The girl stood on her tiptoes and looked out the window toward the northwest, trying to find one particular mountain in the range that she called home. She didn't know which mountain it was, but she just knew that she would know it if she saw it.
"Elena," her mother called from the doorway. "Why aren't you in bed yet?"
"I'm looking for where we came from, Mare. But I don't see it!"
Ermengarde sighed. "Your father and I, and our parents, we were all born and raised here in Calbinyà, this is where we're from."
"That's not what I mean, Mare. I want to know where great-great-whatever-grandfather lives!" She looked out the window, hoping against hope that somehow, one of the myriad peaks that scratched the night sky would speak to her, whispering "Here I am, Elena…come to me!"
"I told you this would happen!" Elena's father yelled from behind his wife. "You go filling that child's head with fairy tales, that nonsense about her ancestor being a dragon, and she'll run away to go find him." Guillem pushed his way past Ermengarde to look down at Elena. "Not that it would be that big of a loss. Maybe when she's gone, we'll waste less time trying to find where she's hiding instead of doing her chores, or tracking down the animals she's run off."
Ermengarde placed her hand on Guillem's shoulder. "Don't talk like that, love. She's still our daughter, our oldest child."
Guillem shrugged off Ermengarde's touch. "And she can be replaced. The boys do more work in a day than that girl does in a week. I'll wager that another night in the woodshed will teach her a little more responsibility."
Elena's mother opened her mouth to protest, then closed it without saying a word. She knew better than to cross her husband, especially when he was right.
She stood aside as Guillem grabbed Elena by the ear and half-dragged her through the house, out the door and to the woodshed. He shoved her roughly inside and slammed the door behind her, slipping a thick twig through the latch before headed back inside without a further word.
Elena spent the next while trying to fashion something sleepable out of the logs that almost filled the shed, and was almost asleep when she heard a noise outside that jolted her wide awake again. She winced as she sat up, her hand moving to her throat. She started to rub her throat just so as she strained her ears to listen. How did I do it before? she thought. Whether it was safe for her to do it never crossed her mind – she had learned long ago that fire had no effect on her. Her clothes, however, was another story.
The sound stopped for a moment, then started again. It sounds like footsteps, she thought, getting closer. Then the door swung open. The silhouette of a slight woman blocked the moonlight.
Elena took a deep breath.
"I wouldn't do that, if I were you," the woman said. "I seriously doubt that your dragon's breath could harm me. All you would succeed in doing is destroying all the firewood your family's worked so hard all autumn to gather, and then they'd be quite upset with you. More so than they already are, anyway."
Elena stared at the woman wordlessly. How did she know? she wondered.
"Are they true?" the woman asked.
"Are…are what true?"
"The stories I've heard. That you believe yourself to be descended from Sigmundo. That you can lay with your head in a campfire without harm. That you can spit fire."
Elena nodded, too scared to do anything else.
The woman whispered something Elena didn't recognize, and the girl thought she heard something that she couldn't put her finger on.
The woman nodded and reached for Elena.
Elena started to scream, but when the woman's fingers brushed the girl's sleeve, she stopped and wondered why she had been so afraid.
"You don't belong here, Elena," the woman said. "You should come with me, where you can unleash the talents you have. And, perhaps, even meet a dragon or three."
The woman turned quickly as the cottage door slammed open, and Guillem came running out, followed quickly by Ermengarde.
"You!" Guillem yelled. "Get away from my daughter!"
The woman said something as she pointed at Guillem. The man found himself suddenly floating several feet in the air. He had never been so scared in his life.
The woman glanced at Ermengarde, who stopped dead in her tracks.
"I'm not here to hurt anybody, sir," the woman said. "I simply have an offer to make, regarding your daughter.
"She does not belong here. I think you realize that. If you will let me take her as my apprentice, I will pay you well. One year-old lamb a year, for five years, to be delivered each year on the first of June. Do we have a bargain?"
"No!" Ermengarde shouted. "You can't have my daughter!"
