in his dark eyes and his face slackened. Gwyneth felt his pain so keenly she rushed forward without thinking and threw her arms around his stout shoulders. He hugged her fiercely, but tenderly, as he had when she was a child. Both cried and her mother soon joined them.
"I love you too, mother. So many times you were there for me and so often you understood me better than anyone."
Her mother nodded and held her tightly as she sobbed. In time, all three mastered their emotions and an awkward silence descended.
"I must go," she said ruefully.
"Don't. I will defend you while you escape," he father said.
"You have not seen he dragon, father. It's not that I do not believe in you, but it has powers beyond mortal ken. And I promised him I would return. I cannot refuse now, he has given me this time to set things right. Be well, remember me with a smile. I left here with darkest winter upon my breast, but even at this late hour, the spring has come."
She hugged them both again and walked out, with no regrets. Her sorrow was only that she would not see them again and even that was joyful, as it was so much better than the stony indifference she had felt when she departed the last time.
Outside, the dragon waited patiently.
"Thank you, my friend. I am ready now," she said as she allowed herself to be picked up.
They flew again, this time to the north, and when the exhilaration of flying gave way to exhaustion, she slept.
Upon waking she found herself in a huge cavern, with the riches of kingdoms piled all around. Gold, jewels, objects of art, fantastically decorated weapons and suits of armor. It was simply incredible to think this much wealth existed, much less existed in one place. The dragon was lazing on a huge pile of gold coins and watching her with some amusement.
"Where are we?"
"My home, such as it is."
"What do you do with all this? I couldn't spend it in a life time."
"Your life time is but a blink of an eye to me, child. In answer, I don't do anything with it. I just...have it. It's in our nature to surround ourselves with precious metals and gem stones. I could no more cease to collect these baubles than you could cease to breathe."
"So you just have them? I mean, you go out and loot and destroy, just to have them sit around you?"
"Yes. Although my looting and destroying days are long in my past. Now I collect them where I find them, from battlefields and shipwrecks, sacked towns and abandoned mines. My blood has cooled considerably."