This is an original work of fiction meant for entertainment purposes only.
BRIDE OF THE DRAGON
The sun was rising over the distant horizon as Sir Gwayne mounted his armored steed once again. He sighed heavily as he settled into his saddle, curing his ill-fitting armor for the eighth time that morning as he reached down to lift his war lance from the tree it lay propped against. He had come far in the past weeks, and the journey had been perilous. Yet for whatever the reason, his squire had waited until the night before to run off.
Well, there was nothing to be done about that now. He could well understand the boy's fears. It was one thing to face rogues, armies, and the like. To face the unholy foe that awaited him this morning was quite another matter. Aye, he mused grimly, the journey had been fraught with peril. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come.
He hefted his long lance into the crook of his right arm, resting its point against the side of his booted foot. At least his cowardly squire had left his weapons with keen edges. He would need them sharp and ready this day, of that he had little doubt. Taking a final glance at the remains of his camp, he spurred his mount forward.
"One way or another," he promised his steed, patting its thick neck with his free hand that held his reins in a relaxed grip. "This quest ends here today."
He fought back the dark visions of just how his quest might end as he left the sparse cover of the thinning forest behind. Ahead now were only rolling meadows that led to the foothills beneath the aptly named Gray Hills. There lay his quest's end. He had been tracking his fearsome foe for more than five months, but only the past few weeks had finally given him a direction that promised an end to his long search. Regrettably, his direction had been set by four other brave knights that had preceded him. Not one of them had ever returned from this area. That thought sobered him, darkening his usual jovial mood as he studied the mountains ahead.
Ordinarily, he would have never ventured this close to the to hills where certain death awaited. Not that he was a coward, but no man rushed needlessly to an untimely end. It was, after all, common knowledge that dragons infested these hills. Those infernal worms of Satan had all but set up a kingdom of their own in the barren peaks ahead.
He shuddered, crossing himself as he looked around the wide, open meadows. Here, out on the open plain, he was completely at the mercy of those terrible beasts. He could only hope that the rumors he had heard from the peasants were true. They said the unholy creatures often slept late into the day, preferring the warmth of the afternoon sun before they roused themselves to murder and pillage. Being a cool, autumn morning, he hoped the chill in the air was enough the keep the beasts slumbering long enough for him to reach the foothills undetected.
It was not the rumor of dragons, or even that one particular beast he had finally tracked down which brought him here, though. Nay, it was the kidnapped princess of the blood that he sought. He tracked her only by tracking the vile beast that had stolen the unfortunate girl from her father's castle. Her plight was what drew him on, and now that he had tracked the vile brute to its very lair, he was ready to make his rescue attempt. Either he would succeed this day, or he would join his fallen brothers in death. His code would not allow him any other option.
He patted his horse's thick neck once more as they began the climb up the slopes he knew led to the cavern he had scouted the previous night after a harrying gallop across the open plains. He did not know if he spoke to his mount to reassure the anima, or himself when he murmured, "Soon now. Soon it will be over."
Even as he crested the first hillock, leaving the meadows behind, he felt icy fingers trace his spin. His very life's blood was chilled as he stopped atop a knoll to look down into the small valley below.
Before the cavern he had spotted the night before slumbered a sentry straight out of hell's darkest pits. The thing was the largest of its kind he had ever had the misfortune to see. From the blunted snout of its great jaws to the tip of its twitching tail, the monster spanned no less than sixty feet in length. Its great wings were folded down over its sides, hiding most of its armored bulk from sight. There was no mistaking the still healing scars across its massive forelegs though. This was his foe. His quarry.
He lifted his lance, adjusting his grip on the handle even while studying his demonic opponent, and the surrounding terrain with a quick, practiced eye. The path to the sleeping brute was fairly straight, and not too uneven. A carpet of meadow grass still covered the small valley around them, and Gwayne wondered briefly why the dragon had not scorched the green hills has he had heard was their want.
He put aside the thoughts of what habits such creatures possessed as he leveled his lance with a practiced swing, and locked his arm just so. Now was not the time for idle musing. With the great worm still slumbering before him, and out in the open, this was his best chance to catch the creature completely by surprise. Spurring his mount into a gallop, he held back his usual war cry as he aimed his lance where he supposed the thing's heart might be.
The sound of his steed's thundering hooves was cushioned on the carpet of soft grass, and the sleeping demon did not hear Gwayne's approach until it was far too late. At the last possible moment, Sir Gwayne gave voice to a terrible battle cry as his lance was driven deep into the creature's side, pinning one great wing down. The dragon woke with a dreadful cry of pain and surprise, crimson gore spraying from its wound as it rose up to tower over the knight and his horse.
Wisely, Gwayne had released his grip on his lance, knowing it would be useless now even if he could have freed it. The black shaft still hung in the dragon's flesh as the beast twisted wildly as it tried in vain to pull the weapon from its side. Its efforts only served to proved Gwayne with the distraction he needed to continue his attack.
The very moment he had released his lance, he had drawn his great broadsword from its scabbard. When the creature had started its incredible rise up onto its haunches, Gwayne had already bee moving into position to slash at its exposed throat just beneath the widely gaping jaws filled with teeth near as big as his blade. The stroke was short considering the beast's size, and frantic movements, but his arm had been true. The steel had cut deep into the soft under-flesh, and its roar was turned into a savage hissing as its very voice was slain by good, Christian steel.
A shower of hot blood rained down upon him as he backed his mount away from the creature's flailing tail. He looked up, his sword held ready as the monster's head rushed down at him. He held his ground, grateful for the an experienced mount as he steeled himself for the final assault. He was ready to fight to the death, but quickly found he had been spared the need.
"The Lord Himself fights with us this day, boy," he told his steed as the dragon collapsed before them. Its wound had been fatal after all, so his lance must have reached the great worm's heart. That pleased him, for he was wise enough to know that a prolonged battle with such a creature could have well ended far differently.
A last heavy sigh escaped the creature's quivering nostrils, and then it was still. Gwayne let a sigh of his own escape as he dismounted, and turned to the entrance of the cavern the dragon had watched over. He glanced down at himself, and grimaced as he pulled his helm off, and set it aside. He then used a cloak to wipe most of the blood and gore from his armor, and found a small pool that had surprisingly not been fouled to rinse away the rest, as well as quench his own thirst, as well as his steed's before tying it well away from the fallen sentry. Best not to take unnecessary risks, his experience told him.
He then squeezed by the fallen beast, and entered the cavern, his sword still in hand. There was a dull glow emanating from the darkened recesses within, and he wondered of its source. He also wondered if he had arrived in time. After all, the princess had been taken months ago. A very long time for an innocent child to be held in a demon's thrall.
Despite thoughts of a futile search, he kept moving beyond that first, wide caver to the darker chambers beyond. It was not his way to leave a quest half finished. He would find the girl, or he would find her bones to return for a proper burial. Nothing less would satisfy him. The tunnel he now followed soon darkened, but he could make out enough to see it was empty. He was not overly displeased.
He kept walking, following a dim glow that came from deep within the cavern that was proving to be as much a maze as it was a lair. He emerged into another great cavern littered with bones he knew at a glance were animal. He found numerous skulls and bones of sheep and cattle, but thankfully, none of them were human. He prayed a silent prayer of hope as he left the grim cavern of bones for a connecting tunnel.
