The Dwarf Femme and the Dragon
by Charie’ Craig
Ludmilla adjusted the leather armor to fit over the bulky bandages flattening her breasts. The chains of gold links pinched where they looped around her waist. “What if I wear the links over the bandages?”
“Then they’ll jingle when you walk. The dragon will charge you more if you jingle too much. He’ll think you’re rich and raise the price.” Her Aunt Frieda forced the helm lower onto Ludmilla’s coiled braids. “Your beard looks nasty. How does it stay that bushy when it looks so greasy?”
The compliment from an accomplished dwarf femme like her aunt made Ludmilla proud that she’d taken the extra effort with her disguise. “I soaked yak hair in goat’s milk. After I drained that off, I fluffed it into a shape like Papa’s beard.”
“Good thinking.” Aunt Frieda’s smile lacked all four front teeth from an encounter with a centaur’s hind hoof during her younger years. “It looks authentic and the stench should deter anyone from getting too close. The dragon won’t notice that you aren’t a clanhome son, if you time things right.” She plopped a broken rein, a buckle and four dice on the floor. “Show me Dragon’s Landing.”
Ludmilla draped the rein in a loop with a small opening. “The tunnel from clanhome.” She placed two dice on the left of the entrance and two on the right. “The ore carts.” She scooted the buckle into the middle. “The fire pit.” She pointed at the empty half of the circle. “Vytr flies in and lights the fire.” Her voice trembled slightly. “I go in as negotiations begin so no one can send me home without arousing the dragon’s curiosity.”
“Breathe. Speak low and slow. Traders in a hurry pay higher prices.” She whacked Ludmilla on the back. Ludmilla didn’t budge. “Good. Now belch.”
Ludmilla spit in her hand at the same time Aunt Frieda did. They shook with one hard pump. Neither femme cringed.
“Good.” She showed Ludmilla a small silken pouch with green powder inside. “Tuck that away in your belt. You’ll need it. One pinch before drinking slows down the ale in your blood and lessens the hangover after.”
“Why do I need it? I can just pretend to drink.” She lifted her whet stone in a mock toast, then made it disappear into her armor.
“Might not work so well with a flagon of ale. Take the powder. Better to have it and not need it – .”
“- Than need it and not have it.” Ludmilla finished one of her mother’s favorite sayings.
The wizened dwarf femme opened a cracked leather trunk with rusted hinges hidden in the small storage cave they’d commandeered for Ludmilla’s transformation. “Here you go. One last detail.” From behind a dented bronze helm, Aunt
Frieda pulled out a glass flask half filled with an amber liquid. “I wore this perfume the first time I ventured out of clanhome without a chaperone. I didn’t want some dragon smelling me and unveiling my disguise to the other traders.” Aunt Frieda uncorked the bottle. She dribbled a few drops over Ludmilla’s armor.
“Yech!” Ludmilla sneezed. She preferred the sour goat’s milk odor over this so-called perfume. “Whew, smells like rancid bear breath.”
“Worse. This is vintage unicorn piss. It’s been in our family for five generations. Our great-great-grand femme traded it from a dragon. Hasn’t lost any potency either.” Her cackle worried Ludmilla as the fumes made her eyes water.
“Does it wash off?” Ludmilla didn’t mind using the unicorn piss to disguise her own scent from a dragon. Same for the sour goat stench to discourage anyone from getting too close. However, it would ruin Ludmilla’s plans to arrive at the clanhome dining hall still smelling as she did now.
For years she’d listened to Aunt Frieda’s adventurous tales for information so she could follow in her aunt’s revered footsteps. Ludmilla mirrored the fierce character and rude demeanor of her clanhome uncles and cousins as they bartered with each other. She’d tanned and sewn the leather for her own armor. At first, she staggered under its weight. Now she swaggered.
“Mother caught me at sword practice. I convinced her that it was an improvisation from the dance Call to Courage. She doesn’t mind the traditional dances, but told me to skip learning the dangerous ones beyond the eighth level.” Ludmilla pulled out one of her daggers and her whet stone. The glide of metal on stone soothed her nerves.
“Learn the dance to entice a faithful husband, she said. Or the dance to keep a clean cavehome.” Her mother found those dances to be useful. “Don’t bother with the ninth level dances. Those are just fodder for your aunt’s tall tales.”
