The individual words the priest droned were as meaningless to Alyce as the ancient runes carved into the dark rock at her back but taken together she knew their import. I had thought to see a few more summers before I heard my last rites.
As a princess of the blood, she had always expected a somewhat longer and more comfortable future. True, she knew her ultimate fate would likely have been to be marriage to some unpleasant old man to shore up her family's uncertain grasp on the throne. She understood that it had not happened yet out of some combination of an aging father's sentimentality and the fact she was the one card left in his hand.
Still, it would have been old man with lands and wealth and finery and mayhap a handsome knight or three in his household to pass the time with. Imaginings of how they might pass that time had seen her through a few dark, lonely nights in her bedchamber. Not that they were all so lonely, but finding men satisfied to bed a princess without feeling the need to shout it from the castle roof was more of a chore than it should have been...
There were knights and nobles about now, to be sure, some of whom had even enjoyed her favors, but they sat silent on horses that whickered with the fear their riders dared not express. No finery either. She wore a simple white shift, and her blond hair fell past her shoulders unbound. The collar about her slender neck was gold, at least, but the clasp had been beaten shut, never to open. From the back a gold chain fastened her to a great rusted iron ring that had been driven into the black slab behind her, amidst forgotten runes gouged into the rock in some distant age. In front of her, across a field of broken stone, the mouth of a cave gaped blackly, and as she stared at it her blue eyes widened as she caught a glimpse of motion, a flash of flame...
Through her rising terror she found she could still feel a hint of irritation that the priest had come nowhere near the end of his prayers before he, too, saw what she had seen and turned without hesitation to flee up the slope away from the cave, his robes flapping behind him. The knights and nobles quickly outpaced him, their horses hardly needing reigns or spurs to wheel and gallop away. She alone was left to see what came crawling from the cave.
She had seen it from afar, of course, as it had flown through the skies above the kingdom for a fortnight while her father's wise men searched dusty tomes to put a name to the terror and find how to avert the doom it clearly portended.
They found the name. Tanex, the wyrm no man may slay. Tanex the destroyer of kingdoms. Tanex the devourer of maidens. The last offered a potential solution that Alyce thought many had jumped at rather too eagerly. A number of the nobles now galloping for the horizon had bravely browbeat her poor father with threats of rebellion, indeed with threats of violence in his own hall, until he consented she be offered to appease the beast even now emerging into the sunlight.
It was larger than any beast should be, 40 feet at least from the tip of its steaming nose to the end of its thrashing tail, covered with glittering crimson scales, bright as jewels. As she watched, great red bat wings unfolded from its shoulders, and it leapt across the broken field in a bound, landing before Alyce with a sound of cracking stone. She found herself too terrified to scream, too terrified to move as a great reptilian head crowned with four short black horns thrust toward her. Glittering golden eyes, slit like a cat's and the size of dinner plates, stared from underneath them at the chained princess.
Then the head swayed closer, a great forked tongue flicking forth, and Aylce found the spell was broken as her terror returned redoubled. She started at teeth the size of her forearm a foot from her face, and as the furnace heat of its breath washed over her Alyce's mind and body gave out as one and she fell into darkness.
The princess awoke to rock and flames and screamed. Hell, dead, dead and in hell.... Her mind raced in circles as she jerked upright from the smooth stone floor where she had been sprawled. As her eyes focused she could see she was in a great high-ceilinged cave, ascending to a rough circle of sunlight far off to her right and descending to a flickering red-lit gloom to her left. The flames resolved themselves into torches, set in brass sconces of ancient and uncanny design affixed to the walls at irregular intervals.
Alyce looked down at herself. She was still in her white shift, only a little the worse for wear. Her fingers felt the collar at that was still about her neck, its chain reduced to a single link hanging from the back. Where it had been a plain band there were now strange sigils etched into the gold.
"That collar near strangled you when you swooned," a great voice came from her left. "And it was not properly inscribed for the rite, but I have chosen to overlook and correct that."
She looked up and saw that the voice came from a red-lit smoke that rose to cloud the cave a few yards from where she sat. Within that cloud, she could make out the dim shadow of the great wyrm, and her heart again nearly stammered to a stop.
And then the shadow began to shift, something like how shadows shift before a moving candle, twisting, shrinking. As she stared the great wyrm shadow became the shadow of a man, tall, broad shouldered.
