(Pewter and Iron is my second foray into the world of Nerona. I wanted to make the world bigger than a single character or plot thread and so I deliberately pivoted to a new character rather than try to stick with either of the protagonists from The Lady of Marble. Lenneth and Ghiarelli aren’t gone but for the moment we’re looking elsewhere. Hopefully you enjoy Fabian as much as those two!)
“Zalt – it’s the Blacklegs all right. The whole company of them, by the looks of it.” I slid back down below the stone wall and handed my partner the spyglass. Sergio and I had spent the last hour picking our way through the ruins of Troas towards the Dragon’s Orb that floated just above it only to discover signs of other encampments as we went. Now we knew who’d left them. It wasn’t all that surprising.
Most of the old cities around the Gulf of Lum were abandoned after Hannibal Fulminate fought Old Lum around a hundred and fifty years ago. However fishermen still plied the waters of the Gulf and doubtless they’d brought the word back to more settled regions. I’m sure that’s how the Prince of Torrence heard about the pewter and sapphire colored Orb in the ruins. Whoever had sent the Blacklegs probably followed a similar route.
“I don’t see any banners. Are you sure it’s the Blacklegs?” Sergio asked.
“Let’s see. They’re all carrying swordstaves, wearing thigh high black boots and at least half a dozen of them are hopping around like crickets. If they’re not the Blacklegs they’re doing a pretty good job of pretending they are.” I leaned back against the wall, pulled off my left glove and took my rondel dagger in my right. Then I closed my eyes and reached for my Gift.
You feel an incredible number of sensations every second of every day but you’ve learned to ignore them so you can actually live your life. I have learned to feel them again, so that I can share them with others and feel what they feel in turn. In many circumstances this isn’t very fun. It can be very useful. Back on the outskirts of Troas a man sat on a particularly uncomfortable wooden stool. I could feel it digging into his thighs from half a mile away. Then I focused on my left thumb and very deliberately pricked that thumb with the point of my dagger, sending that sensation back to that man on the stool until the feeling of sitting vanished. Then I opened my eyes again. “They’re on their way.”
“We need to hurry,” Sergio hissed. “They’re going to get away with the Orb!”
“Get away?” I peeked back over the wall just to make sure we were both looking at the same thing. “It’s floating fifteen feet in the air, Sergio.”
“Have you forgotten what the defining trait of a Blackleg is, Fabian?”
Not for the first time I cursed the Prince for pairing me with this child who thought everyone and everything in the world found it as new as he did. “Yes, Sergio, anyone without the Gift of Leaping is automatically disqualified from joining. Just because they can get up on top of the Orb doesn’t mean they can move it. Have you ever seen the one the Conte Compani gifted to the Prince when he came of age eight years ago? It’s enormous, and made of solid granite. I don’t see a team of oxen or a cart to haul it with so how do they intend to move it?”
“Could be what the extras are for.” I followed Sergio’s finger to the two people not wearing the Blackleg’s distinctive boots or carrying their trademark weapon. One was a man with a strange, blue-green arm and the other a woman in an obscenely tight corset and men’s stockings and hose. There wasn’t a scrap of armor on her. Neither did she carry a weapon or even bother with anything on her arms or a cloak to keep off the night’s dew. In contrast, the man kept his strange arm free of clothing but otherwise was swathed in the usual cloak, surcoat and pantaloons you’d expect of a bravo at work. An interesting addition to a company of condottieri like the Blacklegs.
Large companies of mercenaries rarely worked with outside individuals or teams like Sergio and I. The point of condottieri is to fight battles. Outside of campaigns they drill, maintain equipment and move about looking for work. We bravos rarely take to battlefields. Instead we focus on smaller problems and generally work to be more discreet, working on behalf of a handful of reliable patrons. Our remit is the slaying of monsters, checking on wayward caravans, retrieving stole property or kidnapped nobles. In our off time I usually just try to get Sergio drunk enough that he’ll leave me alone then go to Torrence Grande Square to listen to the troubadours.
My point is, it’s rare to see the two breeds of hirelings work together. On anything. “The woman is either a thunderheart or flameheart,” I said. “She wouldn’t be dressed like that in a crowd of men if she couldn’t do something to keep them at arm’s length.”