He wondered why, if the beast apparently preferred to feed on common beasts, it had taken the trouble to kidnap the princess. Why, he wondered, did any dragon seek out young women as their special prey? He supposed they had some dark reason, but he also suspected it was best left unknown. He had little desire to learn hell's dark secrets.
Yet he realized that he had rarely heard of commoners who might have lost wives or daughters. He supposed they had, and yet knights only ventured forth if a lady of noble blood were involved. He tried not to ponder the morality of such things as he followed the faint glow that was gradually growing brighter with each step by now. He knew was deep inside the mountain by now, and that dull glow could only have one source. Ahead of him was a final cavern, and within lay the dragon's golden hoard.
He stared in awe at the stolen treasures at his feet, some so ancient as to appeal alien to his eyes. The light from the flames of torches set around the expanse of the cavern cast a shimmering curtain of soft, amber light around him. The sight would have been all the more impressive were it not for the grim circumstances that had brought him here.
He saw nothing that indicated signs of life as he stared around the cavern heaped with treasure that would have made most men howl in ecstasy. He turned away with a heavy sigh, fearing the beast must have truly devoured the poor princess. He would have left then if he had not taken a single step away, and paused to wonder just why a dragon had need of torches.
Even as he spun around once more he heard the muffled squeal of some frightened creature behind him. It sounded vaguely human. Could it be….?
His sword, which had been lowered by then, sprang up in his grip, ready to fight his foes….whatever they might prove to be as he reentered the cavern. He searched quickly, but more thoroughly, until he discovered what he had overlooked a moment before in his casual exploration. Jus behind a mound of bright gold, near a niche in the stone wall, a sight no Christian man should have ever to bear filled his eyes. He knew it was a sight he would remember to the last days of his mortal life, if not beyond.
"God have mercy on our souls," he cried out as he swung his sharp blade at the horror before him.
Charles Collins closed the book he had found in the attic of the old manor. He looked up at his daughter who shared his frustration at that point.
"What happened," she asked.
"I don't know, Sarah," he told his daughter, a raven-haired vision that sometimes reminded him of his later wife.
At just over twenty, he was afraid she had been raised on to many myths and legends, for she seemed content to follow him around as she waited on some mysterious suitor who was expected to show up, and charm her to the altar for a life of happily ever after.
He sighed as he closed the journal. He supposed that being the only child to a widower and scholar had its disadvantages, but she had never once complained. In fact, when he had received word that he had inherited some old manor in England from some equally distant ancestor, it had been Sarah who had insisted they claim the estate. Or at least visit it before they decided what course to follow.
"I want to know why such a brave, and noble knight left the king's court to become a recluse," Sarah pouted as she leaned back on the divan she had settled onto at the story's conclusion.
Charles shook his head. "According to the records, he became a monk. Not an uncommon practice for that particular period," he chided her.
"It was for noble knights of the realm," she countered. "I would almost bet it had something to do with that last entry."
"You are probably right, sweetheart," Charles agreed as he put the crumbling journal aside. "This is the third journal we've found that belonged to Sir Thomas Gwayne. It is possible that there are yet others somewhere that we haven't found."
"So, let's find them," she suggested as she bounced up off the divan with an enthusiasm he didn't not really share.
"We've already searched all the other rooms," he pointed out as he pushed his chair back from the desk where he sat. "We've also been through the attic twice since we found the first journal up there. I'm afraid the final chapters of Sir Gwayne's life are probably lost. That is the way with history.
"You know that."
Sarah stood contemplating his words, but her sparkling, green eyes betrayed the fact she was had yet to give up. "We haven't searched everywhere," she pointed out, a sly smile crossing her expressive features.
"I doubt anything could have survived in the basement, even if there were anything to find," he told her, shaking his head. "It's far too damp in these old houses. Especially in basements and cellars."
"I swear, sometimes you act just like an old man," she teased him as she moved to stand beside him, eyes locked on that last, yellowing journal.
"My hair isn't gray for nothing," he told her with a soft chuckle.
"It's isn't gray, it's silver, and distinguished," she chided him, taking his arms top pull him up out of the chair. "Now, let's go look in the basement."
"Tell you what. I'll let you have the honors. It should be safe enough, but I do doubt you'll find anything," he warned her, remembering his first glimpse downstairs when they first arrived. He then tugged free of her grip, and sank back into his chair, content to remain there for the moment.
"Spoilsport," she chided him as she danced away from his playful swat before it could land.
"Go on," he told her. "I still have a few manuscripts of my own I need to translate before we return to the university next term."
"Oh, those," she grumbled. "They aren't any fun," she told him with an offhand gesture that indicated she had already lost interest in his current project.
"There's a flashlight in the hall," he called after her as she left him in the study. "Call out if you do find anything interesting."
"They call it a torch here, old man," she called back teasingly. "And if I do find anything, I'll keep it to myself, and you'll never know what happened to Sir Gwayne."
He smiled at her rejoinder, knowing it wasn't true. They kept no secrets from each other. Besides, he still believed there was nothing to find. Of course, they had not expected to find anything in the attic either, and that had been where all three of Gwayne's journals had been found.
Sarah was still doing her own thinking on that matter as she went to the basement. In her mind, the journals had been hidden, and so that meant the last chapters of the strange tale must be hidden as well. Of course, that didn't mean that there was anything mysterious about their far-removed ancestor. Nothing other than the fact that one day he had stopped playing knight, and put on a robe to play monk. Perhaps her father didn't think so, but to her mind there was something very odd about such a dramatic change.
Although there were electric lights throughout the old, refurbished manor, they had found that the modernization of the old house did not extend either to the attic, or to the basement. The latter had yet to be fully explored, as her father had not thought it was likely that anything of importance was there based on his one quick glance. Despite the odds he quoted, she still had a feeling there was something down there. The same feeling that had prompted her to urge him to come to England in the first place, and later to explore that attic.
At the end of the long hall beyond the kitchens, a single door set in the back wall to the steps that descended beneath the old manor house's main floor. Her father had discovered its location when they first opened the house, but he had not bothered to explore the musty darkness beyond the first few steps he had taken to determine that it was indeed a basement before him. Now she would go down into the dark chamber herself, and the prosper brought a fierce kind of joy to her young, adventurous heart.
Opening the door, she breathed deep of the stale air that rose up from the stygian darkness below. She felt like an explorer, daring the unknown in search of some secret knowledge as she switched on the flashlight to make out the steps before her. The mysteries that might yet await excited her all the more as she started her descent, carefully illuminating the steps before her as she started her descent. The old stairs creaked and groaned under her slight weight, but they had held her father, so she was certain they would hold her.
She found the stairs were built right alongside the foundation wall as she moved down the gradual slope they created toward the basement floor. Toward the bottom they suddenly angled out in a half circle with the first indication of a banister as they flared out onto the floor itself. When she took the first step on the basement floor itself, she was surprised. She was expecting…..Well, she didn't really, know, but something more than what she found. Surprisingly enough, the floor itself was solid stone. Most cellars or basements in this region were earthen, with the foundations built right up from the ground. Yet beneath her feet was a stone floor. The same stone that filled the countryside, making farming a nightmare, if not impossible. She knew before she shone her light at her feet that the stone would have had to been carefully worked by a master to form so smooth a floor.
