Lady Emma's Tale



            King Lucias was with his vassals when the letter arrived.  He was at the head of his long table with lords and knights seated in order of rank and favor.  A servant quietly placed the paper before him and departed.  He waited until two of his lords were talking to each other and began reading.  His look of fatherly amiability faded as he read, and his face became a mask of fury holding his flashing green eyes.  The king rose and all conversation died.  He was tall and broad, muscular and fat, and loomed over his seated companions like a farmer over a field of ruined crops as they watched, preparing for an unpleasant surprise.

            "Lord Anthony,"  he said in a voice like wind before a storm.  "I would speak with your vassal Sir Elbinart."

            Sir Anthony paused for a moment of calculation, turned toward the end of the table where those of lower rank were seated and called "Elbinart!"

            "Aye," came a distant, raspy response.  Sir Elbinart had been a competent fighter during the rule of King Lucias's father, but time had made him frail and taken most of his hair and teeth.

            King Lucias strode to the opposite end of the table.  "Tell me," he began.  "Who is Lady Emma?"

            Sir Elbinart stooped as though taking cover, his eye on the table before him. "I know not, Your Majesty," he responded.

            Frustration rose to the king's face like fire climbing a chimney.  "You know of no such person in your fief of Shiverport?" the king accused.  "It seems that you have lost touch with your lands as you live here and enjoy my hospitality.  And I have just been informed that Shiverport is now a protectorate under the rule of this Emma."  The king's voice rose, as if to be heard over the din of combat.  "She calls herself Lady Emma, although she has not been given title. Thanks to your neglectful ways, it would seem that I must clean up your mess."  King Lucias strode toward the door behind his seat.  "Assemble your men, all of you!" he commanded.  "Tomorrow, we ride at dawn.  Scribe! I wish to send a message!"  All at the table rose and left in haste.


            Anyway, that is how I heard it.  I knew nothing of the king's wrath until the next day, when Jennifer found me by the sea shore, eating what I had caught.  It was a warm, clear summer day and the calm sea rose and fell like a sleeping man's breast.  Jennifer and her husband Henry owned the inn and tavern in the fishing village of Shiverport.  Henry had been the mayor for years, elected by the people and recognized by Sir Elbinart, who possessed the village, Shiverport castle and surrounding lands as his fief.  Jennifer was a sturdy, matronly woman who was accustomed to being in charge and very direct.  She called tentatively and approached.

            "My husband has received a letter from the king," she began.  I nodded and she read it out loud.  "I have received your message that Shiverport is now a protectorate under the rule of Lady Emma, and I am coming to put this situation right.  I will be there soon and will expect that Shiverport Castle will be ready to receive the royal army.  If you wish to prove your loyalty to king and country, have this Lady Emma's head waiting for me when I arrive."

            I growled contemplatively as I took that in.  Jennifer waited patiently for a response, but had backed up a step, preparing to run.  I composed myself and said, "Thank you for telling me."  She relaxed.  "However, the king's belief that I have declared this place a protectorate and placed the title of lady before my name is a mystery to me.  I'm no lady."

            "The king's message was accompanied by a copy of the letter he received from Henry," she responded.  "I'll read it if you wish."

            "Do," I commanded.  She read the letter, which nearly matched what Henry had told me he would say.  In addition to referring to me as Lady Emma, it said that Shiverport was "under my protection", leaving out that I had been hired by the Mayor.  A subtle and dangerous change.  Shiverport was having trouble with pirates when Henry struck a bargain with me.  For my help and continued vigilance I would have a steer a week, which I had not expected to be a challenge to the king.

            "Your husband has put me against the King and his army," I muttered, rising to my feet.

            "Please," Jennifer pleaded, her eyes lowered.  "My husband told the message to George Pat, who then repeated it to Peter the Scribbler.  Mistakes were made somewhere along the way, unknown to my husband." That made sense.  A schemer could have done this to be rid of me now that the pirates were driven off, but Henry was honest and his wife had tipped me off.  George Pat was a young boy in Henry's employ who he had apparently been used as a messenger.

            "I shall discuss this with Peter the Scribbler!" I decided.  I made haste to his abode.  Shiverport consisted of several cottages surrounding a muddy path with Henry's inn and tavern sharing a large building on the northern edge.  Shiverport castle stood on a gentle hill to the northeast, overlooking the village, and south of the inn was only houses.  Peter was the only man in the small fishing village with scholarly training, and he was paid to write letters as well as keeping a record of trade and taxes.  He was on his porch, working, when I arrived.

