I remember lying in the dark the night after we killed the troll. My bandaged side hurt like hell, and I thought maybe the arrow the monster had used had been poisoned. I shivered at the thought and pulled my cloak farther up to my chin. This left my feet, bare, of course, so I sighed heavily as I tried to bend down and cover them again. I had barely moved before he was there, pushing me back down gently and settling his own cloak over me.
"Idiot," I heard him mutter.
I fell asleep with a grin on my weary face.
That I can remember clearly, though it seems so long ago now.
This journey of the king's faithful young knight and a starry-eyed tomboy started months even before then, in the days when we were still infected with those twin diseases, stupidity and recklessness. Others called it youth and bravery. I've discovered there's very little difference, really.
Either way, here we are now, on the cusp of victory. Soon, our trial will be over. It's what he always wanted.
I glance to my side, where the knight crouches in a defensive stance, sword held sideways in front of him, feet planted firmly apart. His tousled hair glows auburn in the light from the stained-glass windows, and his caramel-colored eyes are tired but alert.
We've come a long way. I thought that simply reaching the end was all I wanted, too.
I copy his stance and grin at him. He scowls back, though his mouth twitches in something I've learned is his equivalent of a smile.
Why, so close to the end? Why did I have to realize this now?
Maybe those thoughts were a prayer to God. If they were, He doesn't have time to answer before the sorceress attacks, flinging wild thunderbolts at us with gleeful abandon. We dodge them, working in perfect tandem with one another. Our movements flow as one, the slightest glance or flick of the wrist communicating everything we need to say. We try to make our way to the front of the chapel, avoiding the ruined statues and half-burned pews that clutter the floor. Every once in a while I stumble over some bones as well. I try not to think about who they belonged to.
"You really think you can defeat me?" the sorceress taunts, cackling maniacally. "Fools!"
Her voice deepens and thunder tears through the air. The paintings on the ceiling send down a torrent of rain, quickly flooding the chapel. Soon the water is up to my shoulders. I struggle to stay afloat as my armor and sword threaten to pull me under. Shrugging off my pauldrons and breastplate, I scan the room for the knight. Precious seconds pass, the sorceress cackling all the while, but I can't find him anywhere. My heart thuds in my chest, panicked like a caged bird, as memories of our encounter with the lake sprite flash in my mind. He can't swim. Oh, God. He can't swim.
At last I spot him, clinging to a piece of blackened wood. He can barely keep his head above the water. The sorceress has seen him too, and is stalking toward him with a malevolent grin twisting across her face. She walks on the water's surface, prancing like a feline about to catch her dinner. Even then she is breathtakingly beautiful, from her luscious, flowing locks to her glowing violet eyes to her curvaceous figure. For a few moments I'm too entranced by her swaying form to move.
Then I see the blue flames that flicker to life on her fingertips. She cradles them in her hands, crouches down in front of him, and brings the flames to her lips. He can only stare at her in horror; his only choices now are drowning or immolation.
The second I realize this, I break out of my trance and scream, "NO!"
The sorceress glares in my direction. She breaks into a wicked smile and purrs, "Would you like to be first, my de"
She cuts off suddenly with a wince. Stroking her neck in annoyance, she glances down at the knight. With his smug silence, realization dawns on the sorceress' face.
"Why, you little prick," she squeals. "Who gave you that?"
The water begins to flood out of the chapel through some invisible drain. Soon it's only as deep as our ankles. And that's not all. The sorceress looks far more bedraggled than before, and she has sunk a few inches into the water.
"A magic nullifier," I announce proudly, "from a friend. Now we can fight on equal footing."
For the first time, real fear darkens her once-beautiful features. "No! It can't be! I thought I killed him! I thought
" she continues to babble as she struggles to conjure more magic to her fingertips. Blue sparks splutter and spit in vain, and then finally die out when I lunge forward and slice off the sorceress' head in one stroke.
I fall to my knees, breathing heavily.
"It's over. It's finally over."
Without warning I find hot tears trickling down my face and salting my cracked lips. For the longest time I can't get up from where I crouch, palms flat on the stone floor, unkempt hair shielding my pitiful face. I can't move. I can't take the next step, knowing how painful it's going to be.
Before I can feel sorry for myself too long, the knight strides over to me in silence and offers me his hand. "Idiot," he says, his voice rough. "Let's go."
The moment my fingers intertwine around his, I find the strength to stand. I manage to smile the tiniest bit, and only after knowing him for so long can I see that he smiles back. I follow him through a narrow door in the corner of the chapel. Beyond is a dimly-lit chamber filled with horrid-smelling skins and stuffed toads and vials of odd-colored liquid.††A strange, circular pattern drawn in blood covers the floor, and at its exact center lies a young man dressed in white cloth, his eyes closed as if he's in a deep sleep. Reluctantly, I release the knight's comforting grasp and kneel down beside the prince. His fair eyes flutter open and focus on my face.
He smiles deeply. "At last, some brave maiden has come to rescue me."
Even as he struggles to rise to one knee, I know what is coming next. I had been waiting for this moment, dreaming of it, since I first began this journey. This moment was the reason I had fought so hard and for so long, against such bitter odds. And still
And still, I can't help but glance at the one who took this journey with me, my ever-faithful knight. Is there pain in my eyes, a desperate plea, like what I see now in his own? If my hands were not trapped so tightly in the prince's hold, would they be trembling just like his?
The prince is watching me with an adoring gaze. He's quite handsome, really. And kind, and wealthy, and everything else I could ever want.
At last he asks the question.
"My lady, would you forever be mine? Would you take my hand in marriage?"
I hesitate for a long time before I can reply. This is a privilege beyond anything anyone could hope to be given. Any woman would dream to be in my place.
This is what I always wanted.