seven against the dragon


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author's note

this is a first draft, posted as scenes are completed over the course of the month.  any words within square brackets, e.g. [the elven king], [Mount Gereon], are placeholder text for finalized named.  any sections within curled brackets, e.g. {text}, are words written that are likely to be cut or worked elsewhere in the second draft.

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a rash boon

Otto had fallen asleep at his mother's bedside.  He remembered blinking bleary, red eyes at his mother's frail shape as the rattle in her chest finally settled into a deep, even rhythm.  The next he knew was a hammering knock.  At the door.  He bolted up, and every bit of his wide, thick-limbed body ached.  One side of his neck throbbed, and he rubbed at it with wide, rough fingers.  The knock continued its frantic cadence.  Otto turned back to his mother.  Adelais had propped herself up.  Her arms, muscles and sinews pronounced, shook from the effort.  He managed a few paces before she waved him back.

"Go," she croaked then slumped over as a coughing fit overcame her.

Between the sharp hacks, her breath rattled and whistled.  The knocking had stopped, but his mother's coughing filled the small timber cabin.  Every hack arched up his spine.  Now and again his shoulders twitched up as he hurried to unlatch the door.  He yanked it open then brushed past the small figure beyond.  It was but a flash of pale blond hair and black leathers as he rushed across the porch.  At the edge, he bent to snatch up the rope handles of two wooden barrels.  He'd meant to bring in water before sleeping.  He'd meant to sleep in his loft.  And his mother's sudden retching stopped that line of vain thoughts.  Only fetching the water mattered now.

"Otto, wait."

His mother was still coughing, hacking, and gasping, and that was not her voice.  It was smaller, higher, like a child's.  He turned back to blink at a small woman.  She was two head shorter with dusky violet skin and shaggy pale hair.  One pointed ear curled up to the right, and the left point flopped over.  Her large lilac eyes smiled up at him, and he frowned.

"Vervain, what are you--"

His mother's coughing interrupted him.  It followed him as he rushed around the cabin to the stone wall.  Looping ropes through the handles, he tossed the buckets down the well.  No sooner had they splashed the water then he was cranking the pulley and hauling them out.  It wasn't until he'd rounded the corner and started across the porch he realized his mother had stopped coughing.  He ran, water sloshing all over: behind, ahead, to either side as the buckets jerked against the rope handles.  They knocked against his knees as he stepped back into the cabin.

And he felt sure he'd stepped back, to decades before when he'd served as a border guard under contract to [the elf king].  They sent him out ahead.  With Vervain following in the shadows, he'd scout the way between the border forts.  There were six up and down the leagues and leagues of the wooded borders between the [Avernii] and the [mountains of the dwarves and gnomes].  All six were guarded by a six "man" group of half-elves with an elf leading them, and all seven now filled his mother's cabin.  Even the elf.

For a long while, Otto stood in the doorway and stared at Dannicos, son of Adhertos--the elf, pure-blooded and pale, with eyes like ice, a voice full of gravel, and a swagger as befit one of the warriors honored by [the elf king]'s court.  He wore baggy crimson breeches with stripes of black and a rough tunic belted with thick leather, all trappings typical of [the elven king]'s warriors.  He stood at the hearth Otto had built for Adelais, and the elf poked at the embers.


Hands reaching up for him, Vervain jumped up from the floor and ran toward him.  She leaped, and he dropped the buckets.  With a giggle, she crashed into his chest.  He caught her against him as he staggered back.  Squeezing at his shoulders, face against his neck, she hugged him.

"Vervain," he grumbled, "please, my mother--"

He set her down.  Stepping back, she dropped her head.  "My apologies.  I missed you."

His fingers tapped at her chin, and she looked at him through her hair.  He smiled.  A deep flush warmed her cheeks.

"I need a boon from you."

He glanced up, around the one room cabin.  Dannicos watched over one shoulder.  Iomara knelt by a wooden chest.  With an elf father and human mother, she had been raised an elf.  {Her mother's people came from the north when another elven tribe raided their village.}  Her face was rounder, her jawline more square than most elves.  Her skin was fair but deeply tanned as she'd spent most of her life in the sun.  Her eyes were a bright blue, and her closely cropped hair was a brown well brightened by the sun.  She handed vials and pouches to Rika as she asked for them.  Owing to her dwarven mother, she was shorter, thicker.  Fair, with freckles, she wore her long dark hair down.  She held it back with loose braids, hastily threaded whenever one slipped free.  A drop here, a pinch there she dropped into the mortar sitting on the trunk he'd carved and polished into a small chest of drawers.  Grinding the mixture with the pestle, Rika leaned over Adelais.  They whispered to each other.  At the small table before the hearth sat Belen and Cuno, and they both watched Otto.  Like Rika, Belen had a dwarven mother.  Their fathers were brothers, but Belen's skin was darker, a warm olive color, with shaggy red curls and bright brown eyes.  Cuno was Iomara's brother, and he looked it with matching colors.  She cut his hair in a similar style as hers, though his was matted in places and sticking up at others.

