Baron Braximus, for all his reforms, and bread-Sundays, free bath-houses and baby kissing every-days, is an evil man. I know because my father sold me to him. It was not a trade, actually, I’m passionate about this you see, when we had no other choice. But there was an agreement, a contract, an expectation. I was to marry Baron Braximus at the end of the month, and then my poor father could keep his shop. But when it was all said and done, Braximus was a fool. He was an idiot because he gave me time to think it over. And where he allowed me free will, I saw a way…
It was the first time I felt truly ‘cleaned up’ as they say. Ironic, I know, because it was so indecent to stay unmarried in a strange man’s house, especially with a man your father sold you to, but evenso, I felt lovely with the ribbons in my hair, the gold shells on my ears, and the yellow dress. Well, no, it was not that happy with Braximus. Let’s say that the dress was muted…burnt orange, like the rude backside of your horse who insists on grazing so near to me, ugh!
Well then, now that I’ve moved over here and got a new handful of berries, I would like you to imagine what it is like to be a girl of that age. My true age? Then, or do you mean now, and why, Sir, are you so insistent? Well, I’m not telling. But, I will reveal that I was between the birthday where you get your first set of heeled slippers, and then the other one where you hand over a white herd of goats to your new mother-in-law. That is where I was, dreamy, free, and I also felt lucky. I used to smile back then. Baron Braximus wanted me to eat apples at his table and put on the weight of a wife. He called me a Lady already, though I hadn’t earned it. He showed me all the precious things in his home and asked which of them I would like to touch. I feared that he would ask to touch me, in return…I felt sure that he would, one day. So, I waited. But back then, I thought that fear was love, and that my hesitation was a woman’s modest humility for those sorts of things. All of that I was meant to forget in time, when I agreed to marry before a monk, and in the eyes of the Chapel, god, and all the angels, that stuff. Because Baron Braximus couldn’t force a holy hand, you see, especially with every religious miner in the Mountainlands watching, but it is far easier to warp a child’s mind.
Sylvestre was the name of the Baron’s pet stallion. Not a mount, mind you. There is a difference between the functional brute you rode in on, and the petted and preening oily black thing Braximus sang to like a lover and fretted over like a daughter, though technically Sylvestre would have been a son. I had never before seen such an amazing creature. It was like a piece of a dream, or the vortex of a nightmare, I didn’t know which. But I wanted to ride Sylvestre. I wanted to own that strength, I wanted to… Well, I wasn’t entirely sure until I stole him. When the two of us were alone in the woods together, he grazing, and I unable to do anything but stare, I suddenly found myself gone filly—truly. I mean truly turned into something like that, Cymen Ruecross, do you follow? I was madly in love with a creature that was not my make, and so I made myself into kin of that creature. Fool I was, thinking that it would be enough. No, Sylvestre wanted his master, not a mare.
And perhaps now I have alarmed you. Well, rest assured that I paid the crime for falling in love with a most majestic creature, more noble and winning in spirit than my affianced. I brought back the horse—dressed and as myself again, of course—but also heartbroken and sorry. Braximus took a whip to my backside—all of the back of me—like the thief he said I was. And I was also a whore. And a witch, and a waste of his money. I tell you, the sun did not set on me in that land. I fled with tears in my eyes, the moment Lord Braximus set me loose. Down to the foothills and then the coast. Oh, poor father…
My second love was a more accessible spirit, thank goodness. He was tattooed in the arms, and a little round in the gut, but that was from being merry and impressed with life. He was a sailor, one of the best. Commodore Jarshaun could travel as far as the edge of the world and back. He promised to take me with him one day, when I wasn’t filling drinks at the tavern. I, of course, being some ways past the age of giving goats to some mother-person believed him. Only, he took far too long to get at it. So, I went to get passage on his grand ship next tide. Would he resist me if I was the only lovely thing on board? Yes, actually. But before even that, he missed me because I missed the boat. And all that happened because I’d been up the night before worrying whether or not I should run off again with a man. But Jarshaun was not a horse, and so I came a bit late… an obvious conclusion that took its time coming. I waded into the water, then swam at the lessening vessel… and finally decided my legs were not good enough to swim so I gained a fish tail. And I wound in circles like an eel for leagues and leagues trying to catch them.
A storm found them before I could. It was nasty and spanned every inch of the firmament. Lightning sparked at the corners of its mouth, and it salivated over everything on its palate. The boat was well on its way to the throat of it, and as a fish I knew this, but did the men realize where they were headed? No. Below the water, it looked and felt awful, but above the soft crash and whirlpools which drowned fish, there was only a stretch of gray cloud on the horizon. It horrified me to think of flopping on deck, and making bubbles at the Commodore Jarshaun in an effort to explain what I knew, so I made a plan to turn the ship around myself. I would be a kitten of a storm, enough to send them away, but not harm them. The warning they would never get, otherwise.
