When they got back to the king’s castle, it was quiet. No one seemed worried about Ariel’s disappearance. The guards had seen Lucy get up and follow Ariel. Everyone knew her role by now.
Lucy saw Ariel to her room. It was Lucy’s old room, up at the top of the small tower. She waited while Ariel got dressed, and then she tucked her into bed and kissed her forehead. She left after blowing out the candle.
As she headed over to her room at the senior dorm. As she walked, she thought about Ariel. Somehow, she seemed much younger than Lucy had been. But the fear was the same.
Back at her room, Lucy passed girls in nightgowns who were heading to the study room together.
“Hey, Lucy,” said a tall girl carrying a stack of arithmetical research.
“Did you find the little one?” another asked, concerned. She was carrying a flute and some rolls of music.
“Yes. She’s fine,” said Lucy. She smiled at the girls, then clanked away.
Back at her room, Lucy locked the door and took off her armor, piece by piece. She pulled out her old, yellow flannel pajamas. She sat and sharpened her sword with a whetstone.
Suddenly, she heard a familiar chuckle. She heard the crunch of teeth on charcoal. She looked around. No one was there.
“Ah, Elfred,” she said. “Always the bravest of cowards.”
Silence. The wind made the candle sputter, even though the window remained closed. She heard the beating of wings outside the window.
Lucy went to the window, threw it open, and looked up at the sky. She saw what looked like a falling star. Only it flew upwards rather than down. It was close. If she’d had her bow with her, she could have hit it.
She shut the window and turned to look over her room. As a senior, she had had her choice of rooms, and she liked this one on the ground floor.
The bed was spare and comfortable. The drapes at the windows were functional. At the corner was a table with a small basin of water under a simple mirror. A library of books lined both sides of the small fireplace, which had burned down to red coals.
Lucy yawned. Her body ached from the new training moves Sir Castellon had run her through today. She lay her sword beside her bed. She climbed in under the covers. She blew out the candle. Lying in the dark, Lucy remembered the look in Ariel’s eyes. She remembered the way she chewed her cookie.
She thought about her first year here. The way the girls moved away from her when she screamed and ran in fear from Elfred, her Dragon.
Things were different now. Everyone said hello to her in the halls. She didn’t say much in response, just smiled and answered their questions simply.
She realized that she had adopted Sir Castellon’s way of speaking. Which was funny, in view of how much she hated him the first two years.
That first year, Sir Castellon had barely spoken to her except to yell at her fiercely, telling her everything she was doing wrong, telling her that no woman should become a dragon fighter.
But she had persisted. She never complained. She did everything Sir Castellon asked of her. And when she killed her first dragon, the smile she got from her teacher made her happier that she had dreamed was possible.
She knew now what her mentor had done. He had forced her to rely on herself. Only then could she truly take care of herself. Only then would she be safe.
And it worked. As she began to gain experience in handling the sword, she began to lose her fear of the Dragon that had haunted her the first year she came to her new school.
The killing of her first dragon was a milestone of sorts, she realized. Everyone looked at her differently when she came back to campus that day, carrying the head of a dragon,still dripping green blood.
Most of her peers had never seen a dragon before, and they crowded around her, praising and petting her. Her housemates and wanted to decorate their study room with hit, but she said no. She had it stuffed and mounted by one of her father’s finest gamesmen, and then she presented it to Sir Castellon and Sir Baptisto. They accepted the gift gravely.
Then Sir Castellon told her to meet him the next morning for additional training.
She was sure it’d be easy to kill her own Dragon after that. But now that she was ready for him, she couldn’t find him. Strange, she thought. The first dragon was small, but it changed her perspective completely. She began looking forward to confronting her own Dragon. But no such luck. She couldn’t find him. He was gone, as if he had never existed.
When she told Sir Castellon, he merely grunted. Sir Baptisto suggested that she go dragon hunting outside the walls of the city. Just to keep in practice.
“He’ll show up when he’s ready,” he told her. “Until then, keep working.”
Lucy’s growing confidence was noticed by her peers and parents. When she went home over vacation, her mother seemed to resent it.
Her father just told her that he wished sometimes for his little girl again, and Lucy realized that she had truly changed.
"I can't stand the armor and leather you wear everywhere," said the queen. "You have so many beautiful gowns. Why not wear them? And do you have to bring your sword to the table?”
They were in the middle of dinner on Lucy's third day home during Winter Break. It was Lucy's junior year.
Lucy didn’t respond. She sat quietly and watched the maids and servants clean up after them. She looked over at her father, who stood at the grand fireplace, smoking a cigar. He turned and looked at her thoughtfully. She smiled at him. Her father smiled back.
Lying now in her bed, her armor and leather on a chair nearby, Lucy remembered the last conversation she had had with the Dragon, when he revealed his name to her. What a strange name, she thought. And what a great deal of pain he had caused her during her first year of school here.
She wondered what Ariel’s dragon looked like. Clearly, it was invisible to everyone. Probably to Lucy as well.