He stepped back.  "What is this?"

"We've all agreed," Belen said.

Otto looked at his mother and shook his head.  She was leaned back, against the headboard.  She breathed even, and she smiled at him.  Tugging at Rika, Adelais whispered to the other woman.  Rika straightened to say, "Your mother suggests taking Vervain down to the lake.  Catch some fish for lunch."

Otto stared at his mother.  He wanted to argue, but he didn't want the others to see.  He dreaded the thought of leaving her here, and he glanced over to Dannicos' back.  The elf had lost interest.  For now.

Leather-clad fingers brushed up the back of his arm, and he looked at Vervain.  She smiled up at him.  Sighing, he turned to leave the cabin.  He paused at the edge of the porch as the others started talking.  Vervain grabbed his hand and tugged him off the edge.  The sun was high overhead.  Blinking at it through the boughs of oak trees, he grumbled to himself.

"What was that?"  She squeezed at his hand.

Shaking his head, he mumbled, "Nothing, only slept half the day away."

"You look like that's all you've slept."

"Mother is sick."

"Rika'll have her fit as ever by the time we get back."

Otto shook his head but smiled.  "Still the optimist, I see."

"One of us has to be.  Otto, if I had known about your mother--"

"Would you have come for me first?"

For a long moment, she was quiet.  He glanced at her.  Her head was down, and all he could see was her tousle of hair and ears poking through.  "No," she finally said, "but I would have at least not brought Dannicos here."

"Well, he's here, but why?  What boon do you need?"

"You must promise it first."

He stopped, jerking his hand from hers.  "And why is that?"

"Because we swore to each other we'd always protect each other."  Tears welled in her lilac eyes.  "You've all forgotten.  I don't know how you could have forgotten.  After [the young recruit] died, we--"

"I remember," he said.

Thick tears rolled down her cheeks, just as they had when Rika sat back from [the young recruit] and pronounced him past her arts, past the veil.

"I promise.  You have my boon."

Rubbing at her cheeks, she mumbled, "I've made a right mess, Otto.  All that time, sending all coin back to my sister, so it seemed only right to assume she'd have a place for me.  But the elf she married, he took--he took one look at--at me--"  Her voice wavered, threatening to crack into sobs.  Tears again in her eyes, she turned away.

He watched her go, stomping back several paces then rushing past him.  He started after her, but she whirled back.  Bumping into him, she mumbled apologies.  He frowned at her.

"You want me to kill him?  Is that--"

She waved her palms at him.  "No, no.  That's not it at all.  I only mentioned him to explain.  I didn't have anywhere to go.  I didn't know what to do.  In hindsight, it's obvious I should have signed another contract with the king, but I didn't--the thought of doing that again, for so many years, without all of you, without my sister needing the money…"  Vervain shrugged.  "The point is I took the work I could find, and there's only a certain type of work that an elf can see someone like me doing."

She'd dropped her head, but he could see the shame burning across her face through her hair.  For a long while, he stared at her.  He knew what elves saw when they looked at her.  They might call her half-elf, but she was also half-gnome.  Just as Otto was half-orc.  That was all they saw: that foreign other, mixed with "pure" elven blood, a transgression made flesh.

Offering her his hand, he said, "You should have come to me."

She slapped his hand away.  "That's what everyone says.  Like you don't know how hard it is, but you do.  You know I couldn't've.  I didn't have anything, just my pack with my bit of clothes.  Spent all my discharge purse getting back to--to my sister's home."  Chewing at her lip, she mumbled, "You were all so far away, and I was all alone."

"So, what've you done?  Offended some priest or--"

"A dragon caught me stealing from him."

Wide-eyed, Otto found difficulty holding all those words in his head.  It was as if that second word squeezed all others out.  Shaking his head, he rushed down to the lake.  Its muddy green waters shone bright in the midday sun.  He paced the water's edge, here a crumbling ridge of earth, ahead a patch of silt washed up amid high grass.  He stopped, turned back to look for her.  She walked a step behind, to the right, and she grinned at him.  It was all just as it'd been when they scouted together.