"Shut up, woman!" Guillem yelled at his wife, his water pooling on the ground beneath him. "Take her," he said to the stranger. "Take her and be gone, she's been more trouble than she's worth her whole life. Just don't try to bring her back when you see for yourself how useless she is!"
The woman smiled as she turned to Elena, ignoring Guillem as he floated back down to the ground. He grabbed Ermengarde and dragged her into the cottage as fast as he could, slamming the door behind him.
"There's nothing you need to get from your former home, is there," she said, her tone making it a statement rather than a question.
Elena shook her head. "Who are you?" she asked as she followed the woman, who had started to walk up the road without making sure Elena would follow.
"My name is Fulminara. For the next fifteen years or so, you will call me Domina.
Elena stood in a clearing near a village about three days' walk from Plateau. Around her were three of the people she had the most respect for. Two, she knew by sight: her mater, the archmaga Fulminara; and Garus, primus of the House that Elena hoped to be joining that day.
"Have you met Baruch, the head Quaesitor of the Iberian Tribunal?" Fulminara asked her apprentice. "He is here to witness your Gauntlet."
"It's an honor to meet you, Quaesitor," Elena said with a polite curtsy. She then looked at the archmagi expectantly.
"A quarter mile up this trail," Fulminara said, "there is a cave entrance on your left hand. This cave leads to a warren. Somewhere in that warren is a salamander. Bring back its head, and you have completed your Gauntlet.
"Not that it should matter to you, but you will lose the protection of my Parma when you pass the firsrt bend. Come here."
Fulminara drew her knife and reached up to cut off a lock of her apprentice's hair, which she handed to Baruch.
"With this hair," the Quaesitor said, "I will be able to determine whether you still live. If you do, you must return to us on your own. We will wait three days. If you do not…" He looked to the others.
"We will return your body to your family for proper burial," Garus said. "But we will not rescue you. Live or die, succeed or fail, it is entirely up to you."
"I understand, Primus," Elena said. She looked up at the setting sun, half-way down the gap between two peaks.
"Your gauntlet starts now," Fulminara said. "We will see you soon."
Elena turned and started trotting down the trail without a backward glance. Her armor clanked with every step, her sword sheathed at her hip and her shield on her back. In no time at all, she came to the entrance her domina had described. Even knowing that it was there, she almost missed it in the gloaming; it was only thigh-high, and partially obscured by a bush on one side.
Elena got on her hands and knees and crawled into the entrance. She had, for some reason, expected the cave to open up as soon as she was inside, but after a minute or two of crawling, it was still no more than a tunnel, and she couldn't see anything. She risked a quick Palm of Flame, which she knew well enough to cast with neither words nor gestures, to get her bearings. She saw that the tunnel curved out of sight just a few paces ahead, with no sign of getting higher that she could tell. She let her spell lapse and knelt as best she could to cast a spontaneous spell to create a floating ball of moonlight, the size of her fist, that she could guide to light her path. After waiting a moment to rest from the spell-casting, she started crawling forward again, eyes and ears straining for any sign of her prey.
Not long after, she came to her first branch, where the tunnel split off ahead to the right . She thought for a moment, then decided to continue straight, marking her path by casting a Rego Terram spell to leave her handprint in the stone.
A few hundred yards later, after having to recast her moonball spell and after a couple more branches and Y-splits, she noticed that the tunnel started to get bigger. It was some time further before the tunnel was high enough for her to stand up with a slouch. She closed her eyes and strained her ears to hear any sign of the salamander, to no avail. The tunnel that wasn't illuminated by her moonball was still black as pitch, though.