It was a bad idea. The tentacles were a bit much, it turned out. I ripped the ship apart in an effort to guide them properly. And my one whorling eye could not make out Jarshaun from the rest. He dove overboard, I found out later. Well that was horribly done, and I raged, oh! I felt so awful. Still, I pulled the ship from the brink of the storm and set it to rest in two pieces on a deserted island where no one could see it. Afterward, I found Jarshaun floating on the return trip. Sea monster was no good, it caused him to make the water around us to go instantly warm and… amber. A fish had no arms with which to carry her love. In the end, I became both. When we reached shore, I let him rest against me. I wished we would never leave that beach. But he woke when we were trespassed against. Fishermen with a net and spear intent on me. Again, rather than explain, I went off to be a kicked creature, rather than a whipped and burdened one.
And now for the fourth man. Perhaps you think I went through all of this ordeal without feeling, but that is not true. First I was hopeful, and then second, enchanted. With Jarshaun, yes the Lord counts as two, lift up another finger Cymen, and Jarshaun was lewd while I was a half-fish—oh! I hadn’t explained so much to you, forgive me. But the next man I came across was clever. Even today, I wish I could think his thoughts.
At that time, a few years ago, it was not yet clear whether Axes Valley had taken its name from the caverns on the southern edge, or if the dragon had taken his name from the people he dined on who lived just north of him, fighting in the valley. Either way, I was something of a show-off by then, as a trade. These people in the Valley across the Sea liked my guile and sought me out for tellings and fertility dances. And, of course the Commodore Jarshaun story. For some reason they finally believed that I could win against the dragon, named Axz. So they dressed me in white and dragged me into the deepest dankest cavern with torches. They said to exorcise him and left to guard the entrance until it was done. Well, I didn’t believe in dragons. I was busy trying to feel around in the dark for a way back out when I found out how wrong I was about the minor and major Scriptural manifestations in this world.
I knew at once that Axz was male because he smiled at me. Sideways, sort of, and polite too. No teeth, just the strong muscle of his jaw stretching tight. And then his crystal iris expanded until I could see myself as he did me. A living, breathing bauble among his collection. I am sure I said something to him like,
“Oh. So you are a dragon?”
And he responded, I remember, “And you are definitely a woman.”
Then Axz lay down on his back and showed his belly to me. I don’t know why I felt the need to, or even believed it would matter, but I went over and scratched it. My hands were tiny in comparison and they did little good, but he relaxed and purred as if it was the kindest touch of his life.
“No, I don’t think I will eat you afterall. Shall I lick you then?”
Oh, I was frightened again. Charmed, and frightened. But this was in a different way than with Baron Braximus. So I let myself laugh and hurried backwards to wait against the wall. We were silent for a long time, and then we suddenly found something in common to talk about, and could hardly part with that topic. Fire. I wished that I knew how to conjure it, and he breathed it like nothing. Axz lit up the sky of the cave for me… well, only a little while, he said he wouldn’t be able to breathe if he made too much smoke, and he worried about me as well, being so small. Then, I went and put a tiara on my head, from his horde, and Axz threatened to lick me again.
“Suppose I enjoy it, and I’m not offended at all?”
And then he… well. I’ll leave that part out. But that was the finest evening I ever spent with a gentleman. And I never felt more safe, either, than with a kind dragon. In time, the villagers wanted a dead dragon and shouted as much into Axz’s home. And he wanted, badly to eat them, but asked if any were my kinfolk first. How kindly! I said no, but then I begged him not to eat my customers. He really liked that response for some reason. Axz wanted to make a deal, in that case. He promised not to eat my patrons if only I agreed to stay with him for all time.
That was…you would disagree, and look at you, you’re already shaking your head—but it was sweet, somehow. It was not a fair arrangement at all, but that caused me to believe that he wanted me with him more than he could admit or measure, or ever hope to put a value to. But I told him about Baron Braximus then, and how his people still wanted to whip me some more, because of the contract, and Axz set his snout at my feet and shut his eyes. The dragon man said that he understood and so could never ask me to stay against my will. There was another tunnel out, I could escape the fury of the mob that way. And to lessen my shame, he promised not to attack Axes valley again. And, until this day, I hear the gold dragon will burn and rake every place else with his claws, but never the valley. What a romantic. Sadly, I don’t think I shall ever see him again. Not just because of our arrangement, and the impossibility of him being a monster. His greatest dream is to burn the world to ash, and I’d like very much to continue living in it… so there was that.
Oh me. Now I’m finally to my last unhappy and distressful situation. There is a rogue here, who steals from the rich and gives all of it—really, most of it—to the poor. All because the King’s brother was left in charge and he taxes the people as if they were pigs and wallowing mud weren’t free. A righteous man, but also a scoundrel. A dragon in manageable miniature. I certainly liked him, and I was wild so I joined with him. But the monk with them—a necessary sort who offered the unofficial sanction of the Chapels, named Tucker—did not like my stories of being a mermaid and running off with stallions to graze. I warned Robin—well, I wasn’t supposed to reveal his name, oh well—about a plot against him, archery contest, I think it was, and Tucker threw a bag over my head, dragged me off in the night, and when I woke up, I was tied above those sticks a little ways off. The stupid holy man was dancing about with his torch and cackling that Robin had chosen a respectable woman of the faith with connections and good breeding—gold, that is—that would better suit Robin’s cause. Well, I was angry to have been jilted. When did he even have time to meet such a fine lady? And then some other fellows I recognized came along and screamed about a rigged archery contest and Robin being thrown into prison, and wouldn’t he come help them rouse the parishioners or at least raise back some money for Robin’s bail? And take the torch, we can’t see without it, la la la, do you see? Then they left. And that is when you found me, a few days later.