“Dances, like tales told by bards, start simple and became more elaborate with the skill of the performer. Basic dances build the foundation for the strength, dexterity and emotional fortitude of the highest level dances.” Aunt Frieda forced the stopper back into the bottle and tucked it behind the bronze helm once more. “My sister knows this. She knows how the more intricate dances might come in handy outside the clanhome tunnels.”
With a deft twist, Aunt Frieda locked the trunk with the short length of rein. She slid it behind a mixed pile of broken bridles and unrepaired harnesses. “Your mother can’t imagine wanting to see a dragon, let alone trade gems and gold with it. She doesn’t understand our desire to trade face to face.” She scooped up the dice and tossed the old buckle into a barrel of rusty odds and ends. “Like every dwarf femme, she loves the sheerweb cloth that Vytr swaps for our gems. But if your mother discovers you in disguise trading with the dragon, she’ll blame me. She’ll say I corrupted you.” Aunt Frieda quirked up one side of her mouth. “Rightly so. She’ll do the dance A Mother’s Child in Danger. I hate that dance. It makes me cry.”
She thumped a fist on Ludmilla’s helm. “Don’t get caught.”
Ludmilla crept down the tunnel. The barest torchlight from the dwarf trading party let her follow without tripping. She kept to the shadows as she gathered her courage to round the last bend. Under the dark beard that covered her from nose to navel, not a sliver of her alabaster skin showed without mud smeared across it. Her helm sat low to hide her sapphire blue eyes and well-shaped eyebrows.
Earlier that day, with her heart ready to hammer free from her armor, she paused every time her leathers creaked in the cold air. Now her knees no longer felt filled with water. The screech of the ungreased wheel on the second ore cart covered any small sound Ludmilla’s armor made. No one even glanced at the tunnel home. Her plan couldn’t fail. Once she presented her wares to the dragon, the other dwarves had to keep her secret, to protect her identity. To send her away without an obvious reason would arouse the dragon’s curiosity.
Ludmilla clutched the leather bag of gems tied to her supple belt. She’d recited her aunt’s advice every step of the journey to Dragon’s Landing. “Vytr prefers a good haggle instead of the rush of a sword and talon battle. But remember, he’s a dragon. Two hundred years of verbal combat to best us with trade goods doesn’t prove his trustworthiness.” Ludmilla snorted to herself. “No dwarf femmes are allowed near such a dangerous creature for a paltry reason like haggling over cloth.” Ludmilla firmed her delicate jaw under her mangy beard. Married dwarf femmes didn’t need to trade for the sheerweb. Their husbands laid it before their dainty feet after trading with Vytr for it. “Allowed. Hmpf.”
She leaned against the tunnel wall as the expedition settled into position in the open space where tunnel met sky in a narrow shaft, too small to call a canyon, too wide to be an air duct. She’d listened well to Cerfic, the bard as he told the tale of the dragon Vytr and the annual barter sessions. From the beginning, the dragon tried to best the dwarves. Vytr first bartered man-made leather goods to the clanhome traders. Soon the savvy dwarves traded one on one with the humans, then tanned and shaped the leather themselves. Vytr added new items for trade. Some years the dwarves fared well. Some years the dragon fared better. On both sides, respect grew toward a creature everyone avoided for the most part because of its nasty temperament and fierce fighting abilities. The haggling sessions grew longer and more complicated until, out of necessity, a one day time limit forced everyone to hone their fiercest bartering skills to razor sharpness.
During the past twenty years, Vytr traded a versatile cloth woven by the giant spiders of Am. Strong enough to withstand a bladed attack, its shimmery colors and light-weight fluidity appealed to the dwarf femmes. However, the Amnid spiders distrusted two-legged creatures. To Vytr’s great good luck, they tolerated dragons. No other means existed for a dwarf femme to acquire the wondrous cloth dubbed sheerweb. The richest dwarf femmes got first access to the limited supply. They bestowed favors to the traders as well as gold and jewels for even a small length if they didn’t have a husband to acquire a swatch for them. Aunt Frieda had a sheerweb scarf she’d earned through service to the clanhome, or so she’d claimed.
Sheerweb flowed silky soft across the skin. Light glimmered and writhed across its surface. It teased at translucency yet hid any hint of what it might cover. According to her aunt, that quality made sheerweb the perfect costume material for the dance Ascent To The Seven Heavens, a dance humans heard rumors about years before and turned into a crude harem dance with seven veils.