Then Tanex stepped from the mist and Alyce started again, for she beheld not a man, but a woman.
She stood near six and a half feet tall and was shamelessly naked. A cascade of untamed red hair, red as rubies, red as flame, cascaded from her head and past her shoulders. Her skin was flawless, with a red tinge Alyce had never seen before. Her breasts were...very large...Alyce reddened herself and looked down. Her arms, her legs, her body was smooth and sleek but muscled in the way she had most certainly not seen on her father's champion knight when she wasn't peeking in him bathing after a hard sparring session....
She retained her wings, reduced but still jutting past her broad shoulders. A long, slender tail whipped behind her, red-scaled and snakelike. The nails on her fingers and toes were black and long. Alyce could make out a faint tracery of faintly-red scales on her fingers, on her feet, fringing a face that was human and strong and beautiful. Four black horns jutted from beneath her hair. She smiled and sharp teeth glinted.
Her eyes remained the same, golden, catlike, glittering.
"You are...Tanex?" Alyce stammered, her mind hopelessly confused.
"Taneth," the serpent-woman answered back, spreading her wings as flame flickered from her nostrils. "Have the people of this land truly forgotten the sound of my name? I slept too long, I fear."
She stalked closer, staring Alyce in the eyes, stretching her wings and arms wide, seeming to grow even taller as she approached. "I am Taneth, the Bright Devouring Flame, Queen of Earth and Sky, get of the First and Nameless, Goddess of Wyrms. No man may slay me," she pronounced. "I have slept an age beneath this land, and I rise now to claim what is mine."
Alyce's mind continued to whirl uselessly. "You...you are a woman," she said, scrambling to her feet.
"No, I am a dragon. A female of my kind, but a dragon," she said, hips swaying as she walked closer. Alyce backed against the wall, but the dragon walked on, pressing up against her. "It pleases me to bank the flames of my glory in this form for the comfort of mortals," the dragon said, tilting her head to the side with a smile. "Do you find it...comfortable?"
Taneth's naked skin was smooth, dry and feverish, radiating a heat Alyce could feel through the thin silk shift. Her breath was hot on Alyce's face, but not the sulfurous foulness she expected, but instead smelling faintly of some exotic incense. A long, dark, forked tongue suddenly snaked from Taneth's mouth, and Alyce flinched as it lightly stroked the side of her face. "I can make you more than comfortable," the dragon purred.
"You..I..." Alyce stammered. Her mind whirled, as she dimly remembered whispers of perversions between the serving girls. "You...want to be with me...as a man?"
"My dear pet, you wound me," Taneth answered. "I am a dragon. A sorceress. A demigoddess. I can show you pleasures no man has conceived."
The breath of the dragon was hot on her face, her crimson lips so very, very close. The golden eyes seemed to be growing, and Alyce felt as though she were being drawn into their depths. She could feel her breath quickening, her skin flushing, and an odd restless sensation begin to grow deep inside her. The eyes were so big now, the lips so close...with a supreme effort Alyce wrenched her gaze away and turned to the side.
The dragon pulled her head back, with a look Alyce could not quite understand. Puzzlement? Disappointment? "I will not take what is not given. It is not our way. But do you know what you scorn?" she said. "In my time I have consorted with queens of old, with nymphs, with goddesses. All of them shook with pleasure at my touch. And you refuse me?"
"I...I...it's not...I can't..." Alyce stammered.
"Very well," the dragon said, her expression closing somewhat. "Perhaps I have slept too long alone. Do you desire anything? Ask what you will, and I will grant you what I can."
"Would you...would you grant me leave to go?" Alyce asked. The dragon gave no answer but a low chuckle.
"I am your slave, then," the princess said.
"No, not that," the dragon said. "You are no slave. I will not force you to obey."
"You will release me, then?" she asked.
"No!" the dragon answered with an expression of annoyance. "Are you dimwitted? You were given according to the terms of the ancient pact, for as long as you shall live. The Old Law is unbreakable. It is all carved into the very rock you were..." She trailed off. "Of course. During my slumber, your people forgot how to read the runes."
"No...no one has ever known," the princess stammered. "They were carved by forgotten folk, before our people came to this land..."