Hadn't her father found that fact strange when he had come down earlier? She certainly did. Or perhaps he had overlooked this peculiarity in his hurried examination of the premises. Putting her own thoughts aside, she stepped out into the wider expanse before her, holding up her flashlight. The light cast eerie shadows all about her as she carefully paced the smooth, stone floor from end to end again and again. There was nothing to see. Nothing to be frightened of, and unless one counted mold and cobwebs, there was nothing to be found in the wide, empty expanse.
She was about to give up in disgust, fearing her father's inevitable teasing, when she heard a slight scraping sound from the far corner of the basement. She directed her light there, but still saw nothing. Not at first.
A closer examination found one of the hand-fitted stones had been slightly elevated, as if pushed up from below. Curiosity overcame caution, and Sarah set the flashlight aside to kneel beside the loose stone. Grabbing the uppermost edge with both hands, she tugged. The stone held tight.
She scowled at it, and the dirt she had managed to get under her nails for her efforts. Grabbing the stone again, she pulled with all her might. The stone did not so much as move an inch. She looked around in vain for something she might use to pry the stubborn rock out of its hole when she heard the mysterious scraping again. This time it came from across the wide basement where she had been standing.
A superstitious dread raised the hairs at the base of her neck, but she shook her head at such foolishness. Her years of studying at her father's side had dispelled the usual childhood fears of monsters and demons lurking in the shadows. Still, while her rational mind pondering the traveling sounds, her heart was more concerned with the stone that remained stubbornly in place before her. Something told her she needed to move it, and she could not leave it. Not even to find proper tool to aid her in her efforts.
Glad of the casual jeans and tee she wore, she wiped her damp palms on her denim-clad thighs before taking another hold on the stone. Incredibly, she managed to move the stubborn rock this time with a hard jerking. Her scowl eased slightly as she smiled in anticipation as her heart beat audibly in her chest. Another fierce effort, and the stone abruptly came away in her hands, upsetting her balance, and setting her down on her shapely backside with the rock itself still clutched tightly in both hands.
She tossed the large, shaped stone aside with an irritated scowl at her awkward position, then scrambled onto her hands and knees to peer into the small fissure left open before her. The darkness was so absolute that she could see nothing, but scooping up her flashlight to shine it directly into the hole she discovered a small pit almost two feet square. At the bottom, she could just make out a small, oblong object as she squealed in joy at her prize. Pulling out a weathered oilskin, she carefully unwrapped it before her to reveal an equally weathered parchment of a type she had already seen within the aging covers of Sir Gwayne's journals.
The script was ancient Latin, just like the others which she regrettably could not read. Unfortunately, it was one of the few languages she had not bothered to learn. She wasn't worried it though, for her father could easily translate the pages, just as he had the others.
She scanned the parchment, her expression hopeful, and her heart all but certain she knew she would find as she shuffled the pages. On the last, curling page, she found what she intuitively knew she would find. Snatching up the other pages she had carefully set aside, Sarah dashed for the steps with the parchment in one hand, the flashlight in the other. She still couldn't be sure what was on the pages, but there was no mistaking the crest on the final page. The same crest that had marked the earlier journals of Sir Gwayne, and his household. She would bet almost anything that this hidden manuscript hid the secret of the noble knight's sudden change of vocation. Why else would it have been so well hidden?
Her father was still at his desk when she raced into the study. Without warning, she simply shoved the books and papers he was studying aside, and dropped her discovery before him. "Look," she exclaimed breathlessly, her smile almost literally ear-to-ear. "Look what I found hidden in the basement."
Her father started to scowl, then focused on the ancient pages set before him. "Hmmm," he murmured thoughtfully as he scanned the first page, then flipped carefully through the others. "Where did you find this," he asked.
"I found a loose stone in the basement flooring. This was underneath," she told him.
"I didn't notice any loose stones earlier," he commented as he glanced up into the eager eyes of his daughter. He recognized the gleam in them, for it was the same look he often expressed when excited over a particular project.
"You can translate it now, can't you," she asked anxiously as she peered over his shoulder. "This script is a bit more faded, but I think it's still in good shape."
He looked up at her, smiling as he once more noticed just how much she reminded him of his late wife. Carolyn would have been proud of her daughter, he knew. Just as he was proud of her.
"I can," he told her, trying not to crush her childish excitement with too much reality. "But, it is late, and you need your rest. I'll work on this, and you can read my translation in the morning. Deal?"
"All right," she sighed as she gave in, but she couldn't hide the disappointment in her eyes. "I probably won't sleep a wink though," she told him in a tone that made it clear it would be his fault if she didn't. That didn't stop her from giving him a kiss before she left him to his work.
Upstairs, the silence of her room reminded her of the scraping sounds in the silence of the basement. She had not mentioned that to her father. At first he had been because she had been so excited about her discovery. Later, she found herself fearing he might think her childish for being freighted by noises in the dark. She realized it as probably just a mole, or something like that. Hardly anything to worry about.
She moved slowly as she undressed, lost in thought as if moving through a dream. She pulled off her shirt, then went to the washstand to clean up before going to bed. She could get used to almost anything, but she had never learned to tolerate being dirty. Especially when she ended up with dirt caked up under her nails. That drove her crazy.
After washing up, she left her clothes, shoes and all in a pile behind her for tending later, and lay down in just her panties, letting her bare skin luxuriate in the feel of lying on the cool, cotton quilts. She could not get used to the canopy over the bed, or the silken skirt held up by the frame's hand-carved posts. This was like being in some mythical princess' bed. Only tonight, she was the princess. Stray thoughts of princes and castles filled her mind as she drifted off to sleep. Despite her earlier claims to her father, she was asleep in less than ten minutes after stretching out on the bed.
She had left a small lamp on beside her bed, and it formed a halo of light around her head as she slept. A clock on the mantle chimed off hours without being noticed by the sleeping girl. The faucet over the washstand bowl dripped occasionally, and outside the manor an approaching storm announced itself with the dull rumble of thunder on the horizon. All this went unnoticed by Sarah as she slept on in her fantasy bed.
Nor did she awaken when the man walked into her room.
Hinges that had creaked when she had entered made no sound when the man closed the door behind himself. He crossed the room as if gliding across the floor, and stopped beside the bed to stare down at the sleeping girl. He smiled, pushed back the bed's skirting, and reached down to stroke her dark hair as he marveled at the silken tresses of soft ebon. Her breathing stirred the rounded breasts that set high and firm on her chest. Her limbs were long and slender without the appearance of being gangly, and while she was not a fashionable beauty, there was an attractiveness to her that drew the eye.
The man smiled again when Sarah stirred, watching the movement of her full, red lips. He continued to stroke her hair even when her eyes flickered briefly before opening. Her expression changed from a sleepy smile to an expression of confusion when she realized the young man standing beside her bed stroking her hair was not her father. Still, she didn't scream, and would later wonder at that fact that she was not even afraid of this stranger.
