Ten spiraling stone steps led down to the dungeon. I dashed down them, the flames of the wall sconces wavering with the wind of my passage. Although I still held my sword at the ready, I found no one left to fight. When I reached the bottom, I sheathed my sword and drew my lock-picks instead.
Nine brave warriors had given their lives to get me this far. One by one they had fallen to our enemies’ arrows and bolts, spears and axes, swords and daggers. If the tower had been better defended, we would never have stood a chance. But if the tower had been better defended, more obviously significant, it also wouldn’t have taken us so long to find.
Eight weeks it took, for me to realize this squalid tower on the edge of the king’s lands was the place he had fortified to hold his greatest prize. They were the worst weeks of my life, in which I vacillated between the blackest of rage and despair. Now, I lived with a hope so painful I feared my aging heart might burst.
Seven tries were necessary before my shaking hands were able to pick the lock that held the cell’s thick oaken door shut. My throat was so tight as I flung open the door, I could barely choke out my daughter’s name. “Tamsyn!”
Six years old. My little girl huddled in the corner of the cell, chains wrapped around her wrists and waist and neck to keep her from shifting shape. As a human, Tamsyn was a helpless child; as a dragon, she would give even the fiercest warrior pause.
Five times she sobbed, “Faeder,” as I freed her from the chains and lifted her into my arms. She clung tight to my neck as I ran up the steps to the tower doors, dodging bodies, praying to every god I knew that our escape route remained clear. Panting with the effort, I burst out into night — into a circle of torch-light.
Four mighty thegns stood before me, with their sworn warriors arranged behind them. I shifted Tamsyn to my left hip and drew my sword, knowing it was hopeless. Even when I had been a young man, strong and brave and the slayer of monsters, I could not have fought such a host single-handedly. We were trapped.
Three questions must every dragon answer, truthfully, for the human brave enough – foolish enough – to ask. I had asked three questions of Tamsyn’s mother and she had claimed me for her own as payment for that insult. Now, I laid my head upon our daughter’s and whispered the first and last question I would ever ask her. “How do I help you escape?”
Tamsyn sobbed the answer. “Up.”
Two returned to the tower, barricading the doors behind ourselves. My breathing was labored by the time I reached the top and leaned against the crenellations to peer down at our gathered enemies. Already, they had found a downed tree and were using it as a battering ram. We didn’t have long. I set my hysterical daughter down on the nearest crenel and kissed her forehead. “Fly free, Tamsyn, and remember that I love you forever.”
One tiny dragon soared into the sky, roaring terror and defiance as our enemies burst through the tower door and swarmed up the stairs. In a few centuries, she might be strong enough to defeat such a host, but she was a child still. My child. There were far worse ways for an aging, grey-haired warrior to die than defending the life of his precious baby girl.
I raised my sword and braced myself for the battle to come, my final battle, counting the heartbeats until the warriors emerged. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
Kat Otis was born with a surplus of creativity and quickly learned to cope by telling stories to anyone who would listen. When she’s not writing, she’s an historian, mathematician, singer, and photographer. She lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who enjoy riding in the car as long as there’s no country music involved. Her short fiction has previously appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science, Fiction and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress XXVI.