"What dragon?"

"Voski, from [Mount Aral]."

"His touch can melt gold.  Why would you ever risk such a target?  What were you after?"

Lifting a shoulder, she glanced away.  Held her breath.  Exhaled.  "Had a contract with a pale elf.  Only described the object to me, but Voski doesn't have it.  He's sent me after it.  He says it's the in the deeps, in forgotten tunnels beneath [Mount Gereon]."

"What happened to the contract?"

She shook her head.  "Don't worry about it, Otto.  He's just an elf.  I've been indebted to many an elf, but to a dragon?"  Sighing, she blinked out at the lake.  "I should have come to you."

"Better late than never, my mother says."

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the white

[Mount Gereon] towered high over the southern lowlands of the elven kingdoms.  Its snowy peak blended into the sky as they approached.  For two days they rode with the mount's grey immensity looming ever closer.  Long before they ever started up its slopes, Vervain felt the weight of all that earth pressing down on her.  It was a struggle to breathe deep and even.  It was a struggle to be around the others.  She kept fading out, kept staring up at all that grey and white.  Here and there, the dark precise shapes of dwarven settlements broke up the jagged lines of the mountain's face.

As they sat to eat a quick dinner of jerky and hard bread, Vervain asked, "What will happen when we reach the dwarves?"

They all stared at her from their seats around the fire.  Then they all looked at each other, though everyone avoided Dannicos' gaze.  The elf stood, but Otto spoke first.

"We should press ahead.  The less time we tarry, the better we'll be for it.  We can't risk anyone knowing what we are doing."

Iomara nodded.  "Not a word of the truth to anyone."

"We have to stop at one drinking hall," Cuno said, and his sister glared at him.  "Iomara, be reasonable.  You can't bring me all this way through dwarven lands, not let me sample their brews, then expect me to brave the deep with a focused mind and heart."

Iomara rolled her eyes away from brother.  Turning to Belen, she said, "I know you must agree that my brother drinking with a hall full of dwarves is the prelude to a brawl.  We can't do it.  You explain it."

Belen frowned.  Shaking his head of shaggy red curls, he mumbled, "Fucking pains me to admit, but Cuno speaks true.  We can't go through dwarven lands without introducing ourselves.  If we introduce ourselves, they'll invite us to drink.  We have to stop at one drinking hall."

"Only one?" Cuno asked.

Iomara glared at him, and he hunched his shoulders, leaning back.

"Only one, and you get to spend the evening with us.  We all stay together.  We watch each other."  Belen glanced around, his warm eyes slipping over each of them.  "No one goes off alone."

Vervain smiled as his eyes met hers.  "Just like guarding the border."  It was the slimmest thread of familiarity, but amid so much unknown, Vervain wrapped herself tight with it.

Sighing, Belen shook his head.  "We've crossed the border.  This land belongs to them."  He jerked a thumb back over his shoulder, at the white peaks behind.  "They will look at us and see elves, just as the elves look at us and see 'other.'  Though they know the elven tongues, they will speak only the languages of the mountain.  Do you know any?"

Dannicos scowled.  Then left.  Watching him go, she frowned.  "Languages of the mountain?"

"Take that as no."  Belen nudged at her arm with his elbow, and she leaned into the touch.  Head against his shoulder, she stared up at his profile as he asked, "Even been below?"

That word sent a chill rippling up her back.  She shivered, skin prickling beneath her leathers and wool.  She shifted closer to him.  "No," she mumbled.  "But you were born down there.  Under this mountain?"

"Under [Eiger]."  His left forefinger pointed back east, to another peak farther up the chain.  "But it's all the same, all connected through these mountains.  They call it the Weisse--the White."

"For the snow?"

"For the snow."

She sighed.  All that grey and white was behind her.  She'd sat purposefully with it at her back, but now it felt as if it might all come crashing down on her.  Her stomach rolled and gurgled, pain rippling through her gut.  She sat up and folded her knees up under her chin.  With one arm, she hugged her legs, and she pressed her hand against her belly.  She rubbed at it, though it didn't do much but soothe her nerves.

The others had gone on talking.  Their voices surrounded her, and she tried to hold onto this new thread of familiarity.  Their voices overlapped as their conversations splintered around the fire.  Cuno laughed.  Iomara snapped at him then everyone was laughing.  Watching them, she smiled.

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