She flinched back as the dragon began bellowing in laughter. "Ha! Then you really did not know," she said. "What did you expect was going to happen?"
"We thought...I thought...you were going to eat me," Alyce said.
The laughter that followed was more unexpected and somehow even louder. "I would love a taste of you, pet, but no," the dragon said as she paused for breath. "You are not my dinner. You are my wife."
Alyce stared dumbstruck as Taneth chuckled. "You are surprised? Your kings have been gifting spouses to each other for as long as you have had kings, and to my kind just as long. When last I walked these lands I usually had two or three princesses or princes about, all left at that very rock according to the Old Laws, not to mention the concubines, the slaves and the thralls and the ones I took in battle. Would-be dragonslayers bring a certain fire to their lovemaking, once they have been properly brought around..."
Alyce finally found her voice. "But you are...I am...we are both..." she stammered.
"Female. Yes. So?" Taneth said. "I have always been a lover of women. Oh, when males have been offered I have taken them to be polite, yes, and some have proven satisfying lovers in their own ways, but on balance..." she looked at the princess' shocked expression and sighed "But we will talk on this later. Now, save your freedom, which by the Old Law is no longer mine to grant, what would you desire?"
Alyce breathed deep, reached down within herself, and pushed down her fear and bewilderment and curiosity and memory of warm scales against skin... You are royal, she thought, and lifted her chin. If this beast slays me for my words, better to die now than to live as..as...whatever I am supposed to be. "If I am truly to remain here, I will require more suitable garments than these," she said, bracing for whatever was to come.
"In lost Ashur, there was a princess I knew - knew very well, yes - who was perfectly content to wear nothing but a belly chain and an ankle bangle," the dragon said with a sigh. "I have awoken to joyless times, it seems. Still, 'tis trifling to find you something suitable. Come with me."
Taneth turned and strode deeper into the cave, leaving Alyce standing stunned for a moment at her sudden acquiescence before hurrying to catch up. Beyond the chamber the descending tunnel turned twice before opening into a new torchlit room. Taneth strode in without pause, but Alyce was brought up short at the entrance. The cavern was at least as big as her father's audience hall, but piled halfway to the ceiling with gold. Gold coins, gold cups, gold statues, and gold jewelry, with gemstones scattered across the mound, green and red, like wildflowers on a hill. She didn't know how long she had started at the great glittering pile when Taneth was suddenly before her again, holding out a tangle of thin chains and small plates made of some shimmering, silver metal.
"This should suit. It is royal regalia, from the kingdoms of the Dark Elves. There is a lash that goes with it, but the leather has gone rotten..." The dragon stopped, watching Alyce's eyes widen as she worked out how it was supposed to be worn and what she would look like in it. Taneth closed her eyes and sighed. "I shall try to get something else."
They turned and walked silently back up through the cave. Alyce had begun to regain her composure when Taneth spoke again. "Is there anything else you require?" the dragon sarcastically intoned.
Alyce found herself seriously pondering the question. It seems she does not mean to slay me outright. And if I am to live... "I shall need a...basin. And, and comb and a mirror, at least," she said, before she was struck by an impulse to test how far her boundaries lay. "And a servant. I must have a servant," she added, with an internal flinch.
"A servant? I suppose I could call up a succubus or two, they could serve...oh, stop waving your hands around like that," Taneth said with mild irritation as Alyce's hands instinctively wove the ward against devils she'd learned as a child. "That nonsense does not even give real demons pause, you know." She stared at the princess, who gave her best defiant stare back. "Very well. I shall fetch you another mortal." She turned and strode toward the entrance, then turned back. She waved a hand, and Alyce started as the symbols on her collar flared with red flame. "You will not set foot outside this cave," she said. "Even if you did, I would find you anyway. I could scent you from half a kingdom away. These ears can hear the whispering of thought. These eyes can see the turning of destiny. And your destiny and mine are bound now."
And then she was gone, her shape twisting and growing as turned and strode toward the mouth of the cave until she leapt to the air.
Alyce, of course, set out for the enticing circle of daylight as soon as she could convince herself Taneth had gone. But as she walked toward the light, she found the collar about her throat unaccountably grow heavier and heavier with every step she took, until it was all she could do to stand. She found herself unsurprised to see the sigils on the collar glowing red, a red that faded along with the weight as she resignedly trudged back downward, into the flame-lit darkness.
