Chapter 10-Dracos

"Help me," a wavering voice pleaded.

I started awake in the predawn light slanting into my guest room in the Baron's castle. I saw Rosa clinging to my side as her tiny hands bunched up the fabric of my nightgown. Her light brown skin was drenched in perspiration as a nightmare tormented her mind. Tears freely dribbled down her cheeks.

I gently shook her shoulder and kissed her forehead, noting the salty taste. "It is alright, little one."

"O-oh!" Rosa blinked and started awake, and gaped at my round face. Her shaky hand touched my cheek as she broke into a relieved smile. "Your majesty! You honor me with your kindness."

This again.

I snorted in mock indignation as I playfully tousled her curled locks with an indulgent chuckle at Rosa's inadvertent promotion of my noble title. "Ah, beware the big, bad demoness. Miss Dambalia will surely blast you into dust if you even look at her funny."

She blinked uncertainly afore she belatedly broke into sweet giggles at my comically contorted expression. Her expression brightened up as she hopped out of bed. "I'm ready to start the day serving you faithfully, my lady."

"Sure, sure," I replied with an indulgent smile as my meaty hand patted her head. I guess it really was karma that she had literally run into my cart…and into my heart.

A few minutes later I was outfitted by Gisela in my white blouse under a bright yellow sleeveless dress adorned with embroidered white-petaled daisies. My wavy chestnut brown hair was elegantly braided into entwined plaits. I was plagued by a flaring sensation of nausea as I dreaded formally meeting the intimidating Viscount von Grauestor.

As a brightly chatting Gisela and Rosa followed me outside into the gloomy corridor attired in their charcoal maid dresses trimmed in white frills; I glanced directly across the slate grey marble corridor and went rigid with shock. I froze, statue-like, at the sight of an open polished mahogany doorway revealing a shadowy form standing in the room beyond backlit by the feeble sunlight straining to penetrate through the drawn velvet curtains.

I was about to speak as I was sure it was Odella, but then as I took in details of the mystery form, the unsounded words perished in my throat.

The curvy feminine silhouette stood complexly motionless as she wielded a metallic casting stave topped by a brilliantly reflective crystal in her left hand. My eyes widened as my body shivered involuntarily from stark terror. The bat-winged stranger had tiny horns atop her head, silken straight hair and glowing slit-pupiled crimson eyes boring a hole through my soul with every iota of ire that she could muster.

An unwary Rosa walked right into my fleshy backside which shattered my stupefied trance. I whirled to face my friends and urgently hissed, "Run away…now!"

Gisela looked at me with baffled concern in her dark blue eyes with a worried frown creasing her freckled face. She asked with an incredulous tone, "Run away from what, my lady?"

"Idiot! From that…" I turned back around and saw a firmly shut doorway instead of a terrifying specter. I nervously glanced down an entirely empty corridor connecting the guest wing to the central hub of the inner keep of the castle. Despite the hallway being overly ornamented with endless creepy figures carved into the crown molding, the deep maroon draperies that admitted bright sunlight into the space eased my anxiety incrementally. I really didn't want to alarm my retainers over a castle haunting, so I tried to cover up my hallucination. "So-sorry for the bad joke, ladies. A-anyway, let's meet his Grace," I squeaked out. With my perplexed maids in tow, I felt my mouth go dry as I furiously questioned my very sanity.

I could already tell that this forenoon was going to be trying as I sat at a long table in a fancily appointed dining chamber with Gisela and Rosa standing attentively by the wall. The vaulted cream ceiling with exposed wooden beams, fifteen foot high diamond paned windows, hoop-shaped three tiered suspended chandeliers, and ornately decorated tapestries of stag hunts and historical battles would nominally lend this space an impressively elegant and polished air...if it wasn't for the two dozen wall-mounted stuffed animal heads staring accusingly down at me. I didn't even particularly mind the hart, lupine, boar or bear heads, as my late father had amassed a much more modest collection in his private study. However the fledgling fen dragon head completely freaked me out. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't take my eyes off of it as it was mounted directly above the vast bank of windows opposite my chair. Its purple and sickly green scaled face was blocky and unlovely, and ragged, and criss-crossed scars marred the left side of its face and its eye socket. Adding to its intimidating aura, its blue eyes looked somehow simultaneously enraged and melancholy over its horrifying fate despite being fabricated from priceless glass.

