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[Fiction] Dorothy - The Gentlest Heart (AU)


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Dorothy was gardening the first time she saw Clutchclaw. She was bending over her tiny shoots of corn, only a couple of weeks old, when the sun was blotted out. Dorothy tipped her head back and looked up, peering underneath the head scarf that she’d tugged down to keep the sun from her eyes.

A wide shadow passed over the village; it was only after it had passed the village and circled to come back could Dorothy see that it was a dragon. Red scale glistened like liquid fire in the sun; at apex of his loop, the dragon seemed no bigger than a horse. But he grew larger and larger with frightening speed, becoming a fearsome stain of red on the blue spring sky.

For a long second, she was awed, her wide eyes staring up at the monstrous nightmare bearing down on her village. “Dorothy!” her father shouted. She looked over to see him holding the cellar door open. “Quick! Get downstairs!”

“What about Mike and Mom?” she screamed, even as she dropped her hoe and dashed across the yard. The family’s dog, Bran, followed close behind, making strange noises. Dorothy felt a deeper flash of fear when she realized that the dog was moaning.

“I’ll find them!” her father shouted, taking her arm and hurriedly helping her down the stairs. “Stay inside – don’t come out unless you hear me or your mother.” The cellar doors slammed shut, and Dorothy huddled against Bran. She could hear the dragon roaring; its terrible bellowing followed by a stranger, more disturbing rumbling – the sound of a jet of flame billowing through the air. And soon, there was screaming. Dorothy could only listen as her neighbors shrieked in helpless fear.

It seemed an eternity before the doors opened again; her father was there, waving her to come up the stairs. The sky was no longer a spring-blue: it was a blood red, smeared into the strange, sickening color by the leaping flames from the burning buildings. Dorothy crept out of cellar, gazing around as tears leapt into her eyes. “Here,” her father said briskly, pushing a bucket and a ladle at her. “Go to the well and start drawing water. Take it to the workers, so that they can have something to drink.”

Dorothy barely heard him; she was staring at his hairless head, watching the reflections of the flames dance on his shiny scalp. “Dorothy,” he says again, and something about the way he says her name catches her attention. “Dorothy, go carry water to the thirsty, ok?”

Dorothy nods and moves past her neighbor’s burning house, shuffling with wooden shock toward the well. Half the village was in flames, and people were hauling water from the river to douse the fires and keep them from spreading to other houses. Dorothy dodged a wagon laden with the cooper’s spare barrels and was nearly run down by another horse dragging a full water trough behind it. “Watch it, girl!” a voice snapped, not unkindly, and Dorothy looked up at the rider. It was one of the king’s knights she realized with shock, and she turned to look at the castle.

For all her life, the village had curled around the outer wall of the castle, like wattle-and-thatch muscle on a giant stone bone. Long had its towers and parapets been a guiding star in her life, a sure landmark when she was winding her way to and from home. Now, her landmark was a stranger. Black scorch marks clawed their way up the wall, marring the solid gray of the granite blocks. The Alchemist’s tower, where her father worked for the king, was gone; only a few blocks stuck up above the outer wall like broken teeth. Of the other three towers, only the Sunrise Tower still stood untouched, though its wooden roof was smoldering. Smoke rose from inner courtyard; Dorothy wasn’t certain if the stables or the granaries were burning.

“Are you hurt?” the same voice said, and Dorothy tore her gaze from the castle to look up at the Knight. She had to peer through the soot and ash on his face and hair before she could recognize him. Sir Sean’s green eyes searched her closely as he asked a third time, “Are you injured, Dorothy?”

“I’m getting water,” Dorothy said finally, holding up the bucket as proof. Her voice shook as she added, “For people to drink.”

“And we’ll be glad of it,” Sir Sean grinned, his teeth twice as white for the dirt on his face. “Just mind where you’re walking – these warhorses won’t even notice a little bump like you.”

Dorothy blinked as she suddenly realized that the horse he rode was his destrier, Chaos of War. The gray horse was almost black, and the massive head was already drooping. How long was I in the cellar?

Sir Sean gave her one more nod before spurring Chaos on, dragging the sloshing water trough deeper into the village. He turned suddenly in his saddle and yelled back to her, “And don’t be peeking in the burnt houses, girl! Such things are not for your eyes.” Then he was gone, swallowed by a cloud of drifting smoke.

Dorothy had to look in one of them. But Sir Sean had been right; she hadn’t wanted to see what was in the buildings, and she hurried to the well, fighting back tears and struggling to forget the image of the baker’s twisted, blackened body. Working as quickly as she can, she drew up the bucket and filled it with water. Once it was full, she began to hurry from person to person, offering them drinks of water. She tried not to see what they were working on.

The rescue and salvage went long into the night; not only did people need to be rescued, but supplies and food needed to be pulled out of the burning building. It was still early in the spring, and the last of the winter supplies needed to be gathered for the living to survive until the first winter wheat was harvested. The survivors worked past exhaustion: peasant, scholar and knight, shoulder to shoulder.