Still lost within the confines of her now waking dream, she simply lay there, letting the man's hands now slide down her cheek from her hair to wander across her body.
"Am I dreaming," she finally asked the stranger as his exploring grew bolder with each passing moment as he went from stroking her hair, to sitting beside her to fondling her breasts.
"If I am a dream," he replied in a hauntingly masculine tone, "Then may we sleep forever."
"That's nice," she said, still undisturbed by the man now sitting beside her as he caressed her breasts daringly, and she still had not yet to even think of questioning his forwardness.
She knew that by now, she would have driven off any other date that had dared as much as this dark-haired stranger, and often had. Yet she did not voice so much as a murmur of protest when he teased her nipples to life while alternately stroking one breast, and then the other, adding to the growing heat that was building in her young, healthy body.
"Nice," the man echoed after a brief pause. "Do you speak of my complement, lady," he called her. "Or do you find pleasure in my touch?"
"Mmmmm," she moaned again as his hands now slipped lower down her soft belly. "Both. Who are you," she thought to ask only then as she realized at that point he had yet to ever look away from her eyes despite his slow, intimate exploration of her body. Nor, she found, could she seem to look away from his dark eyes.
"A dream," he suggested with that faint smile as he now let one hand slip beneath her panty to tease the soft, pliant flesh between her inner thighs. "But, no, I am real enough, and we are both awake. I am but the lowly, lonely caretaker of this humble estate," he admitted. "I must confess that I have been spying on you since you arrived. I find I have been intoxicated by your beauty."
Sarah opened her mouth to reply, but he leaned over her at that moment to kiss her. His mouth pressed firmly to hers, and she found herself opening to his hot tongue that probed her mouth with a skill and finesse that had her wondering who had taught him to kiss so well. When he broke the kiss, she found herself panting raggedly with desire, and her legs parted of their own accord. Where her panties had gone she did not know. She decided she did not care as she pulled the stranger back down to press her lips to hiss again for another kiss. Maybe fairy tales do have a ring of truth, she decided as she felt an urgent heat flush her body.
She let him embrace her fully then as he stretched out beside her, and was surprised at the heat that emanated from his body even though he had yet to take off his own clothes. She kissed him again, tasting the salt on his heated skin even as she hugged him to her fiercely. She moaned in genuine disappointed as he moved away to stand once beside the bed once more.
"Don't go," she pleaded in a husky voice, her entire body trembling as she reached out for him.
"I must," he told her. "I have duties which require my presence. Perhaps we shall meet again later," he suggested with a tone of open invitation.
"Yes," she told him instantly, still reaching out to him.
"Goodnight, then, lady," he told her as took her outstretched hand in his own, and kissed it tenderly. "I did not mean to disturb your rest, but I had to see if you were as you seemed from afar."
"And," she asked, sitting up so as not to lose sight of him when he released her hand, and moved toward the door.
He stopped at the door, as if sensing her need for an answer. "You are a vision before which the delight of heaven would pale," he told her in a sincere tone as he reached for the latch.
"Wait," she cried, leaping from the bed with no concern over her nakedness. "At least tell me your name."
"My name? You may call me Ben, lady."
"I'm Sarah," she replied quickly with a brilliant smile. The smile turned to a blush as she became conscious of the face she was standing there naked in front of him. She felt the heat in her cheeks rise, but even as she half turned from him, she realized it was far too late for such modesty.
"So, where do you stay, Ben," she asked.
"Why, in the servants' quarters just behind the manor," he told her as if surprised she did not know.
"I hadn't noticed anything being back there," she admitted, her cheeks a bright crimson in the soft glow of the bedside lamp.
"It is there, I assure you. You truly are beautiful," he told her before he left her without another word.
Sarah hugged herself, unable to believe her feeling for a man who had just walked in on her unannounced. She put aside her rational misgivings as she remembered the slide of his hands over her body. The heat he radiated when they had embraced still warmed her, and in that instant she realized she had to go to him. He probably expected just that, but her pride meant nothing to her just then. Only the feel of him. Their passion. Only that mattered. She had to go to him.
She quickly found a robe she had tossed aside while unpacking earlier, and pulled it on. She did not even noticed the sound of thunder outside as the storm drew nearer. All she could hear was the pound of her own heart as she fled her room as if pursued. She slowed to descend the stairs more carefully, fearful of her father's attention if he heard her steps. She did not pause to wonder how Ben had managed to slip past him. She knew her father often lost track of everything else when wrapped up in one of his project's that interested him.
She made it past the room he was using for a study, and took the long hall that led to the kitchens after she reached the lower landing, and slipped out the back door into the night without a moment's hesitation. The darkness outside was almost impenetrable with the black clouds rolling in, but not far from the house the shadow of another building that loomed before her out of the darkness. She had darted out into the chill night air without hesitation, hoping she had not misunderstood him. Ben might have gone anywhere after leaving her room. He might even still be in the manor.
She wondered if others stayed in the servants' quarters as she ran for the door she could just make out as she approached, and knocked urgently as if fearing discovery at any moment. She felt not unlike some star-crossed lover seeking her beloved at any cost at that moment. She smiled at the idyllic thought as she knocked again, and knew she wanted Ben, and only Ben, to open the door more than anything else in her life just then.
He still wore the simple, cotton shirt, and linen riding breeches he had earlier, though his boot were gone, and she noted his bare feet were as darkly tanned as his handsome face, and strong arms. She looked up at him, smiling as she wondered if his entire body was as dark, and wondered if she would have a chance to find out.
"I had to see you," she blurted out, feeling a little foolish.
"I'm glad you came," he told her with a smile. "I was just preparing tea. Would you like a cup," he asked as he moved aside to let her enter.
The place was built like a huge dorm, and she followed Ben through the dark lobby to a room at the head of the hall where the aroma of freshly brewing tea was unmistakable. His room was furnished comfortably in a homey manner, and she found herself surprised at how neat everything was in what must be a bachelor's quarters. Her father wasn't half this neat at his best.
"I live simply," he told her as he sat down on the side of his own bed, watching her look around. Besides the old bed, there was a small bureau, a night stand with a small lamp, and his hot plate sat on an old, kitchen chair near the open window. A kettle whistled cheerfully before he lifted it from the burner to fill two cups he had ready on the nightstand beside the lamp.
Had he known she was coming?
"I had hoped you would come," he said as if sensing her thoughts as she watched him fill the two cups. "I knew we couldn't' continue our visit as were going with your father about," he told her, handing the cup he prepared for her. "But here," he smiled again as she sat down on the edge of the bed next to where he had settled. Neither of them even moved away when she did.
"Here, we have all the privacy we might want. Or need."
"Will we need such privacy," she asked innocently, sipping at the hot tea he had given her. It was bitter, but tasted good. Even better, it was hot, and warmed her after her dash across the damp lawn just ahead of the coming storm.
"I thought we might," he told her as he set his own empty cup aside to pull off his shirt, exposing a broad, muscular chest as smooth and dark as his face and arms. She felt her breath catch when his hands dropped to the waistband of his trousers.
"Do you believe in dragons," she asked impulsively. "Or… Or knights, and….and things," she continued as she watched him stand to slide his trousers down hard, muscular thighs. His was the most perfect body she had ever seen, and she felt as if she had been waiting for this man all her life.
