A Willing Heart
by Becky Minor
Nothing spoils a momentous occasion like an uninvited guest. So when a forty-foot, bronze-scaled dragon swooped down upon the field of tournament behind Stonewarden Keep, the festivities not only ground to a halt, but the throng of spectators burst into cacophonous panic. Courtiers wailed. Peasants stumbled over one another. Knights stood with jaws dropped, paralyzed by a moment of shock.
The dragon’s first snatch at the Princess Lydia missed only by a hair’s breadth, for the Tournament’s Champion swept her aside. The winged serpent ascended and came about.
Finally overcoming their stunned stupors, many of the knights drew bows, fit arrows to the nock, and let the missiles fly at the beast. Most of these darts, fashioned to pierce the stoutest armor upon the field of war, bounced off the hide of the dragon with no more than a spark. Only those arrows that met with the membranous webbing of the creature’s wings stuck fast. They fired a second volley.
The dragon, black blood oozing from his wings, sped to the arena floor and landed with a thud that rattled the earth beneath Squire Caleb’s feet. It bellowed a roar that elicited further cries of dismay from the crowd.
Caleb snatched a sword from amidst his master’s gear.
After another volley of arrows bounced off the dragon’s hide, the knights glanced to one another, hesitant. A look of black smugness overtook the dragon’s features, and in the knight’s dalliance, it shot out a claw and ensnared the princess.
Caleb dashed forward a half-dozen steps, but turned to look back as he realized no knights followed.
“Knights of the crown! Is this not just the sort of duty to which your office calls you?” Caleb cried.
The Tournament’s Champion balked at the squire, askance. “What would you have us do, young one? Do not mistake foolishness for valor. You saw how our arrows fell harmless upon the beast!”
“Surely the creature has some weakness,” Caleb retorted.
The dragon wheeled, lumbering for the arena gate. Princess Lydia strained and writhed, but could not free herself from the beast’s iron grasp.
Still, no knight made the first move.
“If you will not use your God-given talents for such a cause as this, I shall test my own mettle.” Caleb set his jaw. After a deep breath and a wordless prayer, he leapt after the beast.
“Clearly, we cannot allow the youth to challenge this evil alone,” another knight said.
Infected by Caleb’s determination, a phalanx of knights swept into a wide circle around the wyrm as it loped across the castle lawn. The glistening stain of the dragon’s blood marked a spattered trail to mark its retreat. The girl had fallen silent, which Caleb prayed was only due to a swoon, and no worse.
The dragon whipped its head back and forth, baring rows of crooked, yellowing teeth at his adversaries. Hatred flared in its blood-red eyes as the press of many sword points cornered the creature against the waters of Lake Thistleburgh. The dragon halted, claws digging into the sandy soil as it hissed its defiance. The dour-faced knights encircled the beast, but kept their distance, weapons clutched in white-knuckled hands.
The wyrm sniffed the air. “I smell your fear.” A laugh of derision rumbled in its throat.
“Not mine, foul one!” Caleb roared at the wyrm. “Go, foul beast, back to the watery depths from whence you came!”
A slow, disquieting smile spread across the creature’s lips. “You mistake me for the pup old Saint George cowed in his day. I assure you, I am made of sterner stuff than that.” The dragon cast princess Lydia’s limp form to the ground.
With the swiftness of a cobra strike, the dragon shot its head toward Caleb, who barely tumbled clear of the snap of deadly jaws. He swiped his blade at the dreadful beast, though its edge skittered over diamond-hard scales. He rose to one knee and braced himself for the dragon’s next assault.
The knights glanced to one another. None advanced.
The dragon reared, its disdainful voice echoing above the din of weapons and armor. “You are outmatched, little mortals. I claim this princess unto my deathless appetite.”
Caleb bellowed in response. “You are no less mortal than we. This battle belongs to the Almighty, immortal alone!” The squire swept his blade in a circle as he stood, holding it high and daring the dragon’s attack.
“In your false confidence shall I send you to meet this Almighty,” the dragon replied.
“That choice is neither yours nor mine, but God’s. Should I die, you remain a tool of his will!”
The wyrm screeched. It dove at Caleb, maw gaping.
With a thrust, Caleb pointed his sword to the sky, a prayer in his heart that his end, though swift, would glorify his Lord. A bone-shattering impact struck his raised sword, and utter blackness engulfed him.
When Caleb opened his eyes, he saw above him the flapping banners of the king. The summer breeze caressed his face, and the smells of horses and honeysuckle drifted to his nose.
“Father, he awakes!” a feminine voice, no less sweet than the scent of nectar proclaimed.
“Does he now?” another speaker replied.
Caleb blinked the haze from his eyes to see none other than his Highness, King Thaddeus striding across the castle lawn, waved over by his ivory-skinned daughter Princess Lydia. His right arm bound across his chest, Caleb struggled to rise for his earthly liege.
“We owe you more than words can convey, Squire Caleb, for my daughter’s rescue,” the king said. “What my knights hesitated to do, you performed without hesitation.”
“Truly, Sire,” Caleb replied, “if I ever hoped to count myself as one of them, I did only what I believed the office requires. I’m humbled to have done my part. Tell me, though, did the knights finish the beast?”
The princess giggled, an infectious sound that drifted like bubbles on the breeze. “They didn’t need to! Your stroke did the deed.”
Caleb shook his head. “How can that be? I don’t recall dealing any blow.”
“When the dragon dived at you, your lifted sword pierced the villain inside his maw, felling him outright,” the princess said. “Or so I’m told, for I had fainted and saw nothing.”
A sheepish grin tugged at the corner of Caleb’s mouth. “It sounds more like a stroke of luck than prowess.”
“But it was bravery that put you in place to deal it. Do not dismiss as luck what was more likely a miracle.” The king clasped Caleb’s good arm. “Hand me the sword you wielded, young squire.”
Caleb knelt. He stretched a trembling hand toward the blade that lay in the grass beside him. The king took the weapon in a firm grasp.
King Thaddeus rested the blade against Caleb’s left shoulder, then his right. “I knight thee, Sir Caleb of Drastony. Swear, from this day forth: thou shalt serve thy earthly king with valor, until the King of Kings releases thee from thy service to join him in his Kingdom eternal.”
The nearby crowd of knights and courtiers erupted into torrential applause, and Sir Caleb of Drastony, Wyrmsbane, stretched tall. “I swear it.”