Alyce woke with a start. She had listlessly explored the cavern the twisting passageways of the cavern for some time, wondering at the oddly smokeless torches, drinking her fill from a spring the flowed from a wall. At length she found herself in a large round chamber. Flecks of crystal glittered on the walls, and great pillars of flowing stone rose from the floor, meeting similar ones descending from the shadow-shrouded ceiling. As she stared at the stone she could almost see patterns; people, women, women dancing, women...women doing...she turned away.
At the center of the room was a round pool, and she sat beside it, suddenly overcome with weariness. Sleep must have overtaken her almost instantly.
She had no idea how long she had slept, but she was surprised to wake in a shaft of daylight, falling from an irregular rent in the highest point of the ceiling into the center of the chamber to the floor next to the pool. She found another small chamber off to the side of this one and attended her needs before she returned to the side of the pool.
Standing beside the water, she came to the resolution that if she was going to live then she was going to bathe. She shrugged off her shift and left to fall to the floor before touching her foot to the water and was surprised to find it warm. She had placed one foot fully in before a voice boomed out behind here. "Ah, you found the hot spring. It is why I put the seraglio here."
As she spun in surprise tried to cover herself Alyce could see Taneth, still shamelessly naked, standing behind a woman. Her shoulder length hair was dark, and so were her eyes. She was dressed in a homespun dark skirt and white blouse that Alyce had often seen on peasants, although the neckline seemed rather low and that she had never seen a peasant skirt slit that high up the side. She had cloth slung over her shoulder, one hand clutched what looked like a solid-gold comb a gold-framed mirror-gold basin while the other held a golden bowl. A sliver, rune-inscribed ring was about her neck.
"Here are the things you requested. A comb, a basin, a mirror and a servant," the dragon said.
"Where...where did you..." Alyce sputtered.
"There is a village on the far side of the forest. She was serving in the tavern and seemed suitable, so I claimed her when she stepped outside. Do not worry. I paid for her," Taneth added. "I left behind a full quarter-weight in silver for the tavern-keeper, more than one would usually pay for such, but I am a generous dragon."
The dragon waited a moment but got no answer except Alyce's wide-eyed stare. "Your gratitude overwhelms me," she said. "I go now to conjure up some clothing." She turned and left as she came.
The two stared at each other for a long moment. "I am the Princess Alyce," Alyce finally said.
"Isabella, m'lady. From Theawich," the other said in a somewhat husky voice.
"You are a subject of my father, then," Alyce said in a chill tone "In my experience, subjects courtesy before royalty."
"In my experience, m'lady, royalty wear more clothes," Isabella said.
At that, Alyce's face fell, and she crumpled to the ground, weeping. Isabella set down comb, mirror and bowl and rushed forward. "There, m'lady, no need for that," she said' kneeling beside the princess.
"But this is all mad!" Alyce cried. "That beast, she thinks...she wants..."
"Oh, I know what that beast wants, but there's nothing to be done for that" Isabella said. "I've been bought to be your servant, so I suppose I should start serving. Why don't you get in the water, and I'll give you a washing."
Alyce took a breath and steeled herself. This was what she had asked for. To reject it seemed both ungracious and unwise. She stood and stepped into the pool, wading until she was waist-deep in its comfortably warm waters. She turned back to see Isabella shrugging of her own clothes, showing there was nothing but skin beneath. "I'll have to get in there to wash you, and there's no sense getting a perfectly good clothes wet," Isabella said, answering the question in her eyes.
The now-naked woman stepped into the pool herself and dipped one of the rags she had brought into the water. Alyce shivered slightly despite the warmth, and stood, at a loss of what to do, as Isabella stood behind her began to wipe her back and shoulders, softly humming to herself.
Alyce tried to relax. She was used to being bathed by servants, of course, but the maids assigned to that duty had always been much older than Isabella. And much less naked. Or attractive. Wait, why did that thought come to mind? She had a pretty enough face, skin a mite darker than Alyce's own aristocratic tone but smoother than she expected, breasts a bit larger than her own if not as spectacular as their captor's and they're swaying closer I wonder what they feel like and her hands were gentle and the fingertips were brushing down her spine...