As she continued on, her stomach began to grumble, and Elena regretted not bringing anything to nibble on. She had to content herself with taking a sip of water before plowing on. She passed several more branches in the tunnel, marking each one with her handprint before she thought she heard something. She stopped to listen again, and could almost hear a low crackling hiss in the distance. She loosed her sword in its scabbard and took her shield off her back, gripping it firmly on her left arm. She began to move forward as quietly as she could, keeping her moonball far enough behind her to barely illuminate her next few steps. Every scuff of her boot on the gravelly tunnel floor was magnified a hundred-fold in her own ears. As she moved forward, the noise grew louder. It felt like hours before the tunnel opened up into a small cavern. She saw a lizard-like creature, about the size of a very large dog, its scales the color of molten steel. Its angular head cocked to one side as if it were listening intently before it turned to look directly at Elena. It opened its mouth and gave a loud crackling hiss as it spread its leathery wings.
Elena shifted her grip on her sword and readied her shield to take the salamander's charge, then concentrated for a moment to move her moonball to where it would illuminate the cavern without getting in her eyes.
She took a few steps forward, watching the salamander circle away warily. She darted forward, aiming an overhead swing at the creature's neck, but missed as it darted to one side.
The creature reared up on its hind legs and spread its wings, drawing its head back. Wait a minute…salamanders don't have wings, Elena belatedly thought, as the creature's head darted forward to belch a torrent of flame that washed over her for several seconds. That's a drake!
The creature blinked in surprise as Elena stood there, unharmed and seemingly unfazed by the flames, As he reared back for another gout, Elena stepped forward with a side swing, the tip of her sword glancing off the scales of his throat.
She took a step back and circled to her right, the drake turning to follow her. The drake leaped into the air, wings lifting him out of Elena's reach as she lunged forward to stab it it. The drake cut loose with another roaring wash of flames that lasted even longer than the previous one. Elena only smiled for a moment until the straps of her shield cracked and broke, and the shield fell to the ground with a clatter.
She glanced down at the shield, then back up at the drake. She gave it a wicked grin as she reached up to rub her throat, a low rumble building deep inside her. After a couple of seconds, she belched a torrent of flame that streamed around its head.
The drake let out a screech of annoyance as it flew back, wings beating furiously. It circled her warily in the air. Elena turned to keep facing it as she shifted her sword from her right hand to her left. She carefully drew her knife and moved it in her hand so that she held the blade in what she hoped was a good throwing grip, willing the drake to come closer.
Almost as though it were responding to her wish, the drake flew at her, claws extended. Elena threw the knife. Its blade pierced its wing. The sudden pain threw it off balance, and it tumbled to the ground at her feet.
She moved her sword back to her right hand before it could regain its feet, and she brought the sword down on its neck with an awkward overhand stroke. Although the blow was true, it didn't have the power to do more than penetrate its scales. The blade came free with almost no effort, and it had very little blood on it.
The drake half-hopped away and crouched facing Elena, its mouth open in an ear-splitting screech. It launched itself at Elena, bowling her over, knocking the breath from her and sending her sword skittering across the ground. Its hind legs clawed at her belly as its jaws snapped at her face before it belched another ball of flame.
Elena pressed her forearm against its throat and pushed as she twisted out from under it. She grabbed at the knife in the drake's wing before it could get away, yanking up as she pulled it out and ripped a long gash in its wing.
The drake screeched again before it bathed her prone body in another wash of flame, this one feeling like it lasted for several minutes. Elena could smell the leather burning, and the hot links of her chain mail lay directly against her skin, shielded only by a layer of ash.
The moment the gout ended, the drake attacked. Elaine got her arm up to protect her face, and screamed in pain as the drake's teeth clamped tightly around it. She dropped the knife, and she could hear it hit the ground by her ear.
She shifted on the ground underneath the drake, and felt around for the knife. Her fingers closed around its handle, and she drove it deep into the drake's eye, closing her eyes as blood and vitreous squirted into her face.
The creature let go of her arm and backed away quickly. Elena looked around and found her sword. She rolled to where it was, grabbed it, and scrambled to her feet. She took a couple of steps toward the drake, then looked down as she felt her armor slide down her body to the ground. She stared at the pile of iron, first surprised, then annoyed. She stepped out of the mail and continued her advance on the drake.