Ludmilla checked her leathers one last time. For two years, with her own pick and hands, she’d mined jewels to use in trade. She’d practiced a low voice to do her own dickering. She knew the annual routine by heart. The traders sat in a semicircle around the fire pit, with the carts behind them. The dragon, as bronze as a chieftain’s shield made his grand entrance. He rode the gentle breeze from the heights. His great leathery wings flapped until thunder echoed in the tunnels. With breath hot enough to bake the surrounding caverns, he’d belch fire into the coal piled in the stone circle. The current year’s bartering commenced. This year, she’d see it for herself.
After so many seasons of anticipation, Ludmilla heard the thunder of dragon wings louder than the Great Underground Waterfalls of the imperial city. She stood straight, adjusted her weapons belt and pouch filled with trade gems. She stepped around the boulder, face to face with Progdal instead of the dragon.
“Move!” Trade minister Progdal shoved Ludmilla aside. “Run! Draco fehida!” His words faded as he raced down the tunnel.
Two more dwarves limped past, an unconscious one supported between them. Neither noticed her as she struggled upright. Draco fehida? Dragon feud? A high pitched scream from the cavern ended with a crunch. Her hand closed around the empty sheath where she normally kept her ax. She peeked around the tunnel to where it lay in the dust. Thunderous wind filled the tunnel. Ludmilla stopped reaching for the ax. Sand blasted under her helm. The mud protecting her identity flaked off her cheeks. Rivulets of sweat stuck her shift to her skin under the leather armor. Her itchy beard smelled worse than ever, more like dead livestock. She sucked in air hotter than a smelter’s forge.
As the dust settled, Ludmilla peered into the cavern. The remaining traders slashed at the underbelly of the largest creature Ludmilla had ever seen. The clang of sword and ax against scales ceased as the gray dragon stomped on Betkit with a back paw. He squeezed Lemlin and Codint together until he dropped them, pulpy on the ground. One last dwarf lay crushed against an ore cart.
Nervous laughter escaped Ludmilla’s throat. There was no one left to hear her over the dragon’s rampage. His roar raised goose bumps up her spine. She’d seen a dragon. Time to leave.
Another thunderous roar surrounded her. A tremendous blast sent debris from the tunnel. Dust choked off what little breathable air remained as the tunnel to clanhome collapsed. Damn Progdal. He’d abandoned the other dwarves. Hadn’t even tried to help them. Just blocked the tunnel so the dragon couldn’t follow him.
Ludmilla used the fake beard to filter dust out of what air she could breathe. Soon the fresh air from the cavern reached her. She peeked from the shadows. Torches hooked on the ore carts flickered weak light across the cavern. The flames reflected in deep red pools. Not ruby red, but blood red. Dwarf blood covered the earthen floor. The traders and four oxen lay dead at the gray dragon’s feet. He towered over them all, his wings spread wide, shiny as hematite, speckled with blood.
Not Vytr, then. She risked another look to spot the bronze colored dragon.
Vytr lay against the far wall, one wing shredded, his jaw misaligned, his spine twisted. Ludmilla pushed aside the regret at her first glimpse of the grand old dragon. He wheezed out a trickle of yellowish smoke which obscured several woven baskets and his dwarf-made saddlebags beside him. His bloody cough turned into a nasty laugh.
“You think you’ve found all my treasure, Crza?” His broken jaw garbled the words. His shallow breaths caused a rib to saw in and out of his chest. Ludmilla forced herself not to throw up.
The gray dragon leaned toward Vytr until their snouts traded smoke. “I followed you as you traded for cattle.” Crza sneered. “Traded, not took.” He poked a claw under a scale on Vytr’s tail. “I followed you to the swamps where you gave tender and tasty live meat to those marrow sucking spiders. I watched you crawl on your belly to thank them for the honor they bestowed when they gave you a few bolts of cloth.” With a twist Crza peeled off the scale. Vytr grimaced yet not a muscle in his back legs or tail moved. One wing twinged.
A tear slid down Ludmilla’s cheek. While the gray dragon taunted Vytr, the puddles on the cavern floor diminished as the blood soaked into the earth.
“True, Crza.” Vytr’s whisper slid out between shallow breaths. “Still not my greatest treasure.” Smoke billowed from his snout in silent laughter.