"As a matter of fact," he told her as he took her cup, and set it aside. "I do believe. I believe in a great many things."
"Such as," she asked, looking up into his dark eyes. Eyes that seemed to bore into her own, reaching through to her very soul.
"Love at firs sight," he suggested, smiling down at her as he took her hands into his own to lift her into his embrace as he stood before her naked, and welcoming.
She sighed, his warm flesh searing his own as his he pressed her back onto the bed under his weight. He was not forceful, nor was he hurried. He took his time as he kissed her, feeling her need rising as surely he must feel his own. She felt her legs part easily at his merest touch once gain after her robe was pushed back, and this time she willed him not to stop as their bodies were pressed together, upon the small bunk.
"I think I'm in love," Sarah told him quietly as he rose up over her.
"Have you ever known a man," he asked, his fingers probing her body in an increasingly intimate manner, finding her wet, and more than eager for him.
Sarah blushed hotly, shaking her head once in response to his question. He smiled again as he stretched out over her, covering her body with his own again as he settled between her thighs. "I thought not," he whispered in her ear as he embraced her in his arms.
"I was waiting…..," she began.
"For someone special," he finished for her as he continued to look down into her green eyes. "I know."
She started to ask him how he could have known. She wanted to ask him many things, but found her voice gone as he pressed his hard sex into her virgin flesh. She expected to cry out, but the pain she had anticipated when he pushed into her did not materialize. All she felt was a flash of wet heat that filled her body with the most intense pleasure se had ever experienced in her young life. So much for all her girlfriends' horror stories of clumsy boyfriends.
Her legs wrapped around Ben, pulling him closer, and Sarah found herself moving with an instinctive ease that could not possibly be her own. Ben said nothing as he moved against her, letting her explore him as he had earlier. She smiled up at him as her hands roamed his hard, warm flesh, and then actually cried out as she felt an overwhelming pressure build up within her trembling body. Liquid heat numbed mind and body as she felt her mind snap like an over wound spring, and nothing mattered in that single, timeless moment as her world turned into pure sensation except Ben.
She smiled dreamily up at him when she finally recovered, and wondered why her girlfriends had told her such dreadful horror stories about sex. Ben continued to move atop her as she sighed blissfully, aware she was still feeling a blissful contentment as he teased her lips with soft kisses while lightly fondling her heaving breasts. She laughed once when he tickled her while moving to nibble her throat, and he laughed with her.
They kissed often. Sometimes light and gentle, and at other times hard and demanding. He brought her to climax twice with inordinate ease, and raised her sensitivity to such heights that even his whispers of love were like shouts in her ears. She wished the night would never end, but she knew it had to, even if she wished it otherwise.
Sarah felt him finally stiffen, and she embraced him with a strength she did not think her arms possessed as he consummated their joining.
"I love you," Ben told her as he lay back next to her on the bed, but continued to hold her close in his strong arms. They lay together for a long, silent moment in their passion's afterglow, enjoying the feel of one another's company before he finally moved again
"Don't leave," Sarah pled when he started to rise from the small bed they shared.
"That would not be my first choice, Sarah," he told her with a genuine smile as he used her name for the first time while looking down at the small hand clutching his muscular forearm. "But, never fear, I shall never leave you unless you ask me to go."
"Then you will never go," she told him decisively as she sat up to kiss his cheek as he sat there beside her on the bed.
"What of your father?"
"I don't think he would mind," she replied honestly after the briefest of moments. "He's been trying to get me to date seriously for years now."
"I am glad," he told her.
"What? About what?"
"Glad that you waited," he told her, letting her pull him back to her for another kiss.
"I'm glad you were here when we came," she said, rising to her knees even as she pushed him back on the small bed. He started to move, but she quickly straddled him, and grinned teasingly as her hands found him more than ready as she lowered her body down atop him. She could not believe she was giving herself to this man so, but then, nothing about this encounter seemed real. Not that it mattered to her just then. Unbelievable or not, she never wanted this night to end.
Inside the manor, meanwhile, Charles could not believe what he was reading. He had long since stopped trying to transcribe a translation for Sarah to read later. He was reading to himself as he rushed to find the end of the increasingly bizarre tale told by a distant relative from an age long past.
Sir Gwayne could not believe his eyes.
He would have struck that very moment as his blade rose instinctively in his hand had not the girl cried out. The princess had sank to her knees as a trio of fledgling worms that horrified him at first glimpse swarmed around her pale, nearly naked body. He had disturbed them at the carcass of a calf left for their nourishment when he had come around a nearly hidden stack of golden coins to find them. They fled his approach to the niche in the cavern wall where the girl had been huddled as they fled his approach, running for the half naked girl that trembled before him. At first he had had through they meant to ravage her as they had the calf.
Instead, he stared in genuine astonishment as the beasts fled to the girl not to wreak havoc on soft, vulnerable flesh, but to hide in her very arms. "Nay," she cried out again when he again raised his sword to strike at the beasts she seemed to protect.
"My lady," he protested in horror, unable to pull his eyes from the sight of the beautiful maiden clad only in a crude loincloth like a common slave girl. Two of the feral demons had taken refuge behind her shapely body, and she had actually lifted one of the hellish beasts into her arms, stroking its gleaming scales with the fondness of a mother for her child.
"Please, sir knight," she begged. "Put aside your weapon until you at least hear my tale," she pleaded with him.
He stared at the shamefully clad girl that was born of noble blood, unable to see in her the princess of the realm for whom he had so long search just then. Still, he was a knight, and no true knight even struck unjustly. He nodded as he lowered his sword, and stood silently waiting to hear what she would say.
"Tell me, lady," he urged her when she remained silent at first. "What is it that I see here? For I fear my senses can scarcely credit what my mind dares suggest."
"These are my children," she told him at last, a proud smile breaking through her fearful expression as she rose to stand before him.
Gwayne looked upon her with horror, but out of fairness, he let her go on. There was, after all, matters of chivalry to be maintained. He had bit her speak, and now, he was bound by his own word to allow her to share her story. It was not impossible that the maid had merely been bewitched. If so, he would soon learn it, and hopefully find a way to counter the unholy enchantment.
"You see, sir knight," she went on. "A year ago, I met an uncommonly handsome man. I fell in love with him, but we could not marry. He was, among other things, a commoner. Even so, I was ready to sacrifice all just to be with him. Even after he told me of his own people, I could not help but love him. His people are a very ancient race," she explained patiently as Gwayne frowned at her tone. She did sound bewitched, of that he was now certain.
"Despite what is often thought of them," she was saying. "They are a kind, peaceful folk. Because they are so different, though, men fear them. Even seek to slay them. I told my beloved that I did not care who he was, that I loved him. He told me that I still did not understand enough of what he meant at that time, and, of course, he was right."
Gwayne waited patiently as she fell silent, gathering her thoughts as she continued to stroke the devilish offspring she held. One of the other fledgling worms still hid behind her, but the other had sufficiently recovered from its fright to return to is meal after cautiously creeping past him. He had yet to figure out how a tail of forbidden love had anything to do with the demonic spawn that she claimed as her own offspring.