            "Peter!" I called sharply, startling him.  "I have questions."  He rose, nervous.  I heard his neighbor's door open and looked.  A man met my gaze and turned, returning to his home.  "The king is coming for my head because of the letter you signed Henry's name to.  I must know why!"

            "I know not," Peter stammered.

            "The message you sent was read to me," I told him.  "The king believes I have taken this entire fief as my own and named myself a lady."

            Peter's eyes went wide with the shock of realization.  "Please forgive me," he begged.  "I tried to use formal language in addressing the king.  I never..."

            "Formal Language!" I scoffed, making him wince.  He stood against the wall behind him as if awaiting execution.

            "I never said you had taken this fief from Sir Elbinart," he said quietly.  That much was true.  I paused, thinking of what to do next.  I considered leaving, but that would be cowardly and I did not want to leave a village of defenseless peasants to the capricious mercies of an offended monarch.  But what else could I do.  Even if I were victorious against  the king, he was one of many, part of a vast Empire and himself a vassal of the Empress. I had to negotiate.

            "Save your explanations for His Majesty," I decided.  "You will keep watch over the road to Shiverport Castle and beg King Lucias to hear you when you see him coming."

            Peter nearly collapsed with relief.  "Thank you, my La...  Emma," he mumbled.

            "From now on, perhaps you should speak and write less formally," I scolded.

            "Yes, Emma," he answered.  He went to take his seat and return to work.

            "Now!" I ordered.  "Leave immediately."

            "May I pack a few things?" he asked, looking wretched.  I nodded and took off as he scrambled inside.


            King Lucias arrived the next midday.  He wore a custom fitted suit of darkened steel armor, rode a massive charger and a gilded crown decorated his helm.  He led a force of about two hundred men, all on horseback and arranged by rank in a neat column.  The king and his squire were followed by Lords and Knights in armor, each with a squire or two of their own, who were followed by men at arms equipped with the best steeds, armor and weapons they could afford.  Their ranks were dotted with supply carts pulled by draft horses or oxen.  This force used the only road to Shiverport, which led from out of town to the castle.

            Peter the scribbler stood by the side of the road and shouted as soon as King Lucias was near.  "Hear my words Your Majesty, I beg you!"  Lucias ignored him and rode past, so Peter ran along side the mounted monarch and continued to beg a word.  When he shouted, "It's my fault you are here!" the king held up his right fist and the army slowly halted.

            Lucias then motioned to Peter with an agitated gesture.  The king raised the hinged mask of his helm, revealing his face.  "Explain yourself, peasant." he commanded.

            "I am Peter the Scribbler and my profession is to write letters.  It was I who wrote the letter and signed the name of Mayor Henry to it, and it was my blunder that led you to the conclusion that Shiverport had been taken by Emma.  She simply helped us and it was only I who called her Lady, as a matter of courtesy rather than a claim of title."

            "I see," Lucias answered.  "Have this Lady Emma come before me, alone,  and I will pass royal judgment.  Your words will be taken into account, as will who she and her followers are and how she views the authority of the Empire."

            "Thank you, Your Majesty," Peter replied.  He looked to the sky to the southwest.  "Emma is arriving as we speak."

            Lucias saw me and bellowed.  "Dragon!  Prepare the Ballista!"


            As dragons go, I am not the most impressive of my kind.  I am only as long as ten men are tall, and a bit skinny.  I am black with garish scarlet bands, or scarlet with black bands if you prefer.  I have sickly yellow eyes and my legs are short but my toes are long.  I have but one ridge of raised scales running from my neck to my tail and my wings are pink.  But I suppose any dragon is an alarming sight to humans, small and fragile as they are.

            I had been avoiding humans when first I came near Shiverport.  I had made a lair on a small island in what the local fisherman had named No Man's Sea, a place where deep water was closer to the shore than normal.  To the northwest and west of the village, there was gentle coastal fishing and places where people could swim, but the southwest was a rocky shore.  As anyone who knows the sea can tell you, such deep waters are home to dreadsharks, cruel but stupid creatures typically half as long as myself that will attack and try to devour anything on or in the water.  At night, there were also kraken from the depths, and even whales shunned that stretch of sea.  However, dreadsharks were easily lured and caught, making for a filling meal.  A kraken took more care, but one bite to its boneless head would do it in, and a kraken was quite delicious when cooked.