Finally, Sir Anne, the captain of the Kingsguard, stood up on a wagon in the first golden rays of sunrise. “People!” she shouted over the murmuring villagers. The rising sun caught her golden hair and revealed the pox-scarred skin of her face. Despite this, the woman carried an aura of authority as she said, “His Highness the King has ordered everyone into the castle. The dragon could attack again, and the only safe place is the dungeon.” A mumble of discontent rose from the crowd; Sir Anne held up her hands for silence while Sir Jager and Sir Michael tensed in front of the wagon, preparing for the crowd to become ugly. But the villagers were too tired to do more than grumble, and Sir Anne continues. “The King has ordered this state of affairs only until the dragon has been dealt with. And the King is in consultation with the Council of Magi right now.

“For now, however, please gather some belongings and return to the castle,” Sir Anne shouted. “And do so as quickly as possible – we don’t know when or if the dragon will return.”

Dorothy’s shoulder was suddenly seized; she gasped and dropped the bucket as she looked up, her eyes wide. Her mother was holding her shoulder tightly, already babbling, “We have to get the copper pans and the rolling pin and my mourning black dress for when they start the funerals and …”

Dorothy tuned her mother out as they began to push through the crowds together. At their house, the two women found that the Alchemist and Mike have already begun packing; at the expression on the women’s’ faces, Alchemist shrugged and said, “I knew that they would make us move somewhere.”

“But the dungeons!” his wife almost wailed.

“It is the safest place,” Glenn answered absently and turned to Dorothy. “Pack a few things; remember, travel light.”

Bran bumped her legs as Dorothy turned and moved from the room. With a pounding heart, she hurried into her bedroom, her mind racing as she tried to decide what to take. In the end, she packed the quilt that Nana had made for her and the dolly that Father had brought back for her when he’d traveled to the High Alchemist’s Court. She tossed in some clothing and her hairbrush, and she was ready.

Her mother was not. Alice was arguing loudly with her husband, trying to convince him that she needed to have the good china with her, as well as the cotton napkins, and—

Glenn cut her off by picking up the suitcases and leaving the house, calling out, “Come along, children – your mother will be behind us.” Alice caught up with them before they had reached the castle gates, ranting and sobbing about all of her fine things being left behind. Glenn and the children ignored her, determined to not fight. Instead, they got into the lines heading down into the dank depths of the castle.

* * *

They lose track of time in the monotonous dark; only the castle staff who bring them food and clear the smelly buckets that the villagers were using to remove waste are allowed to leave with any regularity. According to the castle staff, only three days pass, but it feels like an eternity to the villagers waiting in the dungeon. Of the villagers, only Dorothy’s father gets to leave, heading out of the dank dungeon to consult with the king and provide what assistance he could. But Dorothy could see that the loss of his lab had crippled her father. He seemed to tire more easily, as if the life had been drained from him. Dorothy did what she could to help, but there were so many that needed her help.

First, there were the injured, including the village chirurgeon, who had one armed burned so badly that it was useless. On the second day, the arm had been removed, and Dorothy had helped, holding the chirurgeon’s head and trying to soothe him as his son, learning to be a chirurgeon, had sawed the arm off. And he was only one of the people who had just needed someone to hold their hand, or make them smile and laugh. And Dorothy took this task on herself without hesitation.

Reprieve finally came on the third evening; the dungeon doors were thrown open and the villagers were escorted up to the open courtyard. The massive gates were still closed, which made Dorothy a little uneasy, though she couldn’t say why. She also noted that none of the Knights were here, just the members of the guardsmen. Again, it troubled Dorothy, but she couldn’t say why.

Today, it was one of the Magi standing on the back of a wagon. Rather than waving his hands and shouting like Sir Anne had done, the majestic-looking man simply spoke, and his voice was heard. “After much consultation with the Books of Magic, and the conversing with the Spirits of Knowledge, we have determined how to appease the dragon, and return it to sleep.” He paused, his eyes roving over the crowd, as tension quietly built.

“How?” The Alchemist’s voice wasn’t raised, but it carried clearly to the Magi. Suddenly, the dramatic pause seemed childish and over-dramatic instead of appropriate.

With a slight scowl at the Alchemist, the Magi said, “We must give it one of us. Only the gift of the gentlest heart will send the beast into sleep.”

Glenn stiffened; Alice’s hand was suddenly on Dorothy’s shoulder, her fingers digging in with iron claws. Dorothy glanced up at her mother, and was surprised to see that her mother’s face was dead-white. Her father took her suddenly by the hand; Alice’s hand fell away from her shoulder as Glenn pulled Dorothy into the crowd. He was trying not to hurry, but Dorothy could feel the tension in his hand.

The Magi was talking, answering the questions that had arisen, but Dorothy wasn’t paying attention. She was watching her father weave his way over to the kitchen door on the north side of the courtyard. He stopped well short, and peeking around him, Dorothy saw three guards on the door.

“…Dorothy, daughter of the Alchemist!” Dorothy looked back at the Magi, wondering why he had just called her name.

“Run!” her father hissed. “Hide!” He gave her a shove, sending her stumbling a few paces.