"I am not sure how to say this," she finally spoke again. "I will try to say it in a way that you will understand. Souls. Aye, that is it, souls. I feel in love with his soul. His body was unimportant to me once I got to the know the very essence of his being. They can change their shapes, you see? Of course, the very old cannot change. Only the young. They are very wise, though. They once imparted wisdom to certain sages in the Orient, but then something happened that drove them from those far lands. They arrived in our lands only to find war and violence, and so they learned to hide from us, fearful of our superstitious ignorance. They only bear males," she interjected abruptly. "that is why they must find females of our race with which to breed. Being of a different race, almost magical, you might say, they can only mate with a woman who is willing to join with them in their natural form. I did not know this when I first met Orin. Later, I considered it all unimportant. I had fallen in love with Orin, you recall I said this earlier? When he told me of himself, and his people, I found I did not care. I asked him to take me with him. I loved him," she said again smiling down into the blunted reptilian visages of the things that now played about her legs. Gwayne had not even noticed the third beast had rejoined its sibling at her feet.
His composure finally began to slip as he pieced together the girl's ramblings. He stood stiff, and unyielding, gripping his sword tightly in both hands. "You mated with that….that thing outside," he asked her in horror.
"You mean Old Trabor? Oh, nay," she laughed, not seeing the menace in his stance, or tone. "He frightened off the others like you who came, but he is too old, and large to think of mating any longer.
"He spied you out yester eve, though, and wanted to drive you off like the rest. I asked him and Orin to let you come, pointing out that only more of you would come if we did not at least try to explain matters to you. I hoped once you understood, you would leave us alone. That is why he let you into the cavern," she informed him with that queer smile on her pretty features as she looked down at her hellish offspring.
His grip tightened even more on his blade as he again lifted the weapon in readiness. Glaring at the girl before him, he growled his reply. "That devil did not let me pass, wretched witch," he spat, now seeing not enchantment, but willing surrender to the Dark One. "I slew him in combat."
The girl's expression paled as her jaw dropped in horror, and the fledgling worms began to squeal in alarm as if sensing her mood change. "He was old," she exclaimed. "Not any threat to you," she told him in protest as she tried to back away from the point of the blade now held up in her direction. Her lower lip trembled, and perhaps her hands shook as well. He could not tell, since she still clutched that one hellish spawn of the devil in a protective embrace as she continued to back away from him.
She screamed when he charged forward, his blade easily slicing into the small creature she would have sheltered. "You are hell's own harlot," he accused her as he ignored the gutted beast, and raised his blade again.
"So does God command; 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,'" he quoted as he pressed the point of his blade to her heart, and then pressed even deeper.
She screamed again as the point sank into her very flesh, spilling her blood to mingle with the gore of the dying hellspawn she still clutched vainly in her arms. He cried out in righteous anger that one so innocent should be drawn into league with such demons. He chased down one of the surviving pair after the girl went to whatever reward awaited her poor, deluded soul, and slew it with a single blow that decapitated the small beast.
After a furious chase, he finally cornered the last of the damned trio. He raised his bloody steel, ready to dispatch this last, vile creature to a well-deserved hell when a hoarse cry of anguish filled the cavern. He spun around to face yet another of the beasts. Only this one was near twelve feet in height, and was as fierce in its visage as the great worm he had slain outside. The beast curled its taloned forepaws into fists, raising them at the room as it closed on Gwayne. Gwayne let it come, a confident smile on his face as he held his sword ready for the fatal blow.
He stepped back in confusion when the dragon did not complete its charge. Rather, it had stopped abruptly at the side of the fallen princess, and her dead offspring. From behind him, Gwayne noted the surviving worm had darted to its parents; side with a squeal of fear and pain The creature welcomed it into his arms as he knelt over the girl. He looked up at Gwayne only then, and the knight was startled by the golden tears that fell from its sad, ebony eyes.
Eyes that radiated its grief, and so much more.
Lifting the fallen woman with care after the living spawn crawled onto his broad shoulders, he carried her to confront Gwayne. The younger beast peered at him with accusing eyes, but while the greater beast twitched with raw emotion, no hideous roar came forth. There was not any deadly charge. Nothing of any challenge at all.
The creature simply stood before him, and to his shock asked a single question of him.
"Why," the reptilian beast demanded before he simply stood silent before Gwayne, and the knight suddenly realized it was expecting an answer.
Gwayne felt his own lips start to tremble, and he stared down at the mangled flesh of the girl he had come to save. Clutched in her dead arms was the small creature she had thought to save. He shook his head as the dragon now wept openly before him.
His next move surprised them both. He flung his sword down, and falling to his knees, Gwayne began to tear at his armor like a man possessed. A dark rage at himself rose to torment his spirit as he began pulling that armor off, hurling it from him as far as his arms could manage.
The dragon watched silently as the man bared his own flesh before him. He said nothing as the knight finally stood, naked and unarmed, and awaited his just punishment. The dragon wept for them both. Gwayne finally turned away, realizing the dragon would not grant him the penance of death. He walked away from the cavern leaving both armor and sword, never to return. His great shame caused him to shun other men, and he turned to a life of poverty and prayer in the end to seek penance for his dark deed. Still, even then he never felt the sweet bliss of forgiveness. To his dying day, he prayed for it, but it never came. Not even when the priests' assured him he was absolved.
He never spoke of that day, but before his death he finally wrote of his past that others might know, and understand. One account he sent to his king, though he never heard of his reaction since he was on his deathbed, and passed on before a response came. His scribe, however, was so enraged over his grief at the fate of a demonic worm that he tore up the first copy of the knight's confession. Gwayne scribbled out another copy in his own hand before the end, then hid it away for future generations to find. He hoped they would understand his message before man's ignorance doomed a dying race to extinction.
He prayed his words might yet give that ancient and noble race one more chance to thrive.
He died without knowing either forgiveness, or vindication for his efforts.
Charles stared at the crest that authenticated the words at the end of the final page of parchment. Only then did he realize it was not even a true crest. It was the rude rendering of a dragon. Far from being monstrous, it was made to appear almost human in the depiction before him. In one of its hands was held a bloody sword, point down. The other held a discarded war helm, much like one a knight might wear to protect his head in battle.
He continued to stare at the parchment, the find all but guaranteeing his place in mythology's hall of fame for certain. He would have to have the parchment carbon dated, of course. Then, if he could find some other trace of Gwayne's historical life to confirm the direction he took, he might even be able to figure out the truth of what actually lay behind the man's fantastical tale. He found himself smiling at the thought that grief over baby dragons, mythological beings, could have driven a man from his place in society. There might be something to the princess' death, though. A shame he had not recorded her name. The name of a highborn lady of noble birth would have made the tracing and authentication much easier.
He forgot all about the thoughts of cross-referencing histories when the thunder rumbled loudly across the sky. Even as lightning struck near enough to the house to light up the world outside the windows, something else rumbled deep beneath the house. He stood with a frown, wondering what could have made such a strange sound even as the fading sounds yielded to a scratching, gravelly sound that actually made the floorboards vibrate beneath his feet. When he heard the sounds of shifting rock, and remembered the stone flooring of the basement, he knew he wasn't imagining things.