How am I to protect her if I can’t see it to kill it? she thought.
The girl would have to learn to defend herself, Lucy thought. Best get on with her training immediately.
Not every girl should have to become a dragon fighter in order to feel safe, she thought grimly. I wish I could do something.
She thought about Elfred again. And her mind tightened into that familiar red coil.
The next day, Lucy invited Ariel to the Castle Café for milk and cookies. She introduced Ariel to Sir Castellon and Sir Baptisto.
After the knights clanked off to teach another lesson on swordplay to some young students, Ariel told Lucy all about the Dragon that only she could see. Lucy didn’t say much. She just drank her coffee and listened to Ariel.
Then Lucy got up and went over to the inn, leaving Ariel sitting with her milk and cookies. She returned moments later with a large mug of coffee. It was black and strong and steaming hot.
“Drink this,” she told Ariel.
Ariel watched as Lucy picked up her milk and cookies and took them back into the inn. She stared at her coffee unhappily.
“Do I have to drink this?” she asked, when Lucy returned.
Lucy wondered if she had made a mistake. Then she thought about the way Ariel had run down the street, screaming. She didn’t have a choice.
“Just drink it. You’ll get used to the bitter taste.”
Ariel looked at her. Then she picked up the mug and sipped.
“You’ll begin swordplay lessons tomorrow morning,” Lucy said to her. “There’s nothing else to do.”
“Yes. 6 AM.”
Several weeks later. Lucy was waiting for Ariel in the back courtyard of the Castle Café for a tutorial. Lucy was drinking her morning cup of coffee. She had picked up the habit from Sir Castellon. Ariel was late again.
Lucy stepped into the kitchen of the Castle Café to get a refill of coffee from the cook. As she stepped outside, she saw Ariel entering the courtyard from the street.
Suddenly, right in front of her, Elfred the Dragon appeared, flying in and dropping onto the ground in front of Ariel. She screamed. Ariel’s scream caused Lucy to drop her cup of coffee, spilling it all of her shiny armor.
The dragon was raw and red from the morning sun. It blackened nostrils breathed fire and smoke. It was enraged, and Lucy realized that it intended to kill Ariel.
Ariel screamed again. In shock, Lucy realized that Ariel’s dragon was her own. Ariel looked over and saw Lucy coming. Suddenly, she fainted.
Lucy felt her fear drop away from her like a bulky winter coat. In fury, Lucy pulled out her sword. She raced towards the dragon. He saw her coming and hopped backwards, trying to take to the air.
For the first time, Elfred looked afraid. He clearly hadn’t realized Lucy would be there. Ariel was supposed to be easy pickings.
And he sure didn't wink anymore at Lucy.
Lucy looked up at him, flapping his wings just above her. But something was wrong. His flight balance was off. He began to sway, raising his paw as if to smack her. It left his pasty white belly underneath completely exposed.
"Just the way I like it," she said aloud.
And then Lucy drove her sword straight into the rubbery white skin right over the dragon's heart. Again, and again, and again. The dragon reared up, waving its dark claws at the sky. It screeched out its pain.
Glancing behind her as she backed away from the dying dragon, Lucy caught a glimpse of Ariel, who had recovered and was now crouching behind a tree, staring at the dragon in awe.
The dragon crashed flat to the ground, flattening the grass blades below its long, fleshy belly. The fire died in its mouth. The dragon's eyes shut. It no longer winked at Lucy.
Lucy looked down at Ariel. Ariel was looking at Lucy's sword. It dripped green dragon's blood. Ariel looked again at Lucy. Then back at the sword. There was awe and respect written into Ariel's face.
Lucy looked down at her coffee cup, spilled on the ground during the attack. Lucy smiled. She stretched out her hand to Ariel.
"Let's go get another cup of coffee at the Castle Cafe."
"And could we talk about slaying dragons?" Ariel's hand was warm and trusting.
"Yes," said Lucy. "We will. But first, coffee."
Lucy turned to head back with Ariel to the kitchen. With a start, she realized that Sir Castellon and Sir Baptisto were standing in front of her. They had seen the entire thing.
Sir Baptisto looked at Ariel.
“There’s a special ceremony this afternoon on the front lawn,” Sir Baptisto said to Ariel. “You might want to attend. Our first young woman will be knighted.”
“I’ll be there,” said Ariel. Her eyes shone as she looked at her savior. Lucy looked away.
“Here,” said Sir Baptisto to Ariel. “Let’s get you inside to look at the scratch on your cheek.” He led Ariel inside. Lucy watched them go.
“Will you attend? Lucy?”
Lucy suddenly realized that Sir Castellon had spoken to her. She looked up at his grey eyes. They looked at her steadily.
“You might want to clean that armor up some,” he said, pointing to the spot where she had spilled her coffee.
“I'll do that,” she told him.
“Good,” Sir Castellon told her.
She watched him clank away, limping slightly.