The drake backed away warily, tail swishing back and forth, damaged wing dragging on the ground. Elena circled it, her advance steering it toward the cavern wall. Every few seconds, it would risk a glance over its shoulder, looking for a tunnel. Every opening the drake gave her, Elena would exploit, stabbing at it while cutting off every avenue of escape.
Elena finally had it backed against the wall. The drake screeched angrily when its tail met the wall, and it crouched low to the ground. Elena smiled as she drew back for a killing blow. The drake reared up as she did so, and belched another stream of flame into her face, obscuring her vision.
She took a quick step to her left, anticipating the drake's strike, turned, and brought her sword down in what felt and sounded like a solid blow. The sword twisted in her grasp, but he kept her grip and pulled it back out.
She could see that, the blow was serious but not mortal, or even crippling. The drake writhed in pain and tried to get to its feet, screeching at the top of its lungs.
Elena grabbed her sword and raised it high, then brought down with all her strength. The drake's throes prevented a clean coup de morte, but it wasn't thrashing as it had been, and its screams were reduced to whimpers. One more blow was enough to put it out of its misery.
Elena looked down at the carcass, panting, then sat heavily against the wall. She was exhausted. "I sure hope you live alone," she said.
She looked up at the moonball and concentrated to move it over head, then closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, the cavern was in pitch darkness. It took her a moment to realize that the sun must have risen outside, since the spell she had cast would have snuffed out at that moment.
She took a moment to re-cast the moonball, before looking around to be sure she was still alone in the cavern. Much to her relief, she was. She took a moment to examine her wounds. The bleeding had stopped, and there didn't seem to be any sign of disease, although she would definitely have her domina…her mater, rather…look at it to be sure.
She looked down at the drake, thinking. She decided that she didn't know enough about Rego and Vim to move the vis contained in its body into one of its claws…not without getting very lucky in her casting. She then gathered the remains of her chain mail, and decided that she didn't have the power to turn it into a chain she could use to drag the drake to the surface…nor to create a chain from nothing.
After a little more thought, she came up with a solution. She cast a spontaneous spell to make the drake glow with its own fire, as brightly as a torch. She then cast another spell to allow the drake to float and move about at her will. She smiled, grabbed what used to be her armour, her sword, her knife, and her water bottle, and placed them all carefully on the drake's body.
She then started to guide the carcass back through the tunnels, keeping a watch for the handprints in the stone she had left at the turns to mark the way she had come.
It seemed like it took a lot shorter to reach the entrance than it had to find the cavern, but after a while she saw a light ahead, past the drake's glow.
She grinned, and willed the drake out into the open before scrambling out after it.
Elena took a deep breath, then looked down at her naked body. She was covered in dirt. Her feet, her knees, and her elbows were scraped and bleeding, and the holes in her arm where the drake had bitten looked worse in the sun than they had below. There was nothing she could do about any of that at the moment, though. She still had to return to her sodales to finish her gauntlet.
When she reached the clearing, she could hear that Fulminara, Garus, and Baruch were deep in conversation, but she couldn't make out what they were saying. She took a deep breath, stood up straight, and walked out into the clearing, pulling the drake's floating body behind her.
"I couldn't bring the salamander's head. I hope its whole body will suffice."
Garus and Baruch looked at the drake, ignoring Elena's nakedness as best they could. Fulminara simply nodded. "Well done, sodalis," she said. "But what happened to your armor?"
Elena gestured to the pile of chain mail on the drake's back. Her eyes then narrowed suspiciously. "You knew that was a drake down there, didn't you?"
Fulminara nodded again. "Of course. Your last…or next-to-last lesson as my apprentice: you will never get perfect intelligence.
"Now," she said as she turned to the others, "I believe my apprentice has passed her Gauntlet."
"Agreed," the others said.
"Now…how shall we call you, sodalis?" Fulminara asked.
"I wish to take the name of a dragon associated with the Pyrenees, my ancestral home. And while it not be wholly accurate, it is fitting and thematic. My name is Vibria filia Fulminara scholae Flambonis."