Now Eve rubbed her stained hands on grass at either side of her dirty gray skirt. “There you have it. I am not someone to be saved, but someone from whom others need saving. That is not my choice, for others to come to calamity when I am around, but it is fate nonetheless. I am running, still from Baron Braximus. I have a more than understandable fear of horses, I can’t eat fish either, and I might be a friend to dragons if I’m not watched attentively. Most recently, I am wanted by Robin and his merry idiots and their intercessor with the faceless god. And if you think you can save me in some less decent fashion when this spell wears off, I warn you, Cymen Ruecross, that I have sworn off men, male creatures, and minerals and vegetables for that matter. I’m completely through. And if you don’t believe my stories then fine. You’ll be happy to learn that my greatest wish these days is to be left completely alone, so that doesn’t trouble me in the least!” she stood.
Cymen tugged his reluctant horse along, “… but evenso, Eve, why should you be alone?”
“You can’t fix me, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“No, but I can comfort you… as a friend if that is what you wish. I hardly know you, Eve but I worry for you. If I were to assure you that, come what may, I could protect you once and for all, would you travel East with me?”
“That’s impossible, when no man can absolutely guarantee another’s safety if you truly think about it. I am so very exhausted with Barons, Dragons, Commodores and Kings all offering me the same. What do you intend to do, Cymen Ruecross, marry me? I won’t have it, just because you saved me.”
Cymen clapped a fist to his breast. “I vow here and now that I will not hurt you, Lady Eve. I will be a friend and a gentleman to you all the days of your life, if only you will come with me and let me protect you on the journey East. For, where I am going, near to the Fringe, there is a one and true King over Kings who offers rest to all men, women, and creatures who find themselves lost. His comfort is a joyful peace that I carry in my heart with me always. He wishes his followers to share this spirit of welcome, simply because it is so perfect. That is all I want to do for you, Eve.”
“I don’t believe in the Chapels or anything like that, I don’t care if they’re in the East or the West, on the godless Fringe or whatever. Nor am I going to buy your Chapel’s holy book. Does it look like I have money?”
“Yes, I know it sounds a bit prescribed, but that is what the King taught us to say. Poetry aside, Eve, I am a man sworn to honesty, justice, chastity, and to seek and save rare things for my savior and King. You are such a treasure.”
Eve let a breeze pass by her while she narrowed eyes painted with smeared khol and stared. “Chastity? As in… abstinence.”
Cymen coughed a little, then mounted his horse and offered her a hand up.
“Oh no, I want this explained, Sir.” A flicker of smile, “There is a difference between the two, namely that a man—or woman—who practices the first could only reasonably do so after having never deviated from the latter in his entire life. Am I correct? Cymen Ruecross, are you trying to tell me that you are a virgin, and that is why you are able to make this grand vow of pure friendship? I don’t believe you.”
Cymen replaced his helmet, a winged corona with sweeping silken white cowl beneath. And then after all this preening, he frowned at her. “It’s a requirement of the Order.”
She laughed. Oh, how Eve laughed in his face, and stuffed her hands in the pockets of her apron to control herself. Failing there, the chapped knuckles went beneath Eve’s arms, her long tangled hair slipped loose from its braid (is her hair braided? It was out before), she bent over with it. She blushed, breathless, while Cymen flushed with shame. Eve laughed so loud and horrid that she didn’t recognize the fateful sound of horse’s hooves at first, and so squealed and fled behind Cymen when six riders were almost directly upon her.
Six knights, all in gold, saluted Cymen, whom they hailed as ‘Captain’ and then immediately removed crowned helmets when Eve crept from her hiding place. Each, in near unison, offered protection, salvation, and assured his virtue to the damsel in distress, on that very spot.
“I am either a fool… for believing in you, Cymen Ruecross, or for refusing to pass up such vile entertainment at the risk of my health, I’m not sure which.” Then Eve took Cymen’s hand, pulled back when he tried to lift her into the saddle, and shook it instead. The result was a woman squatting indecently for a moment, and nearly falling over. But then she walked out in front of the seven gold horses and they followed without question through slashes of pale sunshine, or even a loose chuckle behind black naked backs of the bright-moss trees.
That Knights of the Harmonic Gold Order allowed Eve the dignity of being a singular person moved her onward. She walked stiff as a scarecrow with wide-painted on eyes at the shock of it, true, but that she continued going ahead, at her own pace felt like some kind of reward.
Captain Cymen Ruecross noticed his men making silent and desperate gestures in every cardinal direction, from head to heart to shoulder and shoulder as they rode gently for the woman’s sake and watched her sway from behind.
“And we all thought finding the Grail was difficult enough…”