Sergio spent a moment studying her. I had to admit that her high cheekbones, flawless skin, pronounced curves and long, wild black hair were well worth the time to look at. “I don’t know,” Sergio finally muttered. “It might be worth making a grab for her even if you wind up getting burned.”
“Worth sacrificing a hand for? Maybe. But worth loosing your manhood to living flame or lightning? No thank you.”
My partner grimaced. “Right, I forgot you pick up some sensations whether you want them or not so I guess you’d know, wouldn’t you?”
Actually I wouldn’t. I’ve vicariously lived through some truly horrible things but getting the figs burnt off isn’t one of them. Telling Sergio that just seemed like a way to get further off the topic. “I’ve never met him in person but I’d bet anything the man with the strange arm is Benicio Gale, from the eastern peninsula. He’s supposed to be the most powerful Blowhard alive.”
Sergio frowned. “Okay, that’s a useful Gift to have but if Dragon Orbs are as heavy as they say-”
“-then he’s not going to be able to blow it all the way back to wherever they’re planning to take it.” He gave me a skeptical look. “Or do you think they’re not here to claim it like we are? Could they be after something else here and just happened on the Orb by accident?”
“Not a chance.” I took the glass back from Sergio and looked at the Orb again. “Look at that. That’s not just any Dragon Orb that’s the first intact one I’ve ever heard of.”
“You mean they’re all smashed open like the Prince’s?”
I lowered the spyglass and gently thumped my forehead against the cool stone. “King of Stars, save us from ignorant children. Yes, every Orb ever found has a hole smashed in one side of it regardless of what it is made out of and how powerful the Dragon that keeps it.”
“That’s the other thing,” Sergio said, slipping a bolt into his crankbow. “Dragon Orbs are supposed to belong to dragons. So where is it?”
“Maybe none of them have shown up to claim it yet,” I said.
Sergio grinned. “Maybe this is our chance to break one open and find out why dragons care so much about the zalted things.”
“I don’t think the Blacklegs will take kindly to us just walking up and tampering with their prize.”
He didn’t reply, just picked up his bow and stood in a low crouch, hustling through the ruins with the stock of the bow clamped to his shoulder. I sighed, cursed the impetuosity of youth and hurried after him. As we moved closer I felt the telltale prickling sensation of Sergio’s Gift crawl over my scalp like spider feet. “Really, Fabian? Annoyance? Couldn’t you appreciate my initiative?”
“No. What’s their status?”
“They’re a little tired but alert and confident.” He came to a stop and turned to peek over the wall again, looking confused. “Weird. There’s something else out there. Something big.”
Sergio’s ability to sense and share emotions was useful in a lot of situations but when stretched further than thirty or forty feet it became quite vague. The Blacklegs were about sixty feet away, the Orb just beyond them. “Big how? Lots of feelings or strong emotion? Or both?”
“Watchful. Just one set of emotions I think, but very pronounced and very watchful. It knows we’re here…” His eyes widened. “Zalt. I think I know what that Orb is.”
The side of the Orb shattered, sending gray and blue shards raining down on the surprised Blacklegs. They scattered, shouting in alarm, as a newborn dragon emerged and dropped to the ground. It had six legs and a thin, serpentine body. The belly and eyes gleamed sapphire while the heavy scales that armored most of its body were a silvery pewter color, just like the orb. The snakelike head and four toed claws flashed sapphire teeth and claws at us. It was perhaps eight feet from snout to tail.
There were fifty four men looking at it and we all stared in disbelief for just a moment. That was our first mistake.
The dragon snatched up one of the Blacklegs, faster than thought, and tore its head off between its jaws, crushing the skull and gulping it down in a single gruesome movement. It’s claws dug into the body beneath the armor and it darted away from the condottieri dragging the body with it. Pieces of armor were torn away and the body within devoured in great, bloody gulps.
The Blacklegs didn’t take kindly to this. They jumped forward, their Gift turning a small jump of two or three feet into a dizzying leap that covered nearly fifty. Their captain sent them into the air in groups of ten. It was a sight to see them leave the ground in waves, flying through the air like stones from a catapult, then smashing into the ground unhurt in clouds of dust at the end of their brief flight. Two groups cut off the dragon’s retreat, leveling the points of their weapons at their quarry. A third wave of Blacklegs targeted the creature itself.