"Ah. I see that you've taken a shine to old Mallowfern," a bass voice reverberated around the peaked-ceiling chamber.

I hastily stood up and frantically curtseyed with the fabric in my dress clutched tightly in my slightly shaking hands. I spoke practically in a whisper as I rasped, "A good morn to your Grace."

The tall, well built nobleman with slightly wavy dark brown hair regarded me with amused curiosity in his sky blue eyes. His outfit consisted of a dark blue jacket, vest and pants, pale shirt with a lace ruffle at his throat, and black boots. His face was handsome in an aggressive manner. The sharp angles of his nose and cheekbones paired with an eerie thin-lipped grin put me on edge. "Good morning, my lady." He offered his gloved hand and I obligingly kissed the massive ruby on his right ring finger. "I must know. What fascinates you so about that pathetic marsh dragon adorning my wall?"

I deferentially bowed my head at my better. "My apologies, Viscount. I was simply surprised to see that you had taken a draco skull as a trophy." Mortified was a better descriptor, frankly. I was horrified that my host would see fit to decapitate an obviously already wounded and desperate prey. Why lump a sentient being's head in with these other mindless beasts? Why not add my head to the collection, I grimly thought with a brief bought of black humor.

He rubbed his chin and appeared to be flattered by the obvious opening to brag about his exploit. "Ah, yes. I was but a young lad of ten, when this menace began pouching the herds of sheep up on the hills far above this valley. This miscreant threatened the livelihood of my noble people, so I nobly dueled him to the death and emerged victorious. Do not the spoils go to the righteous winners?"

I frowned as I felt a painful compression in my chest, and nodded in reply as to not push the issue. I turned to gaze into those glass azure orbs. As I was intimately familiar with my late father's nauseating hobby of taxidermy, I could pick out details that more uninformed viewers of the mounted heads could easily miss. I mused aloud. "My late father shared your hobby, your Grace. The visible scarring indicates that young Mallowfern lost his eye as a young hatchling…at a guess due to a hunter's arrow or knife. He must have been rejected by his mother and his clan for him to become desperate enough to encroach on your lands. Couldn't you…?" I hastily slapped my hand over my mouth as I realized how inane I was sounding. I spoke contritely, "A thousand pardons, Your Grace. I was running my mouth off without sanction."

"No apology needed, Lady Graueschweine." I flinched as he unexpectedly touched my shoulders from behind. I tensed up immediately at his unwelcome advances, but I did nothing to dissuade him. I felt his breath tickle my earlobe as he inquired, "What was your thought, my lady?"

I took a deep breath and continued, "Begging your pardon, aren't dracos to be admired and respected as our equals? Couldn't you have parleyed with Mallowfern, and gained a valuable ally? May-mayhaps if you had offered him food, he would have happily agreed to serve your Grace?"

I heard a stifled snicker before he broke out into full throated laughter. "Ah, how droll. What use would I have for a hideous, scrawny, one-eyed bottom-feeder like this wretch? I did him a favor by ending his miserable and pointless life." He chuckled as he released me and sat down to tuck into his sumptuous breakfast. "Come, come, my lady. Enough talk about that worthless insect. Let us dine and discuss our new partnership."

The emotion drained out of my voice as I meekly assented, "Yes, your Grace." I sat in my seat fifteen feet away from his and started to eat; even as I had no appetite. Alongside my daily prayer for my lost family, I silently added a hope that Mallowfern's luckless soul could rest in peace.

