Guardian

I swear on this sword to be the kingdom's righteous hand.

I swear on this helm to the kingdom's all-seeing eyes.

I swear on this shield to be the kingdom's stalwart guardian.

All knights swear those oaths. When knighted, you bow before the king, and you give yourself to the family and the kingdom. You are a symbol of power, and you should be willing to die if need be. You go to war at that whim of your king. You kill for him, and he rewards you with power and prestige beyond your house.

When I became a knight it was one of the happiest days of my life. I was born a peasant, a farmer on a small plot of land on the far edge of the kingdom's reach. My parents were too poor to find the good and fertile lands, and they lacked the political power to draw much attention. When I left it was to change that. I would gain them status, and I would do so through my sweat and my blood.

Then I fell in love. The heir to the throne was intelligent, handsome, and everything I wanted to be. When I first arrived, I envied the royalty, but living in the castle changed me. I saw that, despite all of their power, they struggled in the very same way I did. A good king cares for their people and protects their lands. They worry over those who depend on them. I learned that from the one I loved.

The happiest day of my life was when I learned that I was loved back. We met under the stars and stood, hand-in-hand, a knight and noble together. My heart was pounding hard in my chest, and I swear it could be heard through my breastplate. My palms felt slick, and I had hoped it wasn't noticeable. Normally, in combat I was at ease, but this was an entirely different form of engagement than I was familiar with.

Then it was said. "I love you." After that the world was a blur, and I swear I could feel it spinning underneath my feet.

Then the dragon came and everything changed. We had heard rumors of it for a few weeks. A strange, flying creature attacking outlying farms, stealing livestock and burning buildings to the ground, and at the time I worried over my family more than anything else. The idea of the castle being attacked was preposterous. If anyone was safe, I would have thought we were.

I was out on a routine patrol when I saw smoke and fire. We returned quickly and found the castle in ruins. One tower had been collapsed entirely. The eastern wall was broken in two. Debris covered the courtyards. Fire choked us with black smoke.

I rushed to the throne room and found the king. He had a small streak of blood across his face. I knelt at his side and called to him, "My lord, my king…"

"I am fine, Sir Liam, I promise you that…" He sat up slowly and held the wound. "A stray stone caught me as it fell. I'm well though, and have all of my senses."

I breathed a sigh of relief. "That is good to hear, my lord. When I saw the fires…"

"Yes, well, I can assume." The king sighed heavily and rested against the base of the throne. "Unfortunately, while I survive, my children…"

"You don't…"

The king looked at me sadly. "Not all of them, but…I knew how close you two were…"

"Excuse me, my lord, but…" He nodded, and I sprinted away. The armor felt lighter than ever, but my chest was tight. I moved more quickly than I ever have, and when I reached the room I was speechless.

The door was jammed, warped perhaps by the heat or by some great impact. I forced it open and it crumbled under my weight. The interior was devastated. The bed was shredded into pieces. The wall was torn out and now gave way to a view of the court.

I stood at the precipice and looked out. A trail of fire led out of the village to the east. My heart turned to stone as I considered…I steeled myself and returned to my king. I begged to make chase, to pursue the beast. At first, he was reluctant, unwilling to sacrifice the security of his people for the sake of only one of his children.

Just when I thought he would refuse out right, he smiled weakly and patted shoulder. "If I were to refuse this request, I'm sure you would end up in the gallows within a weak for treason, no?"

"My lord, I would never…"

"There is no shame in it, Liam. That is the sort of dedication the crown needs. Go. Reclaim what was lost."

I bowed at his feet. "Yes, my lord."

I took my horse and rode across the valley like a great wind. As I drew farther away from the kingdom, cutting across the farmlands of other kings, my trail became murkier. No scorches told me where to go, but I remained straight and true. I knew in my heart where the dragon was. I could feel him waiting for me.

This led me to a great mountain covered in a thick miasma. Smoke blackened the sky. The forest around it had been scorched and trampled. High in the air I could see deep cuts into the stone, as with the castle, and I knew I had found it. I tied my horse and scaled the mountain.

The cave mouth was wide and dark. The interior was slick with blood and littered with half-eaten carcasses of men and children and beasts of the field. The smell was horrific. I drew my sword and shield and stepped into the muck.

My feet slipped across the slick stone, but I held my footing. Each step squelched, and as I drew deeper the wet smell of rot grew thicker. Soon, I was in darkness, and could hardly breathe for the life of me.

I gained freedom at the cave center. There, the stone above was ruptured, giving a clear view of the sky. Naturally formed stone pillars held the cave ceiling up. The smell of rot was thinner here, but the smell of sulfur replaced it. I choked as I stepped out into the light.

"So, you have come, tiny mortal man?" The voice boomed and echoed. It was all around me. I turned about, looking for my enemy. It dropped suddenly from above, landing with such weight that the ground shook. I turned and faced it.

The dragon itself was the size of a mountain. It stared down at me with sharp eyes the color of flames. Smoke trailed from its nostrils as it lowered its enormous head and brandished teeth the size of my leg. Each was easily large enough to rend me in two.

I held my shield up and pointed my blade toward him. "You attacked my kingdom!"

"Your kingdom? Why, I had thought human kingdoms belonged to kings, not the toys they play with," it rumbled. "Come for vengeance, then? And you king sent only you? Amusing."

"I haven't come for vengeance, but for rescue. Let me take back what is rightfully mine, and I will leave you in peace."

"Leave me in peace," it snorts, "Yes, I am quite sure." It leans in close, brushing my shield with its scaled snout and staggering me. "You come for the jewels I took, then? If so, you shan't have them. They are mine now."