The maneuver took less than ten seconds, in which time the dragon devoured the last of their friend’s corpse. It had already grown two feet longer. Perhaps the only thing more frightening than the rage of a grown dragon is the hunger and growth of an newborn one. The only consolation I found in the whole scene was that the man died without feeling pain.
The same was not true of the Blacklegs who lept to kill the dragon. The first had his arm ripped off and bled to death in agony. The creature grabbed the second’s swordstave by the blade and swung him around into the third before either one landed. Apparently the dragon didn’t know the Leaping Gift made all landings painless for those who had it since it ignored those two even though they felt almost no pain when they tumbled to the ground.
The moment they collided in the air probably broke some ribs, though.
I staggered to my feet, fighting off the waves of outside pain, and dragged Sergio up after me. “We need to get out of here.”
He balanced his crankbow on the wall in front of us and waited for a shot. “Are you crazy? We have a chance to be dragon slayers! It’s a child, sure, but-”
“But it’s making mincemeat of some of the best mercenaries in Nerona, Sergio. And we’re not fighters, we’re scouts. Leave this to the professionals.”
Already the Blacklegs were switching tactics. They’d brought a huge net, probably to wrangle the floating Orb with, and now four of them lept over the dragon’s head carrying one edge of it while four more anchored the other side. While the net was just rope it was woven densely enough that the dragon couldn’t easily tear through with its claws and they brought it down for the moment. A gout of flame sprang up within the net but the dragon was young and the net was damp with dew. It didn’t burn quickly.
Sergio gave me a hard look. “What, it’s bad to give up a Dragon Orb to whoever they’re working for but giving them a dragon or it’s corpse is fine?”
“Do you really think they’re going to kill it?”
In response a wave of confidence and resolve washed over me, channeled to me through Sergio from the minds of the men in front of us. Sergio crouched down and started forward again, leaving the most important thing unspoken. Even if it didn’t prey on men a newborn dragon could cause famines across counties and provinces as its absurd growth and insatiable appetite brought it to adulthood.
The lands around Torrence just couldn’t support their human populace and a growing dragon. The lizard had to die.
I loosed my dagger in its sheath and unslung my shield, although from what I’d seen those weapons weren’t worth much against a dragon, and followed after Sergio. He kept broadcasting the confidence and purpose of the Blacklegs as we approached. It didn’t do much for me but I could tell that the mercenaries were less tentative with Sergio bolstering their courage – even if he was using their own feelings to do it.
The Blackleg captain was no fool, although most of his attention was on the dragon clawing its way out of the net he did cast a quick glance around the area as Sergio’s wave of encouragement washed over him. I sighed and stood up straight, waving for his attention.
“What are you doing?” Sergio hissed.
“The smart thing, unlike you.” The captain waved me over and we closed the thirty feet between us in a few seconds. “Fabian Sensate, captain, and my partner Sergio Empath.”
“Bartolomaeus Leaper,” he snapped, “commanding the Blacklegs under contract to retrieve the Dragon Orb. Same for you?”
“Originally. I think we have a bigger problem on hand right now, captain, and I’ll be happy to just kill the beast and live to tell it.”
“Between you, me and the Four Kings I’d settle for that, too. My employer wouldn’t be so understanding.” He glanced up at the sky but it was overcast and the twilight hidden from us. “The King of Stars keeps his own counsel tonight so we’re on our own, I’m afraid. Say we kill the dragon and argue over the Orb later?”
“Fine.” I gave Sergio a sharp look and he closed his mouth, objection unvoiced. I took the crankbow from his hands. “Sergio will help you keep your men together. What should I do?”
Bartolomaeus glanced at the dragon, which had burned its way out of the net and killed another Blackleg but now bled from a dozen shallow stab wounds. The woman in the corset waded through the burning rope, her own body practically one with the flames. A fire heart indeed. She threw her arms around the dragon’s neck and climbed for its head only to burst into a pillar of flame as the dragon swatted her with a claw. Her body reassembled itself from the fire a moment later and she made another grab for the lizard.
“Can you hurt that thing without endangering my men?”
“No. I can feel what others feel and share the sensations but I can only target an individual if I know them well, otherwise the sensations effect anyone near me.” I patted a few potions at my waist. “I can make them feel some terrible things that will lay them flat but I can’t guarantee it will work on the dragon.”