             However, in the seas far from shore, merchant ships were constantly being victimized by pirates. It was bad enough that King Lucias had commissioned and sent a ship, although the Empire rarely extended its reach into the sea.  One ship, but a massive vessel.  A floating castle with a score of ballista on each side and battlements on deck for men with crossbows.  However, the pirates responded with unity under a charismatic seaman called Captain Oak, forming a fleet rather than facing the ship alone.  The pirate ships were smaller but numerous and equipped with oars as well as sails, unlike the floating castle, which was too big for that.  So, one day with little wind, Captain Oak's fleet attacked.  They had lost ships, yes, but they were able to board the floating castle and make it their own with a grueling hand to had fight.

            Captain Oak was no longer satisfied with merchant vessels and his fleet threatened to loot Shiverport unless they received a ransom, the cost of which was beyond the means of humble fisherman.  That was when Henry found me and bargained.  A weekly steer was a nice break from seafood, I felt sorry for the villagers and I had to wonder if Captain Oak would eventually come after me as well.

            I was easily able to find Captain Oak's fleet by night.  They had moored their ships together and drifted, and their watchmen's lanterns were visible from above.  The fleet was a match for most ships, but all, including the floating castle, were made of wood with cloth sails, and their ballistae were below deck, with no way to aim upward.  So I would swoop and breathe fire.  An inaccurate expression, breathing fire.  A dragon has a gland that lowers from the roof of her mouth and squirts a mist that resembles the spray of a skunk but which is far more flammable, enough to ignite in the open air.

            I dove toward the nearest lantern and heard the guard shouting just before I bathed the ship in fire.  Pirates clattered to cut their moorings and I could hear someone, presumably the infamous captain, calling the men to arms.  I circled high and picked my next target, the floating castle.  It was rather satisfying to see her three sails burn as pirates leapt into the sea.  I felt a sting in my belly and saw a man with a longbow silhouetted against the flames.  His golden shoulder pads glittered like a wizard's fireworks and I knew that was the captain.  I turned quickly and lit him up, jumping as another arrow barely missed my face.  The pirate fleet split up and attempted to flee, but I was able to torch most of the ships before they could gain speed.  In the end I had sunk about a score of ships, including the floating castle, and had an arrow and three crossbow bolts sticking in my hide, none where I could not scratch.

            After such a victory, I looked forward to an easy life.  I thought I would have good relations with the humans and would have my payment delivered to me.  No such luck, thanks to the conclusions of the King, and I could not even approach him to negotiate.  I flapped my wings and climbed.

            Preparing the ballista involved a group of men at arms lifting one from a cart and attempting to aim it upward.  A ballista is a giant crossbow and the one King Lucias had with him was smaller than those used at sea, about as long as two men are tall, and loaded with an oversized javelin rather than a heavy ball.

            To my surprise, Peter tore open his cloak, pulled a hatchet from his belt and threw it.  The hatchet passed through the ballista string, causing it to dangle like a worm on a hook and the javelin to flop out.  "Seize him!" Lucias bellowed.  "Ready crossbows."

            I dove and leveled out above the royal forces, out of crossbow range.  I opened my mouth and squirted, spreading fire mist as thin as I could so that only most if it ignited.  "We don't scare that easily," Lucias taunted. His squire responded with a grunting cough as my leftover mist descended.  The king's men could have stood firm against the smell, but they were mounted and I heard a satisfying shrieking from their horses.  King Lucias's charger tried to bolt but he steered the animal in a circle.  Then the charger lowered its head and bucked with its hindquarters, dumping His Majesty on his face before fleeing.  Horses bolted in every direction and those men who were not thrown off were carried away. Peter escaped on foot.

            Lucias tried to get to his knees by pushing fitfully off the ground, only to fall again with a metallic crunch.  I turned, flying low and fast, and had no trouble snatching up the king. Then I rose and turned toward the sea. I could hear the twang of crossbows but felt not a sting.

            "You will never get away with this!" King Lucias shouted desperately. "The Empress will see to that."

            "Yield or swim," I answered.  Below us, the bluish-green waters rose and fell, tipped with white in some places.

            "Yield!" Lucias barked.  He clung to my toes as a man overboard would cling to a thrown rope.

            I began to circle lazily.  "Repeat after me," I began.  "I will not do harm, nor order harm done, to anyone of the village of Shiverport."