“What then? Where is it?” Crza shook Vytr’s damaged wing.
Ludmilla leaned forward, as curious as Crza, until Vytr’s head followed her movement. She leaned back out of sight. If Vytr knew where she hid then the other dragon would soon know, too. She peeked one more time. Vytr’s chest rose with effort. His nostrils flared slightly, a tiny internal ember created a wisp of smoke. His head bobbed slightly, too heavy to hold high.
“Don’t die yet, you worthless old fool.” Vytr stirred as Crza prodded another tender place.
“I know the secret of the dwarf women. Why no one knows much about them. Why the dwarves guard them so well and why all who learn their secret die.” Ludmilla waited for Vytr to continue. Only dwarves knew the secret. Clanhome forbade all other creatures the knowledge. But as a sad smile crossed Vytr’s snout, Ludmilla realized he might in truth know. Her Aunt Frieda once let slip the tale of how she acquired her sheerweb scarf. She’d sworn four year old Ludmilla to secrecy. Ludmilla tried to remember the details.
“Bards love reciting yarns about dragons.” Aunt Frieda had whispered in young Ludmilla’s ear. “Dragons love treasure; jewels, gold, shiny objects. Most dragons’ hoards grow faster than mushrooms in a mine. Some dragons also collect treasure of another kind; knowledge and secrets.”
Aunt Frieda recalled the second year he’d offered the sheerweb. Vytr refused the usual payment. He wanted one thing. A secret. Their secret. Because demand for the sheerweb forced the traders to consider such an outrageous price, and because he knew enough to ask for the secret, Aunt Frieda claimed the traders paid the dragon’s price.
They let him see an undisguised dwarf femme, without a fake beard to hide features fairer than a moon maiden’s, without leather armor to flatten a figure curved to perfection. She approached the dragon, more graceful than a water nymph.
Chestnut hair hung in ripples down her back. Her dainty feet danced to the most seductive music ever hummed by a female mouth. The traders paid the dragon’s price. Later that evening, they sent an assassin to make certain the secret went no further. Ever.
Ludmilla watched Vytr struggle for one more breath. “If you can catch a dwarf female, they have to dance for you.”
Ludmilla listened to the dragon lie. “Jewels. Their dance draws jewels from the earth. How else do they pay my price year after year, century after century?”
Ludmilla scooted back into the tunnel. She eased off her boots, helm and armor. So Vytr wanted her to dance for the other dragon. She unbuckled her belt, emptying most of the pockets into her travel pouch. She unlaced the beard from her braids.
It dropped into the dust with her leather armor and bindings. She brushed away the dried mud and headed back to the main cavern clad only in a silk shift. This time the gold link chains lay on top of her belt to emphasize her waist. She eased back into her spot and nodded at Vytr.
“Why do you wait, Crza? Kill me now. I will never tell you where I keep my dwarf dancer.” Vytr’s voice came out a growl, as loud as he could on the little air left in his lungs.
Crza grabbed Vytr’s good wing. “Tell me or I’ll tear this from your body and feed it to you.”
Vytr sniffed. He wobbled his broken jaw. “Can’t chew.”
Behind Crza’s back, Ludmilla edged around the cavern. The ore carts hid her movements from the dragons’ sight. Vytr’s taunts covered any extra noise.
Vytr roared as Crza twisted the wing. A snap of bone ended the roar.
“Wake up. Wake up and tell me where she is.” Crza grabbed Vytr by the nostrils. “Wake up.”
Ludmilla crouched down, patient for the chance to reach Vytr’s trade goods. She needed sheerweb or the plan would fail.
“There. Over there. Can’t you smell her?” Vytr nodded at the tunnel to clanhome.
Crza leapt for the tunnel, wide enough for the dwarf traders and their ore carts but not big enough for a dragon to crawl through even crouched flat on the ground.
“Hurry.” Vytr’s whisper barely reached Ludmilla as she raided his enormous saddlebags slumped against the cave wall. She wrapped a length of sheerweb over her shift. A twisted scarf covered her finger-combed hair. She let two curls dangle beside her temples. Four more swaths flowed across her curvaceous body. Some floated to add mystery. The last veiled her face. Her bare feet, paler than moonlight, peeked out from the trailing veils. Her hands dipped in and out between the layers to adjust everything needed for a dance only the most daring dwarf femmes performed. She bowed to Vytr as Crza backed from the tunnel.