"I most certainly did not imagine that," he said aloud as a loud, hoarse growl joined the sound of falling rock beneath his feet. There was definitely something in the basement. Something big.
Snatching up the flashlight that Sarah had left behind earlier, Charles made his way to the basement door. He was almost to the door when the entire house seemed to shudder on its foundations, and the roar echoed in his ears before it began to fade again. He dashed down the last of the hall's length, jerking the door open, and shining the light down into the stygian depths of the cellar. He felt his heart almost stop in a violent thud as the light shone into the darkness beyond the stairs.
Charles Collins felt he was a level-headed man, so he took a second, and a third look at the incredible sight before him before letting his emotions take the upper hand. The head of some great animal was descending back beneath the ruined rubble of the flooring, and its huge, gleaming, black eyes were hauntingly like those described in Thomas Gwayne's strange narrative.
Pushing aside his own superstitious dread, he cried out Sarah's name as the implications of that tale began to fill his mind. He forgot the beast below as he raced back up the hall to ascend the staircase to the second floor. He took the steps two and three at a time despite his protesting muscles as thunder rattled the windows, and rain began falling in solid sheets outside the manor.
He found Sarah's room empty. Her clothes were left discarded at the foot of her bed, and although it was unmade, she was not in it. He looked around, but could not find her anywhere. After a quick search of the upstairs, calling her name with every step, he still could not find her. He was glad he still held the flashlight as he decided to try the trap door that led to the attic only to find it empty, too. He was running out of places to look. A flash of lightning as he passed a window in the back bedroom lit up the lawn, and Charles caught a glimpse of the servants' quarters. He had forgotten all about them.
"You know a lot about dragons," Sarah told Ben as they lay together in a mutual embrace in his small bed. "I've never heard much of what you've told me."
Ben sat up, tugging her along with him until she sat up in front of him on the bed. "Sarah, what if I said that everything I told you tonight is true?"
"That would be so grand, wouldn't it," she said softly as she reached out to caress his cheek. "Real dragons.
"But that sounds as impossible as real love. In this world, at least."
"Isn't our love real," he asked her earnestly, his dark eyes boring into hers again with an intensity that shook her for a moment.
"Oh, God, if it isn't, I don't even want to think of tomorrow," she replied sincerely.
"Think of forever," he told her as he took her hand, and pressed it against his broad, solid chest. "For my love is as real, and lasting as the dragons of old."
"Ben," she croaked, uncertain of what to do or say when he got off the bed, and simply stood before her with his peculiar smile. Her hand was still held to his chest, and she followed him half off the bed, staring up into his loving gaze.
She stopped, one leg kneeling at the edge of the bed, one foot on the floor, and pull her hand away when his body began to heat up. Just as suddenly, it began to cool as it started changing before her eyes. She swallowed hard, almost choking, as she watched him change. That was all it could be called. The only way to describe what she saw. She could actually seen his smooth skin harden, and segment, and he seemed to be getting taller, as well. He had been just over six foot a moment ago, but now he seemed to have reached at least nine feet tall as he still smiled down at her with the same, dark eyes.
She could not help but continue to watch him in a mixture of fear and fascination as his thighs spread, twisting to form powerful haunches. That was the least of his strange transformation. For even as he grew, his body swelling slightly with ever more powerful musculature, his shoulder blades flowered up and out into powerful wings, and there was now a long tail growing out from his thickening spine behind his thick flanks.
She actually let out a cry of surprise when Ben's face began its extraordinary elongation into a semblance that blended both human and reptile into one strange and wonderful countenance. The creature that Ben had become smiled as he held out a scaled forepaw to her, and said "Dragons," in a slight hissing voice, "Are as real as my love."
"Ben," she cried, her voice trembling as she hesitated about reaching for that strange creature. Was she still asleep after all? As this all just part of some peculiar dream?
"We are both awake," he told her as if sensing her thoughts for second time that night. "I ma as real you, or my love for you. Our race is dying, Sarah. There are so few of us now. We so seldom find the mates we need in your world these days. The lack has greatly diminished our numbers. Did we not live so long, we might already be gone. I hoped," he said as his hand dropped to his side, "That you might truly be a woman that could see beyond the flesh. A woman that could a kindred soul."
She looked up into the sad, expressive eyes of pure ebony. Her own eyes lit with understanding as she said, "Gwayne found the missing princess in that cavern. She wasn't abducted. Was she?"
"I recall the woman," he nodded. "For she was my father's mother. He mourns for her still."
Sarah thought she saw the powerful dragon tremble with emotion as he spoke.
"Ben," she asked, getting off the bed to stand before him. 'What do I do?"
He looked down at her, half fearing she would dart away when his raised his clawed hand again. She did not flee. Instead, she reached up to touch the golden tear welling at the corner of his black eyes. "All you have to do is love me, my lady," he told her. "Freely, and of your won will," he added with a glimmer of hope in his dark eyes.
He was smiling down at her again, and she smiled back.
"I do," she replied. "I love you more than I ever thought I could love anyone in this world."
"Then you have made me happier than I have ever been these many years," he told her as he urged her back toward the edge of the bed.
"Would you have really left me if I had refused," she asked, looking back up at him in wonder.
Incredibly, she could still seem much of his human guise in that expressive features. Most especially in his wide, expressive eyes.
"I would have had no choice," he told her, his smile fading slightly.
"I love you," she said, quickly reassuring him as she reached up to embrace his huge form. "No matter what you look like."
"Please," he whispered anxiously as he moved her to kneel on the bed before him with ease. "I need you now."
"Ben, why did you weep earlier," she asked as she stared into his virtually human features. "For us?"
"For us. For my people. There are, as I said, so few of us left," he told her as he slowly, carefully, once more made love to her yielding body. This time was far different. She could actually feel the sheer emotion that he radiated as he caressed her gently with both hands and wings, mounting her from the floor as she knelt on all fours before him on the bed.
"Will we really have children together," she asked, thinking of a lecture she had once heard about the impossibility of crossbreeding species. Of course, that professor had not considered dragons.
"You will be mother to our children," Ben replied with a smile. "They will love you, and watch over you, even as I. Do not fear, my lady, there will be no pain. Our kind do not bring pain."
She had been anxious at first, both wanting and fearing him. Yet despite his size, and obvious strength, he was astonishingly gentle as they joined once more. That, and her love, most especially her live, decided her. She gave in to him completely as she echoed his harsh cries born of pleasure, and joy born of the unfettered spirits they shared.
"You are a very special woman, my lady," Ben told her as he embraced her bodily. "A very beautiful young woman."
Sarah said nothing to that as she led him hold her in his strong, yet gentle arms, thinking of how much she did love him. She also thought of their children to come. They were not displeasing thoughts. Far from it.
Outside, Charles dashed across the lawn as he continued his mad quest for his daughter. He pounded on the door to the servants' quarters, but there was no response. Naturally, the door was locked. He could not even be sure he was heard over the sound of the thunder. In one brief lull, though, he thought he heard the unmistakable cry of Sarah's voice.