Dorothy wasn’t sure what he meant, but she had always done as her father had ordered, and so she turned and ran. She was headed for the chicken coop; it led into the stables, which had a trap that emptied into the moat. It would be a smelly, nasty ride, with an unfortunate stop at the end, but she would be outside the walls.

But she didn’t get that far; as she came out of the crowd, she stopped short, staring at the collapsed coop. Part of the burned stable had fallen on it, blocking her escape route. With a gasp, she turned toward the guard barracks-

She was blocked. The guardsman were dodging through the crowd, their eyes focusing on the open area… an open area made by the people that Dorothy had known all her life. She could hear her father shouting and cursing, but all she could see was the villagers, their eyes sliding away from her. The people whom she had succored and loved turned away from her one by one.

And Dorothy knew that the knights had refused to help, and that’s why they weren’t here. They would have interfered, and so they were being kept away from this situation. As the guardsman closed on her, closing the net around her like a fish in a barrel, Dorothy was worrying, I hope they haven’t hurt the knights… they are my friends.

* * *

The wooden post was rough under her hands; Dorothy’s nails gripped the timber tightly, as if they and not the ropes were what held her in place. Before her, the gouge in the mountain dipped deep into the black rock. Plant life had once clung here, but now it was wilted and dying. Heat rose continually from the scar in the stone.

Dorothy expected there to be a red glow from the slit in the ground; instead, there was only ominous, eternal blackness. It was somehow worse, and when the blackness of spilt by two amber orbs, Dorothy shrieked helplessly. A low rumble answered her, cold and hungry.

Dorothy swallowed hard and pressed harder into the post. The golden orbs disappeared for a beat and came right back – he’s blinking, Dorothy realized.

“I am Clutchclaw,” a voice rumbled, sounding like a rockslide talking. “Fear me.”

“Don’t worry,” Dorothy replied in a quivering voice, “Fearing you is not a problem.”

A chuckle roared out of the hole; Dorothy thought she heard a note of surprise in his voice. “That is the perfect way to start.” Another rumble growled out of the jagged hole in the ground; it was, Dorothy realized belatedly, a massive footstep. And then Clutchclaw’s head came into view.

It was as tall as she was; a massive, scaly mass of bumps and ridges. His eyes were as large as dinner plates, and blazed a sickly amber-orange. Thin lips had pulled back from thick, stained teeth; the incisors were as long as her hand. The scales glinted like bloody rubies, ranging from almost black to fiery red.

Majestic… terrifying… godlike… These words and more passed through Dorothy’s mind as she stared up at Clutchclaw. Only one thing marred the noble visage: a white, foamy material that clung to the plates of Clutchclaw’s lower jaw. Dorothy frowned as her mind grasped this puzzle and began to work on it.

“What are you staring at morsel, with such a queer expression?” Clutchclaw shouted with a roar like the earth shattering.

“That cloud fungus!” Dorothy half-sobbed, half-screamed. “Does it itch you, too?”

The great head snapped up, and Dorothy caught a brief glimpse of chest plates the size of doors before the mighty mouth snapped the air in front of her. “What do you know?” the dragon seethed, his teeth glinting dully.

Dorothy tried to meld with the post; finally, her dry throat allowed her to say, “Because my father said it is very itchy and painful. And that is for people; I was just wondering if it was the same for you.”

After a long moment, the dull glow of the eyes faded slightly. “Yes,” the dragon growled, “it vexes me greatly.”

“You know, my father could heal you,” Dorothy offered.

The golden eyes swiveled to rest on her, piercing with a burning intensity. “Why would he do this?” Clutchclaw hissed.

“In exchange for the life of the villagers,” Dorothy said softly. “He’d do it if you left the village alone, forever.”

“Eating you was that bargain, sweet,” Clutchclaw chuckled, trailing the back of one claw over her dress. “And this growth is annual; why should I pass up the chance to eat something sweet as you for a one-time cure?”

Dorothy was a smart girl. Her father had always known this. He would not have been at all surprised to hear her say, “Well, it wouldn’t have to be a one-time cure. I’m sure that my father could work out some kind of deal with you and the king.” She smiled up at the monstrous creature and added brightly, “Besides, I can’t believe that people would taste very good. I’m sure you’d rather have some nice mutton, right?”

“Mutton? Sheep?” Clutchclaw muttered curiously. “Sheep are a little bland.”

“Wait until you have my mother’s mutton soup!” Dorothy laughed. “But first you have to untie me, and take me home.”

Clutchclaw’s head tipped to one side, his eyes considering her. “Agreed,” he rumbled finally as one claw-tipped paw snaked forward and snapped the ropes, and the other paw began to scratch at the white foam.

“Stop scratching at that! You’ll only make it worse,” Dorothy chided him.

“But it itches!” the monstrous creature moaned.

“Don’t scratch!” Dorothy commanded so strongly that he stopped. “Now, the sooner you get me home, the sooner we can get that healed up, and the sooner you can have some mutton stew…” And the rising sun fell on two very strange shadows, walking side by side toward the village slumped against the broken castle.

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