The daylight had already faded out and was replaced by the soft glow of the moons-light. I kept silent as we proceeded further into the throat of the cave. I rued that I had witnessed so many warning signs of the Viscount's callousness long afore I became fatally entrapped in his schemes. Our eyes adjusted to the light emanating from my crystal-topped stave. The rough cavern walls were coated with patches of phosphorescent pale green growth. Beyond the constricting entry corridor, the space flared out into a wider space; occupying one shadowed corner was a badly battered dragon. I marveled at the opportunity as back in my former world, I had never met a dragon close up (save for the unfortunately stuffed Mallowfern), as the wary draco clans mostly steered clear of interacting with human society. I cast a light spell to fully illuminate the room, and the one cubit glowing orb bathed the chamber in soft white light. Lakeskimmer was truly a magnificent sight to behold. Despite her broken limb and bandaged skull, she was still a gorgeous blue-hued draco. Even laid low, she had a slender and graceful form with a hundred shades of blue in her metallic dorsal scales. Her underbelly scales were sky blue, with ocean blue elsewhere accented with black. I resolved in my heart that unlike that heartless Viscount, that I would make every attempt to negotiate peaceably with our potential draco allies before chopping off their heads like a savage barbarian.

I wasn't at all shocked when the sienna-brown runt Siltrill burst into undignified tears. She sobbed, Big sister…I'm so sorry. I failed you.

The black-scaled Onyxhide rolled his deathly pale eyes in obvious annoyance as he balled up his foreclaw and gently tapped his younger sibling's head. He chided, Stop being such a knucklehead, Sil. These two-legs are obviously talented and generous. Skimmy will be back to herself in no time.

The green and purple Duskfens snorted in surly disbelief, but chose not to elaborate his discontent. I surmised that he apparently knew better than to provoke the mighty Silverscale prince. Despite his crude and dour nature, I was secretly elated that a swamp dragon like him was shown clemency by my hand. Unlike my ex-spouse, I would never willingly slaughter the undeserving simply because of expediency or for sport.

Skyblade's eyes met mine and he flashed a toothed smile. Lady Stihila, if you would do the honors?

Of course, I replied. I clasped my hand on my loyal maid's pallid arm. "Cielo, I require your aid."

"My lady." The alabaster-furred centaur gracefully incanted her upgraded healing spell and it soon bathed the room in a faint blue glow as healing droplets dispersed around the room. Casting her spell daily to restore Skyblade's wings had gradually pushed her recovery spell from a weak Tier 1 single subject effect up to a potent Tier 5 group heal. I basked in the rejuvenating pulses of magical energy until Cielo's mana was expended. The cute centaur then wobbled and flopped down into the stone floor, looking spent.

Duskfens' winced and then his brilliant green eyes widened in apparent amazement as the wound on his neck closed up.

Siltrill's shoulder wound sealed over and on her damaged wing, the webbing smoothly grew out like a sprouting flower until it was about two thirds restored. She blinked in disbelief and then broke into a shy giggle.

Lakeskimmer groaned and then her intense maroon eyes opened in shock at her condition. She groaned and gaped at her family and foes. She attempted to sit up, but the pain crossing her visage was obviously too much to bear. She plopped down again and glanced over to Skyblade with a piercing gaze. Hmmph. You spared us for a reason. What is the catch, Silverscale?

Skyblade indulgently beamed at the stubborn cobalt draco. I, Skyblade, want nothing more than your loyalty to a noble cause. The town of Espero that you attacked will henceforth be your haven. Frankly, Lady Stihila's domain is in desperate need of better equipped defenders such as yourself and your siblings. Seadawn, Onyxhide, Duskfens and Siltrill have already pledged their draconic hearts to serve me. As an obligation to my people, I will ensure that my subjects want for nothing in return.

I was puffed up with pride over my stalwart draco ally's stirring speech. Like me, Skyblade had been forced to assume a leadership role against his will, and yet he had stepped up to the challenge commendably. I was immensely gratified that I had elected to free him from his imprisoned form, even as I felt a pang of residual regret that his wings were still defective.

The blue dragon heaved herself up with her forelimbs and glared at her noble superior. If I recall correctly, I am a dragon and not a sheep. I am not just going to give away my freedom to help a demoness protect her pathetic little hamlet!