Vibria Gets Hammered
The night that Vibria had her heart broken for the first time, she decided that the right and proper thing to do was to go to the inn and drown her sorrows. She wore her favorite blouse (despite having been let out by Lucia, it fit rather more snugly that she would have preferred – which was surprising, considering how thoroughly Lucia had measured her bosom) and a long skirt, layered in a vain attempt to keep her warm.
She didn't really want any company while she drank, although a couple of men offered to console her in their drunkenly awkward fashion. Vibria rebuffed each in turn and ignored the insults they muttered under their breaths as they walked away.
She had just started on her third glass of wine, and was slightly annoyed that she was still sober, when she saw her maidservant enter the tavern and head straight for her.
"Maga, this isn't the right place for you right now," Lucia said with a worried expression. "I know you've had a rough day, but maybe it would be better if you came home."
Vibria looked up at Lucia for a long moment and blinked a couple of times trying to get the girl's face to focus. "Maybe you're right. But I'm not done drinking. I'm taking this bottle with me. And we should get one for you, too."
"Of course. I'll get a bottle, and we can get you back home, and we can get you to bed when you're ready."
Lucia found the serving girl and had a quick conversation with her, which resulted in another bottle of wine finding its way to Lucia's hand. She returned to Vibria's table just in time to see the maga stand up quickly. A little too quickly, judging by the look on her face and the way she wobbled in place for moment like a child's toy.
"So, this is what they mean by 'falling down drunk'," Vibria said, having just discovered one of Life's Great Truths.
"You're not falling down, Maga. I'll get you home. Grab your bottle, we don't want to leave it behind."
Vibria weaved her way from behind the table, Lucia walking with her nervously. Her free hand was ready to steady the maga if she needed it. Vibria grabbed her bottle and held it carelessly by the neck.
She managed to find the tavern's door on the first try, although she did have to alter her course a couple of times, with some guiding tugs and nudges from Lucia. It took considerably longer to get from the tavern to their home than it normally did, mainly because Vibria was weaving a rather circuitous route, and Lucia had to slip her arm around Vibria's waist and try to nudge her in the right direction from time to time.
Once the two entered the foyer of Vibria's sanctum, Lucia felt behind her to push the door closed and throw the bolt. Vibria looked around in the near pitch dark, with the only light a dim red glow leaking around the edges of the inner door from a dozen and more roaring fireplaces that kept the laboratory swelteringly hot.
"'s too dark," Vibria muttered, then spit a small ball of flame into the palm of her hand. The ball gave enough light to find the door, and Lucia carefully removed the bottle from Vibria's hand and placed it on a table next to the one she had carried.
"I'm not done drinking it yet," Vibria said as she reached for the bottle.
"I'll carry it, Maga," Lucia said as she deftly moved between Vibria and the bottles. "We just need to get inside first. Sit wherever you want, I'll get a couple of glasses."
"You're a good servant." Vibria patted Lucia on the arm, then fumbled with the doorknob. Lucia waited patiently for Vibria to open the door, then guided her into the laboratory.
The maga stopped abruptly just a few steps in and started sobbing. "Why would he make that for me if he thought I was just a tease?" She let the flame in her hand die, but the room was well lit by the plethora of fireplaces lining the walls.
Lucia looked at Vibria, then followed her gaze. The maga was looking at the mannequin that held her armour, which was topped by the enameled dragon-headed helm that Vulcanus had gifted her with a few months earlier.
"He was just trying to buy your affection," Lucia spat. She stormed over to the dummy and grabbed the helm, then went to a fireplace to toss it into the flames.
"Stop! Don't destroy it! It's too expen…eski…too pretty to destroy!"
Lucia looked at the helm "This thing? Exquisite?"
"Yeah, exquisite." Vibria said the word carefully. "Don't burn it. Put it where I don't have to see it, though. I don't want to be thinking of him every time I walk in here."