"I come for no jewels."

"Then for the fine furs?"

"No," I said. It crawled around me, curling its body like a border on all sides. I turned, following its head with my gaze. "I have come for something far more precious."

It paused, as if in thought, and then said, "Oh, you came for that little human thing. Royalty, wasn't it? Well, you can't have it, either." Its eyes narrowed and it bared its teeth. "I keep what is mine, and all becomes mine once I take it!"

"Then, there will be no peace between us?"

"No, but there shall be pieces," it growled, and it lunged at me.

I ducked to the side just as its large maw scooped up the stone of the ground. It snapped and twisted, throwing the stones all about. As it did, I ran, leaping over its tail and finding shelter beside one of the stone pillars.

It lifted its head and chuckled. "How do you intend to kill me when all you can do is hide," it asks while circling the small, stone arena. "You human things are so tender and small. Delicious, but not worth the effort to eat, but your smell…" It wedged its head in and came up beside me, looking at me with one great, yellow eye. "There is nothing like it."

Its neck bulged, and I could hear the roar of a great furnace. Moving quickly, I stepped out of range just as it bellowed out a torrent of flame. The fire twisted along the circular corridor, filling the area with heat. Even though I was outside of its range, the heat was to intense my arm burned inside of my armor. I screamed and stumbled away.

"Yes, that is the music I loved to hear," it said, pulling its head free. It followed me, stomping heavily in the process. Like a whip, it swung with its tail. I moved quickly, pulling up my shield, but it shattered under the force. I was thrown against the far wall and landed hard on the corpse of an old soldier.

"You are not the first armored human who has come to retake their goods. I've stolen kings and queens, jewels and furs, and livestock from lands nearby. You are not the first knight sent to their death by a greedy lord or lady."

"This is not out of greed," I yelled while unsnapping the remains of my shield. I tossed them to the side before yanking off my gauntlet. The flesh beneath is still pink and ripe from the flames.

It stalked around and peered down under the canopy. "However you excuse your madness, the result is the same: death!" I could see its great neck swelling again for the attack. I felt around for something to hide behind and felt a large, stout panel of steel at my side. Rolling away, I scooped it up and found sheltered beside the entrance.

Flames erupted and curled down the paths. I ducked into the tunnel and hid from the heat and flame while strapping the shield on. It was a tower shield, standing nearly taller than me. I knew the weight would throw my balance off, but the protection it offered could save me.

I hefted it up as the flames receded and stepped back out into the circular room. The dragon twisted and sniffed, finding me immediately amongst the smell of the melting stone. Again, its neck swelled, but this time I lifted my shield and marched forward. It breathed out, and flames danced around me, scorching my flesh through the steel. The heat was intense and sapped my strength and breathe, and I strode forward with my blade ready.

At close range I wedged my shield into its mouth and then lunged forward, puncturing one of the great sacks beneath its neck. Flame exploded out. The dragon fell back, knocked into a nearby pillar and collapsing it. I, too, was knocked to the ground and slid to a halt.

My arm burnt and bled. It was black and smoking as I forced myself up. The dragon screamed. It flexed its powerful jaw and snapped the shield in half. I rushed it and drove my blade as deep and hard as I could into its chest.

It roared and twisted, writhing beneath me. I held to my blade as it thrashed. When given another chance, I drew my blade again and worked it into a higher spot. I felt a give, and my blade snapped off in its body. It threw me, and I landed hard on my back, breathless.

It staggered, limping and wheezing. "How…How, such small things…" It said this, and then it collapsed. I had won.

Slowly, I forced myself up, cradling my burnt arm. The pain was horrible, but I wasn't done yet. I stepped forward, seized the broken blade in my hand, and staggered deeper into the cavern.

At the very back I found where the dragon kept his treasure. Small holes in the ceiling allowed light in. The gold and jewels glittered like the heavens above. Sitting in the pile, ever alert, was my prize.

"Hello? Who goes there," he called.

I stepped into the light. My armor gleamed. I removed my helm and dropped it at my side.

"Sir Liam…Liam!" He slid down the pile of gold and ran into my arms. We hugged for a few seconds before he looked me in the eyes. "Oh, Liam, I was so worried, I thought…" He stopped. "Your arm!"

"It is fine."

"It most certainly is not!" He reached for it, thought better of it, and then stopped. "We must return immediately. We must see you bandaged."

"I'm fine," I said, and I cupped his face. "You're well. That is all that matters."

He looked me in the eyes and smiled faintly. "You're a fool, you know, a dangerous fool."

"You're prince, the heir to the throne. This is my duty."

"A dangerous, dangerous fool…" He took me by the head and pulled me down, and we kissed. In a blur of motion, I felt the earth shifting beneath my feet, and I felt the cool air of the night we spent together under the stars. "And I love you," he said afterward.

"And I, you, my lord," I said, and I gave a great bow.

He kicked me over gently. "Oh, that is enough of that." He gathered his robes and said, "Now, take me home. I fear you are in need of a night of rest and relaxation, and for your great deeds, you will be treated as royalty."

I stood and scooped up my helm. "Wouldn't that make us family?"

"Don't be sick," he said somewhat haughtily.

I stood at the exit of the room and half-bowed. "After you, my lord…"

As he walked down the corridor he could see the corpse of the dragon. He covered his nose. "My, you knights sure do know how to make a mess."

"And you nobles sure know how to get caught up in one."

He smiled and took my uninjured hand. "Thank you for coming for me."

"For you, I would go anywhere."