I extended a hand to help Cielo stand up on her trembling equine legs as I felt immense irritation at Lakeskimmer's insult against my people. Still, I knew well that this impasse was best handed by my white-scaled friend.

Siltrill snuggled against her older sister and pleaded, Don't be so stubborn, I beg of you, big sis. These compatriots are kind.

Onyxhide sighed deeply, but remained silent.

Duskfens snorted in aggravation. Look Blue, we got no choice. It's not like I'm any happier with this shite deal.

You have spirit, Lakeskimmer. So do we have a understanding, Skyblade inquired with a cheeky grin.

She grimaced, looking downright cross at being outnumbered. She airly turned her head away from Skyblade, but she did not protest further.

The white dragon with a seared face winked slyly in my direction paired with a cheeky smile.

After spending an uncomfortable night in the cave, we decamped and traveled back to Espero. As the dawning light warmed our faces, it also illuminated the temporary wooden fortification crowning the low-slung hill that I now called home. Smoke drifted skywards out of dozens of stone chimneys of the town buildings. Now that the Printempo thaws were in full effect it meant two things: our boots would be inevitably caked with mud, and the farmers were already out in fields breaking up the uncooperative soil. Cielo and I took the lead as Seadawn was seated astride Skyblade's neck. Trailing behind were the new draconic subjects of the Silverscale prince.

They're going to slay us, Siltrill whimpered as her bright yellow eyes regarded the peasantry with abject terror.

Duskfens growled, Stuff it, craven. Are you a dragon or a lamb, brownie?

Onyxhide elbowed his tactless sibling with his black-scaled limb and hissed, Stop picking on Sil, elder brother! She is helpful to all, whether they are worthy of her kindness, or not.

Lakeskimmer remained stubbornly silent, and the cobalt dragon looked on guard as the humans plowing the fields started to take notice of us. Several of the farmers ran back into the town to alert the guards. Already a number of well-trained town guards outfitted in leather armor quickly formed a defensive perimeter out of an abundance of caution. Soon enough the bell tower in the bailey started tolling in intervals of three; it signaled a potential threat but not an all-out emergency. Dozens of townspeople emerged from their labors and gawked at the odd assemblage of dracos and demis crossing the muddy plain west of the town. The sun was now fully over the horizon as we approached the main street leading up to the fortress. I could now see demihuman archers positioned on nearby rooftop platforms. The populace looked leery of a second assault from these dangerous interlopers. However, my relaxed presence had a calming effect that I was apparently confident that things were well in hand.

Skyblade chuckled as he motioned for Onyxhide to make the introductions.

The black dragon's pale blue eyes flitted from one potential foe to another. He swallowed hard and tried to visibly rein in his terror are facing so many 'two-legs'. He bowed humbly. Hello…everyone. I…I am Onyxhide. My apologies for threatening your home.

I spoke up, "The black scaled ally is Onyxhide. He is sincerely apologetic for threatening Espero the last time he paid us a visit."

The dull violet and green-scaled swamp dragon growled, Duskfens. We're not gonna eat you, knaves!

I felt like rolling my eyes. "Duskfens the green draco gives you his salutations and his pledge to not attack any of you."

Hey, that's not what I said, demoness, he carped with irritation plainly visible in his green eyes.

Call me Lakeskimmer if you care. We do not plan for any of you to come to harm, the eldest female draco in our band remarked.

This was becoming too much fun as I couldn't help but mess with Skyblade's new subordinates. "The blue dragon is Lakeskimmer, and she will be a stalwart ally to this town."

She gritted her teeth in annoyance, but she primly sneered at me instead of getting into an argument with her benefactor.

Wasn't there one more introduction to make? I glanced around in confusion as I couldn't see the runt of the adoptive siblings anywhere. She surely couldn't have flown off with a damaged wing, could she? Then I spied her and tried in vain not to softly chuckle at the sight. All we could visibly see of poor trembling Siltrill was her snout and eyeballs as she cowered from behind Onyx's body. She wailed in mortal terror, I-I-I…I-I'm Si-si-siltri-ri-rill. It's ni-nice to meet you all!

