Too Long Against Dragons 1: All Good Things


This is not a NaWriMo project. It is, however, an effort to get myself writing again. More importantly, it is an exercise to stop my internal critic and editor from overpowering my desire to entertain and improve. Writing all depends on confidence; a writer must feel their work to be of sufficient worth for the reader to spend the effort and time, finite resources that might be otherwise spent on known and established forms of entertainment, be it a video game, a movie, or print media. By posting this for public consumption, I am saying, "I guarantee you that reading this is worth your while."

Be it rejection dysphoria or impostor syndrome, I can't say that right now. However, that's not going to change if I don't put in the work and the risk.


Chapter 1: In Situ

Year 978 of New Imperial Era, 12th day of the First Season of the Waning Sun

Stronghold Cuirassier, Capitol of Province Bulwark

The house at the end of the Fifth Lane in the south-southeastern slice of Sixth Ring of the Stronghold belied its importance to the beleaguered Aurora Empire. It was better maintained than its unassuming siblings perhaps, but otherwise showed the same rough formed bleached clay walls, exposed crossed beams supporting two levels, and a faded, shingled roof of modest incline. It abutted against the Prefect's Reserve, a generous expanse of undeveloped woods spanning from the Second Ring out to the Outer Wall for the nobility of the Inner Rings to enjoy.

As such, it had no neighbors to its right, and only someone perched in the upper branches of the nearest trees might see the expensive skylight set into the battered-looking roof. For a long time, the secrets within the house stayed safe. Nobles would sooner renounce their titles than be seen scaling a tree, and the Reserve's wardens better than to indulge idle thoughts about that idiosyncrasy. A single hint of the Imperial High Cabinet's involvement was enough.

As for the residents, they knew not of any of this. The farmers, smiths, and shepherds living on Fifth Lane all thought highly of Elaine, a tall but shy, bespectacled girl with mouse-like curly brown hair down to her shoulders. While rare to join in conversation, she always shared a smile and, when her arms weren't laden with books, a wave to everyone who greeted her. She never spoke about herself or her brother, Grant, who lived with her, save to once say she was a former noble, expelled from the First Academy.

Those who heard that nodded politely, silencing not dismissing their doubts. Disenfranchised nobles wouldn't come to live in one of the Outer Rings. Even those in disgrace would have sponsors and resources sufficient to relocate to the Third or Fourth Rings, if not remain in the city's opulent Second Ring. Grant's appearance only further contradicted her words with his broad build and calloused hands. He had the makings of a mercenary or soldier, save for his placid, almost beatific aura. Were not mute, many questions would he have faced wherever he went.

Initially the subject of rumors when they arrived five years ago, her generosity in sharing her expansive herbal lore quickly stilled most whispers. To those ill or injured, she quietly administered poultices and dispensed compounded roots. For those vexed by pests in their fields, she discreetly advised mitigations from spray treatments to repellent plants. Finally, for midwives who sought to learn the Verdant Ways, she would teach them, but only in secret.

Most knew she professed no faith, but they also knew she was not a Witch. Never once did any of the Dark Signs the Luminous Church warned of did show. No plagues, no poxes, no missing livestock nor unexplained illnesses. Each believer made their own peace with this paradox, preferring to benefit from her unblessed ways than to hew to the Luminous Order's orthodoxy. At least once, every family in her vicinity owed her some debt of health or livelihood so they all kept her hidden from the Church.

Though silent, Grant also warmed their neighbors' hearts with his willingness to apply his prodigious strength for labor, or seemingly endless patience with children. Every child was initially wary, then in awe, and finally enthralled with this short-shorn gentle behemoth with his warm smile and handcrafted magical wooden toys.

Unlike Elaine, Grant had no shortage of interested prospects for marriage. Some were young ladies hoping to be more than a laborer's spouse. A few were older siblings of those younglings he cared for while their parents worked. One was a widow, again a parent of one of his charges. She worked for a storekeeper in the Fourth Ring and was always the last to pick up her child.

And then there was Gigi…

"Grant, I'll be of age come the new year."

Seated cross-legged under the bony tree just before the silver-crested post at the end of Fifth Lane late in the afternoon, Grant gave his usual smile and looked up from carving the discarded piece of shield wood. True to its name, it took considerable effort to work, and burned very poorly. Neither adhesives nor nails reliably held to it, so Grant had ready sources for smaller scraps.

Barely a half meter taller than his seated form stood Gigi, dressed in a pale green and white checkered dress. She let an emerald hair ribbon trail between her right fore and middle finger. Gone was the faint, acrid odor of brindle wood ash, as well has the usual soot's grey hue and comical circular patches of unblemished skin around her eyes from her father's goggles.

His smile dimmed, though his brow rose in sympathy, not irritation. He shook his head slowly, set down his spike-knife, and covered his heart with both hands. As he finished the motion turning both palms face-down, she placed her hand above his, almost touching.

"Grant. Listen to me. I'm not little anymore. I know what I'm doing. I know what I feel is real. It's down here." She patted her sternum, then turned her palms toward him. "I feel it."

He started to make another gesture, then stopped, realizing the limits of the medium. With his tempered implement, he started to scratch letters on the dry dirt.

She waited, watched, and tried to sound out the words. She sputtered and struggled. "This is why, Grant. This is why I want to marry you. I want to learn this." She pointed to the words, then the hollowed-out shell of shield wood. "And that. And anything else you know. I know I can learn it. All of it."

He pantomimed a large swing of a hammer, then waited for her to respond with a measured, slow sweep of his upturned palm.

"Inferno claim the smithy! All father does is bow to the merchants and take their abuse! I'm sick of working the bellows, of hearing him apologize for not doing the impossible."

He shook his head, then repeated the motion, but ended by pointing at her.

"He won't teach me, that's why. He's already talking about marrying me off with some other apprentice. I'm not going to squeeze a bellows for the rest of my life, not when you've shown me how big the world is!"

His astonished expression was enough to convey his thought.

"Yes! I know I was scared of you at first. Terrified even. I mean, even more than when my father was drunk and … and …" She shook that memory away. "You were the first person to care. To listen."

They both broke into soft laughs.

She brushed away a tear. "No, I mean it. Even when my mother wasn't talking, she wasn't listening. You, you listened." She paused, trying to frame a thought. "You, you didn't listen with you ears. You listened with this, with your heart."

He beckoned hesitantly. She squatted, then sat. He patted her cheek. It was still damp.

She looked down and smoothed her skirt. "You should take responsibility, you know. You're why I'm still here." Without looking up, she took in a deep breath. "I wanted to run away so many times, but all I could think of was how worried you'd be when I didn't show up here with the other kids."

He held a trembling hand over her reddish-brown hair.

She grasped it, pressed his palm over her scalp. "This. I missed this so much. After I was old enough to help my father, this was what kept me here. Knowing that, one day, I'd be old enough for you to rub my hair again."

She looked up, eyes sparkling.

"But this time, not as a babysitter."

Reluctantly, he worked his wrist free.

"That's it, isn't it? You still see me as a kid."

Grant froze, his respect for her heart colliding against his need to tell her the truth. His vow, his sacred vow to tell the truth. With a heavy sigh, he nodded.

"I'm not! I'm… I'm older now! I'm-"Choking, she stumbled to her feet, then dashed away.

Grant stared at his hands for a long time. The setting sun stretched his shadow. He was already later to return home than usual. If nothing else, he needed to make dinner. He picked up the wooden project, but his spike-knife wasn't where he left it?

There. It was next to where Gigi sat. In an unsteady hand, the earth read, "I love you."