“I smell her but can’t reach her. Call her to you.”
“Done.” Vytr wheezed. He gave a miniscule nod toward Ludmilla. “Dance for us.”
Crza trained his flinty gaze on Ludmilla. “Me. Dance for me.” He stepped on Vytr’s tail. “His treasure is now mine. You are mine. You dance for me.”
Ludmilla stared into Vytr’s golden eyes; the left eye bloodshot with the pupil dilated, the right swollen to a slit. “Seven.” His suggestion confirmed that he knew too much about the secret.
“Where are your manners, Crza? The magic only works when you ask nicely.” Ludmilla bit her lip. She couldn’t believe Vytr still needled Crza while lying on the ground broken, paralyzed, almost dead from internal injuries.
“You jest.” Crza lowered his snout. He blew hot breath in Ludmilla’s face.
Ludmilla returned his gaze. One perfect eyebrow twitched in disdain.
“Please.” The word puffed out in a smoke-filled blast, melting the hem of her shift under the sheerweb scarves.
Ludmilla scooted beyond his immediate range, cooling the cloth with a twirl that flung the veils up around her hips. She then stretched toward the sky. With a flash of bare arms and an acrobatic leap, she danced further away from Crza.
“How does this call jewels from the earth? It looks no different than any dance a tavern wench does to advertise her wares.” Crza raised his right talons.
“Then what is this?” Ludmilla hoped he attributed the tremor in her voice to breathlessness and not the lie she told. “An emerald has come to my call.” She used her toes to flip the stone from the ground into the air. Crza snagged it with a paw.
“Do it, again.” Crza crouched lower.
“Please.” A wheezy prod from Vytr elicited a growl from Crza.
Ludmilla swayed left and right. Her hips lifted and twisted. Her hands formed birds and snakes and vines. She hummed low in her throat.
“What is that? What is she doing?”
“Can’t you feel it, Crza? Maybe not. She calls to the Earth, to the jewels tucked far beyond our reach. She calls them to her.”
Ludmilla twirled. Her left hand slid a jewel from the pouch hidden under the sheerweb while her right hand lifted her heel into the air. She stretched and spun three times. When she lowered her foot, she dropped the next stone between her feet.
“There. Another jewel has answered her call.”
Crza held out his paw. “Give it to me.” He added one more word before Vytr could. “Please.”
Ludmilla turned her back to the dragons. Still humming, she changed the tune from the Dance to Call Courage, to the last stanza of The Seven Hells, the descent into the lowest hell where cowards, thieves and liars spent eternity. She bent her knees then arched back until her head rested between her heels. Her arms pulled an imaginary rope from the dragons toward her chest. The sheerweb veils slid aside to reveal her generous cleavage. A ruby bigger than a magpie egg nestled between Ludmilla’s breasts.
“Mine.” Crza leaned forward to snatch the ruby.
With a quick twist Ludmilla faced the dragon. The ruby disappeared under the sheerweb once more.
“You want to know how the dance calls the gems?” Ludmilla flashed another glimpse of the ruby for Crza to see. She lowered her voice to create a seductive tone. “As you can tell, the dance calls to the finest first. The biggest diamonds, the brightest rubies, the purest emeralds and sapphires.” Ludmilla crooked a finger at the dragon. He bent his head down so she could whisper the secret.
“Ready?” Under her costume, Ludmilla pulled two petite daggers from her leather scabbard. With a stealthy flip of her wrists, she performed Tear Out the Lie where the blades slid deep between the scales under Crza’s jaw. She ducked low to avoid his shocked fireball. Black blood gushed as she jerked the blades free then dug them deep into his chest. She avoided his efforts to crush her with his talons as his strength faded. With two twirls she carved a circle around his heart, prying off the protective layer of scales in a perfect Find the Thief’s Honor.
Vytr grabbed Crza’s tail with one paw. “Run.” Ludmilla dodged behind the ore carts. “Run, little dwarf femme.” Ludmilla paused to look back as Vytr shattered Crza’s exposed breast bone.
Crza lay milky-eyed, dragon blood cooled under his upper body. Vytr dumped the black lump of Crza’s heart into the fire pit. He coughed and spit out some fresh black blood of his own before incinerating the heart with a blast of furnace breath.
“I don’t want to see any more dwarf femme dances for another century or two.” He held up a paw with a missing dew claw.