            He repeated the words dejectedly.

            "This I swear upon my soul which will burn if I am not true," I continued.

            The king responded with an impressive stream of obscenities, including some that were new to me.  So, he knew the difference between an oath and a geas.  Yes, I do know a little magic.  Have you ever met a dragon that does not?

            I loosened my grip, but tightened it again without allowing him to fall from my grasp.  "Say it," I hissed.

            Lucias hesitated for a moment and then spoke the words.  I turned and landed on the shore, placing the king carefully on his feet before departing.  Then I spent the remainder of the day circling the village, watching for soldiers.


            The next morning I saw another dragon perched on the castle walls and went to take a closer look.  He was male and gorgeous.  Half again as long as myself with powerful jaws, two horns on his head and three ridges running from his shoulders to his hindquarters.  His sleek body was dark green and his eyes were entirely black, like two balls of liquid obsidian.  He looked at me and I approached, staring in fascination at those eyes.

            "Lady Emma?" he asked.

            I landed.  It was then that I noticed a third dragon, an old male.  He was gray, nearly matching the castle walls and almost as large as the black eyed one.

            "It is my pleasure to introduce the Empress Helaina," the black eyed one continued, gesturing toward the front gate where a woman calmly waited. She looked old with long, snow white hair, but showed no signs of infirmity.  She carried a staff topped with a large diamond and wore a dress that covered her from her neck to her ankles, purple and adorned with the Imperial seal in gold.  What I knew of Empress Helaina was legendary.  Her magic was unsurpassed and she had ruled most of the continent for over five hundred years, or so it was said.

            "So, this is the rebel dragon who took Sir Elbinart's fief?" she intoned.

            I lowered my head submissively.  "I never tried to take the fief," I explained.

            "I admire rebels," she continued, ignoring my statement.  "But an Empress cannot tolerate rebellion.  You will submit or be exiled.  If we have to drive you out, you will not like how we go about it."

            The black eyed one's gaze locked onto me and I nearly was lost to those obsidian pools.  "I submit," I said distractedly.

            "Surprising," the Empress responded.  "However, you did solve our pirate problem and you spilled no blood in besting King Lucias.  Therefore I will offer you title in exchange for obedience."

            "Title?", I blurted.

            "A title for the slender, amber-eyed mistress," I heard the black eyed one rumble.

            "I am to pledge obedience to King Lucias after I bested him?" I wondered.

            "Such protocols apply only to human vassals," said the Empress. "Dragons like Bruno and Tagin pledge directly to me."  Bruno kept right on staring and Tagin fidgeted with his wings.

            "Well?" The Empress prompted.

            "I am yours to command, your highness," I said carefully.

            "This you swear upon your soul which will burn if you are not true," the Empress continued.  "Say it."

            I repeated the geas without hesitation.  It was that or be exiled and driven off, to some lonely wilderness that could probably not support me.  The Empress's staff left her hand and floated toward me.  "Be still," she ordered.  The staff tapped me once on my head, gently.  "I dub you Lady Emma of Shiverport and grant you all the land that has been the fief of Sir Elbinart and the right to command therein for as long as I am pleased for you to have it." The staff returned to her hand. "You are to patrol the shore from Hamathin in the north to Brennan Bay in the south and intervene on behalf of Imperial ships and citizens against any threat.  When I give new orders, you will hear my voice, so hold not any messenger to be true."

            "I will obey," I responded.

            The Empress turned toward Bruno, who was still perched on top of the castle wall. "It seems you have won your wager,"  said the Empress. "What favor would you ask of old Tagin?"

            "To cover my duties so I can have some time to myself," Bruno answered in a low rumble.  "I'd like to come here for a visit, with Lady Emma's permission."  The old gray dragon nodded and looked to me for an answer.

            I wagged my tail as alluringly as I could.  "Two months from now," I suggested.

            "For a fortnight or so," Bruno answered with a hungry lilt in his voice.

            "It seems our meeting is concluded," the Empress interrupted dismissively.  She vanished without so much as a pop as I wondered if she knew that I had just invited Bruno to spend the mating season with me.

            Tagin took off with a jump while Bruno glided from the walls to land in front of me, holding me in place with his eyes as he came.  "As much as it pains me, I must depart," he murmured.

            I nodded.  "Until the leaves change and the weather cools," I added.  He touched his cheek to mine and I could feel his rough scales and soft lips. Then he too was gone.



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