He impulsively slammed into the door, forcing it from its hinges with surprising ease. He then ran through the lobby, seeing nothing, and finding himself faced with two long halls, and a staircase before him. He spotted the dim glow of a light from beneath one door on the hall to his left, and chose that path even as he heard Sarah's cry once more. Throwing caution to the wind, he dashed down the hall to that door.
He found it unlocked, and shoved it open as he entered with the flashlight held up like a weapon. He stopped halfway across the room, unable to believe his eyes. He had found Sarah, and she was definitely not alone.
"Father," his young daughter gasped in surprise as she drew the sheet up over her naked body. The ma in bed with her did not seem to be as bashful. He made no move to cover himself, and neither did he remove his arm from around Sarah's slender shoulders.
"I heard…. I mean, I thought I heard…."
The dark-haired stranger actually smiled at him, nodding as if he understood his plight. "You would be Mr. Charles Collins. Sarah has told me a great deal about you.
"Oh, and I am Ben Elgins. I am the caretaker of the estate. Rather like a tradition in my family, if you know what I mean," the young man said with a faint smile.
Charles stood panting from his unaccustomed exertions, and confusion. He still could not credit his senses with the sight before him, any more than he had earlier in the basement. "I saw…. Then I heard…."
He shook his head, unsure of what to day, or if should say anything at all.
"You're soaked, father," Sarah chided him as she pulled up the sheet as she now sat up in bed. He could not help but notice how close she was to the man who called himself the caretaker. "Have some tea, it will warm you," she offered, gesturing to the steaming pot on the hotplate near the window.
There was a peculiar flash of light in Ben's eyes, and Charles couldn't help the question that slipped out. "Do you believe in dragons," he asked his daughter's dark-eyed lover with all seriousness.
"Dragons," the caretaker chuckled. "You mean those great beasties that Arthur sent his knights out to slay?"
"That exactly what I meant," Charles said as he eyed the young man suspiciously.
"I guess I do at that," Ben replied cryptically as Sarah giggled. "But I also believe in ghosts, thought I've yet to see one. I suppose this world got too big for the likes of such things," he suggested with a solemn expression in his dark eyes.
The great, black eyes he had seen in the basement flashed through Charles' mind, and he shook his head. "Yes," he agreed wearily. "I suppose you're right."
He put aside his speculations as he went to the old chair to prepare himself a cup of tea from the kettle after setting the flashlight aside. He did not let his glance leave his daughter, though, or the man in bed with her. Something about him still didn't seem quite right to him.
"Well," Sarah finally asked as he leaned against the small bureau to sip his tea and watch them.
"Well, what," he asked innocently, well aware he as starting to regard the couple as a lab specimen the way he was scrutinizing them. For God's sake, what was he expecting to happen?
"You know what I mean," she huffed, almost letting the sheet slip from her body. "Where's the lecture you ought to be giving me right about now?"
Ben chuckled, but said nothing as Charles eyed her.
"Lecture," he echoed as he lifted his cup to his lips to mask his own involuntarily smile.
"You know what I mean," she pouted, sounding disappointed now. "You did just burst into this room, finding me in bed with a strange man. Aren't you the least bit angry? Or curious?"
"Well," he drawled with a faint nod. "I was wondering how he managed to seduce you when so many others have failed."
"Ben is special," she stated baldly, almost daring him to try to argue with her. Charles could not help but notice how she hugged him when she spoke. "Very special," she added.
"I am no more special than you, my love," Ben replied, and then turned back to Charles with a solemn expression.
"Sir, we would very much like to marry. As soon as you consider it proper," he amended quickly as Charles raised his eyebrows at the abrupt request.
"Yes," Sarah agreed. "And we want to live here on the estate. You won't be selling it, will you, father," she all but begged.
"Just why did you decide you loved this man so suddenly," he asked her, his suspicions far from settled. "You've never acted this way around anyone else before now."
Sarah smiled, an unnerving smile, Charles thought as she cleared her throat to speak. "I suppose it's hard to say exactly what it was, but….I suppose it is because his has the kindest….gentlest soul I have ever known. I can…feel his love, and I know it's real. Besides that," she smiled, "I suppose it was just love at first sight," she beamed as she turned her gaze back on her lover.
Lightning flashed outside the windows, and it seemed to be accompanied by a flash of illumination from his own mind. Sarah's words all but echoed the words in the manuscript he had just recently finished reading. And Ben, his eyes so dark, like the great eyes in the basement.
"His….soul," he finally managed to murmur as he straightened, his hands shaking so violently now that he spilled his tea over the rim of the small cup.
"Yes," Sara smiled.
"I wasn't imagining things," Charles declared, staring Ben full in the face with an accusing glare. "Sir Gwayne's tale….it was all true."
It was not a question, but he gave the man time to deny it, if he chose.
"What did you see," Ben asked in a calm, patient manner.
"Eyes. Dark, gleaming eyes set in a head so massive it tore up most of the basement floor," he told him. "Eyes very much like yours," he added.
"Father," Ben sighed with a faint grin at Sarah. "He still worries about me even though I've come of age."
"Your….father," Charles rasped.
"Surely you understand by now, Mr. Collins," Ben asked.
"I can see that final parchment was hidden purposely," he deduced, all but ignoring his daughter now as he focused on Ben.
"Yes. Only a kindred soul, an exceptional woman, would have felt our call. My call. Only she did not need its lesson. She came to me without knowing the full truth, and was still willing to accept my love on her own. She is….a very special lady," he repeated, smiling at Sarah with obvious affection.
"Then….you've already….?" Sarah nodded in answer, and blushed slightly as she hugged Ben tightly. He seemed content to let her, and made no other move say to lightly kiss her cheek in response. Charles studied them, then felt a sudden pang of loneliness, remembering his own happiness with Carolyn.
"Does she…?" Charles sighed, then looked pointedly at his daughter. "Do you know all of it?" Sarah smiled sweetly as she nestled into Ben's arms as if she were a child.
"He has told me everything, father. Believe me, I know what I am doing."
"Do you," he pressed her, setting the cooling tea aside he had not spilled.
"Father, I love him. He loves me. Isn't that what it's all about in the end?"
"Yes, sweetheart," he sighed, shaking his head as his head dropped, and his eyes closed in a belated attempt to clear his troubled mind. "I guess that it is."
Charles looked up into the man's dark, piercing eyes. What was he really thinking? In fact, what was he really?
"Yes," was all he asked.
"The world must not yet know of Sir Gwayne's journals," he told him. "For all our sakes," he added, nodding at Sarah.
"I agree, young man," he nodded, strength returning to his voice as resolve filled him once more. "Men are not yet ready to know dragons still live among us. Not just yet."
"Thank you, sir. Please be assured that I will care for your daughter all her life. She will never want for love, or anything else," Ben promised.
"No, I don't suppose she will," he replied, thinking of the legendary dragon hoards. "Before I go, might I ask a favor of you?"
"Of course," Ben smiled. "We are all family here," he pointed out. "Or soon will be."
"I would like to see you," Charles said quietly.
Ben understood, and he climbed out of bed to stand before the man without any hint of false modesty.
"You might want to stand back," he advised Charles as Sarah giggled at her father's expression. For Ben was already changing, and Charles Collins had never felt so young or alive at that moment as when he stared at the very source of so many ancient legends.
His future son-in-law.