“A dwarf femme carved my talon off to pay for watching her dance.” Ludmilla nodded her head, remembering one specific detail when Aunt Frieda confessed she hadn’t killed the dragon, just taught it a lesson.
Vytr pointed at the dead traders and shook his head. “I deeply regret not attending to Crza sooner. I apologize for misjudging his ambition and lack of finesse. I thought he’d wait to attack until after we traded.” Vytr took a shallow breath then wrenched his jaw into position. His nostrils flared with the white hot core seen at the heart of a smithy’s forge. Next he shoved his broken rib back into his body. He snapped the broken wing into place. His spine cracked as he twisted back into a normal pose. One by one he flexed his talons. “Ah, much better.” He spit out a couple broken fangs, his new smile reminiscent of Aunt Frieda’s. He eyed the shredded leathery skin of his other wing. “Might take me a while to fly out of this canyon.”
“You could climb out.” Trapped for any length of time with a healing dragon didn’t appeal to Ludmilla.
Vytr lowered his head until they stood snout to nose. “Probably. So could you.” With a slight tip of his head he indicated a ventilation shaft above the original tunnel to clanhome. “Long ago I promised Frieda Talon-taker not to reveal the secret of the dwarf women. You know of her, don’t you? You have a similar look to you.” He squinted his good eye at her. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
“Ludmilla. My name’s Ludmilla.” She stepped back and curtsied. “Frieda’s niece.”
The dragon managed an elegant bow before his sore ribs drew him up short. “What boon in exchange for your services, Ludmilla Dragon-saver?”
Ludmilla leapt for her next impossible dream. “A moonlit dragon flight.” She grimaced as she eyed his tattered wing. “When you’ve healed. If the elders believe Progdal and try to kill you, again.”
“You can help with that. Change back into your leathers and beard. Return to your clanhome through the ventilation shaft. When your clan returns to recover the bodies, I’ll still be here.” He nudged aside Crza’s carcass. “The battle survivor tells the tale. Plus, I still have sheerweb to trade for supplies while I heal.”
“Aunt Frieda raises sheep.” Ludmilla offered. “That ventilation shaft should be wide enough to allow sheep through until clanhome gets the tunnel cleared and the walls shorn up.” She gazed at his mouth. “Will you be able to eat?”
Vytr ran his tongue over the jagged remains of his front fangs. “I’ll take small bites until new ones grow.” He wrinkled his snout. “And please stop wearing your aunt’s unicorn piss.” He shuddered. “I traded it away years ago to get rid of the damn stuff.”
As Ludmilla changed her clothes and tucked her leather jewel pouch inside her silk shift, she reviewed the plan. Something didn’t feel right. The ribbons which tied her beard to her braids tangled around her fingers. The ties slipped through her silken curls. “I don’t have time to weave my braids tight enough so my disguise won’t be discovered.” She tied the beard to her helm and squashed everything over her piled up hair. “Progdal is probably at this very moment telling the whole clan that the trading party is dead.” She tugged her boots on. “My mother will kill Aunt Frieda when she finds out. . .” The problem hit Ludmilla, cutting to the cause of her distraction. “. . . the truth.” Her whisper preceded her out of the tunnel.
“I can’t tell them.” Ludmilla dropped her eyes from the wise dragon’s gaze. “If I return and tell them what happened, they’ll all know I was here. In disguise. Using the ninth level dances.” She stared at the magnificent old creature before her with tears in her eyes. “They’ll know you’ve let out our secret. An assassin will be sent to silence you.” Her eyes widened.
“Maybe even Aunt Frieda.”
“I’ve met your aunt before.” Vytr rumbled. “And a previous ancestress, too.” The corner of his lip raised in a smile. “I like trading with your clanhome; gold, and jewels and the best secrets.” He crooked a talon at Ludmilla. “Climb onto my foreleg. I’ll lift you up to the shaft. On your way home, think of how you’ll turn this into The Dance of the Gullible Gray Dragon.”
The shaft allowed Ludmilla to crawl on her hands and knees until she passed the collapsed part of the main tunnel. Without a torch, her eyes adjusted to the luminescent moss that lit the tunnel. She headed for clanhome. “Steady and strong.” She repeated the mantra as she picked up speed. When she neared clanhome, the creak of her leather armor and her own puffing almost prevented Ludmilla from hearing the dirge for the dead echoing down the tunnel.