“Then hold your peace while we try something. Benicio!” The captain waved his hand in some kind of signal to the green armed man. Then he yelled to the men around the dragon. “Ola! Ohle-ohlay-ohlay-la-la!”
Benicio Gale came by his name honestly. He took a breath so deep I thought he would swell up and burst then pursed his lips and blew a hurricane through the middle of the ruins. The Blacklegs around the dragon lept up and over the wall of wind, landing near their captain in near perfect formation no doubt indicated by the ridiculous cry Bartolomaeus had just given. The dragon and woman were picked up and slammed into a set of stone pillars that once held up a long vanished roof. The woman dissolved into fire then was swept away by the wind. I think I saw her laughing as she vanished and bid her good riddance. A dangerous one, that, whoever she was.
The dragon was left pinned in place by Benicio’s titanic breath, clawing at the stone but unable to find purchase with its emerald talons. It had grown more in the few minutes that passed. Now its length was twenty feet if it was an inch and it had begun to sprout wings like a bee. I felt a sudden, grinding pain between my shoulder blades and realized I could feel the dragon’s discomfort. It braced itself against the foundation of the ruined building and I felt it draw in a deep breath.
“Your ears! Captain, have your men plug their ears!”
It was too late. The dragon’s roar shattered old stone and cracked the earth, even overpowering the sound of Benicio’s howling wind. The waves of courage Sergio sent out faltered. I saw most of the men behind Bartolomaeus turn white as death but a few stood strong, not the least of them the captain himself. Sergio’s brow furrowed as he grasped the few remaining strands of resolve and wove them into a blanket to keep the Blacklegs from panicking.
It was an incredible feat. The terror of a dragon’s roar is supposed to break the will of all but the most hardened veterans. This dragon was young, true. But Sergio turned the remaining scraps of courage into an ironclad bulwark against its terrifying rage. I can honestly say I have never seen an Empath achieve anything remotely comparable before or since. For just a moment, Sergio stood on the level of Hannibal’s Paladins.
Then Benicio ran out of breath.
I should have seen it coming. He could only exhale for so long and the force of the dragon’s roar had to have taken some toll on him. Even I felt a chill from it and I have felt what it’s like to die countless times in my life. So it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when Benicio coughed once then doubled over, gasping, and the wind vanished.
The dragon was the only one who was ready for it.
It flung itself off one of the pillars behind it, covering most of the twenty feet between us between Benicio’s first and second gasps. I loosed my crankbow, hitting it on the shoulder of its second left leg. The arrowhead bounced off with only a twinge of pain. Bartolomaeus raised his swordstave and held it in a cross guard, opening space between the dragon and his men. He stepped forward to ward the dragon back. Behind him, half a dozen of his men scrambled to form a skirmish line. Their discipline was remarkable.
Sergio scrambled to one side, fumbling his rapier out of its sheath as he tried to give them space to work. For just a moment he stepped too far away from the Blackleg formation.
Like a whip, the dragon’s head swept out and around Bartolomaeus, its teeth latched on to Sergio’s shoulder and then he was yanked forward into the monster’s waiting claws. A splash of blood and the unnatural courage that flooded us vanished. Sergio was dead. The dragon tore its mouthful away, taking shoulder and arm off of Sergio’s body and swallowed it down. Already I could see panic spreading through the Blacklegs. Even Bartolomaeus’ eyes were wide with shock.
Another roar and they would break.
I threw aside the crankbow and drank the first potion on my belt. For a moment the foul brew stuck my eyes and the back of my nose, then it hit my stomach and the world spun for a moment. I gathered myself and put the full force of my Gift behind the sensation. Then I vomited.
The Blacklegs followed suit to the man, most of them collapsing as the nausea overpowered their sense of balance as well. The dragon spat out Sergio’s arm and flopped flat, writhing on the ground, leaking bile and blood from its lips. Only Benicio kept his stomach although not his feet.
For just a moment I was the only one standing. It takes more than a little puke for me to take a seat. With the last of Sergio’s borrowed feelings purged with the remains of my dinner I felt something quite unexpected filling its place. Anger burned in me. I stalked towards the dragon, taking my dagger in one hand and the next potion in the other. I pried the cork out and let the eye watering smell of spices sting my nose. The dragon looked up at me as approached.
“What is this?” The creature gathered its wits about it and pulled upright.