I broke into sly giggles as I pointed out the trembling brown draco out to the crowd. "Siltrill, the brown-scaled is elated to be your new friend."

"Wow, really," a fledgling harpy with bright amber eyes and red hair called out as she fluttered out into the open. The six-year old girl flew out from behind a chimney and landed on Onxyhide's back. She beamed up at Siltrill and gently tapped her snout tip with a fluffy wing adorned with crimson and black plumage. "Hiya," she cheerfully enthused. "I like your eyes. They look like my mama's!"

I saw her black-haired mother land nearby with a terrified look in her yellow-orange eyes. She weakly raised her black wing and whimpered, "Purpura…sweetie, come back."

I waved the town guard closer, and soothed. "It is alright. Guardswoman Plonista. Come here."

"Y-yes, your ladyship." She nervously walked on her scaled birdlegs over to my side.

I clasped her shoulder firmly and flashed to her a confident fanged smirk. "Observe closely."

"Of course, my lady."

Siltrill looked completely at sea as the inquisitive tot gently felt over her face with her feathered 'arms'. The poor dear glanced over to a visibly chortling Onyxhide and then to me in flustered desperation.

Even dour Duskfens looked amused at his sister's predicament.

I laughed aloud as I advised the befuddled sweetheart, Little Purpura won't hurt you, Siltrill. She's never seen a fierce brown-scaled draco like you before. Kindly indulge her whim.

Of-of course, your maleficent ladyship!

She attempted to smile back but then froze in place as the guileless harpy child threw her wings around her neck and said, "Ya know what? Ya know what? I love ya!"

Onyx looked highly amused as he noted dryly, Brace yourselves. Here come the waterworks.

Siltrill took a deep breath and then clasped her right foot gently over the innocent child. She softly sobbed, No…no one other than my siblings has ever said that to me before. I…I love you too my young friend. Tears pooled in her eyes and she cried completely unashamed.

Seadawn beamed at Purpura, "Silty loves back, little fluffball!"

"Yay," the diminutive harpy exclaimed.

All around us, a slow round of clapping quickly crested into a crescendo of thunderous applause. My centaur servant and I gleefully joined in. The dracos stamped their feet in approval.

I secretly could finally breathe a sigh of relief that the second encounter of Skyblade's vassals' and mine was far more fruitful than the first clash. The town was literally named 'Hope', but now was the first instant that I felt that all of us had a real shot at rebuilding something meaningful in the Dämonenlands. Inevitably my triumphant mood was dashed by a visibly agitated Grot as he pushed through the crowd to deliver a scroll into my hands.

"This missive was found affixed to an arrow sticking out of the top of the keep tower last night," the somber human noted unhappily.

I fumed as I opened up the scroll and read over the intolerable message.

"A most humble greetings and salutations, demon bitch. You're done a commendable job rebuilding a quaint little village over your imbecilic family's tomb. Alas, surely you realize that we sent those four worthless fledglings to surveil your muddy outpost, and not to conquer it. We are watching you read our friendly dispatch as we speak. We know all your weak spots, defenses, and your pathetic excuse for an 'army's' composition."

My hands reflexively clenched up the note as the cheering crowd quickly grew deathly quiet.

"Ah, yes, to the point. One, surrender the useless draco's to our care, as those weaklings are of no value to you. Two, you have our generous allowance for your people to have three days to vacate the hamlet with the clothes on their backs and nothing more. We cannot guarantee their continued lives otherwise. Three, leave your treasury behind. Thanks for excavating it for us, but it ours by right of conquest. Finally, Skyblade and you Lady Stihila…or is it Dambalia(?) will become our permanent guests. We look forward to your response."

How dare they?

The note concluded, "Respectfully, your new mage overlords."

I turned to the Reĝo forest in the near distance and screamed my dainty and refined reply, "Go stick your conical hats up your arses, you fooking bastards!"