“I’m too late.” Instead of heading for the storage room to change clothes, she headed through the deserted passages to her own room. She slipped inside and turned to search for the flint to light her lamp.
“Yaagh!” The yell and the swish of air warned Ludmilla too late. She felt unbearable pressure against her chest as a hank of her beard fell to the floor.
“Aunt Frieda. It’s me.” She gripped her aunt’s wrist. The pressure eased.
“Ludmilla?” A hand patted her cheek. “You’re alive?” Ludmilla heard her aunt striking the flint before the light flared in her bedside lamp. “Progdal said everyone was dead except him.”
“The survivor tells the tale.” She quoted under her breath.
“Huh?” Her aunt peered at Ludmilla. “What happened to your beard?”
Ludmilla swept aside what was left of it to uncover the dagger protruding from her chest. “Nice welcome home.” She tugged the blade out of her armor.
“You should have heard me and blocked.” Her aunt’s eyes shimmered with unfallen tears in the golden light. “Why didn’t you die?”
“This saved me.” She lifted a small pouch suspended on a leather string from where it rested over her heart. “Vytr gave me a dragon scale. It deflected your dagger thrust.” Frieda examined it while Ludmilla finished undressing. “Help me wash off this dragon blood. I need to speak to the elders.” She described the fight between Vytr and Crza. She explained how Progdal had collapsed the tunnel. “We need to help Vytr or he’ll die.” As her aunt laced up the back of her fanciest brocade dress embroidered with shimmery Amnid thread, Ludmilla laid out the dragon’s plan.
“We get a bolt of sheerweb? Each? You get a ride on dragonback in the moonlight? I sell my sheep, make a profit and he owes me a favor?” Aunt Frieda frowned, finding the same niggling thought that troubled Ludmilla. “What about Progdal?” She brushed out Ludmilla’s hair into its waist length curls.
“Exactly. If I admit that I joined the trading party, I can expose his cowardice. But that would endanger Vytr.” She met her aunt’s gaze in the tall mirror. “I considered blackmailing Progdal instead.”
“So you wouldn’t have to confess to your mother that you’ve been studying the ninth level dances to become one of the clan’s assassins?” Not everyone wanted to learn those dances. Some that wanted to didn’t have the natural talent or necessary determination like her Aunt Frieda.
“Blackmail isn’t enough, Aunt Frieda. Progdal is a worm.”
“How can I help?”
“Don’t let mother interfere.” Ludmilla slipped several diamond and citrine studded gold stickpins in her curls. “Remind her that honor and courage aren’t only for the clanhome sons, but for the clanhome daughters as well.” She gave her reflection a smile that reminded her of Vytr’s wicked victory grin. “Remind her that Progdal almost cost her any future grandchildren.”
Aunt Frieda also arranged for the musicians to change their tune from the dirge to honor the traders to a morose version of the dance A Coward Dies A Thousand Deaths. Ludmilla reenacted the flight of Progdal in dance, leaving out any mention of her dance for Crza. Progdal fled the great hall with several of the traders’ family members wielding axes after him.
Later, sitting in the narrow canyon, she retold every detail to Vytr as he picked wool out of his teeth. “The hardest part ended up being the easiest.” She threaded a silver needle with a strand of Amnid silk. “Hold still. My embroidery skills aren’t the best.” She pulled two ragged strips of Vytr’s wing together and stitched.
Vytr frowned . “Keep going. You promised me a tale if I let you torture me with that needle.”
“I marched up to my mother and told her if she couldn’t accept my dancing the ninth level dances, I would move out.”
“What did she do?”
“She hugged me.” Ludmilla tied off her stitching. She threaded another unraveled strand of sheerweb onto the needle and sewed another flap of wing together. “She said courage comes in two forms. The courage to do something, and the courage to not do something.” Vytr stretched his wing as she rethreaded the needle.
“She sounds wise. Maybe I should trade with your mother. She might have a secret or two.” He held the wing straight as she resumed stitching.
Ludmilla paused. “If she tells you how Aunt Frieda lost her teeth to the centaur, I want to know, too.”
Charie’ Craig participated in Clarion West in 1988. After that, she joined the Pulphouse writers’ workshop in Eugene, Oregon. She completed the NaNoWriMo challenge three times, and decided it was time to send out her work so others could read it. This is her first published story.