“Oh? You can talk now, can you?” I sucked in a deep breath through my nose, the burning spices in the potion clawing through my skull at my brain and eyes. The dragon reared backwards. “You couldn’t have tried that first?”
“Humans are not the only ones who can peer through minds, Fabian Sensate,” the dragon snapped, shaking its head clear of the pain. “I know you came to steal my cradle from me. Why speak to thieves who will take the one treasure granted to a child such as I?”
“I’m no richer than you, little lizard. I don’t have many people I’d call friends and you just ate one of them, so you may be willing to call it even.” I took a sip of the potion and its spice scalded my tongue. “Turns out I am not.”
The dragon pulled itself up until its head was even with mine, spitting bile and coughing flame as I shared the torture in my mouth with it. But the creature’s attention wasn’t on its mouth. It was staring intently at me, its head weaving back and forth as if it was one of those charmed snakes charlatans from the East mesmerized with a flute. Then the dragon changed.
It didn’t get bigger, not this time, nor did it stretch is nascent wings to their full extent. Rather, it shrank until it was barely taller than I am. Its proportions changed, too, head pulling in to its torso, tail and middle set of legs disappearing inward as well, its extra shoulders melting away like snow in sunlight. Faster than it took to describe, the dragon changed from a lizard to a human woman. She stood there, six feet of pewter skin, her nudity robbed of eroticism by its sheer alien nature, still armed with wicked sapphire claws and teeth, her hair a bundle of waving, jewel like fibers. Then she leaned in close to me.
Her breath smelled like a burning cook pot.
“How lovely,” she whispered.
She stretched a deadly, taloned finger towards my eyes. “The most lovely jewels I have ever seen lie just here, more brilliant than any sapphire, quartz, diamond or topaz my parents placed in my cradle.”
I looked down at my potions, wondering if I had one that would do more to her than the fire pepper brew. She grabbed my hand and tilted my face back up towards her. “They’re gone. Why?”
“There are worse questions for your last words, I suppose.” Switching tactics, I jammed my dagger into the sapphire scales over her belly. To my amazement, it broke.
The dragon scowled at me. “That was rude. Almost as rude as trying to steal my cradle while I was still in it. I’ll forgive you if-”
I took the shards of the dagger and stabbed them into my thigh. It was a risky move, but there was a Mender among the men I’d signaled with the thumb prick and I was confident I could survive. However as I worked the metal slivers into my flesh even my own tolerance for pain failed and I crumbled to the ground. I landed almost on top of the dragon, who’s tolerance wasn’t any better than mine. In fact, I could tell that these sensations were quite new to her, rapidly spreading through her body and triggering sympathetic pains elsewhere.
She rallied and pushed up, causing me to roll off her. I deliberately landed on my wounded leg, causing her to howl in agony. Using a contortionist trick I’d picked up from a tiny man from the East I yanked my thumb out of socket then popped it back it. Black spots swam before my eyes.
The dragon pulled herself up and roared, the sound doubly terrifying coming from a creature that looked so uncannily human. In response, a horn sounded nearby. A gust of wind nearly took the dragon off its feet as Benicio began to get his breath back. I picked up the fire pepper potion I had dropped. It was still half full. I dumped it all over my face and mouth, triggering horrible burning on my skin and tears from my eyes.
A Blackleg – I couldn’t tell who – crashed into her with the point of his weapon and she howled. Her body melted back into her full draconic form, now almost twenty five feet long with wings fully grown, and she clawed for the sky. A few bolts of lighting from a thunder hand sparked off her pewter skin but the creature kept climbing and climbing until I could no longer pick it out from the night sky. All I could see through the tears and pain was the glimmering curve of the Orb, slowly settling to the ground as the magic within it faded, its mistress gone.
I, too, collapsed onto the ground. The tension left my body as it became clear the danger was past and all that was left was arguing over who would ultimately lay claim to the treasure the dragon left. I closed my eyes, trying to sooth the burning there, content to let others bicker over such things. Then I heard a voice speaking to me with the faraway tone of a Telepath. “Keep my cradle with you, my lovely,” the dragon sent. “One day I will come back for it as surely as I will find you again. Although it may be ages before fate brights us together once more I will always count your eyes as the first treasure of my hoard…”
“Think that if you like,” I muttered, opening my eyes to look up into the cloudy night. “But I swear this by the King of Stars, lizard. One day I will kill you.”