Lucia looked around, then carried the helm into the bedchamber and tucked it into the bottom of a wardrobe, piling a few blankets on top of it to hide it from sight.
When she returned to the lab, Vibria had managed to collapse into a chair and sat there with her head in her hands, crying.
"How could he do this to me?" she sobbed. "I love him so much, and when I told him how I felt, he went off and married that Fédora right away! He couldn't even…"
"Not right away," Lucia interrupted as she poured them both a glass of wine, filling her own glass substantially more than Vibria's. "He did stop and shag those four women last night, first."
"He what?" Vibria started to rise, but was stopped by Lucia's hand on hers. "Does Fédora know?"
"I'm sure she does. It was the talk of the covenant this morning. The girls seemed quite proud of themselves. Couldn't wait to tell the world that they let Vulcanus have his way with them."
"Lucky," Vibria muttered.
"Right," Lucia snapped. "Lucky to get used by a man only interested in getting his jollies, then marrying someone he knew would spread her legs for him and pop out as many babies as he wants."
"Lucia." Vibria started again to rise before falling back into the chair. "I won't have you badmouthing Anselm like that. I still…"
"Don't tell me you're about to say you still love him, after what he did! He obviously doesn't feel anything for you, or he wouldn't have run off like he did."
Vibria slumped in the chair and reached for her goblet, draining it in one fell swoop.
"I thought he did. He's the only one who treated me right in…years! Everyone else treats me like I'm a whore, or useless, or incompetent, or a thief, or…"
She raised her glass to her lips, only to frown when she realized it was empty. She held it out for more wine.
"Not everyone, Maga," Lucia said as she poured a dollop.
"You're right. You've treated me fairly since you started working for me. And thank you. I'm glad you're the one that got stuck with me.
"Stuck with you? Heavens, no, Maga. I wanted to be with you. I heard how all the other servants were talking about you, and I knew that wasn't right. So I volunteered, and I'm delighted to be here." Lucia smiled and cracked her knuckles. "And the others soon learned to keep their mouths shut about you."
Vibria's head had fallen forward with her chin resting on her chest, but she awoke with a start and looked around briefly.
"You seem tired, Maga. It's been a long day. Maybe we should get you to bed." Lucia stood and moved to Vibria's side.
"You're right. Only drunks fall asleep in their cups. And I'm not a drunk, I'm just a tipsy." Vibria started to get to her feet, and almost succeeded, only to fall back in her chair a third time. It took two more tries, and a little help from Lucia, to get her standing up.
"Just a teensy weensy tipsy with great bit titsies that no one else seems to want." She looked down at her breasts. "It's just you and me, boobies."
She lifted one breast. "We still love you," she said in a falsetto as she jiggled her breast. She then did the same with her other one, squeaking "That's right! We're a team!" She then dropped her breast and giggled.
"I'm drunk, aren't I?" she asked.
"A little bit, yes," Lucia replied with a blush.
"Well, I deserve to be. Isn't that what you're supposed to be when the only man you've ever loved runs away and gets married? And I may never find someone who's going to love me now!" Vibria started bawling and flung her arms around Lucia.
The maidservant, surprised, stood their awkwardly before she hugged the maga back, not quite sure what to do.
"You'll find someone," she said in what she hoped was her most reassuring voice. "Who knows, you might find the one you love right under your nose." She stood there holding Vibria and let her cry herself out.
"I'm going to bed," Vibria finally said as she eased herself out of the embrace. She turned and looked around for a second before she stumbled through the door into the bedchamber and pitched headlong onto her bed. She was sound asleep almost before she hit the mattress.
Lucia smiled tenderly for a couple of minutes as she gazed at Vibria. She got a bucket and placed it by the bed, then carefully lifted Vibria's legs onto the bed and pulled the sheets up to tuck her in.
She then undressed for bed and sat on her mattress, a few feet away from Vibria's, and watched the maga as she always did. She eventually pulled the thin sheet over herself and drifted off to sleep, perchance to dream of a day when they might share a bed.